A beginner's guide to Vietnam
South-east Asia has long been a destination on Kiwi travellers' radars and arguably, it's never been easier - or cheaper - to get there. And while Thailand has for many years dominated as a favourite Asian destination, Vietnam is becoming increasingly popular, appearing on many "must-visit" lists this year. With its eclectic mix of culture, history and food I can certainly see why.
Historical influences from Vietnam's years under the rule of Imperial China and then France are evidenced in buildings and museums throughout the country and the impact of the Vietnam War still hangs heavy.
Vietnam is a dream destination for foodies. From street stalls to high-end restaurants, Vietnamese cuisine not only tastes amazing but its presentation in many places is just as memorable. Don't leave without trying pho (pronounced "fur"), the signature dish.
Ho Chi Minh City has a big city vibe with huge shopping malls, countless restaurants and many attractions to visit. Nha Trang and Da Nang are more tranquil and, both beachy cities, they remain largely authentic but increasing tourism is bound to change that in the next few years.
What's more, all the Vietnamese people we met were incredibly friendly; expect gleeful giggles if you try to say "xin chao" (hello) or "cam on" (thank you).
Vietnam offers plenty, catering to a wide variety of holiday tastes. So if you're considering a holiday in this fascinating and friendly country, here are some ideas to get you started.
WHAT TO DO
Binh Tay Market and Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City
To fully immerse yourself in the different culture, a good place to start would be visiting Saigon's markets. Binh Tay Market in China Town is a complete culture shock. Conditions are cramped, the concrete floor is damp, there's an astringent smell in the air and people approach you with goods from every angle. But that's what's so great about it; it's different and it's alive. Ben Thanh Market is a pleasure for the senses, providing foods to taste with ingredients that linger in the air, brightly coloured scarves and garments and there's the constant sound of stallholders haggling. Binh Tay Market, Thap Muoi St, District 6, Ho Chi Minh City.
Ben Thanh Market, corner of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao Avenues and Le Lai St, Ho Chi Minh City.
Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City
Rebuilt in the 1960s after the previous palace was bombed, this was the residence of the president of South Vietnam. It is also the site where the Vietnam War ended after a tank ploughed through the front gate in April 1975. The name change from Independence Palace to Reunification Palace in 1976, and the changing of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, was seen as a sign of reunifying the country. Original furniture and possessions are contained in the palace and you can walk from one opulent room to the next.
Reunification Palace, 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City
While lingering reminders of the Vietnam War plague the country, none could be more confronting - for tourists - than the War Remnants Museum. It contains information, images and weaponry used in the war - which many Vietnamese call the American War - and victims of Agent Orange make crafts near the entrance. We don't crack a smile once and a few people shed tears as they take in the atrocities that happened only half a century ago and continue to affect many people today. Although tragic, it feels necessary to visit.
War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.
Marble Mountains, Da Nang
Containing five marble and limestone hills, you can climb the stairs or take an elevator to enjoy the views from the top. Once you've made it, there are caves to explore and statues to admire. We buy some incense sticks and take part in an incense ceremony with a Buddhist monk - Buddhism is the largest religion in Vietnam. We place the sticks in front of different gods in a dark caved area in silence and feel spiritually enlightened. We later see the monk admiring the view, deep in contemplation and listening to his iPod.
The Marble Mountains are 12 kilometres south of Da Nang.
Ancient character hangs thick in the Hoi An air and it's a very worthy inclusion on any Vietnam itinerary. Once an old trading port, it is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and is known for the abundance of deft tailors. A few members of the group get some garments made and we wander down the narrow streets and through to the Old Town, where respectful attire is required. Along with shops selling crafts and souvenirs there are a number of historical and cultural museums. Take a ride on the river and admire the city from a different perspective. Hoi An is 30km south of Da Nang.
WHERE TO RELAX
Hon Tam Resort, Eco Green Island, Nha Trang
A short boat ride from Nha Trang takes you to paradise. Hon Tam Resort is set right on one of those beaches you see on postcards.
If you're a guest you can enjoy a dip in the huge pool, beauty and spa treatments, excursions and accommodation in luxury bungalows, each with their own private balcony and enviable view. hontamresort.vn
Spa Treatments at Fusion Maia
At Fusion Maia, spa treatments are included in your stay. You're guaranteed two per day - but if you pay extra they're unlimited - and can choose from an extensive list of indulgence. Day one for me includes a massage and a yoghurt wrap where I am slathered with a delicious concoction and left to marinate. If you're looking for a honeymoon destination or an extremely extravagant girls' week, this is the place. You'll never want to check out. fusion-resorts.com
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Majestic, Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still call it, is a heaving metropolis of controlled chaos. The roads are filled with motorbikes and scooters since nearly half of the city's 8.5 million people use them as their main form of transport. Many riders multitask - one man is also balancing a tray of three plates on one hand; there's a family of three wedged on one bike; many near misses and plenty of beeping. Hotel Majestic is a sanctuary; the colonial charm is the result of Vietnam's history as a French colony.
The Majestic is one of the city's oldest hotels, having been around since 1925. The spacious guest rooms have wooden floors and the bathroom is marble with gold accents. The best view in the house is from the rooftop restaurant. Each morning we head there for a buffet breakfast to watch the city awaken from a hazy fog. Get there early to secure seats along the balcony to watch over the Saigon River. Tip: Beware of bag snatchers. I learnt the hard way.
Hotel Majestic Saigon, 1 Dong Khoi St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, majesticsaigon.com.vn.
Sheraton NhaTrang Hotel & Spa
The coastal city of Nha Trang shows a quieter side of Vietnam. We're met with vast greenery and mountain views during the 40-minute drive from the Cam Ranh airport (formerly operated by the United States Air Force) to our hotel. Nha Trang is on the cusp of a booming tourism industry. The beaches beckon countless visitors, with Russians making up the largest proportion of tourists.
The Sheraton Nha Trang Hotel & Spa contributes a western touch to the beachy strip. My room has a view of the beach and also of a developing building next door - one of the many hotels and apartments that are starting to be constructed. A highlight is the outdoor infinity pool on the sixth floor. You can sit on a lounger while trailing your legs in the cool water, or jump in and gaze out to sea.
Sheraton Nha Trang Hotel & Spa, 26-28 Tran Phu Nha Trang Khanh Hoa, sheraton.com/nhatrang.
Fusion Maia, Da Nang
Da Nang is another city fast becoming a tourism hot spot. It has a calmness similar to Nha Trang and there's a big cultural side showing off the diverse history of Vietnam. Staff can organise excursions for guests, including a visit to a nearby orphanage, or you can go with a "Fusion friend" - a staff member - to one of their homes for home- cooked meal. While there is plenty to do in Da Nang, you can still be perfectly happy never stepping off the property here. There's also a dainty high tea available, a private pool in every villa and inclusive spa treatments. fusion-resorts.com
WHERE TO EAT
Ly Club, Ho Chi Minh City
The Ly Club is a patch of calm glamour amid the bustle of Saigon. The crisp decor blends western influences which is also reflected in the food. We have a set menu this night including blue crystal scallop soup, which turns out to be green (spinach) and arrives with two scallop blobs in the middle. This is followed by green mango salad with crispy squid, grilled beef in piper lolot and soft shell crab in crispy batter. The main is baked river prawns with cheese and garlic rice.
Ly Club, 143 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St, Ward 6, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, lyclub.vn.
Hoi An Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City
Hoi An Restaurant really feels like an authentic - albeit upmarket - Vietnamese food dwelling, with its dark wooden interior and baskets filled with garlic cloves. We marvel at the presentation of the dishes, one of which includes a lotus with shrimp and pork salad and the plate of spring rolls that comes with a carrot carved into the shape of a fisherman - complete with a tiny carrot fish dangling from the rod.
Hoi An Restaurant, 11 Le Thanh Ton Street District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
Gia Restaurant, Nha Trang
Gia is another restaurant that impresses for presentation efforts as well as taste. Offerings include bright green - but delicious - deep-fried crispy squid clusters and rice paper rolls assembled at the table, adding a level of excitement to the eating experience. Again, a French influence is apparant in the dessert - creme caramel.
Gia Restaurant, 30 Tran Quang Khai, Nha Trang, giarestaurant.com
Kate Mead travelled to Vietnam with assistance from Vietnam Airlines and CTS Tours.
How to get there: With same-day connections from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, Vietnam Airlines has a daily service from Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh city and on to Hanoi.
Enjoy a 19-day escorted Indochina Tour to Vietnam and Cambodia for $4999 per person (twin share basis). The package includes flights, deluxe hotels, meals and sightseeing as a comprehensive tour to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh. Visit ctstours.co.nz or ph 09 375 1711 or 0800 CTS 888 for more information.
Sunday Star Times