A country on the move

The new age ... bike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
The new age ... bike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Getty Images

In bustling, exciting cities and blissfully quiet beach resorts, Sarah Macdonald finds her idea of holiday heaven.

Despite being blonde and fair, my daughter believes she's part Indian and often begs me to take her to the place she was conceived. But while I'd love to take her to Mother India, I don't think she'll cope with the oppressive press of the crowds, the intensity of the stares, the tendency to adoringly but painfully pinch children on the cheek and the poverty that is on public display.

However, on a recent solo trip, I found the perfect country to introduce her to Asia: Vietnam. It's a country with all the thrill and hustle of India, but with a calm, ascetic ease.

Fusion Maia Resort, Da Nang.
Fusion Maia Resort, Da Nang. 

I haven't been in the region for 10 years and the thick sultry air of Ho Chi Minh City felt like a warm hug of welcome. It only took minutes for me to lose the tight-hipped briskness of the Sydney trot and adopt the Vietnamese walk - a loose-limbed, thong-slapping swagger. The Vietnamese are so relaxed that when you put your hand up to cross the road they actually stop. I felt like a holy cow.

Ho Chi Minh's streets are a swirling sea of Vespas and motorbikes, where riders don dinky helmets decorated with bows, birds, daisies, stars, flowers, flashing lights and, my personal favourite, denim. While few women still wear the elegant national costume, the ao dai (a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons), I can't help but appreciate the sense of anti-fashion that is hipster cool; purple slacks with orange paisley shirts, nylon green jumpsuits and kids' party dresses that would do a US baby pageant queen proud. I'm also immediately entranced by the ninjas: young women in masks, long gloves and brown stocking socks. They are covered up so they don't tan in the sun.

Despite its confronting places of interest, Ho Chi Minh City doesn't feel imprisoned by its past.

While the traffic may be frequently blocked, Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh, its largest city, are on the move. This is an economy, political system and society in transition from non-market socialism to a market economy with a socialist orientation. The renovation is known as the "Doi Moi" and it makes guidebooks almost redundant; coffee shops, cool shops and nightclubs close their doors and new ones open faster than publishers can update.

Fusion Maia Resort, Da Nang.
Fusion Maia Resort, Da Nang. 

This makes Saigon (as many locals still call it) a city of glittering towers abutting sagging homes. Tattoo and body-piercing parlours sit beside roadside noodle stalls, and 11th-century temples adjoin glittering churches of consumerism, such as mobile-phone and computer shops.

The foreshore and narrow parks are packed with locals playing tennis, hacky sack and practising tai chi. In the markets, stallholders squat watching mini DVD players as they sell traditional noodles, lotus flowers, water chestnuts and birds in cages as well as a huge amount of plastic crap from China.

Our hotel, the charming colonial Majestic, has been tastefully renovated to make use of its views over the Saigon River and it glitters with candles for Earth Hour the night we arrive.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh. Photo: Getty Images

Vietnam feels optimistic, exciting and focused on the future. But while the war erased some of the city's past, time stops at the Reunification Palace. This is where the Vietnam War ended during the Fall of Saigon and the North Vietnamese tanks that crashed through the gates are still in the grounds.

But the palace should be famous for more than the heat of battle. It's seriously cool. Completed in 1966, it's like walking through the Brady Bunch era of architectural style, but with a Vietnamese twist. French-trained architect Ngo Viet Thu designed an open, modernist building with its glass core shielded by a white concrete screen in the shape of a thicket of bamboo. It's the details that appeal: the '70s sectional sofa, the block-shaped chandeliers and a wet bar that only needs Sean Connery leaning against it in a safari suit to be complete. It's a sexy, fabulous building.

On display on the lower floor are the infamous photos of the war: the South Vietnamese trying to climb onto the US chopper on the roof; the monk immolating in protest of the southern regime; the naked children running along the road after being burnt by napalm; and the piled, twisted dead of the My Lai Massacre.

Boats moored in Nha Trang Bay.
Boats moored in Nha Trang Bay. Photo: Getty Images

If you have young children, or find such scenes too upsetting, it's best to avoid the other main tourist site, the War Remnants Museum, formerly the Museum of American War Crimes. Visitors are welcomed to its foyer by victims of Agent Orange - boys without eyes playing dinky keyboards and girls born without legs weaving bags from plastic. Beyond are rooms of further horror: photos of Vietnamese being dragged to death behind tanks and disembowelled children, fragments of bombs and bullets upstairs and torturous tiger cages outside.

Despite the confronting nature of such places of interest, Ho Chi Minh City doesn't feel imprisoned by its past. Its constant renovation and the fact that 65 per cent of Vietnamese have been born since the time these tourist sites preserve, give it a firm focus on the future.

The young locals sweep through the streets, chat in the coffee shops, shop in the new malls, canoodle on the verges and pose in white lacy wedding dresses in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The yuppies party into the wee hours at nightclubs such as Lush (I recommend the frozen watermelon cocktail) and Apocalypse Now.

The young set of Nha Trang hang on the beachfront and dance floor of The Sailing Club, where buckets of vodka are slurped. Nha Trang is an hour's flight north of the capital and the drive into town from its new airport shows that it, too, is growing fast. Sandy roads are being tarred, and behind the dunes cashew nut farms and sand mines are moving aside for resorts.

The town sits on a harbour that protects it from typhoons but not from the dubious taste of some overseas investors. A cable car heads across the bay to an amusement park and the Vinpearl Resort's sign rises out of the jungle like the Hollywood letters. This area is popular for local tourists who dine in bamboo restaurants and visit an aquarium built inside a concrete fish mouth and pirate wreck.

Across the bay, I find a resort that provides for two vastly different types of tourists: day-trippers to Hon Tam arrive to the beats of Europop blasting from speakers set in shaking palm trees. Around an enormous pool, Russian men with big moustaches, blotchy burnt skin and hairy chests glistening with gold crosses sit and drink beer or seahorse wine (it supposedly increases sexual appeal). Brassy-haired women in G-strings parade and preen for sexy photos.

Then we meet Jesus, the resort manager, who beckons to us to follow him to the Promised Land. Within minutes we have crossed over to heaven: 40 stylish bungalows offer spectacular views across a glittering sea. Australians would be more comfortable around this quiet pool, or having a massage or beauty treatment.

The resort is a perfect example of how Vietnam is straddling a divide. As it opens up to Chinese and Russian investors, it's developing tourist areas that suit different sorts of travellers. Book carefully so you find your idea of holiday heaven.

I found my idea of just that another hour north by plane. Da Nang is a bustling town with a place offering pure peace. Fusion Maia spa resort has all the smartness, humour and optimism of new Vietnam with the beauty, elegance and simplicity of the old one. Pavilions set around a series of pools offer fabulous food, impeccable service and two spa treatments a day, which are included in the price.

Every room is a small pavilion of its own with a black plunge pool, bamboo-clad walls for privacy, deep baths and televisions that swivel so they can be watched in bed or while soaking. The attention to detail sets it apart: single white flowers on the pillow, cane thongs in your room, a hessian beach bag with matching bottle container, high tea and all-day breakfast with ban me rolls and pho as well as souffles and treats.

Da Nang sits below five marble and limestone peaks, each representing the elements. The marble mountain is a sacred site best accessed by the steep path of the pilgrims, but many prefer the glittering Chinese-built lift.

Once on top it's a hot and sweaty, but fabulous, climb around pagodas and shrines of archaeological significance dating from as far back as the Champa dynasty of the 14th and 15th centuries. Buddhist monks also lived deep in these caves, and elderly beggars light incense for tourists and shine torches high up slippery, dark passageways. The caves also hid the Vietcong and the bombing means heavenly shafts of sunlight beam on to ancient Buddhas.

But the best preservation of another era is in nearby Hoi An. The ancient wooden town is a World Heritage site and offers a rare chance to step back into local history. Hoi An was a

leading Asian trading port from the 15th century until its harbour silted up in the 19th century. Tickets offer choices of pagodas, temples, meeting houses, homes and museums featuring items from Persia, China, Thailand and India.

I particularly enjoy the Tan Ky merchant house, where seven generations of the same family have lived over the past 200 years. The eldest male of the house welcomes us at the door while his wife serves tea and a child shows us the marked heights of the annual floods.

Hoi An is a beautiful place to wander, shop, order clothes or sit and eat as the lanterns are lit. I arrive one morning with my favourite jacket and shoes and beautiful copies in local silk are delivered with giggles and a hug to the dinner table. Hoi An is the perfect example of a gradual fusion of cultures and the perfect place to end an experience of a country forging a new future in an Asian century. One of Vietnam's national symbols is bamboo; the plant and the country grow strong, flexible and gentle. It faces great challenges in eradicating poverty, corruption and the need for greater freedom of expression and association, but its sense of sardonic humour gives me faith.

On my last day I buy my daughter a T-shirt. It features a wall adorned with the handsome face of socialism, Che Guevara, but a man on a ladder is plastering a new picture over the top: Buzz Lightyear. The essayist Nguyen Tuan found 105 expressions to describe the nuances of laughter. I think I heard them all softly but faintly ring out.

 

Three things to do

1 Weasel coffee is a rich, creamy, textured delicacy brewed through a steel drip filter. It's served with or without condensed milk and a side of cold tea. The beans have been eaten, digested and passed by a weasel or civet (the digestive juices take out the bitterness). I suspected the hype may be a load of poop but it's delicious ($3.50).

2 Make a wish at the Thien Hau Pagoda, a 19th-century Chinese temple in Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City. Write your prayer on a pink piece of rice paper, attach it to the huge coil and hand it to an assistant, who will hang it from the roof where it will burn for days ($1).

3 Have a beer (the local brew is Ba Ba Ba or 333) at the rooftop of the Rex Hotel.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Vietnam Airlines has daily flights from both Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City and on to Hoi An.

Flights to Nha Trang and Da Nang operate from Ho Chi Minh City. (02) 9285 4700, vietnamairlines.com.

Staying there

Hotel Majestic, Ho Chi Minh City, 1 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, from $150 a double. +84 (8) 3829 5517, majesticsaigon.com.vn.

Sheraton Nha Trang Hotel and Spa, 26-28 Tran Phu Street, Nha Trang City, from $116 a night. starwoodhotels.com/sheraton.

Hon Tam Eco-Green Resort, Nha Trang, has bungalows from $254. hontamresort.vn.

Fusion Maia, Da Nang, from $385 a night, includes two free spa treatments daily and your own plunge pool. fusionmaiadanang.com.

See + do

Ho Chi Minh Reunification Palace, 106 Nguyen Du Street, District 1. +84 (8) 3829 4117.
War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan, District 3.

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