Just Say Go, June 16, 2009
When planning our trip to Vietnam, we encountered the same dilemma that all travelers do to this long and skinny country – do we travel north to south or vice versa? We decided that – since the north is cooler – we’d end our trip up there since we knew we’d be returning to cool temperatures when we returned home to Baltimore in early March. So, our journey started in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), and besides the pleasure of warm temperatures, we found that this exciting, cosmopolitan city is the perfect point of entry to Vietnam with its fast-paced environment and important role in history.
Getting into the city from the airport is easy; however, after the long flight, we opted to book a car service via our hotel – New World Hotel Saigon (www.newworldsaigon.com). The fast-paced nature of the city can be overwhelming at first, and our efficient driver was gracious enough to help us with our entire luggage, and we were even able to fill out all of our documentation for the hotel in the car. The New World Hotel’s central location and glamorous entry, combined with spacious guest rooms and beautiful appointments, make it the ideal place to stay, as well as the huge breakfast buffet, complete with a real honeycomb device that drips fresh honey for pastries. Additionally, my partner’s suitcase zipper broke that morning, and the concierge found a local place to replace it overnight, a nice touch.
Luckily, our research had clued us in on how to get around on foot in Ho Chi Minh. First, there are few, if any, stoplights. Second, you cannot wait for a break in traffic to cross because it won’t happen. The city has six million residents but over 8 million registered cyclos (motorbikes) that everyone uses. So, take a breath and walk deliberately – don’t run – across the street while making eye contact with the cyclo drivers. It sounds crazy, but they will stop or go around you and this “organized chaos” of criss-cross traffic actually works brilliantly. For a great vantage point and cool drink, head to the rooftop bar at the famous Rex Hotel where Graham Greene penned “The Quiet American.” The outside bar has great views, live music and delicious cocktails. There are ample places to eat nearby, and we went to a small place where you’re urged to order lots of small dishes. We had five dishes, two beers and tip for less than $10. Another great dining option is Pho 2000 where Bill and Chelsea Clinton ate during his first term. After dinner, head over to the night market adjacent to Cho Ben Thanh market for some great deals and cheap beer (Saigon’s 333 beer was less than 60 cents a can) while people watching.
For sightseeing, get an early start due to the heat and remember that most attractions close from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Reunification Palace is a must-see (admission is about $1), as everyone remembers the famous footage of the North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the gates in 1975. While the interiors are rather bland, what’s fascinating is that everything has remained since that day exactly how it was. There are rooms in the basement that show videos of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, which is enlightening. The War Crimes Museum is also nearby, but we opted for a fun rickshaw ride to the Cho Ben Thanh market, where there are great buys on Polo shirts, T-shirts and pretty good knock-offs of designer goods.
After being engrossed in the big city atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh, a little R&R may be in order, so take a quick, one-hour flight to Danang (Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar, Quantas’ low-cost carrier, offer flights), and then proceed 15 miles to the historic city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The pace is much slower, and the beach is a great place to regroup. We stayed at the four-star Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa (www.victoriahotels-asia.com/eng/hotels-in-vietnam/hoi-an-beach-resort-spa), a breathtakingly gorgeous resort set along a private beach. The resort replicates a traditional fishing village with small streets, water ponds and village houses with clay-tiled roofs, and rooms are spacious and have a private balcony and large bathrooms with spa tubs. We enjoyed a refreshing welcome drink upon arrival, as the resort gave great recommendations for restaurants, shops and tailors. At night, we were given a cute bedtime story on our pillow, and we a delicious dinner at the resort’s l'Annam Restaurant overlooking the ocean followed by drinks at the Cham Bar.
A must in Hoi An is to take advantage of the great prices for custom made suits, dresses and shirts. Silk is the name of the game in Hoi An, and prices are much better than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh. We opted for our hotel’s recommendation, A Dong Silk, where we were able to each get four silk shirts, five linen shorts and a linen suit in 24 hours. Fabric choices are endless, the staff is very helpful and the quality is amazing. For lunch, opt for “The Retreat” close by where large trees provide much needed shade or one of the many places along the riverfront. Additional best shopping bets in Hoi An include handmade jewelry and bamboo bowls.
For sightseeing, Hoi An’s historical sites are done through a coupon system where for about $5, you get a ticket for your choice of five attractions – one museum, one old house, one assembly hall, the handicraft workshop or the traditional theater, and either the Japanese Covered Bridge or the Quan Cong Temple (most opt for the Japanese Bridge). After a long day of shopping and sightseeing, treat yourself to a spa treatment (I had one each day). Our hotel spa was gorgeous and very affordable compared to prices in the States – a 60-minute Balinese massage, for example, was $40.
The beaches in Hoi An are fine white sand and free of tourist attractions. Our resort’s beach also had a clever red flag for each chair allowing you to signal when you needed a refreshment or something from the food menu; the attentive staff even remembered from day to day what my partner and I drank and called us by name – pretty nice.