Vietnam: a beautiful, bustling, and bemusing holiday destination
Vietnam may be chaotic and tricky but it’s also great fun and the food is stunning
Women sell fresh produce at a street market in Hoi An
A bustling street in Hanoi. Photograph: Justin Mott/Bloomberg
A week into a month-long backpacking trip from southern to northern Vietnam, my partner and I came up with the most appropriate tourist slogan – Vietnam: I Have No Idea What’s Going On. Vietnam is changing rapidly, and it’s a beautiful, bustling, and bemusing place. The American War looms large in recent history, but the country’s communist past is becoming increasingly distant. There are high-end resorts and gorgeous beaches, stunning mountains and jungle, breathtaking paddy fields stacked high in valleys, and the country’s famous cuisine is available at every street corner. Within this maelstrom of change, tourists are being parachuted into the Vietnamese experience in increasing numbers. While the impression of the country is certainly moving beyond humid jungles and chaotic cities, there’s still a feeling that Vietnam is in transition, certainly less developed than Thailand, and still maintaining a sense of adventure and, yes, confusion.
We went to beaches that promised paradise but were in fact filthy, got night trains where no one checked tickets, got out of Nha Trang as quickly as we landed in it, found beautiful bohemian beach villages, got ripped off, swam with massive shoals of fishes while snorkelling, found serenity trekking between fighting off leeches, motorbiked and boated, shopped and sipped rooftop cocktails, sped through mountain roads on sleeper busses and drank some of the best coffee in the world, bought beautifully tailored clothes and haggled at markets, ate insanely good banh mi and dreamy pho.
Vietnam can be tricky, but it’s also brilliant fun. Because Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi are better known, the real surprises were in central and northern Vietnam – the north for hiking, but central for grabbing some beach time, motorbike tours, city life and culture.
The best point of access to start a trip in central Vietnam is Da Nang, known for its major role as an airbase during the American war, and home to the 20-mile-long My Khe Beach, named China Beach by American soldiers. Guide books don’t exactly fall over themselves praising Da Nang, but the place is fun and vibrant, with its own energy and upwardly mobile vibe.
At every hostel in every town and city in Vietnam, we met bruised and scraped backpackers who had come off scooters or motorbikes. I’m not sure what makes people who don’t drive one in their home country think they can hop on a bike in south-east Asia, but many do, and plenty fall off. Driving a bike or a scooter through old streets, or by long beaches, or on the spectacular coastal roads around Da Nang sure is tempting, but like many places in Vietnam, rules of the road are suggestions often taken pretty lightly by most drivers. In Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, the roads are squeezed with bikes, funnelled endlessly through streets, making crossing the road a serious test, never mind driving on it. With the grazes of shaken tourists as forewarning, we booked a pillion tour of Son Tra Mountain (also known as Monkey Mountain) instead, hopping on the back of a motorbike booked through Danang Backpackers (danangbackpackershostel.com).
Speeding out of Da Nang over one of its many bridges took a while to adjust from terrifying to exhilarating, but when it did, the drive along the Son Tra peninsula was spectacular. As the name suggests, the jungle leading up to Monkey Mountain is home to some amazing monkeys, such as the endangered red-shanked doucs with their blue eyelids, red legs and golden faces. To see monkeys, you’ll need to get there early in the morning, before they retreat into the jungle as the midday heat grows stronger. At the old American military base, American Vietnam veterans were visiting their former HQ, reminiscing about the heat. Further up the road is Ban Co Peek, where a sculpture of a chessboard and a lone, stone player sits.
Winding down through the jungle, the coast road opens up, a beautiful Big Sur-esque stretch that leads all the way to another of the peninsula’s attractions, a 67-metre statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy, or Lady Buddah, blinding in stark white against the blue sky. It’s the tallest Lady Buddha statue in the world, surrounded by pagodas and temples, and a wonderful collection of bonsai trees. Stopping for a roadside iced coffee, we breezed back into the city centre over Dragon Bridge, an impressive and ridiculous structure that glows different colours at night, leading towards the head of the dragon which breathes fire at certain times on weekend evenings.
Da Nang has a cosmopolitan, middle-class vibe to it. Kids on hoverboards crowd the end of the prom at night, a big wheel glows neon in the distance, and the scooters are more Vespa than hand-me-downs. The city itself lacks the tumbledown feeling of Hanoi or the crowded buzz of Saigon, and the stretch of beach between Hoi An and Da Nang is crowded with high-end resorts behind slick gates.
Hoi An is 30km down the road, a beautiful Unesco World Heritage Site crowded with tourists but still retaining an old trading port feel with architecture dating from the 15th to 19th centuries. It’s famous for its tailors too, but if you want get away from the cheesy Hugh Hefner-esque smoking jackets, check out Oche, whose tailors will knock you up some seriously slick threads. Hoi An has fun night markets and blindingly colourful lantern workshops, but the real highlight is the food.
Vietnamese food is world-renowned, but if you’re ambivalent about Vietnam’s cuisine, then Hoi An is an education. The grub here is stunning; the delicious stock-soaked com ga (chicken rice) in garage-like family restaurants, the higher-end restaurants such as Morning Glory, the banh bao vac ‘white rose’ dumpling found here and nowhere else, and of course some knock-out banh mi, especially at Banh Mi Phuong, a stall Anthony Bourdain made famous. The delicious sandwiches – crispy baguettes with coriander, pate, pork or chicken, cucumber, daikon and more – will have you weeping with yearning when you return home to the local Irish deli counter.
Just 4km from Hoi An is the kind of chilled-out beach village many people go to south-east Asia looking for but is increasingly hard to find. An Bang’s beach is public and pristine. If you’re looking for the type of place you book for a couple of days and end up staying a week, this is it. Sleepy restaurants line the beach where you can lounge all day and snack on fresh seafood. There are beach bars and sandy tracks leading to hidden taco joints and excellent Vietnamese family restaurants, where you can beat your own personal record of how many delicious ‘goi cuon’ spring rolls – fresh or deep fried – you can eat in one sitting. Or you can pull up a pew on the beach, where at sundown the locals gather to swim and eat, preparing and cooking food on the sand.
Places like An Bang are disappearing across south-east Asia, taken over instead by resorts and private beaches. The accommodation here is “homestay” style – basically upmarket hostels. We stayed at the delightfully named Under The Coconut Tree for about €25 a night for a large private room and bathroom, and joined the rest of the residents for a cheap and delicious barbecue feast and beach bonfire as the weekend neared. If you can manage to climb out of your hammock, then check out a snorkelling trip to the Cham Islands with Cham Island Diving (vietnamscubadiving.com), a professional outfit which also runs the lively Dive Bar in Hoi An.
Two hours drive south of Hoi An is an excellent hotel getaway. Le Domaine De Tam Hai is a small resort on the tiny shark-tooth-shaped Tam Hai island. A speedboat zips you across to the low-key resort, where bungalows lie amongst palm trees and giant butterflies, and dinner is held at private tables on the beach by candlelight. This is real hideaway stuff; a sand-floored bar, silhouettes of small fishing boats chugging along at dusk, and absolute privacy. Tam Hai is a reset button, but outside the hotel, there’s a curious cultural mix. Idiosyncratic graveyards are common marks on Vietnam’s landscape, but Tam Hai has the largest of them all – a whale graveyard containing more than 500 tombs.
Besides Hoi An, these smaller spots in central Vietnam can be frequently skipped over on tourist itineraries, but with the central highlands to the west, and plenty of hidden beaches to discover along the coast, you might have no idea what’s going on, but it’s well worth trying to find out.