High octane 24-hour Saigon and a peaceful destination in a former military zone - Scotland on Sunday travel
A smiling waiter wearing neatly pressed combat fatigues arrives with our mid-morning coffee in battered enamel mugs.
We’re downtown in the city of Nha Trang, at Cong Caphe, a chain of hipster coffee bars that’s popular with tourists and students in cities across Vietnam. Communist literature and propaganda posters adorn the khaki green interior, alongside dusty typewriters, an old military field telephone and other kitsch memorabilia. To me it feels like a 1970s Vietcong hideout, albeit rather sanitised, evocative of a war-torn past.
For the local guides who brought us here, both in their early 20s, it’s nothing more than a retro novelty, telling a story now firmly consigned to history.
In a rapidly developing country of more than 95 million people, 60 per cent of whom are under the age of 25, they are keen to be part of a new story of opportunity and optimism, modernisation and international integration.
The Vespa tour they have organised is my only off-site excursion since arriving at The Anam, a new five-star resort set amid lush tropical hillsides and crystal blue waters on the Cam Ranh peninsula.
Inspired by the bygone Indochine era and oozing colonial charm, it’s the perfect “fly and flop” destination after a direct flight from Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City.
This is my first experience of Vietnam Airlines, operating the only non-stop daily flights from the UK, and we are eased through the 13-hour journey with Dreamliner comfort and four-star cabin service.
A short internal flight takes us 250 miles north to Cam Ranh, a former US military zone, recently dedicated for tourism by the Vietnamese government to cater for the influx of regional visitors from China, South Korea and Russia.
With its 177 villas and 96 rooms and suites, The Anam is the first luxury property on Long Beach, the peninsula’s 18-mile stretch of pristine coastline, now undergoing major hotel development.
The “no news, no shoes, no stress” ethos – paired with beautiful spa and yoga facilities – is far removed from the hustle and bustle of neighbouring Nha Trang and its hedonistic beach party culture.
The resort’s free shuttle takes us into the city, where 1.5 million dong (a little over £50) buys a full day’s outing with Nha Trang Vespa Tours and a chance to join the throng of motorcycles zipping along the main thoroughfare that borders the expansive public beach.
We’ve opted for visits to the Ba Ho Waterfalls, a scenic swimming and picnic area, stopping en route at Vinh Luong harbour and fishmarket.
After a basic lunch of noodles and broth (pho) at a traditional roadside restaurant, it’s time to meander back to Nha Trang. The route wends its way through countryside dotted with palms and rice paddies, finally reaching the Long Son Pagoda, famous for its huge white Buddha and commanding view of the area.
Night falls and the city’s vibrant street food scene draws in locals and visitors, mesmerised by the vast array of fresh seafood, exotic salads and stir-fries.
We’ve already been won over by authentic Vietnamese cooking after dining at The Anam’s Lang Viet Restaurant, where once a week the mothers and aunts of staff prepare their own “Mama’s Buffet”, treating guests to family favourites such as grilled beef in wild betel leaf and seafood pancakes.
The following day brings a change of pace and a return to Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City since the reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1976.
It’s a fast-moving, high-octane city where junctions resemble mass-start motocross events; masked riders ready and revving behind red lights.
Our hotel, the Reverie Saigon, towers above French colonial buildings, historic temples and dilapidated corrugated structures like a monument to the new age of aspiration. Located in the 39-storey Times Square Building, it’s a lavish celebration of Italian design and the country’s only member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
To capitalise on its vantage point as Saigon’s highest hotel, all 286 guest rooms and suites feature wrap around ceiling-to-floor windows looking out across Vietnam’s largest city and its winding river.
Celebrity chef Luke Nguyen, whose family fled the country as boat refugees, eventually settling in Sydney, has also formed a culinary partnership with The Reverie. Vietnam House, his first restaurant outside Australia and Hong Kong, recently opened nearby on the city’s charming Dong Khoi Street. Its creative fusion menu brings together the different strands of his heritage to add a local dimension to the hotel’s own offering of high-end French, Italian and Chinese dining .
Those brave (and nimble) enough to cross the roads will find many of the city’s attractions within easy walking distance of The Reverie. Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace, the Opera House, Ben Thanh market and the unmissable War Remnants Museum can all be reached on foot or by taxi.
Inexpensive excursions take visitors to the Cu Chi Tunnels – the real Vietcong hideouts – some 30 miles away. Part of a vast network of underground routes, the tunnels were pivotal in the resistance of American forces and the fall of Saigon, ending the Vietnam war.
As a finale to our visit, we take to the Saigon River for an early evening champagne cruise on The Reverie’s 60-foot luxury yacht. Small enough to navigate the tributaries that lead to mangroves and hidden villages, the yacht can also be hired by guests for longer, catered trips to the Can Gio Unesco Biosphere Reserve, nearby golf resorts and the floating markets of the Mekong Delta.
Sunset from the water provides a lasting impression of the city – its evolving high-rise skyline now illuminated against a dark red backdrop. Irrepressible Saigon looms tall and proud with all it promises for the future.
Vietnam Airlines operates the UK’s only nonstop scheduled services to Vietnam, with daily Dreamliner flights from Heathrow T4 to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, offering SkyTrax 4-star rated service across three cabin classes. Return economy fares start from £533 per person. vietnamairlines.com
Bed and breakfast rates for a deluxe room at The Reverie Saigon start from around £264. Suites start from £600 per night, inclusive of airport transfers (one or two-way depending on room category). www.thereveriesaigon.com
Nightly rates at The Anam start from around £150 (depending on exchange rates) for a balcony garden view room. Call +(84) 2583 989 499 or email@example.com, www.theanam.com
Private cruises on the Reverie Yacht start at £1,675 for a champagne sunset outing for two with full butler service.