Hanoi: History, horror and heavenly spa treatments on a journey into Vietnam (Part 1)

In the last episode, we had a chance to experience the little Hanoi with JENNY COAD – reporter of Daily Mail to find out about Hanoi’s former and current features. Now be prepared for the new Vietnam in the South.

Hanoi: History, horror and heavenly spa treatments on a journey into Vietnam (Part 1)

Outside Saigon, an American woman at the entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels exclaims: “Those Vietcong must have been tiny; I couldn’t fit my shoe in there”. I know what she means.

While we travel further south, it was very slight paunches do appear though. Hue and Hoi An, on the central coast, are a relief after oppressive-seeming Hanoi. In Hue you can see the remnants of Vietnam’s past when emperors ruled and grand palaces like the former Imperial Citadel (a Unesco World Heritage Site) and mausoleums were built in their honor. These are nothing like Ho Chi Minh’s bleak, soviet-inspired resting place. The Tu Duc and Khai Dinh tombs from the Nguyen dynasty are ornate, elaborate, and filled with statues that might be required in the afterlife and dripping in gold. At the Tu Duc tomb, there is a large stone tablet with the lament of the Emperor who had 150 concubines yet never managed to produce an heir. These sites are under 200 years old, but they are a world away from modern Vietnam.

In a new day, Hoi An is a relaxed affair. There are more travelers here. Bars are filled with gap-yearers. The mood is laidback but commercial. This is the place to have a suit whipped up in an hour or Kate’s Issa dress copied. There are signs promising the very best service, “clean, fragrant, cheap, and nice”. That’s for your laundry, of course, but they offer motor bikes too. Hiring a motorbike in Hoi An is fun but in Saigon, it’s only for the brave – or crazy. This sophisticated city is home to millions of scooters, which navigate the streets like dancing ants.

There is more war tourism here – from the harrowing War Remnants museum, which focuses on the grisly effects of Agent Orange to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city. The prospect of crawling on my hands and knees in the dark puts me off going inside, but just being at the entrance to this extraordinary network system, 124 miles in length, used by the Vietcong during the war, is enough to give me the shivers. Better to head back into town, where you can wander hassle-free, day or night.

The Ho Chi Minh City’s market in is hot, sticky and heady. In the surrounding streets you can get a pedicure for £3. There are women waiting with plastic bowls and winning smiles to tackle your toes. It’s much more sociable than a traditional salon, if you don’t mind the odd flying nail clipping. But Saigon does high-end pampering beautifully too. The Park Hyatt has city glamour down perfectly. The wonderful swimming pool, three floors up, is long enough for doing decent laps and there is a lavish bar in the cavernous entrance. You could easily spend a week here – and feel just as relaxed as if you’d been lounging on a beach. I meet lots of families who are doing just that.

In order to feel the sand between your perfectly manicured toes, Saigon is an easy jumping-off point for islands off the South and South West Coast, like Con Dao and Phu Quoc. Following in Brangelina’s footsteps to Con Dao and the Six Senses resort, I perched discreetly on a mile-long beach. Con Dao was formerly a prison island, set up by the French in 1861, and you can still visit the great eerie buildings in the main town. The weather is stormy and the sea rushes in and out with gusto, but it is a wonderfully tropical setting and the grey sky doesn’t matter a bit. It’s warm, and the different shades of grey in the sea and the sky are peaceful. You can walk, run, swim, bike and do all manner of water sports if the water calms down. Not to mention learn how to cook the fragrant Vietnamese delicacies I have been busy guzzling. Six Senses is known for its sustainable and sparry outlook. It employs locals and their workers seem happy and chatty. Relaxation is the theme here – and by the end of the week I feel well-nourished in mind and body. And ready to sing the praises of this captivating country.

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