From the bustling street markets of Saigon to the serene China Beach, Vietnam offers exotic splendor around every picturesque corner. Couples in search of Old World charm and modern adventure in a rapidly evolving culture need look no further.
By Sarah Crosland
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
WHERE TO STAY: In this cosmopolitan city, where even crossing a motorbike-filled street is stressful, the Park Hyatt Saigon (from $220 a night, Saigon.park.hyatt.com) feels like a tranquil haven. Located on Saigon’s central square, the luxurious colonial-style hotel, with its serene pool and tropical garden, offers a cool sanctuary from the constant energy and heat of the city. Spacious rooms feature gleaming hardwoods and cream-colored accents, and many offer terraces with excellent views of the city. For a real escape, request one with views of the lush garden.
WHAT TO DO: The central location of the hotel means you’re only blocks away from historic sites like the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon or the Opera House. It also puts you close to the famed Ben Thanh Market, where narrow aisles are packed with stalls and tables full of goods ranging from the more authentic silk wares and locally made jewelry to souvenir T-shirts and knockoff brand-name handbags. In the open-air area around the market, adventurous eaters can indulge in local dishes like pho and banh mi from street carts. If you have the time, take an excursion to the Cu Chi Tunnels, just northeast of the city, which offer a glimpse of the hidden, underground passageways dug by the Viet Cong during the war. After a morning crawling through the dusty, claustrophobia-inducing tunnels, escape together for the afternoon to L’Apothiquaire Artisan Beaute (lapothiquaire.com), a beautiful French-inspired day spa set in a restored colonial home, where a soothing seventy-five-minute massage is only $40 and a detoxifying mud wrap only $30. End your day at another historic-home-turned-elegant-destination, Hoa Tuc (saigoncookingclass.com). This chic restaurant on the grounds of an old opium refinery offers a modern take on traditional Vietnamese dishes like barbecued sea bass with avocado-mango salsa.
Hoi An and China Beach
WHERE TO STAY: Each of the 100 private, beachside villas at the new Nam Hai (rooms start at $540 a night, thenamhai.com) resort on China Beach feature stone floors, outdoor showers, and stunning views of the South China Sea. Not that you’ll be spending much time inside: pristine beaches, three infinity pools, and the crystal-blue ocean beckon for days in the sun. The real draw in this stretch of central Vietnam, though, is the charming nearby town of Hoi An, with its tranquil streets, world-renowned tailors, and popular restaurants.
WHAT TO DO: Hoi An is an Asian trading port that dates back to the fifteenth century and offers a unique fusion of Chinese and French cultures. Try to plan your trip to coincide with the Full Moon Festival, which is held each month on the night before the full moon. During this night, no motorbikes or electric light are allowed in Old Town and the streets, filled with music and crowds, are lit by candles and colorful lanterns, creating a romantic and celebratory atmosphere. During the day, rent a bicycle and explore the city’s winding lanes and narrow alleys. Make stops at the small Japanese Covered Bridge, constructed in the early 1590s, and Hoi An Cargo Club and Patisserie (restaurant-hoian.com), offering fresh pastries and strong coffee along the riverfront of the Thu Bon River just south of Old Town. And no trip to Hoi An is complete without a stop in one of the tailor shops, where dresses and suits can be custom made in little time and for little money. A-Dong Silk (adongsilk.com) is a popular one for its contemporary designs, but a walk down any street in Old Town will show you that these shops abound.
WHERE TO STAY: While the phrase “Hanoi Hilton” doesn’t have positive connotations, the elegant Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel (from $175 a night, hilton.com) is a different story. The grand white structure is next to the Hanoi Opera House, in the center of the city’s French Quarter. An outdoor pool offers a view of the Opera House, while the hotel’s lounge is an excellent spot to relax with a cocktail as you listen to live jazz. The real draw is its location in the middle of the historic quarter, where colonial buildings, French cafés, and edgy boutiques are just steps outside your door.
WHAT TO DO: Give yourselves enough time in Hanoi to take a one-night excursion to the famous Halong Bay (halong baycruises.com), where an evening on a Chinese junk boat includes swimming and enjoying dinner on board as you watch one of the bay’s gorgeous sunsets. Back in Hanoi, a trip to the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a must for history buffs, while art lovers should plan a stop in the new Art Vietnam Gallery (artvietnamgallery.com), a dramatic space filled with contemporary local art. In the evening take a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, bordering the French Quarter. Willows hang over the water, which is often misty in the cool Hanoi evenings. On the opposite side of the lake you’ll find the luxurious Restaurant Bobby Chinn (bobbychinn.com), where dark-red silk and velvet curtains hang from the ceiling and candlelight flickers in the intimate space. The menu is a fusion of East and West, with dishes like filet mignon spring rolls and green-tea-smoked duck over black sticky rice, which all pair well with selections from the restaurant’s award-winning wine list.