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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Vietnam.

Green Everywhere You Look – The Anam Resort

“Faster! Go faster!” Mr. Thanh, the water sports director, has been hollering in my ear, which really feels like the opposite of good- passenger behavior, and when he jumps off and starts swimming to shore, his exhortations echo in my wake. “Faster! Farrrrrrther!” If he says so. It’s been a while since I last drove a Jet Ski so I’m psyched to practice cutting and swerving at increasingly high speeds through these mini whitecaps on water that is clear to at least a meter.

There’s the occasional fishing boat bobbing to my east; on the dunes of the mostly empty shoreline to my west are a couple of local hotels and a few beach-shack eateries; and above…? Right above me is a plane heading in the same direction, surprisingly close. It’s coming in for a landing and I remember that Cam Ranh Airport lies just 11 kilometers—as the crow flies, car drives or, if you were ambitious, Jet Ski cruises—from where I started.

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Take to the seas with the resort’s Jet Skis, kayaks, surfboards, bravo sailboats or snorkeling gear

That’s the amazing thing about The Anam. The newest entry into Vietnam’s ultra-high-end market feels alike a fairy-land fusion of the remote purity of Koh Rong, Cambodia, with the playful, lawn- party luxury of the Florida Keys.

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The Anam’s Saigon bar

But it is a straight 12-minute shot to a little airport in the center of the East Sea coastline and 3s minutes to Nha Trang’—a bustling beach city better suited for a diving or drinking day trip than a relaxing vacation terminus. Sheltered on along empty shore south of Cu Hin Mountain with the requisite private-pool villas, a palatial Themae-product spa {plus two spa-centric guest villas with their own treatment rooms), a 3-D movie theater, three photogenic pools, and the best private-dining set-up I’ve ever experienced, The Anam has all of the elements of exclusive-resort style, none of the far-flung-hideaway inconvenience.

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Bedroom at Anam Resort

Thanks to the spare-no-expenses dedication to landscaping of founder Pham Van Hien, it looks like no other property in the country. Two long, Kelly green fairways run from the main pool down towards the shore where they join at a central lawn dotted with towering palms (3,000 were responsibly transplanted from a nearby grove).

Volleyball nets and a couple of soaring kites overlook a sweep of sand the color of un brushed silk and the bright azure ocean beyond. Stepping out of your villa— each has a garden-wrapped sunken tub and abed of lush Irish linens in a cocoon of French-Vietnamese overlap best exemplified by the floor tiles made by local artisans to evoke colonial-era grace—onto the soft golf grass each morning, you’ll rub your eyes and wonder if you’re standing in an oversaturated photograph. Or perhaps forgot to take off those 3-D glasses. Conquering water skis, sipping fresh coconuts, swinging in hammocks— it all seems so much more fulfilling in these high-definition greens, blues and whites.

Yes, the place is social media gold, but it’s also got warm, small-town service. Just ask the team of spider- men who set up the private-dining experience for us, tight-roping on the gazebo to ensure the drapes billowed just so, carefully arranging the candles into a romantic ring of fire. It was logically tucked into a copse of trees on the front lawn, about 15 meters from the chef and his grill, to perfectly balance privacy and proximity. This

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The villa-lined Lagoon Pool

means you get close to the sounds of the surf, without uncomfortably sandy feet to distract from the wine-paired meat and seafood extravaganza served by the attentive but decidedly nonintrusive waiter.

The hotel also has a community- focused mission championed heartily by general manager Herbert Laubichler-Pichler, who wanted to do more than just decorate his guest rooms with local originals. And so, a mixed-media art tour was recently launched by The Anam in conjunction with the Vietnamese Art Association of Khanh Hoa Province,  a place that photographer Mai Loc— who worked his way up from being an impoverished cyclo driver to an internationally recognized professional who has showed with the likes of James Nachtwey—tells me “is good inspiration for artists, not so good for art business.” The circuit varies by the day to share the spotlight among a diverse batch of creatives ; an afternoon drive through Nha Trangtakes us to meet him, a sculptor, and painters of varied styles and renown.

At the home gallery that demure Bao Tran runs to display the work of various painters including herself and her husband, Luu Thanh Qua, we’re saying our see-you-laters when Luu pulls out a sketchpad and charcoal pencils and shyly asks if, actually, I have five more minutes to spare. A lieutenant in the military, he mostly oil paints traditional bucolic scenes… although, watching him make effusive squiggles on the page, I suspect it is my non- traditional curly hair that was today’s inspiration.

I’m delighted to accept his drawing of me, and even more so that a couple of hours later we will meet again. We reconvene with all of the artists for an aperitif at Laubiehler-Pichler’s home, drinks on the beach at the NhaTrang expat institution Sailing Club {also The Anam’s partner for diving and island-hopping excursions) and then a big fresh-seafood feast. On a balcony overlooking the two twinkling spans over the city’s estuary, picking out snails and sucking down enormous steamer clams, a few rounds of 333 beer facilitates our group chat, a mash-up of their stilted English and my elementary Vietnamese. What a perfect setting it is to bridge the hotel community with this local fellowship, who themselves embody life in Technicolor.

Tasteful Specialties of Vietnam

A few days in Vietnam, and you’ll be chewing your friends’ ears out about the food there for months to come. Travellers to the country and professional chefs agree that Vietnamese food has favours that are fresh and clean and that startle and soothe all at once. It’s difficult to say enough about this food because the Vietnamese put so much of their heart and soul into the food. It is said that nearly half the population of the country is involved in growing, producing and cooking food.

You’ll probably want to start off sampling pho bo, Vietnam’s unofficial national dish. This is arguably best enjoyed in Hanoi, given the number of establishments that peddle it, and because of the misty weather that makes the hot broth so particularly welcome. As in any self-respecting foodie country, there are vast variations in the food from region to region, so, while in the South, fresh herbs and bean sprouts are the usual garnish, Northerners seem to prefer milder pho, flavoured with coriander and scallions.

Perhaps the best way to truly appreciate pho is by ordering dry pho, or pho kho gia lai, in which all the ingredients are served separately and you can add the slow brewed beef broth just before taking your first bite so the onions are their crunchiest and the herbs taste as fresh as possible.

Banh mi, at first glance, may not seem very Vietnamese, since it’s a baguette sandwich typically filled with pate and mayonnaise, but peep inside at the fresh shavings of pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and chillies, and you’ll find yourself appreciating the delicious influence of the French occupation of Vietnam. If you’re headed to Hoi An, do try a banh mi there- it’s considered a local specialty.

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Hoi An Hotel

Anthony Bourdain is said to have eaten at Banh Mi Phuong, where the banii mi also has hand-ground chilli sauce, tomatoes, a fried egg, and possibly anything else you could ever imagine, If you make it there in the early morning or early afternoon, you may be lucky enough to get a baguette that’s still warm from the oven.

But it is really Ho Chi Minh City that is considered the food capital of Vietnam in terms of taste and variety because you can find dishes from all over Vietnam served off street stalls. Try some banh xeot a savoury rice pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, pork, shrimp, mushrooms, etc, or the Vietnamese spring roll, locally known as goi cuon. Track down the legendary Lunch Lady whose customers have been lining up to eat whatever she may choose to serve up for more than a decade.

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Ho Chi Minh City

But, if you’d like a sit-down dinner for once to slowly savour everything you’re eating, head to the Cue Gach Quan , a romantic French Colonial mansion that has been carefully restored and now serves up the kind of food that makes the Vietnamese remember their grandmothers. The restaurant prides itself on serving everyday Vietnamese food elevated to gourmet levels, paired with French wines.

Vietnam Caves: Exploring The Beauty Of Nature Underground

You can tell a cave is pretty spacious when it accommodates a jungle and a river within its walls — as is the case for Vietnam’s Son Doong. However, despite its jaw-dropping proportions, the world’s largest cave has seen fewer visitors than the summit of Mount Everest. Just 640 people are permitted to visit Son Doong in 2017 and, understandably, these limited spaces are highly sought after — 300 spots were snapped up within 20 hours during the first round of sales in August.

Son Doong

Son Doong

The second lot of tickets will be available for purchase on 15 November, each costing a hefty 67,500,000VND (£2,330). Oxalis Adventure Tours is the only operator permitted to run tours to the cave. Each five-day tour requires more than 25 porters and cooks, a tour guide, two cave experts and two park rangers. The expedition includes camping, caving, knee-deep river crossings and 31 miles of trekking.

Backseat Tourer – Vietnam

Vietnam is a fascinating country full of flavor, culture and motorcycles. There are 40 million of them, making street walking hazardous

vietnam-22Colourful and boisterous, Vietnam is a country constantly on the move, and mostly by motorbike. Visiting this Southeast Asian nation for the first time can be something of a sensory overload, but the cacophony of sights and smells and experiences will leave you forever changed.

Vietnam’s spectacular scenery and architecture, unique culture and a menu so delectable aside, what will undoubtedly leave the biggest impression on any visitor is the overwhelming number of motorcycles on the roads. Consider that there are 95.4 million people in the country, and more than 39 million registered motorbikes (compared to the two million cars). That means that besides the very young and very old, every person owns a motorbike – and rides it loaded to the hiIt on roads thick with the blaring of hooters.

For visitors to Vietnam, crossing a road becomes a challenge, a rite of passage ‘and an art form that requires bravery, stamina and fancy footwork. Your speed in crossing is crucial, as is the wave of your hand signaling that you are, in fact, crossing and for motorists to please avoid flattening you. Once you set foot off the curb, do not stop. Just keep going as bikers weave and dance around you with their horns blaring. Arriving alive here is a close shave.

I found that the best way to acclimatize to this mad dervish of traffic was to become part of it. I hired a capable driver with a reliable bike through Hello Vietnam Travel, donned my hard hat and took to the streets – at a maximum of 40 km/h through the narrow streets of Hanoi, and a lightening fast 60 km/h outside the city bounds. Riding pillion I caught glimpses of life in Vietnam’s northern capital: the warren of cramped streets in the old quarter, street vendors selling tasty morsels with unpronounceable names, conical hats bobbing through outdoor markets, stalls brimming with fresh flowers, vegetables, live poultry, fish and the odd frog.

Vegetables and fruits of every shade and shape are sold on the street by vendors straddling bicycles or by women precariously balancing baskets of produce on a pole over their shoulders. Rice, the staple diet, is served boiled, as paper wraps, buns, noodles and even cakes, flour and wine (beware: it has a kick).

Vietnam’s street food is world famous. Noodles in broth with beef, chicken or fish and vegetables is the local favourite, and is eaten at any time of the day. Other delights include fried or fresh spring rolls, marinated meat on bamboo sticks barbecued on small braziers, corn on the cob, fish, crab, prawns or duck… the offerings are endless and the aromas always tantalising. To quench your thirst drink herbal tea or sugarcane juice, fresh coconut water, freshly squeezed lemonade or, simply, the local beer.

An important tradition and export is coffee. Robusta and arabica beans are grown extensively throughout the country, making Vietnam the runner up to Brazil in exports. Coffee, then, is an essential part of the day.vietnam-coffee

Discover Vietnam

GET THERE – Major airlines including Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific fly to Hanoi from London Heathrow with a stop in either Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong and return flights typically start at the £4-50 mark. From Hanoi you are faced with two main options; the train or the bus.

By train: The journey takes 8-9 hours and costs between £5-8 for daytime journeys or £8-21 for night trips(one way). Trains from the main station in Hanoi arrive in Lao Cai, a city which is roughly 24- miles away from Sapa. From Lao Cai you will need to take a bus, shared taxi or private car onward to Sapa. This takes roughly 50 minutes and should cost £1 for a bus ticket or £2 for a shared minibus. Private cars are available for approximately £20.sapa

By bus: Travelling by bus is faster, taking between six and seven hours, but it’s widely acknowledged to be the least safe option. It can also be cheaper than the previous option, with prices starting at around £5.

WHEN TO GO – Vietnam is subject to a tropical monsoon climate and the various regions of the country experience vastly different weather at any one time. Your best bet is to visit Sapa between October and November for clear and cool days. Another good time to visit is between March and April, when the temperatures begin to warm up. If you’re planning to travel to other parts of the country, the best advice we can offer is to visit between September and December or March and April.

WHERE TO STAY – There is an eclectic mix of hotels and guesthouses in Sapa to suit a range of budgets, so you won’t be short of options. On multi-day walks via the local villages you’ll probably be staying in homestays. These are very common in Sapa and are geared toward tourists, with western toilets and running water. The sleeping arrangements usually consist of thick mats laid down next to each other in the loft space with thick blankets for warmth.

HOW TO DO IT – When planning your trip to Sapa you can either book everything through a tour operator in the UK, book your trekking and transport with a tour operator in country, or travel to Sapa independently and source out a guide yourself. All three have their benefits and disadvantages and it’s down to personal preference which you choose. The more you organise on yourself the cheaper it will become, but it may also be less reliable and more stressful.

Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam

WHAT TO TAKE – Sturdy walking boots with good on-trail grip will serve you well in Sapa, especially when it has been raining, as the terrain can sometimes get extremely muddy and slippery. With that in mind, gaiters would also be worth considering, as would comfortable walking trousers. Waterproofs and warm layers are essential, as the temperature can drop in the evenings and rain is often likely. If you’re staying in homestays and hotels for the duration, you’ll typically get away with a decent sized daysack as the sleeping arrangements will be taken care of, though a sleeping bag liner offers a valuable extra layer. Extra socks are also worth taking along in case your feet get wet in the day or cold at night, while you may also want to carry toilet roll and toiletries for your own peace of mind.

Getting The Best Of Vietnam Landscapes

Set in the far north of Vietnam, for many, Sapa will conjure images of vibrant, green rice terraces, incredible mountain backdrops and endless trails with each twist and turn revealing a view more astounding than the last. But, as my mate Sam and I twisted and turned on an uncomfortable sleeper bus with cheesy Vietnamese pop music blaring over the speakers and large boxes poking us in the sides, the picture perfect idea of Sapa couldn’t feel further away. For the budget-conscious traveller or those short on time, these sleeper buses represent one of the most time and cost-effective ways of getting around Vietnam. The trouble is, they can be extremely hit and miss and as it so happened, we had the distinct displeasure of being cooped up in an overcrowded, smelly sleeper bus as it hurtled from Hanoi to Sapa at alarming rates.

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The train would have definitely been a better option. Eventually, our bus rolled to a stop and we were dumped into a freezing cold and misty car park on the outskirts of Sapa in the early hours of the morning.

We chugged herbal tea in a small cafe to keep warm as we waited for our transfer and before long we were on our way into the heart of town and our starting point for a few days of trekking, the Grand View Sapa Hotel. Despite the name, the view was non-existent at this point because of some extremely dense, low cloud which shrouded the entire town. It was here that we were introduced to the rest of the group and our guide for the next two days, Na. Short and shy, but incredibly friendly, Na was a local who had been guiding for four years, having started when she was only 15.

Despite her small stature, she made navigating the troublesome terrain look easy and did so with a smile for the entirety of our trip. After several more herbal teas and a hearty breakfast of noodle soup, we were on our way, walking through the crowded and vibrant markets of Sapa before reaching the edge of town and joining a muddy trail which started to descend down into the valley. We weren’t quite prepared for how slippery the tracks were going to be and in places the mud would climb right up to your knees. With each step there was a lingering doubt as to whether or not you would still be standing after putting your weight on your foot. As challenging as it was to stay upright, it was certainly entertaining and it almost felt like a competition to be the last one standing in the group.

As it turned out, not too many people ended up on their bums. This was partly thanks to the support crew we seemed to have assembled within the first 10 minutes of the hike. Despite only having one guide, we somehow managed to acquire a group of about 30 other locals who decided to make the journey with us. It turns out that these women and children were part of the Hmong people, an ethnic group that reside in the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. With tourism becoming such a major player in Sapa, many of the locals see the trekking scene as a good opportunity to bring some money into the household, so they escort tourists on their hikes, lending them a helping hand on the troublesome terrain.

Saying "hello" to the locals.

Saying “hello” to the locals.

Now, the ages of these women and children must have ranged from three or four, all the way up to 80 or 90, and yet they made things look effortless, even when they had a child on their back. Eventually, they just became part of the group and as the ground levelled out and we began to accept the help of these skillful women, we could turn our attention to the views. As we descended further into the valley, the cloud became less dense with gaps opening up more frequently. Every now and then they would open enough to reveal an incredible new angle of the hills, farms and rice terraces below.

The further we went, the more the mountains and the valleys revealed to us. After a few slow miles on unforgiving mud we reached a hard-packed trail which clung to the side of the cliff and this led us to the most incredible viewpoint. At this moment, the low cloud cleared some more and we could see the valley stretching out before us with its steep walls stepped in rice terraces. The hard-packed trail we had found ourselves on didn’t last long and before we knew it we were back to fighting with the mud. As we descended down toward the river below we passed through a steep wooded incline which proved to be one of the most challenging parts of the day. Making it to the bottom on both feet felt like a real achievement.

Vietnam: Unpredictable, Beautiful, Wild

It’s the bloody apocalypse!” yelped a British accent through the sound of engines and whipping wind. We were whizzing across a bridge, clinging to our drivers tighter than their ‘Professional Motorbike Tours’ pinafores. Below us ran the Perfume River which cuts through the city of Hue in central Vietnam. The view to the right was just an emotive slogan away from a Communist propaganda poster. Small wooden boats carried women in conical hats on waters reflecting a vibrant sky. But to the Left, ominous storm clouds brewed like dark Vietnamese coffee. Cool plops of drizzle cooled my sweaty arms and face. Thunder roared. I felt my driver’s slender frame grow tense and his laconic driving style took a frantic turn.

We raced into the hurricane that passes as a traffic circle in Vietnam. “I hope it doesn’t rain,” ye lied my driver, texting with one hand. I had to agree, thinking vaguely of times that were truly ‘bloody’ and ‘apocalyptic’ and shelter was sought from worse than rain. Since its birth, Vietnam has thrown off China, France and Japan before a Cold War-era proxy war brought the fresh horrors of chemical warfare and chilling guerrilla tactics. The Vietnam War, known in Vietnam as the American War, is only a small part of the character of this ‘Communist’ nation but is of interest to the latest invaders: tourists.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS – My mother and I arrived in humid August for a ten day tour from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south. Our route would be different but our start and end points matched those of the North Vietnamese Army in their travels across the 17th parallel along the secret Ho Chi Minh trail. This was mom’s fourth trip with G-Adventures, a tour company she favours for seeing a lot in a short time’.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

We met the group in a hotel in frenetic, sweaty Hanoi, amidst mad two-wheeled traffic, karaoke bars and low hanging knots of electrical wires. The dairy farming couple from Ireland greeted us cheerfully from behind beers. A bald, tattooed pot-bellied man and a petite woman with large glasses introduced themselves as Dave and Susan from England. Four twenty-something girls from London and Sydney had already gathered in a giggly clique and were trying one another’s cocktails. We were headed next morning to Ha Long Bay. It was a four hour bus drive east to the Gulf of Tonkin.

Mekong: A Fairytale-Like Asian Oasis

The Vietnamese port city of My Tho sits on one of the Nine Dragons, narrow branches that the Mekong fans into near its mouth. It’s almost a two-hour drive across the delta horn the bustling urban sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where we’d landed that morning. During the van ride, my three kids had been plugged into their devices, barely glancing up as we passed villages with open shop fronts, canals where merchants steered sampans with single oars, green rice paddies dotted with pastel-painted ancestral graves. When I begged them to look at the world instead of at their smartphones, my 14-ycar-old daughter retorted, “This is the world, Mom,” without lifting her eyes.

Then, as we ascended the gangway onto the Aqua Mekong, the sleek wood-and-glass, three-deck ship on which we’d be sailing from Vietnam to Cambodia over the next five days, my daughter stopped to point out to her 11-ycar-old sister the late-afternoon sun over the river—a vast orange ball cooling its tail in the water. Max, 6, my youngest, bolted past the staff lined up to greet us and planted his nose on the lee-side picture window to watch a woman in a conical hat haul a net of glittering fish onto her sampan. I was reminded of British author Graham Greene, who lived here in the 1950s—when it was known as Indochina—and wrote so vividly about this tableau. He also understood something about the chance impressionability of youth. “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in,” he wrote in Vie Power and the Glory. Could this be it? But as the woman emptied her net, Max turned around.

“Only small ones,” he said with a shrug. As the kind of traveler who reads every-thing about a place before going, I’d told Max that the Mekong is the most biodiverse river on the planet after the Amazon, containing some of the most gigantic fish anywhere: The catfish and carp can weigh up to 300 pounds. Max, it seemed, was looking for his Moby Fish. I’d come with my own romantic view of the Mekong, which owed something to my love of Greene, but also to the fact that 18 years earlier, my husband and I had honeymooned in Vietnam and took a barge ride on this river, squashed between motorbikes and a woman transporting sugarcane on a donkey.

A sampan glides along the Mekong at sunset.

A sampan glides along the Mekong at sunset.

(It had seemed romantic at the time—but so did everything.) The Clinton administration had just restored trade with Communist Vietnam, and two decades later its new prosperity is evident everywhere: buildings going up in the cities, more cars than bicycles on the road, people in Western clothes instead of the once-ubiquitous ao dai tunic. Also better off since my newlywed days, I found watching my children board this unthinkably luxurious ship to be as disorienting as deja vu—time folding past experience onto the present. Truthfully, it felt just as long since we’d had a real vacation—as family holidays had turned us into dc facto tour guides and porters. And so as we settled into our rooms—TV-free, with floor-to-ceiling windows at river level— we were relieved when the kids disappeared to the top-deck infinity pool.

My husband and I took the boat’s signature gin cocktail (flavored with ginger and lemongrass) onto the first balcony with the only other passengers—a couple from Barcelona and another from Buenos Aires—while the vessel silently set off. We drifted past bamboo stilt villages and gilt-roofed temples. Kids washed their hair in the river, women washed clothing, and people napped in hammocks like cocoons in that distinctly Southeast Asian melding of public and private life. As we pushed up the gold-green river, I gave in to the thrill of solitude while the busy spectacle of humanity unfolded around me. The Mekong is a vast, vibrant life-support system, from its beginnings in the snowmelt of the Tibetan Plateau down through China, Bunn a, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where it issues into the South China Sea 2,703 miles later.

Its delta is home to 17 million of Vietnam’s 94 million people. Most of the country’s fish, fruit, and rice come from the region, and it shows: Almost everywhere something is flowering, fruiting, or being harvested. Women in classic non la straw hats steer loads office on low wooden craft to a husking mill on the bank; larger vessels carry fish with the family laundry flapping across the stern. Wooden working vessels have glossy black eyes painted on each side of the prow, giving them a can-do attitude, like a boat in a Richard Scarry children’s book. Much of this cargo winds up in the market stalls lining the river in each town, which is how the Aqua Mekong maintains its flesh supplies. Food is a serious feature of the trip, as parent company Aqua Expeditions signed chef David Thompson of Nahm, in Bangkok—who is something of a food god in our native Australia-to oversee their menus.

He also occasionally helms the kitchen, as lie did on our trip. On our first morning, the ship moored outside the village of Sa Dec, and Thompson walked us through the riverside market. We passed baskets of huge sea snails, pails of transparent shrimp, and every imaginable green vegetable and flower. Chickens fussed in a basket, possibly unnerved by the woman sitting opposite them plucking ducks. As we walked, Thompson introduced us to unfamiliar ingredients—picking off a new variant of coriander for us to try, or a bud of spinach-like “morning glory.” The children’s eyes widened when they touched the mustachioed snakefish flapping in a plastic trough—“Ugly as anything,” Thompson said, “but delicious”—and again as a woman arriving on a motorcycle hauled a freshly butchered pig out of a sack by the cars.

The Buddhist temple Chua Long Son, on Sam, the tallest mountain in the Mekong Delta.

The Buddhist temple Chua Long Son, on Sam, the tallest mountain in the Mekong Delta.

Stallholder’s smiled under their hats, or dozed in hammocks behind colorful jars of fermented fish. A rice store showcased huge, potbellied sacks of rice—all labeled, Thompson explained, to identify the crop by type, age, and region, “a bit like the notion of terroir in France.” As we passed a man with a cart of fried grasshoppers, he quipped, “The spiced tarantulas are better.” Back on board, Thompson used the market haul in a delicious lunch of crispy yam rolls, caramelized pork ribs in young coconut juice, grilled river lobster, and chicken and lotus-root salad. At every meal, our 11-ycar-old, usually a reluctant cater, updated her Instagram feed via the ship’s spotty Wi-Fi: “Now this is my favorite food.” At that moment, I realized she wasn’t deflecting the world with her screen; she was celebrating it.

The aqua Mekong carries four motorized skiffs for daily excursions. Onshore, the children loved the tuk-tuk rides through small villages that, unlike the city, looked remarkably as they did 20 years ago. At the pagoda on Sam Mountain, we gazed over the patchwork of rice paddies to the Cambodian border, while below us, a young monk sat reading under a rock ledge. Inside, packets of chocolate cookies were stacked in pyramids on either side of an enormous Buddha, making the kids giggle: What deity wouldn’t want offerings of sweets? On other days, we took the skiffs up tributaries like the Bassac Canal, where a cluster of boats revealed itself to be a floating fruit market. When our driver noticed some buzz around a fish farm, we zoomed in and watched workers haul hyacinth-reed baskets of gleaming silver catfish through a trough in the bottom of the boat.

“All small,” I heard Max mutter. One afternoon, we set off with an Aqua guide to visit the home of a local family at My An Hung and disembarked next to a flimsy stick bridge that looked like a child’s drawing. How picturesque, I thought, until the kids hopped onto the swaying structure. A local girl passed them by, tapping nonchalantly on her cell phone and not looking at her feet at all, demonstrating dexterity in a digital age. In the front yard of the wooden home, the matriarch, her hair in a chignon, smiled from behind a table loaded with local fruits (including durian—“smells like hell; tastes like heaven,” according to the guide, who was right) and a regional rice wine called ruou gao. Shoeless, we entered the house, and in an airy living area, the woman and her husband played an electric zither (dan tranh) and electric guitar, and sang a doleful duet in wavering notes.

The children were less taken with the music than the room, lined with an array of electric flashing Buddhas, a portrait of Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, and shrines bedecked with flowers and incense. On one wall hung framed photos of our hosts from the 1960s to the ’80s—turns out they were the Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash of Vietnam. When we crossed into Cambodia, the river was noticeably quieter. In its fractured past, Cambodia had endured the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79), which yielded to the Vietnamese occupation and then a UN-led administration in the 1990s. Consequently, it is less developed and notably poorer than its southern neighbor. We bicycled through fields of taro plants large as triffids, passing creamy Brahman cattle with tinkling necklaces and saffron-robed boy monks walking barefoot.

Flowers drape the roof of a house in the town of My An Hung, Vietnam.

Flowers drape the roof of a house in the town of My An Hung, Vietnam.

In the villages, local children, some with baby siblings on their hips, popped out to greet us with cries of “Hello! Hello!’’ and laughed when we called back. These encounters with other children fascinated our kids, prompting a lively discussion with our daughters one night about poverty’s roots in colonialism and war—one of those parenting moments where you’re struck, and even a bit thrown, by their precocious insight and empathy. At Preah Prosop, we visited an elementary school where we could hear the students chanting their lessons from open classrooms. Our guide motioned us in, but Max refused and walked off to sit under a tree with our tuk-tuk driver. I wondered if he shared the self-consciousness we felt as Western tourists disrupting this peaceful scene, or if maybe he’d overheard our discussion with the girls.

But no, it seemed he simply didn’t want to be the new boy in class. Then, at the school’s temple, we met with four monks, ages 14 to 36, who sat on the floor in their robes. Any boy can join a monastery, they explained, where he receives an education funded by donations. The monks began chanting a blessing in Khmer, as the elder monk anointed us with water from a silver chalice. When we walked out, none of us spoke for some time. Then Max said, “Did you see that silver cup? They are so rich.” “No, they’re not,” his middle sister said. “They are rich,” my oldest daughter responded, “in culture, not in money.” “Maybe both, sometime soon,” my husband said, as we started walking. The elder monk had told him lie was studying for an MBA—wise preparations for his next incarnation in this gradually emerging economy.

On our last evening, the staff set up a bar on a sandy riverbank so we could swim. Not a giant catfish in sight. But as in Melville, and in our most profound travel experiences, you inevitably find things you didn’t know you were looking for. Watching my family’s heads bobbing in the Mekong at sunset, I thought about how kids are born ambassadors, observant of—but not unsettled by— cultural difference. Our adult projections about race and culture are as much a screen that keeps us from engaging as anything the kids hold in their hands. Max is just a boy looking for a fish, who does not want to go to school during his holiday. His middle sister is a tween for whom it makes total sense that God has a sweet tooth. And his big sister sees vast cultural riches in a world without running water. The future is global, and—as Greene predicted—they have let it in.

Bai Sao, Phu Quoc – VIETNAM

BEST FOR… Relaxing, swimming

WHY GO? The whole island of Phu Quoc (much of which is a national park) is a beach-lover’s dream. But squirrelled-away Bai Sao is pick of the bunch, its waters sheltered by the central uplands, its angle gently sloping to offshore sandbars, so you can wade waist-deep for 100m or more. Plus, working out how to get here, via a jink of hills and villages, is half the fun.

Beach-in-Vietnam

Star Beach, Phu Quoc – Vietnam

WHAT TO DO: Hire a motorbike. Find Bai Sao (ask a local for directions). Then relax. Take a dip, have a drink. Relax some more.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Barter for goodies at Duong Dong market. Hire a boat from An Thoi Town, to explore more hidden bays.

GET THERE: Phu Quoc is a 50-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City. Bai Sao is a twisty 27km motorbike ride from main hub Duong Dong.

VIETNAM HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Tu Lan Cave – This system actually lies outside the boundary of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which is in itself extremely worthy of exploration. Attractions including Paradise Cave, Dark Cave and Nuoc Mooc Springs are also nearby.
  1. Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – The DMZ saw some of the most brutal battles during the conflict with the USA due to its position along the 17th Parallel (at the Ben Hai River). Tours to this region can be arranged from Phong Nha.
  1. Bach Ma National Park – A French hill station was established here in 1932 and at one point the site was home to 139 villas, plus a hotel. It was not until 1991 that it gained national park status. The highest peak here reaches 1,448m; the surrounding hills are home to rhododendron-filled woodland and mammals such as the red-shanked douc langur. Basic accommodation is available and treks to waterfalls can be undertaken independently or with a guide.
  1. Hue – To the south of Bach Ma lies the former capital city of Hue, which is surrounded by the magnificent mausoleums of former emperors and mandarins. The grand citadel complex in the heart of the city is a particular draw.
Vietnam-hue

The incredible scenery of Hue is filled with sightseeing objectives representing the traditional Asian culture.

  1. Lang Co – This fishing village, south of Hue, is set on a wonderfully pretty lagoon on which floating fish restaurants serve excellent, cheap fresh food. There are a number of resorts, including the upmarket beachfront Banyan Tree and more affordable ocean-view options.
  1. Danang – Further south, over the dramatic Hai Van Pass – one of the most beautiful stretches of road in Vietnam – Danang is a forward-looking city with beautiful beaches right on its doorstep as well as the densely forested Son Tra Peninsula. Danang is also a foodie’s delight, with a fantastic street-food scene and mouth-watering seafood restaurants.