Colourful 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.
Amangiri, Utah, USA (above)
Blending into the desert and overlooking the stark beauty of flat-topped rocks, Amangiri (“peaceful mountain”) opened in Utah’s Grand Circle in 2009. It’s flanked by five national parks and the largest Native American reservation in the US, but Aman’s 600-acre site is a remarkable attraction itself, with just 34 suites – most with pools – and a 2,322 sq m spa specialising in Navajo healing techniques.
Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, Nayarit, Mexico
This slice of Mexican indulgence, 45 minutes from Puerto Vallarta and overlooked by the peaks of the Sierra Madre, ticks all the Four Seasons boxes: two golf courses, a yacht, a tranquil spa, golden beaches and lavish casita-style villas. There’s a cool shack bar on Las Cuevas beach and the one-of-a-kind tequila tour involves a trip in a private helicopter – well, when in Mexico…
On a secluded peninsula near Florianopolis, southern Brazil, offering views of the Emerald Coast and a ridge of Atlantic rainforest, you’ll find a clutch of oyster farms and this hidden resort with 25 cabanas and 24-hour breakfasts. Paddle out to a tiny island bar for an ice-cold Caipirinha, sail around the bay to sample fresh shellfish, or simply kick back and enjoy some jungle opulence.
Cycling blends the best of slow-and fast-paced travel, and its popularity among travelers has grown rapidly in recent years. Accessibility is the key to its appeal: you don’t need to have the thighs of an athlete to have yourself a two-wheeled adventure, and some trips even offer e-bike alternatives. So whether you’re looking to pedal flat plains, conquer rolling hills or challenge yourself to some unforgiving mountainous terrain, there’s a bike trip out there for you.
Pedal through colonial Cusco, the Sacsayhuaman ruins and the salt pans of the Chinchero Plateau with World Expeditions’ Cycle the Andes tour. Explore the Sacred Valley and the village of Calca before taking a ride out to see that most majestic of Incan mountain citadels, the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.
Fitness level: Moderate to hard – lots of off-road cycling at high altitude
Join KE Adventure Travel on its new Cycle the Wine Roads of Istria tour. Swap the beach-fringed peninsula for the area’s lesser-known green interior. Pedal Tuscan-like countryside pit-stopping at medieval Grožnjan, seaside Poreč and larger Rovinj – punctuate your journey with tipples from wine cellars en route.
Fitness level: Basic – 40km a day but at a leisurely pace on quiet country roads
Cycle the Camino de Santiago from León to Santiago de Compostela with Echelon. Cross Hospital de Órbigo’s bridge and pedal forests, mountains and villages between Molinaseca and Fervenza.
Fitness level: Moderate – daily climbs
Luminous pink and purple triffid-like sculptures loom over us as the Singapore skyline turns inky black with the clouds of an impending storm. We’re at the Gardens by the Bay, the Southeast Asian island’s version of the Eden Project, and there’s a definite carnival atmosphere in the balmy evening air as local people and tourists alike gaze up in wonder, waiting for the Marina Bay Hotel’s evening laser display to begin.
Singapore, which celebrated 50 years since independence in 2015, has often, unfairly, been regarded as the city-state you stop at for a night or two on your way to Australia or New Zealand; but it actually becomes more interesting the closer you look at it. Yes, it’s as spotlessly clean as you imagine it will be (this is the place that banned chewing gum, after all).
But staying here for a few days before we set sail on our Princess Cruises Southeast Asia voyage also gives us the opportunity to discover its thriving cosmopolitan culture.
We spend a whole morning in Little India, with its vibrantly painted shops selling everything from spices to gold and saris, and the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, decorated with intricate carvings. We also visit a Chinese indoor market (although this is probably one of the cleanest markets I’ve ever been to, there’s still plenty to look at, including orchids in every conceivable colour).
It’s at night though that Singapore really comes into its own, when the temperature has dropped enough to take the edge off the heat. We have cocktails at the Marina Bay Hotel, with its spectacular city views, and at a bar on the river (there are lots to choose from). Singapore has a thriving culinary scene, and we also eat some extraordinarily good meals, including dinner at the Tippling Club, run by celebrity chef Ryan Clift.
A visit to Raffles for a Singapore Sling is a must (although the version served on board our Singapore Airlines flights is actually better). But it’s still interesting to see the iconic hotel, with its colonial architecture and impressive history.
Our resort, the Sofitel Singapore Sentosa, is on the island of Sentosa with its lush tropical greenery and spectacular sea views. Every detail of the hotel is exacting – the splendid lobby, a large swimming pool, fabulous buffet breakfast eaten with glorious views of the bay and in the company of free-roaming peacocks; and the delectable afternoon tea – including macaroons and tiny gateaux served in precious mini-wardrobes.
When the time comes to embark on our cruise to Vietnam, it’s fair to say we’ve all fallen a little in love with Singapore, but the next stage of our Southeast Asian adventure is about to begin.
May not be the widest or tallest waterfall in the world, but it is without doubt the most impressive. Not only can you see it, you can hear it (from about a mile away), feel it, smell it, and taste it. Locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders.”
WHERE IS VICTORIA FALLS?
The waterfall straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. You can access it from either country.Zimbabwe has historically been the more popular entry-point, but its political turmoil and hyperinflation in the 2000s made Zambia preferable.
Today, although Zimbabwe’s longtime and autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, remains in place, the nation’s currency has stabilized, and the safari industry is resurgent.
Tip: At the Zimbabwe airport, make sure you obtain the Uni Visa (currently $50 for nationals from many countries), which serves as a multicountry pass to enter Zambia and Botswana.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
There are national park entrances on both sides of the falls, easily accessible from the towns of Livingstone, in Zambia, and Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe.
If you’ve booked through a safari operator, your guide will simply drive you to the entrance. The per-person fee is $20 on the Zambia side and $30 on the Zimbabwe side.
WHICH SIDE IS BETTER?
Put very briefly: To see the falls, go to Zimbabwe; to feel the falls, go to Zambia. But we recommend seeing it from both sides, and here’s why:
The Zambia side at high flow (February to June) is an exhilaratingly visceral experience. Visitors walking on this side of the narrow gorge can feel the spray.
The Zimbabwe side tends to offer the more picturesque views because the vantages are farther, offering perspective. If you go in the height of the dry season, say, in November, the water volume is at a low point and the falls can feel a little underwhelming.
CAN I DO BOTH SIDES IN A DAY?
Yes! In fact, it’s possible to do both sides in a couple of hours. Make sure you have a multiple-country visa in your passport. You can also just stand on the bridge between the two countries and gaze at the world’s most famous cataract.
I’VE SEEN PHOTOS OF PEOPLE STANDING AT THE EDGE OF THE FALLS. HOW DO I DO THAT, AND IS IT DANGEROUS?
Devil’s Pool is an experience you can have only on the Zambia side and only during the dry season (late August to late December). It involves a boat ride on the Zambezi River to Livingstone Island, from which you can swim in this natural pool at the falls’ edge. Breathe easy: An unseen lip prevents you from going over. Run by a reputable tour operator, Devil’s Pool isn’t a dangerous activity if you follow directions. Avoid unofficial natural pools; people have gone over the edge.
Nowhere has Vietnam’s charm and history endured longer than in the ancient port city of Hoi An, which for centuries was a major center for Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, Chinese, and French merchants and seafarers.
A miracle left the city and its more than 800 historic structures unscathed by the Vietnam War, and today its people are understandably proud of their architectural heritage. You’ll find many homes, temples, wells, pagodas, bridges, and stores in varying degrees of preservation, many of which are open to the public free of charge, allowing visitors to stroll in and out of the centuries.
A contemporary of Malaysia’s port town of Malacca, Hoi An has so far escaped the overzealous tourism-incited preservation that’s given that city something of a theme-park look, and the beautiful stretch of beach at Cua Dai, just outside town, is still blissfully free of resorts and hawkers. Development is in the wind, though, so make this your first stop.
Nostalgia rules at the Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar, once a home away from home for ex-pats and wartime journalists, who gathered here around the clock to nurse a scotch and swap scoops. Old habits die hard, and the newly redecorated bar continues to be the city’s most popular watering hole, embellished with year-round Christmas lights, singing birds, and topiary shrubs.
There’s a great view of downtown Saigon, where artillery has been replaced by the lights and cacophony of a perpetual traffic jam of bicycles, cars, motor scooters, and three-wheeled cyclos. Posh it isn’t, but the Rex is dripping with history, and few Westerners pass through town without an obligatory tipple. The standard rooms are not the city’s most luxurious, but fit the bill for visitors in search of the Saigon Experience and must be booked well in advance.
Although it recalls earlier times, the Rex is also the hub of modern-day Saigon. There’s a real international buzz here. You’d never know you’re in a Communist country.
Ditto for your inevitable reaction to the Ben Thanh Market, the French-built municipal marketplace that lies to the west on Le Loi Street. An explosive wave of entrepreneurship has hit Vietnam, and Saigon has become one big selling game, with over forty markets spread around the city.
Ben Thanh, the traditional alternative for vendors who can’t afford the high commercial rents charged elsewhere in town, is the market. Enjoy it: Hundreds of vendors create a narrow maze of stalls touting everything from the latest Japanese gadgets to bolts of silk, cobra wine, and Coca-Cola.
The traditional is stacked up alongside the modern and the fierce haggling is eternal. Go for the color and the exotic chaos, but realize that no matter how honed your negotiating skills, you’re still going to pay twice as much as a local customer.
One of the most memorable attributes of Vietnam is its gastronomic tapestry of Asian and French-influenced cuisine, in which beef, fish, rice, and produce from the fertile Mekong River delta are infused with explosive flavors and complex but delicate seasonings.
Owning to this mix, the simple national dish of pho, a rice noodle soup eaten by rich and poor at breakfast and at every other hour of the day, can be almost lyrical. If you’ve only sampled it elsewhere, prepare yourself: The pho you have here will be like nothing you’ve tasted before.
Jump into a pedicab and make your way to Pho Hoa, perhaps the best known of the country’s thousands of noodle restaurants. Pasteur Street is pho heaven, lined with nondescript storefront shops and stalls selling this specialty, but for twenty years Pho Hoa has been considered the best.
The soul of pho is the broth, and an enormous cauldron at the Pho Hoa boils the seasoned and flavorful brew for five hours before your steaming bowl arrives, chock-full of slippery and soft chewy noodles and thin slices of beef or chicken. Go for breakfast so you can come back for lunch and dinner too.
Located between the green oasis of Hoan Kiem Lake and the Red River, the mazelike Old Quarter of Hanoi has been a shopping venue since the 15th century. Nearly forty of its narrow, crowded streets are named after the goods once sold along them: Rice Street, Silk Street, Pots and Pans Street, Gold Street – there’s even a Gravestone Street.
It remains to be seen if names like Pirate Video Street or T-shirt Street will follow. Open dilapidated storefronts give new meaning to “window shopping.” These cubbyholes are sometimes just large enough to hold a wizened old merchant amid goods stacked to the ceiling.
After decades of suppressions, every square inch of the Old Quarter is once again alive with capitalistic fervor. Noodles, flowers, antiques, and handicrafts are yours for the bargaining.
The venerable French Quarter and its faded colonial charm is what sets Hanoi apart from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), its onetime rival in the south.
Built by the French when Hanoi was the capital of French Indochina (1887-1954), most of the area’s once handsome buildings are sorely in need of repair – even a coat of paint would be welcome – but the wide, tree-lined, still-elegant boulevards, and sprawling tumbledown villas afford visitors a glimpse of a proud, albeit struggling country’s European legacy harmoniously blended with Chinese and Vietnamese architecture.
Visit the 900-year-old Temple of Literature (the country’s oldest university) and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a pedicab ride away. Better catch it soon: While city officials decide what to do with this potentially potent tourism attraction, historic structures are being modified with modem additions and satellite dishes, or even being razed—not unlike what the French did in the name of modernization upon their arrival.
For accommodations in the Quarter, the Metropole hotel, recently restored to its original 1920s style, is once again a standout in Vietnam’s limited hotel market, recalling the days when it was operated by the French and was a gathering place for artists, writers, and government bigwigs.
A modern wing has been added, but you’ll be happiest in the original building, where architects have carefully preserved the buffed hardwood floors, green-shuttered windows, and other elements that give European distinction to the white stuccoed facade. No hotel has a better address: guests are just one block from the enchanting Hoan Kiem Lake, where smiling women twice your age and three times as supple encourage you to join their crack-of-dawn t’ai chi classes.