You want to…
Whizz Along On a Scooter In Vietnam
Sweat beaded to his brow, his grin hidden by a white facemask, the bug-eyed driver flips the kickstand. He revs the throttle, jolting the engine to life, and signals to you to hold tight as the lights flicker from red to green.
Within seconds, the scooter is weaving through tight alleys, first past a butcher shuttling ducks to market, then a bloodshot-eyed labourer with a washing machine strapped to his motorbike. The whole city is on the move and there’s no better way to blend in and see the sights than on a scooter tour.
You could hire your own for about USD20 a day but the traffic can be deadly, so play safe and join a fully guided trip for about USD125 a day. In the big cities, try Rent A Bike Vietnam in Hanoi or Flamingo Travel, which offers a number of immersive cross-country trips. Your hair will be dishevelled by the end, but you’ll never forget the ride.
You’re dreaming of…
Speeding Along On A Sleeper Train
There’s no better window on life in Vietnam than one in a carriage aboard the Reunification Express, the service that runs the full length of the country.
Sit back, coffee in hand, paperback on your side table as the Vietnam snapshots slip by: a family of four squeezed onto a scooter; red sun hanging low over a sodden paddy field, making silhouettes of loping buffaloes; a fisherman casting a net with a hiss over a lagoon.
The train creaks across iron bridges and drifts into stations, slowing past cloth-swaddled monks on their way to temple; the hurly-burly of a fruit and veg market; and school kids in impeccably pressed uniforms, rushing out of class like a flock of busy starlings.
You can board at any station. If you choose to go the whole way, embarking in Hanoi, you’ll click-clack for more than illookm, past the ancient capital of Hue and the long, white-sand beaches of Da Nang and Nha Trang, through the craggy Annamite Mountains and across the broad plains of southern Vietnam, into sultry Ho Chi Minh City.
Don’t believe talk about the lack of creature comforts. The Reunification Express is hardly Pullman-plush, but the service is venerable, dating back to 1976, when North and South Vietnam were reunited after the Americans lost the war. It aimed to open up trade and enable everyday Vietnamese to explore their country.
To mark the train’s 4oth anniversary, last year several of the carriages underwent a major overhaul – repainted in shiny communist red, but updated with decidedly capitalist private air-conditioned berths and waiter service. Book a couchette in a four-berth cabin (or the whole cabin if you’re a group) and you’ll get just enough space under your bunk for bags.
Rides are cheap and you can hop on and off at stations along the way, such as Hue, or Da Nang’s beaches (you do need to buy separate tickets, though). Just remember to bring something warm to snuggle down in: the air-con is icy.
You’re dreaming of…
Lounging on Cambodia’s Beaches
The night is milky with moonlight and stars so bright they light the long sweep of beach and the forest behind. You leave your bungalow and step onto silvery sand still warm from the sun. Cicadas sing. Waves beckon. Go on, peel off your clothes, plunge in.
The sea soon glistens from the microscopic, bioluminescent plankton all around you. The next day, take a boat to the coral reef, to swim with languorous turtles and darting fish. An afternoon hike through the forest brings you to a fishing village where wooden houses huddle on stilts over the water, and people pray in a wooden temple, or heave nets from brightly painted longtail boats.
That’s if you don’t want to stay on the sands – watching for hornbills and monkeys in the trees, or just curling up with a book in your hammock.
Cambodia certainly has beaches – on the mainland around Sihanoukville and on the half a dozen small islands a few kilometres offshore. Unlike in Thailand and Bali, where concrete buildings clamour for space, here the sands are empty, with resorts just sparsely scattered, and on the islands there is almost no crime – leaving you safe to wander at will.
Among the best barefoot hotels are Kactus, built between the trees on forested Koh Ka Tiev island, and Monkey Maya, just outside Sihanoukville. Each has a beach to itself.
More exclusive digs are found at the lavish Song Saa Private Island resort, set in a private reserve: it has huge air-conditioned villas, a lavish spa and an over-water restaurant serving succulent seafood.
Island-hopping is easy. Distances are short and ferries and fishing boats make several daily crossings from mainland Sihanoukville and between many of the islands. But come soon. The Chinese have big plans.
How to do…
The Cu Chi Tunnels
With your knees under your chin, you squeeze through the manhole into the darkened chute, disappearing from view and back in time. Around you are some 25okm of tunnels, honeycombed beneath the ground where Vietnam’s guerrilla army, the Viet Gong, concealed living areas, storage depots, landmine factories – even hospitals. With the flutter of bats, it’s claustrophobic, and as you breathe the bitterly thick air, the brutality of the Vietnamese war effort truly hits home.
There’s even the chance to fire AK-47 rifles at targets, which some tourists do, pretending they’re Charlie Sheen in Platoon. History has clearly taught them nothing.
TOP TIP: Most tourists visit the Ben Dinh site, but it’s a far quieter and more powerful experience at Ben Duoc. Both are only about a 50km drive from Ho Chi Minh City.
You’ve fantasised about…
Sailing The Mekong
Aboard a wooden sampan you cast off in a soft-focus haze, the light slowly beginning to fade, the rice paddies wrapped in mist. As you glance at the swarm of boats departing the wharves, it seems the whole delta is on the move: cigar-shaped water taxis, warped wooden ferries, dug-out fishing canoes, all weighed down with every kind of cargo, human and animal. Ahead lies a vast half-drowned bowl of stilted villages, waterlogged fields and the great river lands of the Mekong, beneath a smoky sky. Survival is easy, says your boatman. You simply need to learn how to stay afloat.
/Reassuringly, you can also cruise the river on an all-inclusive ship. Routes vary wildly, but consider Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City with Pandaw. Or sail it all in style from Hanoi to Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City with Viking Cruises.
TOP TIP: Despite the Mekong’s vastness, stretching from Tibet to the South China Sea, it can run surprisingly low. Book during the cooler season (November to February) after the rains have passed.
You want to…
Gorge On Street Food
Cloudy broth tickles your tongue, piquant and thick with glassy noodles. The veg in your spring rolls is so fresh and crisp, it could’ve been picked minutes ago. Curries fragrant with lemongrass and galangal have a chewy nuttiness that makes rice superfluous. Whether Cambodian or Vietnamese, the street food here is divine. Even better, it counts among the world’s healthiest eating.
Make for the twisting streets of old Hanoi, between Hang Da and Dong Xuan markets, where every second doorway reveals a simmering cauldron of pho. Maybe, too, a noodle master himself, pulling strands from lengths of dough that will feed diners seated at pavement stools. Makeshift cafés brew java frothy with egg yolk, while streetside canteens serve fish seared with fresh herbs. It all oozes a craftsman’s passion.
TOP TIP: Don’t be deterred by the crowds; high turnover equals freshness equals safe. Adding chilli kills bacteria, too. Or hire a clued-up guide to steer you.
You’re Dreaming of…
Vietnam’s Floating Markets
They’re not peaceful or brochure-pretty. But Vietnam’s Mekong River markets are a photographer’s dream, brimming with life and colour. Canoes piled with cucumbers battle on the currents with tugs carrying tomatoes. Busy vendors in conical hats brandish steaming baguettes while steering tiny dug-outs with bare feet. It’s a miracle no-one falls in. They’re easily visited on a two-day tour from Ho Chi Minh City, or en route down the Mekong, between Vietnam and Cambodia.