Vietnam is increasingly on top of many travel lists – here’s where to stay in style from north to south
For luxury travellers in the know, Vietnam has long represented one of Asia's best value destinations to kick back – and a number of stunning recent openings have made the country even more of a draw.
The late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain visited 93 countries in his lifetime, a hugely enviable odyssey of constant culinary and cultural discovery. But one country stole his heart more than any other: Vietnam.
"My first love, a place I remain besotted with, fascinated by,” he once said. And as regular Vietnam visitors will attest, his quote speaks volumes.
There's something so intoxicating about the place, so enchanting, that a geographical love affair develops in no time. The warmth of the people, the food and the landscapes, the ancient culture.
Happily the country is now fully open, even to unvaccinated visitors, as long as you show a negative PCR or rapid antigen test result, as well as proof of health insurance.
We start our own odyssey in the beguiling capital Hanoi, a heady, romantic mix of history and modernity, mopeds and lakes, incense-filled temples and shop houses. If Ho Chi Minh City – although almost everyone calls it Saigon – is the always-on business heart of the country, Hanoi is more reflective and thoughtful.
Capella Hanoi is undoubtedly the city's hottest place to stay, thanks to its location near the Hanoi Opera House in the Old Quarter. Indeed, the ultra-luxurious 47-suite property is housed in a building that was formerly an opera theatre, allowing creative maestro Bill Bensley to work his whimsical magic on interior design which is truly jaw-dropping in imagination and execution. Flamboyant memorabilia jostle for attention with envy-inducing antiques, while you'll have trouble choosing what to photograph next, so Instagram-friendly is it all.
Once you do pull yourself away from their rooms, spa and restaurants, there are a number of non-negotiable sights for visitors. First is the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, while the Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius reinforces the country's extraordinary cultural and artistic legacy.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hoa Lo prison and Hoan Kiem Lake are equally compelling, but arguably the biggest draw comes in simply wandering the maze of streets, getting lost in serendipitous discoveries.
Follow your nose down smoky alleyways to find bun cha vendors, where pork grills in the open air before it is wrapped with noodles and fresh herbs, then dunked in dipping sauces. By far the most famous is Bun Cha Huong Lien, thanks to that famous lunch where Bourdain chowed and chewed the fat with a certain Barack Obama.
Although there are so many places to hit up near Hanoi, not least the dramatic limestone karsts of Halong Bay, it's just a short flight – or a 15-hour train ride for the adventurous – to Da Nang, the central coastal city close to the charming merchant town Hoi An.
Hoi An has attracted foreign visitors for centuries, but previous visits saw the streets so crowded that charm occasionally felt in short supply. A visit in May, however, reminded exactly why this is one of Asia's most magical spots. Now is definitely the time to go, as the atmospheric temples and back streets, bridges and lantern-filled waterways were only gently populated, almost wholly by Vietnamese travellers.
Dusk and evening are when the town comes in to its own, when the lanterns cast their multicolour glow, restaurant terraces beckon and blissful foot rubs await the weary.
The Anantara Hoi An is a lovely riverside base, just a few minutes' walk from the centre of town but distinct enough to retain a resort feel. Food wise in Hoi An, don’t miss the brilliant local invention of cao lau noodles, a textural joy available everywhere. Fabulous banh mi baguettes are another big draw, with two spots vying for attention, Madame Khanh The Banh Mi Queen and Banh Mi Phuong who feature a photo of that man Bourdain again, proudly taped to the window, devouring one.
Singapore visitor and foodie Emily Neo was travelling with her husband when we met near the self-proclaimed Banh Mi Queen and started talking: “The Banh Mi Queen is really the best so far, we loved the fluffiness of the bun, even when toasted, crispy on the outside and soft inside. We’ve loved eating by the riverside and the prices here are so affordable. We thought a three-night stay here might have been too long – we were wrong!”
VIETAGE TO QUY NHON
From Hoi An, a train this time – but like no other in the country. The Vietage offers a luxurious six-hour journey in a special carriage on a regular train from Da Nang to Quy Nhon. A one-way ticket costs US$350 (S$478) per person but includes a three-course lunch that would make any fine dining restaurant proud, as well as free-flow wines, cocktails, beers and more, not to mention a 15-minute head and shoulder massage in their dedicated spa car. Yes, really.
Having your knots soothed away while the countryside slowly passes by is a whole new level of wellness. You can choose to kick back and snooze in your private compartments – or maybe enjoy another glass of bubbles.
The train’s terminus is the laid-back city of Quy Nhon. The Anantara have a sleek oceanside all-villa property, while another beachside option is Maia Resort Quy Nhon, home to one of the best spa experiences we’ve encountered. Their dining programme is equally impressive, as Vietnamese classics are beautifully rendered, as well as light takes on global comfort food. It may be a 15-minute drive from town, but it's an ideal location for those seeking a beach retreat with impeccable service and morning yoga sessions.
Some of the biggest draws around Quy Nhon are more than a dozen remarkable Cham towers which date from the twelfth century and dot the countryside. The Cham kingdom was of Indian origin and practiced Hinduism, meaning that the towers look like they have been transplanted from Angkor Wat. Travelling the back roads to seek them out, through traditional villages in one of Vietnam’s least developed provinces, is equally captivating.
KE GA BAY
Our last two stops as we continue further south are indicative of how and why Vietnam is increasingly welcoming the world's most well-heeled travellers. Two dazzling resorts on the ocean start with Azerai Ke Ga Bay, an elegant retreat sitting on a pristine 5km beach, around three hours' drive east of Ho Chi Minh City.
Famed Indonesian hotelier Adrian Zecha, founder of Aman Resorts, is the man responsible for the Azerai brand, so the minimalist, refined aesthetics of the 46 guest suites and facilities are discretely luxurious. Entry-level accommodation starts at an impressive 65 sq m, while no fewer than four public pools are fringed by frangipani trees, meaning that privacy is assured. In a post-COVID travel landscape, it's the sort of space which is especially welcome.
Optional experiences include culinary discoveries of local salt flats and dragon fruit farms, or chances to visit local fishing villages as the brightly-painted boats come in. As for food, take your pick from three gorgeous dining options, with The Terrace winning our vote for its cool sea breezes and views towards a lighthouse dating from French colonial times. This part of southern Vietnam is indisputably the home of pho, so steaming, fragrant bowls make for the perfect breakfast – and lunch, or even dinner. You're on holiday, so no one is judging!
Our last stop sees us hop down to Phu Quoc, an island which is quickly developing into one of southeast Asia's hottest luxury destinations. Barely a 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City, it's a popular escape for Vietnam's A-listers as well as regional travellers set on discovering the island's laid-back culture. That journey has just become considerably easier thanks to new twice-weekly direct flights from Singapore to Phu Quoc on Vietnam Airlines.
Regent Phu Quoc is the latest addition to a number of five-star resorts, but the ultra-luxe property has seriously raised the bar of quality, not only for Vietnam, but also further afield.
Palm-fringed, white-sand beaches come as standard on this far east side of the Gulf of Thailand, but the beautifully-finished voluminous suites surpass any we've seen in Vietnam.
From vast swimming pools to lagoons, ponds filled with koi carp to the delicate play of sun and shadow at golden hour, light and water blend in beautiful harmony.
A culinary programme under Executive Chef Bruno Anon and Chef de Cuisine Huan Tran manages to deliver Vietnamese, regional Asian and European cuisine to the same exacting levels of authenticity and excellence.
On the food front, it's worth heading out just a few miles to Phu Quoc's main town for their night market, a cacophonous, compelling mix of stalls serving stellar local seafood straight from the barbecue, fresh coconut, ice cream hand-made in front of you and all manner of trinkets and treats.
Phu Quoc is said to produce the best fish sauce in Vietnam, no mean feat when it represents the absolute soul of the nation's cooking. If you stock up on some to take home, just remember that most airlines ban you from carrying it anywhere other than the hold, such is its pungency.
It's also a key ingredient in the island's most famous dish, bun quay. It's a collaborative and engaging dining experience at the Kien Xay chain who popularised it. You follow their orders to “Make your sauce”, mixing chilis, fish sauce, calamansi, salt, sugar and yes, MSG – the quartet of flavours (sweet, salty, umami and sour) in one.
You then add it into their steaming bowl of rice flower noodles which contain your choice of seafood and beef, herbs and onions, for a simply sensational bowl.
At the end of the trip, we can certainly empathise with another of Bourdain's comments: "I'll come back to Vietnam – always."