Vietnam 28.06.2019 Gary Meynell
Our Southeast Asia specialist, Gary Meynell, has recently returned from a 15-day recce around Vietnam, visiting the must-see sights of Halong Bay, Hanoi and the Mekong Delta, as well as lesser-known places that will appeal to travellers looking to get off-the-beaten track. Here he shares some insights from his trip – we hope it inspires you!
My favourite place?
Having been captivated by the history of the Mekong River since studying colonial era Asia, a trip to the southern region of Vietnam is always one of my highlights with a new gem or two uncovered each time. Undoubtedly, the finest way to travel through the delta is by slow cruising on a private sampan – wooden boat similar to the houseboats seen in Kerala – over two or three days. The shallow draft of these vessels enables visits to smaller, more local, waterways and a unique opportunity to be completely immersed in the rural beauty of the Mekong.
The most surprising for me was?
After not visiting for several years, the joyful surprise to find Mai Chau has remained an absolute bucolic paradise was heart-warming. Whilst other countryside retreats in Vietnam have recently become heavily developed by new hotels and attractions, Mai Chau has managed to hold on to its stunning rural charm and traditional village lifestyle. Knowing only a 3 hour scenic drive is between the city traffic of Hanoi and a bicycle ride through empty rice fields is unbelievably appealing, and that’s before you stop for iced tea in a family shop and stay overnight in a wooden ecolodge.
What were the locals like?
Vietnam’s sheer size allows the individual regions to keep their own unique personality and is clear to see when travelling through the country. Whether it’s the talented artistic crowd of those living in Hanoi, families living in countryside villages whose lives still depend on rice fields, and on to the internationally booming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll always encounter wide smiles and kind gestures. Wander by foot, take a seat on a local train or take a breath on a roadside café’s stool and you’ll find a genuine passion for speaking English, especially amongst the younger generation who are keen to impress you with a new found phrase.
Coincide a stay in the capital city of Hanoi with the weekend, when the area around Hoan Kiem Lake becomes pedestrianised from sunset on Friday through to Sunday evening. Once the roads are closed at the weekend, professional stages for live music and entertainment are set up, alongside local food and craft stalls. The lake is the vibrant centre of the city, within walking distance of the old quarter, water puppet theatre and the serene Ngoc Son Temple. A stroll or two around Hoan Kiem Lake is an unmissable highlight of any visit to Hanoi, whether with your guides enlightened tales of a giant tortoise living below the waters or at your own pace enjoying the locals’ impromptu tai chi practices.
Sights/activities in lesser known areas?
Opportunities to savour Halong Bay without the crowds are few and far between these days, so it’s exciting news with a limited number of ships gaining access to the southern stretch of Halong, known as Lan Ha Bay. A one night cruise aboard the elegant Ginger, the most recent vessel launched by luxury cruise company Heritage Line, feels as if you’re discovering Halong Bay of a quieter, less frequented age, with only half a dozen other ships for company and peaceful inlets guaranteed. Cycling excursions to local villages, kayaking in untouched lagoons and gastronomic treats served up on the top deck restaurant with its almost 360-degree view of the UNESCO wonderland. It’s worth noting that from August 2019, Heritage Line will launch a 2 night cruise in Lan Ha Bay, aboard there new ship, Ylang.
My favourite meal?
The picturesque Tho Quang restaurant – decorated in locally found wood and ceramic tiles – at the 13th-century-palace inspired retreat, Legacy Yen Tu, serves some of the finest cuisine I know of in north-east Vietnam. Located between Hanoi and Halong Bay, at the base of Yen Tu Mountain, one of the most sacred Buddhist areas of Vietnam, this luxurious rural retreat only opened this year, yet is already garnering critical acclaim, not least for its unique design. Whilst staying here, I adored The Garden, a 5 course vegetarian set menu including; banana flower salad, green papaya & tofu spring rolls, as well as a gloriously large bowl of fresh pho (Vietnamese noodle soup).
Vietnam has an incredible depth to it that enticingly permits multiple visits to experience the vast differences between each region. Whether I’ve wanted to focus my past trips on slow cruising, countryside cycling, historical exploration or calming wellness, Vietnam has always ticked the box and more.