Geographically, Vietnam is an unusually long country, stretching all the way from China, past Laos and Thailand, and ending south of Cambodia. For the entire length of the country, there is coast along the South China Sea (known as the East Sea to the Vietnamese). This massive coastline is one of the many reasons Vietnam has spent much of its history fighting off invaders. Not only is it a lush and fertile country, but that coast and the massive body of water next to it has been an irresistible attraction to would-be conquerers from both the East and the West. With a few exceptions, the Vietnamese have been able to fend off all comers over the centuries.
However, there is a new group of invaders that looks like it is finally going to get the best of Vietnam — tourists. Vietnam has opened itself wholeheartedly to tourism, which has become a major part of its economy. It has gone from a mostly agrarian economy to one where a third of its GDP is now derived from the service sector, including tourism components such as hotels and resorts. The number of tourists visiting Vietnam has been rising at a rate of more than 10 percent annually since 2010. I’m sure the growth is driven by the same reasons that we have travelled there twice in the last three years: Vietnam is lush, tropical, affordable, and full of really nice people.
Like China, Vietnam is a communist country, but also like China, when you get on the ground there, you realize this is a country on the rise, with a citizenry poised to leave its agrarian past and history of conflict and move into the modern world. This is particularly true of Saigon (known formally as Ho Chi Minh City, but Saigon to just about everyone). Saigon reminds me of a mini Shanghai, with new gleaming skyscrapers, and office denizens commuting to them in stylish Western clothing. Of course, it is still a predominantly third world country and you see that even in Saigon. Next to those skyscrapers are hovels and alleyways hosting old-school wet markets, as well as multiple families and their menagerie of animals. And motor scooters are everywhere, like a massive herd of Wildebeasts, weaving fluidly as a group in and out of traffic. Vietnam has a growing car market, but the majority of people travel by scooter and it is a wonder to me there isn’t a daily scooter slaughter count on the news. (To their credit, Vietnamese law requires everyone to wear a helmet.)
I wrote about our first trip to Vietnam in April of 2013 (here) and I normally try not to write about the same place twice, unless the trip, and the experience, is so wildly different that I absolutely have to. Our first trip was mainly to the north of the country, though we did spend some time on lovely Phu Quoc island, which is south, below Cambodia. That trip centered around Hanoi, Vietnam’s capitol, and visiting one of the wonders of the world, Halong Bay. This latest trip was all about the south, beginning with Saigon. From my personal impressions, there are notable differences between north and south. Both are lush and beautiful, but the south is way more freewheeling and Western-like than the north. Where Hanoi is more sober and less modern, Saigon is the foodie capital of Southeast Asia and has a crazy, go-go nightlife.
The people of Vietnam also reflect these differences. All were absolutely wonderful, but the southerners will gab all day with you about America and the West, while the northerners are more reserved and seemed to speak less English. I won’t go on too much about this, but the Vietnamese people, in my opinion, are the nicest, kindest people on the planet. After all they have been through, and all we as Americans have been through with them, I was stunned how much they like us, and how well we were treated by them. They are good to all Westerners, but their joy at talking and interacting with Americans is singular in experience, and alone a reason to go to Vietnam.
We flew Vietnam Airlines, which is wonderful and very professional, direct to Ho Chi Minh City airport (vietnamairlines.com). Flying into Vietnam can be a little bit of a hassle due to their customs procedures at airports. You can go to a Vietnamese embassy beforehand, wait in line, and get a stamped visa before you go. Or you can do the paperwork in advance, then submit it all at the airport with your passports and $45 per person (must be exact and in USD) and wait about 20 minutes for them to process your temporary visa. Either way, you need a letter of invite in advance which is simple to do on the internet at sites like MyVietnamVisa (myvietnamvisa.com).
As I said, we began this Vietnam invasion in Saigon, staying the first night at the beautiful Park Hyatt hotel downtown in the main business district (saigon.park.hyatt). The next morning we got on another plane for the 45-minute flight to Con Son, one of the Con Dao Islands off the Southeast coast of Vietnam. Con Son was once known as the notorious Devil’s Island of Indochina due to the prison systems the U.S., and before them the French, installed there because of their remoteness. Though you can still tour some of these now empty prisons, the Con Dao archipelago is becoming better know for being some of the most beautiful islands in Asia. Its natural beauty is stunningly well preserved because Vietnam designated about 80 percent of the land in the island chain as a national park. Con Dao is one of those places I tell people to go to now, because you can’t keep this kind of place secret for very long.
We took the beautiful and winding coastal road from the Con Son airport to the Six Senses Con Dao resort (sixsenses.com/resorts). When she heard we were looking at Six Senses, our amazing travel agent Julie (Julie Tang) got us a deal that reduced our total cost there by about 35 percent. What I didn’t realize was that she also upgraded us to an ocean front pool villa. The resort itself was spectacular from the start, but when we entered the gate of our villa, I was completely blown away. Our resort “butler” Chao showed us the middle of three villas, which was huge and included an ocean and pool front living area, dining room, kitchen and bedroom. After the tour of this villa, I asked him who had the one to our left. “It’s yours as well,” he replied. “And the villa on the right,” I asked with trepidation. “Yours as well, sir,” came his laughing reply. I love Julie Tang.
We have stayed in some amazing places in our travels, but nothing like this. The girls laid claim to one villa, and Karen and I another, which left the middle villa as our “common” space. We had more square footage on Con Dao than we do in Shanghai! The stunning views were as gorgeous as any tropical place we have ever been, and one morning we saw a double rainbow directly in front of us. When we weren’t hanging at the villa, we went kayaking and paddle boarding in the beautiful bay off our beach. Cassidy and I also climbed some high rocks one day and knocked golf balls into the ocean. The balls were specially made to dissolve in the water and, in the middle of them, was fish food. Very environmentally friendly.
The food at the resort was excellent as it is throughout most of Vietnam. One night, we ate at the chef’s table in the resort’s Vietnamese by the Market restaurant. With a front row view of the cooks and kitchen, we enjoyed a 5-course meal with wine to match the food. It was spectacular. The next night, we had a barbecue on the ocean-front deck of our villa. They wheeled in a grill, set a gorgeous table, and began grilling course after course of excellent meat, seafood, and sides, all while we gazed at the sunset and beautiful Vietnamese sky, stuffing ourselves silly.
After three nights in paradise, we flew back to Saigon and settled into the Park Hyatt. Saigon is an incredibly dynamic city and has the same kind of energy as a New York or London. On our first full day there, we went out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is located in a far suburb. This is the best place to experience the massive series of underground tunnels created by the Viet Cong so they could fight the South Vietnamese army (and the Americans, and the French before them). The tunnels go deep down into the earth and include hospitals, mess halls, living areas, and offices (diadaocuchi.com.vn). I have always been fascinated by the Vietnam war (the American war to the Vietnamese) and seeing these dark, tight tunnels where thousands of people fought from was both awe-inspiring and terrifying.
I could barely fit into the tunnel entrances. Since I didn’t want to risk getting stuck, I just poked my head into them. Cassidy bravely went through the tunnels with a guide and popped out of a hidden entrance about 50 yards from where she started. The Cu Chi Tunnel complex is massive, and stretches for miles in all directions. It is a sobering reminder of the brutality of that war. What amazed me was how dispassionate the Vietnamese were about their American war. Our guide and others were clearly proud of their country’s achievements, but their descriptions of everything including perceived atrocities were almost “business as usual”. As everywhere else we went in Vietnam, the Vietnamese could not have been kinder or more welcoming to us Americans.
We spent a long, sweaty day at the tunnels, and then returned to the beautiful, colonial-era Park Hyatt. We hung by the pool, ate at great restaurants, and roamed the very dynamic city. One night, we took a thrilling nighttime tour of the city with Jeep Tours Saigon (jeeptourssaigon.com). We saw much of new and old Saigon, including many of the colonial structures that survived the war. We also stopped and toured the giant Ben Thanh night market in the city center. There were lots of young people on the streets, on scooters and in cars, and they waved and smiled at us as we stood in the back of the open air jeeps, waving and laughing like crazy people. It was an exhilarating experience and made me fall even deeper in love with Vietnam and its people.
Sadly, we only had two full days in Saigon before we had to return to Shanghai. There is so much to do in Vietnam that a month there would not be sufficient. From Phu Quoc to the Mekong Delta, Saigon to the beautiful coastal cities of Hoi An and Danang, to Mui Ne and its massive red and white sand dunes, the south alone requires a couple of weeks to explore. Hanoi and Halong Bay are must see’s in the north. And do not get me started on the cuisine of Vietnam, which is an exotic and delicious mixture of Asian and French flavors, with other Western tastes thrown in the mix. It is some of the best food I have ever eaten.
Given our countries turbulent history, I never expected to love Vietnam and its people as much as I do. It is a ridiculously beautiful country despite its history of wars and colonialism and, in my opinion, it is the best tourist destination in Asia (which says a lot because of my crazy love for this region). I don’t say this to denigrate any other country or destination, but to point out a remarkable tourism phenomenon happening right now: the emergence of a must-visit destination in the early stages of development. That statement is the equivalent of me jumping up and down and holding a neon sign that says “GET TO VIETNAM BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!” Trust me, this invasion will be successful.