Here’s the scene. The Hai Van Pass, which crosses coastal mountains between Hue and Danang, forms a natural barrier across Vietnam’s tiny waist. Its strategic importance through centuries of conflict is signified by the various fortifications that mark the summit – including a concrete pillbox from the Vietnam War.
On my last visit to Vietnam, we stopped on the top of the pass to enjoy the stupendous views of jungle-clad mountains sloping to the misty ocean. I was taking pictures when I noticed a couple preparing to assault the pillbox. They weren’t in combat fatigues, however. They were bride and groom, she in a pink chiffon dress and high heels.
Arrive in Hanoi at 05.10am on Vietnam Airlines. Transfer to Moon GardenGuesthouse, a delightful, upmarket homestay in the village of My Son, 40 miles west of Hanoi. The host family offers cookery classes (spring rolls of course!), massages and fragrant steam baths, and they are happy to explain local customs (ancestor worship is very strong).
Moon Garden provides bicycles for a leisurely ride through local villages (don’t be afraid to stop and chat – locals are used to curious foreigners) or take a longer guided excursion to the village of Duong Lam whose centuries-old houses showcase an ancient way of life.
Return to Hanoi by car (part of the guesthouse package) and check in to La Siesta. Superbly located in the Old Quarter, it manages to be both elegant and homely and has extremely helpful staff.
Take a walk to Hoan Kiem Lake, a zone of calm where you’ll find men playing chess, and later watch a traditional water puppet theatre by the lake. Some find it twee; I loved it. Book ahead.
Time to plunge into the city. La Siesta can book you a good local guide. Kick off with a cycle ride around West Lake – 10 miles on a flat track that hugs the shoreline (or let someone else take the pedals in a bicycle rickshaw). Along the way you will see temples and pagodas from the time when monarchs took their leisure here. Move on to the peaceable Temple of Literature, a harmonious Confucian complex of halls and courtyards, then take a traditional lunch of bun cha (grilled pork and noodles) on Trang Tien St in the French Quarter before seeing a different side of the city.
Ask your guide to drop you at vertical Creative City (it’s in a tower block at 1 Luong Yen Street, Bach Dang), with its hip cafés and stalls reminiscent of London’s Camden Market. Manzi Art Café – part gallery, part café, cool vibe – is also worth a visit. End the day with a local beer in one of the bia hoi bars on Ta Hien Street near your hotel.
Halong Bay is a must – but do it right. The hotel can arrange the three and a half-hour road transfer. Bhaya Cruises has small and intimate new Classic Premium boats (maximum 20 passengers) with air-conditioning that leave the packs of day-boats behind.
Sit back as the extraordinary seascape of emerald waters and conical peaks slips by. At the floating village of Cua Van you can get off to explore. Back aboard there’s a cookery demonstration of the “five elements of Vietnamese cuisine” followed by supper.
On the way back, explore Luon Cave – a stone archway, low to the water – by kayak. After reaching port midmorning, return by road to Hanoi for an early dinner before taking the 7.30pm overnight train to Hue. Koto restaurant, a social enterprise staffed by street children, on Van Mieu near the Temple of Literature is not just worthy but smart and well run. Private companies, Livitrans and Violette, attach smart sleeper carriages to state-run trains; berth £60.
The train arrives at 8.50am. Drop your bags at the striking, art deco La Résidencealongside the river. Breakfast in town then drive out to view some of the Nguyen Dynasty mausoleums along the Perfume River. Tu Duc’s, in particular, is a positive pleasure dome. Back in town, walk through the Imperial Citadel (heavily bombed in the war) and have lunch outside at the lovely Jardins de la Carambolebefore checking into your hotel.
Arrange a car for a sobering day in the former De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) two hours north of Hue. On the shore of the East Sea lies the fishing community of Vinh Moc that dug itself into the rust-red earth to avoid US bombardment. Today you can stoop through 2,000 yards of tunnels, some as deep as 70ft. You should also drive up Highway Nine to Khe Sanh, a US base besieged in 1968 (hardware, a museum and a lingering sense of horror remain).
Look out for the wedding pillbox on top of the Hai Van Pass as you follow Highway One south. Beyond it Bach Ma National Park, a former French colonial hill station, makes a great stop-off for a picnic lunch. Continue to Hoi An and the Hoi An Chic Green Retreat, located in countryside beyond the bustle of the old town and not far from Cua Dai Beach. Free shuttle or free bike into town. This is a good opportunity to get your washing done in one of the many laundries in town (far cheaper than in hotels). You might also want to get a suit or jacket run up at one of the tailor shops.
This is a town that caters brilliantly for visitors and your hotel will point out any number of options. I like to cycle to white sand Cua Dai Beach where cafés serve great seafood. Or take a boat from the traditional fishing village of Tra Nhieu to try your hand at net fishing while watching the coconut palms slip by.
My Son, the former capital of the Champa kingdom, lies 25 miles south-west amid a circle of mountains. The Cham ruled parts of what is now central and southern Vietnam from the fourth to the 13th centuries and this site of 70 red-brick temple towers, dedicated to Hindu deities, represents the height of their spiritual and artistic expression. People say, “It’s not Angkor Wat”. No, it isn’t, but it has its own atmosphere of ruined majesty. Get there early to avoid the heat and other tourists, though if you walk to the edges of the site you will always find a quiet spot.
From Danang take a short flight to Ho Chi Minh City and check into the Liberty Central hotel in the heart of old Saigon. In the evening climb rickety stairs to the charming Huong Lai Restaurant which has a French colonial air and fine Vietnamese menu. Fowler, in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, would have felt at home.
Explore the city on foot. Ask for directions to Ben Thanh Market for an immersion in local life as well as souvenirs and reasonably cheap clothes (bargain hard). From here it’s a short walk to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum (both compelling). But for a more intimate sense of the war, visit a tiny museum in an old house at 287/70 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street in District Three where the Viet Cong hid weapons in ingenious places prior to the Tet Offensive of 1968.
On your last evening, travel like a local and hop on the back of a Vespa for a moped tour of the city at night. First stop is Café Zoom for cocktails and snacks followed by a ride through Chinatown to District Four for some street food, and back to District One for more local food, then a couple of live music venues before bed.
The Vietnam Airlines flight to London leaves at 12.45am so negotiate a late checkout (an extra £54 until 6pm).