There are a number of reasons people choose their vacation spots: Maybe you've heard it has the best beach in the world, or the hottest nightlife, or the greatest shopping. I remember when I first went to Rio, it was because it held a kind of cultural mystique like no other city. Visiting Peru was all about seeing Machu Picchu, whose pictures had haunted me since I was a kid. And my desire to go on safari was born long before I ever saw "The Lion King."
But my desire to visit Viet Nam came for one reason: a good friend of mine who travels more than anyone I know said that it was her favorite place she'd ever been. I had to see why. As a small child, I associated Viet Nam with images of war, pain, and destruction, and I knew that tourism in Viet Nam had undergone a renaissance over the past 15 years. I was right.
My journey would take me to Saigon, the Mekong Delta, Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Hanoi, which comprised the perfect combination of experiences in this incredible country.
Saigon offers a culinary scene that rivals some of the best cities in the world, with its mix of French, local, and fusion dishes. Our tour group had a passionfruit sauce on the first day that were still talking about by the end of the trip. Of course, one of the most interesting things one can do in Saigon is take a trip through the Mekong Delta, visiting local communities and passing gorgeous tropical countryside from the comfort of a chic, teak boat.
Back in Saigon, the city is yours to take in a vibrant ever-changing nightlife, offering some of Asia's hippest, newest venues. Everyone in Viet Nam takes motorcycles and Vespas, and so, always wanting to do like the locals do, we took Vespas to dinner at an exquisite French restaurant.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is also home the one of Viet Nam's most visited sites, the War Remnants Museum. Take everything you know about the Viet Nam War, flip it upside down, and add perhaps the most visually disturbing photos you have ever seen in your life, and you'll know you're in the right spot. You will also see some of the actual telecommunications offices from the war. The Museum's collection is well laid out, and taking in the collection can be a very emotional experience. You will come away with a new understanding of the Viet Nam War, and a greater appreciation of the resilience, strength, and kindness of the people.
From Saigon, we took a short flight to Danang, and drove just a few minutes to one of the most charming cities in Viet Nam, Hoi An, famous for the TV show "China Beach" and for its silk lanterns which ignite the small streets at night in vibrant luminescent color. This place abounds with stunning hotels, and ours was located right on China Beach. My room was about 4 times the size of my apartment I used to share in New York City, with its own large plunge pool. Complimentary massages were also available whenever I wanted. Somehow I managed to pull myself away from this oasis, and enjoyed some fantastic shopping in town. Of course I had to buy some silk lanterns, and I also bought silk ties and some incredible art made by a local artist.
One of the great things you can do in Hoi An is enjoy a cooking class, which we did. I was so busy filming the cooking that my own creations failed in comparison to my cook-mates, and I had to cheat off the woman next to me. Ah, it was just like being in high school again. Seriously, we made some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten, and I can't wait to try out these recipes back home. One of the most interesting things we learned was for one of our dishes, they differentiate between pork for the locals and pork for tourists. Our "tourist" pork was clean and lean, whereas the pork for the locals is full of fat. Our teach-chef told us that if either gets the wrong pork, they will complain.
After significantly helping the local economy, we flew to Hanoi and drove a few hours to famous Halong Bay. You may not have heard of Halong Bay, but if you have seen any tourist photos of Viet Nam lately, you've definitely seen it. Our overnight cruise took us past fellow boats with brights yellow jagged sail, reminiscent of bat wings and tremendous limestone peaks that seemed to sprout from the calm waters and exalt to the Heavens.
Our cruise lacked for nothing, with nice sized rooms, beautiful common spaces, and terrific local cuisine. By day we visited ancient caves that once held cities what went deep inside the limestone mountains and various grottos and wilderness preserves rich with wildlife.
At night we had a grand Vietnamese Bar B Q and drunks on the top of the boat, with the lights of follow boats and the dark shadows of the enormous peaks as our backdrop.
We disembarked the next day and drove back to Hanoi where we immediately got on cycles to immerse ourselves in the historic old town section. Cyclos are a great want to kick back on a comfy seat and enjoy the town, weaving in and out of little winding streets, while your pedaler behind you takes care of the momentum. We passed by people cooking lunch on the street for local businessmen, fellow cyclists carrying so many bundles of fresh flowers that you couldn't see the pedaler, and numerous shops selling virtually anything you can imagine.
Even though I spent most of my day sitting, as the city came alive before me, I somehow worked up an appetite and for our last exquisite dinner in Viet Nam we dined in a garden outside the gorgeous Hanoi Opera House, which was celebrating its 100 year anniversary that night. Of course, this was after cocktails in a large art gallery nearby, where we entered to little girls throwing flower petals for our arrival.
These people really know how to make one feel special. the art in this gallery was remarkable, and we all kept commenting how we could easily see 20 or more pieces looking beautiful adorning our walls back home. Fortunately for my bank account, my will power held out and I didn't buy anything, but admittedly, there is one piece that is still haunting my memory. But I did take the shopkeepers card...