The Pearl of the Orient and a few precious gems in-between
Glass explores Indochina – visiting five destinations spread across three countries
“WALK slowly when crossing the roads – never ever run! If you do, the motorbikes will hit you – keep moving slowly and they’ll steer clear.” Crossing the streets with thousands of overladen motorbikes charging towards you is rather intimidating – until you finally get used to it. We’ve arrived early morning into a grey and drizzly Hanoi in northern Vietnam, having flown non-stop direct from London, Heathrow, with Vietnam Airlines. On our arrival, we are warmly greeted by our guide Kien from Exotic Voyages, who tailor-made our luxury adventure.
As we drive into the city, Kien points out Hanoi’s smiling and energetic elderly citizens performing Tai Chi exercises in the parks and green spaces that line our route. On the way to the Museum of Ethnicity, he explains about Vietnam’s 92 million population and its 54 different ethnic groups, of which 87% are Viets.
The Gallic influence in Hanoi is evident with its wide tree-lined Parisian style boulevards built when the French occupied Vietnam until 1954, and the colonial architecture of the public buildings with their rectangular verandas, grand wooden columns and floor-to-ceiling windows. After taking a short stroll through the peaceful grounds of the thousand-year-old Temple of Literature, home to the first university of Vietnam, we arrive at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, formerly known as Hoa Lo prison, where many of the American soldiers were held captive during the American invasion.
Relaxing after early-morning Tai Chi
Our home in Hanoi is the imposing and iconic Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, which has played host to a lengthy roster of international royalty, celebrities and heads of state since 1901. This impressive landmark, distinct with its wrought iron detailing and green-shuttered windows, is located within the old quarter of the city, and is divided into two distinct sections the contemporary Opera Wing and the historic Metropole Wing.
Stay in the older wing to become immersed in the hotel’s rich heritage, which even includes a hidden bomb shelter that protected guests including Jane Fonda and Joan Baez during the American War. Rooms in this quarter feel particularly spacious, with their high ceilings and fusion of tasteful antique and contemporary furnishings.
HALONG BAY, VIETNAM
A three-and-a-half-hour drive northwards takes us to the warmer climatic zone of Halong Bay, the most famous UNESCO heritage site in Vietnam. We set sail in the bright sunshine through dozens of quaint villages, each separated by terraces of bright green and slightly yellowing paddy fields, sparsely dotted with farm labourers attired in straw conical hats. Upon arriving in Halong Bay, we board the pristine, newly launched Paradise Elegance cruise ship, the jewel in the crown of the Paradise fleet. The one-day overnight voyage starts weaving between the towering limestone islets rising proudly from the deep vivid emerald-coloured sea.
We marvel at the diverse shapes of the unevenly textured dark limestone rocks, which seemingly touch the frothy white clouds above – a scene that made the perfect setting for the 2017 King Kong film, Skull Island. While cruising in Halong Bay, we explore Surprise Cave, a huge grotto filled with a maze of stalactites and stalagmites, and stop at a floating village, which is home to the local community of fishermen. But the highlight of the Halong Bay cruise is simply sitting on the deck of the ship and absorbing the never-ending unspoilt, protected seascape.
Cruising along Halong Bay
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
Next day we take a one-hour flight due west, to the scorching dry heat of Luang Prabang in Laos, where we meet Chear, our quietly spoken guide, who escorts us on the short journey to the charming serenity of the Sofitel Hotel. Originally built as the French governor’s residence, it comprises several buildings set within a small compound and 25 luxuriously appointed villa suites, formed in a horseshoe shape around a lush tropical garden and an expansive pool.
The property is located on the edge of the sleepy royal capital, which in its entirety was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. We take the hotel’s courtesy car to the imposing Buddhist Wat Xieng Temple, built in 1560, which is still used for religious ceremonies. Several monks make an appearance and attired in their brightly coloured saffron robes, they begin to start working to maintain the varying temples within the compound.
The Swimming pool at Sofitel Luang Prabang
Chear then drives us high up into the cooler mountain area, where we view cascading carpets of green hills before arriving at Vanvisa, a small guesthouse close to the famous Kuang Si Waterfall. We partake in a Lao cookery lesson, courtesy of the diminutive Mrs Vandara, who instructs us to prepare clear soup brimming with locally grown vegetables and spices, and stuff freshly caught fish with chilli and herbs before wrapping them tightly in huge banana leaves. We cook the sticky and glutinous Laotian rice by steaming it in a bamboo basket over a charcoal flame, and then showed how to roll it between our fingers, as is the custom here, to form little balls.
Monks maintaining the Xieng Temple
For dinner we continue our degustation by dining alfresco in candlelight at the 3 Nagas Restaurant, located on Luang Prabang’s main drag, the setting spectacular against the backdrop of the verdant mountains together with the gently flowing confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. We enjoy icy-cold papaya cocktails before feasting on the finest Lao cuisine of succulent grilled water buffalo, a local delicacy served ironically with gently flavoured coffee sauce.
Early morning at Angkor Wat
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
A one-hour flight south to Siem Reap in Cambodia takes us to the Angkor Wat complex of temples, which together form the largest religious site in the world. Setting off at 5am in the morning enables us to avoid the extreme heat and catch the striking sight of the sun rising over the gargantuan Angkor Wat, which was built in the 12th century over a 30-year period by King Suryavarman II at the height of the Khmer regime’s power.
The temple complex also includes Angkor Thom, famed for the Terrace of the Elephants, from where the Khmer king would stand and view his returning army after succeeding in battle, and Ta Prohm, with its mass of creeping fig trees roots enveloping the base of the temple. We gingerly climb the steep, shallow modern staircase that protects the original sculpted stairs of the main tower, and walk along the vast interior corridors, gazing out across the extensive green garden landscape and the dank waters of the huge surrounding protective moat.
Our intimate, pristine boutique hotel, the Heritage Suites, is quietly tucked way on the edge of bustling Siem Reap and our vast room is set within the tranquillity of the cool and shaded tropical grounds adjacent to the pool. Joanne, the knowledgeable omnipresent South African F&B Manager, is on-hand to ensure our every request is attended to. We enjoy lunch at Sala Bai, the humbling hospitality training school for underprivileged young Cambodians, from where students graduate to work in the local hospitality industry including Heritage Suites. The dedicated director of the programme, Philippe Bés, explains in his soft Spanish accent that, since the school opened in 2002, more than 1300 students have graduated to work within the tourism sector across Cambodia.
The swimming pool at Heritage Suites
While in Siem Reep, take the opportunity to visit the hugely popular, highly acclaimed performance of the Phare arts troupe, which is promoted as a Cambodian Circus, but is more of a hybrid extravaganza of dance, music and art. Hugely entertaining and at times profoundly moving, it was founded by Cambodian children returning from their refugee camps in 1979 after the Cambodian civil war, and powerfully illustrates the dark times experienced. We later feel compelled to pay our respects at the chilling Killing Fields memorial site to try comprehend the enormity and horror of the local genocide that wiped out one third of the country’s population.
Ho Chi Minh City at night
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM
Embarking on a one-hour’s flight eastward, takes us into the warm sunshine of Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon) in southern Vietnam. We crawl through the traffic of this developed metropolis, eventually reaching our hotel, The Reverie, which is housed from the 30th floor upwards in the Times Square development in District 1, adjacent to the imposing monument of Ho Chi Minh himself.
A bedroom at The Reverie
The Reverie makes an immediate impact as the ultimate luxurious hotel experience, with each extravagant, lavishly furnished room and suite featuring marble flooring and floor-to-ceiling windows, affording far-reaching panoramic views across the cityscape. The opulent recreational facilities include an outdoor pool with elevated city views, a pristine state-of-the-art fitness room, and two floors of marble swathed spa and treatment rooms.
Coconut husks lining the route along Coconut Kingdom
Breakfast at this hotel is a gourmet event, with a huge selection of world foods on offer – the artistic display is reminiscent of an over-the-top wedding banquet – and matched with an unparalleled level of service from the attentive staff under the watchful eye of the gracious Resident Manager, Christina Von Wrede. For dinner we opt for the sublime, underground and dimly lit in-house Italian, R&J, where a hugely talented jazz singer serenades us.
Our exuberant tour guide, Quang, takes us on a city tour starting early to avoid the heat of the day. We pass the unremarkable modern architecture of the Reunification Palace, which was televised worldwide in 1975 with a North Vietnamese army truck crashed through its gates, signifying the defeat of South Vietnam (and the USA). In stark contrast, the artistic French inspired architecture of the Opera House, the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office stand out for their exquisite attention to detail. We find time for some retail therapy interspersed with some animated bartering in the overcrowded Ben Thanh Market.
But the highlight of our city tour is the visit to the harrowing War Remnants Museum, which was built as a memorial to those impacted by the 20-year Vietnam War. The museum is chronologically displayed and poignantly curated, graphically explaining the complex story of the USA’s involvement in the war. To truly appreciate how the war was waged, visit the underground labyrinth of the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were built by the Viet Cong to mount surprise attacks, lay traps and transport armaments during the war with the USA.
Our final excursion is to the mighty southern Mekong Delta, a huge body of water splaying into nine rivers, creating one of the richest fertile zones in South East Asia. Exploring Ben Tre, known as Coconut Kingdom, a burning smell accompanied by huge volumes of billowing smoke hangs in the air. This area is the largest producer of coconuts and their derivate products in Vietnam, which are subsequently exported. Cycling in the bright sunshine through the lush tropical orchards, we welcome the shade from the overhanging leaves of the banana and coconut trees that line our route, passing the mounds of empty husks, waiting to be transported to various factories within this region.
As our Indochinese adventure draws to an end, we reflect how each destination has developed its own unique character, which has been shaped by its challenging history, and we depart with a sense that this fascinating and fast-evolving part of South-East Asia has so much to offer the intrepid traveller.
by Amanda Bernstein
For more information on luxury tours around Vietnam and Indochina visit here
Vietnam Airlines operate the UK’s only non-stop services to Vietnam, with flights to either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City from £462 per person including taxes, for more information please go here