His Robin Williams impersonation wasn’t great. But I’d certainly arrived early enough – on the first-ever non-stop flight from the UK to Vietnam – to witness Hanoi waking up. The city’s parks swayed to tai chi; hungry patrons breakfasted on pho noodles at pavement food-stalls. Even Hanoi’s millions of motorcyclists had not yet reached the ear-splitting pitch that marks the daily rush hour.
Vietnam Airlines has just begun flying from Gatwick to the capital, Hanoi, and the main commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), each at opposing ends of the country. Is Vietnam, then, now within the realm of an exotic week-long break? I decided to find out during a turbo-charged trip flying “open jaw” in to Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City. In between I’d experience one of Asia’s great rail journeys, plus Halong Bay: one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
Vietnam has embraced the internet energetically, and before travelling I’d saved time booking everything online: visa, airport transfers, train ticket, day trips and accommodation. My hotel was a friendly new guesthouse called the Art Hotel in Hanoi’s atmospheric old quarter around Hoan Kiem Lake. There was no app available, however, to assist with my disorientation amid the old quarter’s frenetic maze of markets, cafés, street-restaurants and crumbling French colonial architecture.
Hanoi became Vietnam’s capital in 1010. The old quarter’s labyrinthine geography appears to have changed little since then. My survival strategy for exploring it (beyond not getting run over by scooters) involved allowing fate to deliver me hither and thither. I happened upon backstreet gems such as Bach Ma’s 18th-century temple dedicated to a white horse spirit, and a handsome 19th-century house at 87 Ma May, whose hidden courtyards and creaky wooden rooms were redolent of a forgotten age.
Besides baguettes, Hanoi’s most eloquent Francophone expression is the decadently opulent Metropole Hotel, which dates back to 1901. During the Vietnam War it played host to various anti-war celebrities, including Jane Fonda, while the hotel recently unearthed a forgotten air-raid shelter where Joan Baez part-recorded her protest ballad “Where are you now, my son?”. But the times, as her old flame Dylan noted, they are a-changin’.
Luxury outlets such as Bentley and Cartier surround the hotel, a reflection of communist Vietnam’s post-war economic liberalisation. Its reforms have mirrored China’s authoritarian capitalism. Hammer-and-sickle motifs on public buildings and visibly prominent green-uniformed soldiers are a reminder to the visitor that Vietnam’s one-party state remains a politically repressive regime, intolerant of dissent.
The arrival of top-end British motor cars and luxury French watchmakers would not have amused Vietnam’s revolutionary guiding light, Ho Chi Minh, with whom I would come face-to-face with later at his mausoleum. A short walk outside the old quarter, amid a stylish suburb of French Art Deco villas around Ba Dinh Square, and I joined a lengthy queue of Vietnamese filing into his monolithic mausoleum: a Soviet-style Parthenon. Inside, I had less than a minute to file by his waxy corpse (still with signature straggly goatee) as it lay in quiet repose inside a glass chamber flanked by expressionless soldiers with glinting bayonets. I exited at the propaganda-drenched Ho Chi Minh Museum, perhaps Hanoi’s most obvious expression of concrete neo-brutalism.
Hanoi is also responsible for some of South-east Asia’s tastiest street food, the best of which I sought with Belgian expatriate Yves from HG Travel, with whom I’d organised several excursions. Down Ngo Trang Tien near his office, we ate bun dau: tofu served with vermicelli-noodle cakes soaked in fermented squid sauce.
“Many visitors don’t like this strong taste,” said Yves. I did. The 75p dish combined hot chilli, slimy vermicelli and the pungent sauce, but somehow it worked.
Pavement eateries aren’t the limit of Hanoi’s culinary ambitions. That evening I dined at the Press Club, haunt of Hanoi’s well-heeled – a decadent whirl of white tablecloths, silver service and Asian woodwork. It may be the swankiest fine-dining eatery in town, but my three-course meal (featuring Australian tenderloin beef in green peppercorn sauce) cost just 975,000 dong (around £30).
The general manager, Kurt Walter, told me that since opening in 1997 the restaurant’s clientele has expanded from expatriates to a mix that now includes the Vietnamese nouveau riche.
Before heading south, there was time for an excursion eastwards, to the coast. After a three-hour drive from Hanoi, I was ensconced on a wooden junk marvelling at Halong Bay’s breathtaking limestone karsts: sharpened like shark-fins, or undercut to form stone toadstools, or in pitted rows resembling cavity-filled dentures.
“I’ve been here 100 times but never tire of their beauty,” said Dang Dong, my guide. During our four-hour cruise we watched foraging sea-eagles and ate squid, tiger prawns and cockles. Then it was time to shuttle back to Hanoi to catch the 11pm Reunification Express to Ho Chi Minh City.
She left on time. I boarded the rather functionally named SE3 service, which pulled out of Hanoi station with a groan of metal I’d heard before in disaster movies. I’d booked into a comfortable four-berth soft-sleeper cabin for a whopping 1.76 million dong (just £54). The 30-hour, 1,726km marathon south proved a scenic revelation.
Relaunched in 1976 after wartime partition, the rail route shadows two borders – those of Laos and Cambodia – while to the east the Gulf of Tonkin morphs into the South China Sea. My fellow passengers came and went, jumping off at exotic destinations such as Hue, the ancient imperial capital straddling the Perfume River; and Danang for Hoi An, a coastal port whose architecture has been richly augmented by centuries of foreign trade. I remained for the long haul, immersed in Graham Greene’s Vietnam classic, The Quiet American, and gazing seawards as the SE3 snaked through tunnels, along plunging coastal cliffs, past deserted beaches and rice-paddies being furrowed by buffalo.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City a mere 96 frenetic hours after touching down in Hanoi. During the 2002 remake of The Quiet American, Michael Caine and the rest of the cast stayed at Hotel Caravelle, which hosted journalists during the Vietnam War. Even after the hotel was bombed in 1964, they continued frequenting its Saigon Saigon Bar, which still swings away on the 9th floor. The hotel has been refurbished along with Saigon’s name: it is now Ho Chi Minh City’s most luxurious offering. I rolled in at 6am after two nights on the rails, eager for a bed that didn’t rattle.
The next morning, I learnt that Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are worlds apart. Founded in 1698, the southern city outshines its northern rival in size and population, and in the burgeoning capitalism epitomised by the designer soaked Dong Khoi Street, nicknamed locally “Champs-Elysées”. Its broader French boulevards prove even more hazardous to cross than in Hanoi – with relentless, molten streams of scooters.
There’s rivalry, too, between the cities. I was variously told the North Vietnamese were haughty, unfriendly, too serious, and obsessed by bureaucracy. Tittle tattle, maybe, but the cultural differences are still tangible between the Western-influenced south and the more communist north. There are also differing dialects and cuisine, with Ho Chi Minh City’s food influenced by its large Chinese contingency and its climate – it was a good 10C hotter than chilly Hanoi when I visited.
Many of the city’s highlights fall within administrative District 1 (the equivalent of a central business zone) including two must-sees around Tao Dan Park. Communist tanks stormed the Independence Palace on 30 April 1975, ending the war. The tanks are still mounted within this former South Vietnamese headquarters in attractive grounds of azalea and frangipani. The building itself has become the Reunification Palace, but retains its 1960s-era modernist interior that is full-on Thunderbirds retro, all curving sofas and leather-clad cocktail bars.
Nearby, the absorbing War Remnants Museum hosts sobering exhibits of Agent Orange’s lasting effects on the Vietnamese, alongside a gripping collection of wartime photography seen through the lenses of Robert Capa and his contemporaries.
Meanwhile, Ben Thanh market seduces visitors with souvenir shops, bars, spas and a nightly food market. On my last evening, I grazed there on banh xeo crêpes stuffed with bean sprouts, before migrating to Thuong Hien street to eat steamed crab claws and green mussels. But I preferred the grittier authenticity of Binh Tay market, 10km away in Cholon, established by Saigon’s sizeable Chinese community. I reached it by riding pillion on a xe-om motorbike-taxi (drivers tout for business on every street corner). It’s a handy service, but my safety helmet’s markings – “hope you are lucky” – probably said it best.
One week after leaving London, the evening timing of Vietnam Airlines’ Friday departure permitted one last excursion; 60km outside Saigon lie the remarkable Cu Chi defensive tunnels, dug on three levels by the Viet Cong in the 1960s. My guide, Dam, and I potholed through sections of the 250km complex, which survived B52 bombing, and rediscovered the surface in plenty of time for my flight.
I arrived back in London at 6am on Saturday morning weary but with the weekend to shake off jetlag. Slow travel it wasn’t. But a non-stop flight seemed tailor-made for a non-stop destination. Vietnam never pauses for breath.
Friday: Depart Gatwick on flight VN0144 at noon
Saturday: Arrive Hanoi 6.40am Hanoi sightseeing
Sunday: Hanoi sightseeing
Monday: Daytrip to Ha Long Bay from 8am-6pm; board SE3 Reunification Express to Ho Chi Minh City at 11pm
Tuesday: All day on Train
Wednesday: Arrive Ho Chi Minh City at 5am. Sightseeing
Friday: Cu Chi Tunnels excursion from 8am to 2pm. Depart Ho Chi Minh City on flight VN0141 at 11.15pm
Saturday: Arrive Gatwick 6am
Vietnam Airlines (020-3263 2062; vietnamairlines.com) flies non-stop from Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City twice weekly; £618 return. Open-jaw fares start at £780.
Art Hotel, Hanoi (00 84 98 234 5239; hanoiarthotel.com). Doubles start at US$38.50 (£26), including breakfast.
Hotel Metropole, Hanoi (00 84 4 3826 6919; sofitel.com). Doubles from £175, room only. Hotel Caravelle, Ho Chi Minh City (00 84 8 3823 4999; caravellehotel.com). Doubles from $200 (£133), room only.
For train reservations, see vietnam-trains.com. A single ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in a four-berth cabin costs 1.76m dong (£54).
Local operator HG Travel (hgtravel.com) can arrange excursions and tours to destinations such as Cu Chi and Halong Bay (bhayacruises.com).
The Press Club, Hanoi (00 84 4 3934 0888; hanoi-pressclub.com).
British passport-holders require a visa, available for £44 from the Vietnam Embassy, 12 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD (020-7937 1912; vietnamembassy.org.uk). Authorisation letters for visas on arrival can be obtained from myvietnamvisa.com for £12.29, plus a US$25 (£16.70) stamping fee on arrival. Vietnam Tourist Board: vietnamtourism.com