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Friday, 02 May 2014 13:07

North & Central Vietnam

Written by  Maxine Albert

I just returned from Vietnam, a place that consistently receives raves from all who visit. Its breathtaking natural beauty, rich culture and fascinating history make it an appealing destination for both first-time and return visitors, couples, families and singles alike. With its lush countryside, charming colonial cities, ancient waterways, great food and lovely beaches, there’s surely something for every taste. The country is taking note of its growing appeal to sophisticated, affluent visitors with new luxe properties, elite riverboats, high-end spas and top restaurants. Famed documentarian Ken Burn’s upcoming series about Vietnam is bound to cast the country in the spotlight once again.

Hanoi: French colonial-era buildings, tree lined streets and scenic Sword Lake in the historic center, gloriously illuminated by street lamps at night, give this fashionable, cosmopolitan city its allure. With whizzing motorcycles, a bustling old quarter of narrow alleyways with stalls selling crafts, a chic French Quarter with grand boulevards, elegant eateries and upscale shops and couples dancing nightly near the lake, Hanoi is beautiful, vibrant and distinct. Not to mention the cafe culture of small street restaurants with low tables, people chatting and eating next to steaming cauldrons. Food lovers will delight in an amazing street food tour with the best pho (noodle soup with chicken or beef) followed by a visit to everybody’s favorite - The Thang Long Water Puppet Show. Also noteworthy is The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where his preserved body is on display.

The legendary Metropole, ‘the’ place to stay since its opening in 1901, has long been frequented by world leaders, distinguished guests and celebrities like Graham Greene, Catherine Deneuve and Angelina Jolie. This glamorous property boasts posh suites in both the historic wing inspired by classic French architecture and in the flashier contemporary opera wing. The landmark hotel showcases Le Spa, Spices Garden for gastronomic Vietnamese cuisine and a superb boutique. Don’t miss the celebrated lobby wall of photographs with notable guests including Pete Seeger and Jane Fonda.

Cruise: With 2,000 limestone islands whose peaks have eroded into fantastic otherworldly shapes, Halong Bay, perpetually cloaked in mist, is one of the most surreal places on earth. Sail serenely on emerald green waters amid the spectacular landscape of towering rock formations, taking in the beauty of the panorama on Luxury Riverboat Jasmine. With polished wood interiors, the boat has 24 cabins including two junior suites with Jacuzzi and outside balcony done in retro Indochine style. Guests enjoy tasty regional cuisine, buffet style. Excursions include visits to Cua Van fishing village and ancient Tien Ong Cave. There’s plenty of time to relax deck side and enjoy romantic sunsets.

Hue: Vietnam’s Imperial City and spiritual center is home to over 300 temples in this mostly Buddhist country. The Perfume River whose banks are lined with flowering flame trees, give this sleepy, serene city an aura of romance. Famed for its magnificent Imperial citadel with palaces and courtyards, royal tombs and pagodas, Hue also boasts a unique Imperial cuisine. Noteworthy was a visit to Tu Hieu Monastery with its lovely gardens, where renowned Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk, Thict Nat Han, studied.

An art deco gem, La Residence Hotel & Spa is a luxury boutique hotel with rooms and villas, huge verandas offering scenic views across the Perfume River, stylish bar, high end spa and restaurants serving the region’s Imperial

Hoi An: This delightful, ancient town by the Thu Bon River, a former trading port, is experiencing a boom. A wave of top restaurants, like Mango Mango and Morning Glory, have made this a culinary hub complementing the attractive new shops. Happily, it still retains its character and authenticity. The must-see Japanese covered bridge, wharf, old Chinese style houses, ancient tea warehouses and temples have been preserved intact. Men and women head to the famed tailor shops, such as acclaimed Yaly, to have garments made up in record time. At night countless illuminated colored lanterns create a fairy tale atmosphere. Stroll the quaint narrow streets of this small, charming town passing trendy eateries, lounge bars, street musicians and locals playing folk games. Stop by the beguiling river and take in the magic.

A highlight of my stay in Hoi An was a visit to the countryside. A buffalo-drawn oxcart carried me through the paddies and fields to a canal for a canoe ride to a traditional village.

With luxury options limited, many high end visitors stay at the close by 5 star Nam Hi located on Ha My Beach. This luxurious and beautiful hotel boasts elegant seaside villas decorated with Vietnamese lacquer, spa on a lotus pond and gourmet regional cuisine. The rooms are built on a split level design. They look great but guests should look out for abrupt changes in floor elevations.

Danang: The beachy coastline of Danang is booming, developed with new luxury resorts. The destination is trying to position itself as an alternative to Phuket or Bali. The recently opened hillside ultra luxurious Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort overlooks the East Sea. An exemplar of elevated high design over 4 levels, Heaven, Sky, Earth and Sea, with a funicular descending to the white sand beach, it’s stunningly gorgeous. The hotel showcases opulent suites with expansive indoor/outdoor areas, Harnn Heritage Spa and 3 Michelin starred Roux’s La Maison 1888. Shuttle service is provided to nearby Hoi An.

Also new, the luxe Fusion Maia Beach Resort offers spacious, modern, sleek pool and oceanfront beach villas with Jacuzzis, private garden courtyards, outstanding food, first rate spa and shuttle service to close by Hoi An.

How to Organize: Trails of Indochina specializes in top, custom trips to Vietnam with exceptional guides, detailed, unusual itineraries, discriminating hotel and restaurant suggestions and seamless ground service.

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