The Travel Issue: Vietnam in November
Saturday 02 February 2008
The sight of a man manoeuvring his little motorbike, loaded with a washing machine, through the traffic should have been dismissed as a surreal mirage, brought on by the intensely humid weather in Ho Chi Minh city. Yet there was a stream of such people motorbiking past our bus with an assortment of impossible loads. Whole families whizz by on the flimsiest of carriers, all apparently unconcerned by the proximity of the hard road rushing away inches from their exposed limbs.
From a health and safety angle, then, perhaps the best place to watch all this activity is in Saigon Saigon, the roof-top bar of the hotel Caravelle. Like many of Vietnam's landmarks this hotel is witness to past turbulence – built by the French when they captured Saigon in the late 19th century, it was then kept in business by foreign correspondents during the Vietnam war. Now, in economic boom-time, these formerly western sites are being turned to profit.
One such enterprise can be found in Dalat, 308km from Ho Chi Minh city. While it's possible to take the journey by road – Highway 1 – it's probably best to plant trees to rub out that carbon footprint and take a short internal flight instead. You briefly join Highway 1, anyway, once you land at Lien Khuong airport. Here motorbikes are replaced by old-fashioned push-bikes, and shacks of corrugated iron line the road, along with brick houses painted in bright greens, purples and yellows. The dust thrown up by the road and the heat haze doesn't dull the colours in this landscape: everything seems in high definition, from the huge green butterfly winging its way madly beside our bus, to the thick black snake having its brains bashed out at the roadside by a man with a rock, and the vivid purple and pink flowers.
A cluster of French-style villas dating from the 1920s is the destination in Dalat. Built as holiday homes for French colonists, the government has permitted foreign investment. Thus, the Evason Ana Mandara Villas have been restored, with a Six Senses spa, and outdoor swimming pool. Part way between luxury and rustic, it is an altogether surreal way to experience Vietnam. Dalat itself is the place for Vietnamese to honeymoon – not exactly the "little Paris" it's billed as, but it does boast a miniature Eiffel Tower and a working 1930s railway built by the French. Avoid the "Variety Creature Strange Unique – Particularly Interesting" park. Alas, it lives up to its name, but unless you're one for cows with extra legs dangling off their haunches, it's a place of interest you can miss. Do, however, ask the manager of the villas for advice – he directed us to a local eaterie where, from a rudimentary kitchen, we were served the tastiest pho (rice-noodle soup) of the whole trip.
Next, to the coast, through the Lang Bian mountain. "The bus is dancing with the road, and we are the audience," said our guide, ever the optimist, as we bumped and jolted our way past less fortunate travellers winching trucks out of the mud. The new road that the government cut directly through the mountain is only part finished, and the old section is not forgiving. Yet it is a rare chance to see the mountain – and perhaps a glimpse of a tiger – so closely: the road climbs a steep path that twists through rainforests and, while the deep basin on the right disappears below, waterfalls crash down the mountainside on the left.
Three hours, and the city of Nha Trang looms into view; the Evason Hideaway, on Ninh Van Bay, is reached from there by a 20-minute speedboat ride. The Hideaway villas are the epitome of luxury. Cut through the jungle are 54 villas with their own swimming pool (even if they're only a few metres from the South China sea), luxurious interiors, and indulgent outdoor bathrooms. Wholly romantic, with excellent food, spa, and a personal "butler", the object – the guest wants for nothing – is achieved. Yet there is a feeling, as with all these places, that this niche of Elysian imagining could be anywhere. If the only Vietnamese people you meet in the resort are serving you, then it's worth getting outside its bounds, into the jumble of the countryside and through the muddy villages, just to make sure you see some of the natural beauty too.
Kuoni Travel (01306 747008 or www.kuoni.co.uk) offers nine nights in the Far East with Thai Airways from £1,929
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