Friday, 29 May 2009

Vietnam makes for a quirky family holiday

Vietnam is fun for kids, as they unearth Vietcong hideaways, roadside roast dog and a very nasty fish, says Janice Turner.

In the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City, along with a real guillotine and photos of the My Lai massacre, is a mock-up of the infamous “tiger cage” cells in which untold Vietcong prisoners died. As we peered gingerly inside, reading the grim notes about torture and privations, our guide remarked that Con Son island, home of the cages, now has a sensational five-star spa hotel.

And so it has. An Evason Hideaway in fact, sister of the gorgeous eco-complex in Ninh Van Bay, where we had just stayed, enjoying our own hilltop infinity pool and a pillow menu. That indolent visitors might ponder whether to rest their heads on buckwheat, lavender or goose feathers while staying on a notorious penal colony sums up much about tourism in Vietnam.

Here history doesn’t whisper in temples or ruins. It prods you in the ribs on a backwater of the Mekong Delta, where suddenly you are a terrified American GI, fearing a sniper in every clump of reeds. It accosts you drinking a cocktail in the Saigon-Saigon rooftop bar, where the American military held its press briefings. Or when you are eating sticky rice-flavoured ice cream by a boating lake in Hanoi and learn that it was where John McCain splash-landed after his bomber was shot down.

History here is raw and so very recent. And yet, without rancour, Vietnam is doggedly focused on the future, the monoliths to Motorola and Honda already muscling into the skyline. Indeed, Vietnam attracted us for a family holiday because it retains the quirkiness that you fear won’t last long when it properly joins the homogenised modern world. Vietnam has a great multi-zeroed comedy currency, the dong: my sons, aged 13 and 11, were delighted to learn that their £40 of holiday money made them dong millionaires. And it is one of only a handful of Communist states left in the world. Hammer-and-sickle banners proclaim “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam will live forever” while pictures of a smiling Uncle Ho himself garland every street.

But since the government loosened control of the economy and allowed foreign investment a decade ago, quality of life has soared. Vietnam is vibrantly entrepreneurial: we acquired so many silk pyjamas and lacquered bowls that we needed an extra suitcase. Even the state carrier, Vietnam Airlines, is unexpectedly efficient and well-run.

Since the country is a narrow ribbon, which runs down a 2,000-mile coastline, we headed north to south, starting in cool, drizzly Hanoi. As the communist capital before reunification it is quainter, less bustling than Ho Chi Minh. But you still need a lesson in crossing the road.

Our guide explained that, since the streets are a TT rally of motorbikes and no one stops at the lights, the pedestrian must progress slowly and deliberately into oncoming traffic so that riders swerve around you. Stop and you are dead; run and you’re dead too. It is, as my younger son remarked, like being a human video game.

In Hanoi we filed past the embalmed Ho Chi Minh in his chill-cabinet mausoleum and learnt a little about Vietnam’s extraordinary tenacity. This is a country which, within living memory, has repelled occupation by France, Japan, China and the US — superpowers with modern military hardware trounced by peasant farmers.

Yet the Vietnamese today are unguarded and charming to foreigners: my sons were mobbed by a class of red neck-tied Young Communists keen to take their picture. The boys reckoned that on the international smile scale, if the beaming Indians of Tamil Nadu are a 10 and the surly Czechs a 2, the Vietnamese score a creditable 8.

From here we travelled to Ha Long Bay, where we took a junk on a night’s cruise around the astonishing limestone rock formations, saw a floating village where fishermen live and die without ever stepping on land and took a t’ai chi class on the beach. And then it was an hour’s internal flight to Hue, a tranquil and cultured city just south of the DMZ.

I regret that we had only a day here, staying in La RĂ©sidence, the former French colonial governor’s mansion, an elegant Art Deco palace on the Perfume River. I would have loved to cycle around the countryside and linger in Hue’s famous citadel. Its courtyards and formal gardens, once home to Vietnam’s emperors, are still flecked by bullet-fire from more recent events.

It was here the Vietcong launched the Tet offensive, surprising the Americans and holding Hue for 21 days of vicious fighting. Our guide, a child at the time, recalls his uncle carrying away a US bomb that had landed but not exploded outside his house.

Hue is also famous for its cuisine — but then Vietnamese food was our trip’s most glorious surprise. How did the Thais get to be the Far East kings of the high street? Vietnamese food is subtler, healthier and, since they serve chillies on the side to add according to taste, never too hot.

We loved pho, a restoring noodle soup available on every street corner. And I ate fresh hand rolls – a rice pancake of shredded salad and prawns to be dipped in piquant sauce – every single day. On my birthday, while in the pretty resort of Hoi An, we all learnt how to make them at the Red Bridge Cookery school. “You very messy lady – start again!” was the chef’s verdict on my sticky gloop.

Besides, it helps if a country’s former colonial master was France, leaving behind a talent for patisserie and fine bread. Vendors sell baguettes along the highway. And Vietnam is the world’s second-biggest exporter of coffee. Who knew that? It is excellent quality, too, served in individual drip-filters on to ice and a glug of condensed milk. The best stuff, with a deep, almost chocolatey flavour, is made from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a weasel. My sons, of course, were gagging to try that.

Strange that our nose-wrinkling British suspicion of Vietnam stems from the single fact that they eat dog. The omnivorous boys were anxious to sample roast puppy, but our guide told us that it sits heavy in the stomach, like Christmas lunch, and when we came across it in the street market, a small roasted corgi-sized leg, the meat had an unappetising denseness, like compressed ham. Neither did we try snake nor the very popular duck’s eggs containing almost-hatched chicks, eaten crunchy beak, feathers and all. But we did eat sparrow and so much seafood that it will be a long time before I want to look at another prawn.

From Hue we drove for three hours, high over the Cloudy Pass, along excellent American-built roads to Hoi An. Here you turn up at a tailor’s shop at noon with your favourite dress or suit, choose fabric, return at 4pm for a fitting, suggest improvements, then, as you head out for cocktails by the river at dusk, you collect your new duds, usually better than the original. My 11-year-old had a bespoke winter coat made, with his choice of groovy silk lining, which sounds very Little Lord Fauntleroy, but was a bargain at US $40 (£25).

An hour farther south by plane, Nha Trang is the Vietnamese Blackpool, a long neon strip of restaurants and funfairs where flirting teenagers zip about on mopeds. But mostly we just lounged about, gazing at the glistening bay on the private beach of the Ana Mandara, one of those super-luxe hotels where after two torpid days you can barely scratch your own nose.

Then we were whisked by motor launch to Ninh Van Bay, where Prince Andrew once stayed in the presidential suite and ordered chicken sandwich for lunch every day. Here my sons had a go at paddling a coracle, snorkeled off the private coral reef and, fishing off the quay, caught an odd creature that turned out to be a thrillingly lethal stonefish.

We were glad to be back in the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, with its elegant inner district of French buildings. But I am glad that we ended our trip in probably the most boy-pleasing tourist site I’ve visited anywhere, the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour out of the city. Everything you need to know about the resourcefulness and indomitable spirit of Vietnam is contained in this 250km-long warren.

Here the Vietcong hid, lived and plotted against the American invasion up to ten metres beneath the surface. Creating lethal Temple of Doom-style traps from abandoned US weapons and bamboo, conducting blood transfusions in a subterranean hospital using a bicycle pump, venting smoke from their secret kitchens deep into the forest, they would scurry to a lower level of tunnel if the GIs broke in.

Visitors are allowed to walk in part of the tunnels specially enlarged for wide Western shoulders but after a few minutes bent double in humid blackness we begged to get out. Then my sons were allowed to climb a US tank and watch their father fire off live rounds on an AK47. They’d looked forward to this, but they recoiled from the ear-shattering gunfire. If nothing else in their tour of ’nam they learnt to avoid war: it’s too damn noisy.

Getting there You can’t fly direct to Vietnam; you’ll need to change in Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong, so the journey can end up 24 hours each way.

Janice Turner travelled to Vietnam with Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000 /, which offers a private ten-night tour that takes in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon and the Mekong Delta from £2,695 per person. Four-night extensions at the Evason Ana Mandara resort in Nha Trang cost from £660. Children’s prices are available on request.

More information Take some US dollars, the favoured currency in many shops, which can get you a better deal than paying by dong. Buy coffee to take home — it is good value for fine quality. The King brand is particularly good.


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