Vietnam is tricky to pin down. It is exotic, but austere in some parts and playful in others. And it is impossible to ignore the war that has left an indelible mark on American history.
People say that it is like Thailand twenty years ago. And that you should go now, because it’s easier than ever, thanks to Vietnam Airlines’ new direct routes to Hanoi and Saigon, which knock the journey down to 12 hours and save the faff of changing in Bangkok.
This long slim country has a coastline groaning with inviting sandy stretches and tropical islands off the south west and southern tip, catering for budget travellers to luxury seekers and superstars. Brangelina are fans – their adopted son Pax was born in Vietnam.
War tourism is part of the experience, and Americans make up the greatest proportion of western tourists. But the country has been re-built, the trees re-planted and the Vietnamese look to the future, not the past.
Whenever I ask locals how they feel towards their American visitors and ex-pats, the answer is the same. They welcome them.
They are hardly likely to say anything different, but moving on is part of the culture.
And it is particularly celebrated over Chinese Lunar New Year, when I am here. This takes place in January or February (depending on the moon), and it is as light-filled and glittery as our Christmas.
Families get together, bury arguments, remember their ancestors, thank their teachers and give out ‘lucky’ brand new 1000 dong notes to children. I bring two crisp notes back to London, hoping to secure my fortune.
In Hanoi, North Vietnam, where my trip begins, the foggy city is chilly, grey and just a little oppressive – but brightened by sprays of peach blossom and kumquat trees.
There is plenty to see – and not nearly enough time to take it all in. Walking solemnly past Ho Chi Minh’s body, in a glass box guarded by four uniformed men, is strange. Visiting the Hanoi Hilton prison, where communists and then GIs were interned, is horrifying.
Senator John McCain’s jump suit, kit and parachute are on show. He was shot down flying a Skyhawk in 1967 and imprisoned in Vietnam until 1973.
There are pictures of GIs eating thanksgiving dinner, playing pool or cards, smiling. When I speak to a former POW, who was held here for nearly 6 years, he tells me these photographs were set ups.
This was no holiday camp. GIs were tortured, starved and kept in solitary confinement. He received only 7, 6-line, clipped letters from home during that long, dreadful stay. He has no wish to return – but plenty of others do, perhaps to lay those ghosts to rest.
Back at the Metropol hotel bar that evening I am amazed to see John McCain in person. He comes back every year and, according to staff, even stays in the same room. This wonderful colonial hotel, with its prettily lit outdoor pool is just a short walk away from his former prison.
Hanoi is the place to try street food – and it is cheap. The “36 streets and 36 wares” in the Old Quarter, which dates from the 11th century, brim with markets and delicious smelling brews.
How the people remain so impossibly delicate is a mystery. No one is fat and yet the Vietnamese seem to do nothing but eat. Pop-up food stalls line the pavements. People sit on tiny plastic stools guzzling from brothy bowls filled from steaming canisters. Trip up here and you could find yourself in a bother of boiling hot pho (noodle soup).
An American woman at the entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels, outside Saigon, exclaims: “Those Vietcong must have been tiny, I couldn’t fit my shoe in there”. I know what she means.
Very slight paunches do, though, appear as we travel further south. Hue and Hoi An, on the central coast, are a relief after oppressive-seeming Hanoi. In Hue you can see the remnants of Vietnam’s past when emperors ruled and grand palaces like the former Imperial Citadel (a Unesco World Heritage Site) and mausoleums were built in their honour.
These are nothing like Ho Chi’s bleak, soviet-inspired resting place. The Tu Duc and Khai Dinh tombs from the Nguyen dynasty are ornate, elaborate, filled with statues that might be required in the afterlife and dripping in gold. At the Tu Duc tomb, there is a large stone tablet with the lament of the Emperor who had 150 concubines yet never managed to produce an heir. These sites are under 200 years old, but they are a world away from modern Vietnam.
Hoi An is a relaxed affair. There are more travellers here. Bars are filled with gap-yearers. The mood is laidback but commercial. This is the place to have a suit whipped up in an hour or Kate’s Issa dress copied. There are signs promising the very best service, “clean, fragrant, cheap, nice”. That’s for your laundry, of course, but they offer motor bikes too.
Hiring a motorbike in Hoi An is fun but in Saigon, it’s only for the brave – or crazy. This sophisticated city is home to millions of scooters, which navigate the streets like dancing ants.
There is more war tourism here – from the harrowing War Remnants museum, which focuses on the grisly effects of Agent Orange to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city.
The prospect of crawling on my hands and knees in the dark puts me off going inside, but just being at the entrance to this extraordinary network system, 124 miles in length, used by the Vietcong during the war, is enough to give me the shivers.
Better to head back into town, where you can wander hassle-free, day or night.
The market is hot, sticky and heady. In the surrounding streets you can get a pedicure for £3. There are women waiting with plastic bowls and winning smiles to tackle your toes. It’s much more sociable than a traditional salon, if you don’t mind the odd flying nail clipping.
But Saigon does high-end pampering beautifully too. The Park Hyatt has city glamour down perfectly. The wonderful swimming pool, three floors up, is long enough for doing decent laps and there is a lavish bar in the cavernous entrance. You could easily spend a week here – and feel just as relaxed as if you’d been lounging on a beach. I meet lots of families who are doing just that.
If you want to feel the sand between your perfectly manicured toes, Saigon is an easy jumping-off point for islands off the South and South West Coast, like Con Dao and Phu Quoc.
I follow in Brangelina’s footsteps to Con Dao and the Six Senses resort, perched discreetly on a mile-long beach. Con Dao was formerly a prison island, set up by the French in 1861, and you can still visit the great eerie buildings in the main town.
The weather is stormy and the sea rushes in and out with gusto, but it is a wonderfully tropical setting and the grey sky doesn’t matter a bit.
It’s warm, and the different shades of grey in the sea and the sky are peaceful. You can walk, run, swim, bike and do all manner of water sports if the water calms down. Not to mention learn how to cook the fragrant Vietnamese delicacies I have been busy guzzling.
Six Senses is known for its sustainable and sparry outlook. It employs locals and their workers seem happy and chatty. Relaxation is the theme here – and by the end of the week I feel well-nourished in mind and body. And ready to sing the praises of this captivating country.