Crystal blue persuasion Even in the off-season heat, six days in Vietnam beguiles with luxurious accommodation, Old Quarter charm and fine, fine food

HANOI, Vietnam — There are, according to our tour guide, 85,000 people living in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a section of the city only 88 hectares in size.

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HANOI, Vietnam — There are, according to our tour guide, 85,000 people living in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a section of the city only 88 hectares in size.

And they’re all on the same street I am. Or so it seems.

To put that into perspective, there are 85,000 souls living in an area that if square, would be less than a kilometre long on its sides. If that sounds wild, it’s because it is. Scooters, cars, pedestrians and cyclists all struggle to navigate its narrow corridors. At various points, the street is shoulder-to-shoulder with pedestrians, and this isn’t even a busy tourism season.

There is cold beer on every street corner, running about 50 cents each. Street food is plentiful, from grilled meats to banh mi to pho, and it smells delicious. Since this is a busy area of the city, don’t be surprised if some other aromas aren’t quite as appetizing. Also obvious are the closed shops that did not survive the pandemic.

Since 1010, Hanoi has been the capital of this S-shaped country of 97 million people. Downtown is as modern and cosmopolitan as many other important cities.

I’m here in July, and it’s hardly the best time to come. The heat is stifling, with humidity that makes the 35 C temperature at 10 a.m. on a recent Sunday feel like 41 degrees. Earlier in the week, in Ha Long, I opened the balcony door at 4 a.m. and the heat hit me like a tidal wave. It’s also the start of rainy season, but the rain typically ends by midday.

It was drier and a bit cooler down south in Nha Trang, where we spent the last three days of our journey.

Locals say the best time to visit Vietnam is in January, and it’s cheap, too. A recent search for packages suggests an eight-day visit to the resorts in Nha Trang, on the South China Sea, in mid-January is C$2,000 to C$2,600 per person, double occupancy, flights from Winnipeg included.

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The Vinpearl Resort in Nha Trang is on Hon Tre Island, a short boat ride from the mainland. It is competitive with some of the best all-inclusive resorts you might see on Grand Cayman.

Hanoi isn’t prohibitively expensive, either. Our stop for our one-night visit was the Sofitel Metropole in the French Quarter. Comparable to a Ritz, the Sofitel in January runs for $283 a night, according to a recent online search. If you’re going to come to a country halfway around the world — we’re 12 time zones out of 24 away from Winnipeg — it’s a mistake to not visit this historic city, too.

There’s the water puppet show, a production whereby puppeteers behind a curtain manipulate characters of a short play using mechanicals hidden under water. The dialog is all in Vietnamese, but thanks to some easily discernible visual clues and a soundtrack played and sung live by musicians to the sides of the stage, it’s enjoyable and, roughly, understandable by audiences versed in any language.

The theatre is steps from the French Quarter and steps from the Old Quarter. It’s a great launching point for an Old Quarter tour.

Food in Vietnam is outstanding. It’s fresh and healthy, with most cooking techniques being steaming, roasting or braising. Vegetables comprise the majority of many dishes, and techniques such as deep-frying are reserved for textural components rather than main ingredients.

The worst pho here beats the best pho at home hands down. This traditional soup, for the unaware, is based on a deeply flavoured broth filled with vegetables, rice noodles and a relatively small amount of protein, often shellfish, beef, pork or chicken. Spicy chili paste, sliced red chilies, scallions, fish sauce, soy sauce and minced garlic are often added at the diner’s pleasure.

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The Vinpearl Golf Nha Trang is a beautiful, and challenging, golf course.

Vietnamese cuisine comes with built-in catering to vegetarians, with tofu often offered as a replacement protein and such a heavy dependence on vegetables that ditching meat is often hardly noticeable. Not evident, however, were vegetarian broths for the soups.

Vietnam is, hypothetically speaking, a communist country with single-party rule. Strange as it may seem to anyone with deeply held capitalist preferences, it works. While the country still venerates liberator Ho Chi Minh as a hero, it has largely abandoned his devastating Marxist/Leninist economic policies. Private ownership of capital, real estate and corporations is encouraged: our host, Vingroup, is Vietnam’s largest publicly traded corporation, with interests in real estate, automobiles (the reason for our trip), education, health care, technology and hospitality.

In 2017, an analysis by international consulting powerhouse PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested Vietnam was the world’s fastest growing economy with a 5.1 per cent growth in gross domestic product, which is estimated at US$401 billion for 2022). It ranks 37th in the world by GDP and 23rd by purchasing power parity.

Regular citizens can own property, and if needed, operate their own businesses from permitted spaces in their property.

Key to that apparently benevolent communism is a ruling class that recognizes the pride the people of Vietnam take in vanquishing powerful enemies, from the French colonizers in the 1955 Indochina War to the Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s. National intolerance of oppression by 97 million people has led the communist party to introduce several sets of economic reform, including allowing the local currency, the dong, to float, which has allowed the exports of Vietnam to thrive, and embracing private commerce. The economy is a mix of planned growth and free enterprise.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

Hanoi is known for its many lakes, many with colourful bridges that light up at night. This is Hoan Kiem Lake, which borders the Old Quarter. The bridge leads to an island temple.

None of this is intended to completely exonerate the communist government: press freedom ranks among the lowest in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders, and all media is state owned and subject to severe censorship, particularly regarding government, dissension or corruption of government officials. Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press are, apparently, just words.

Yet world news websites are easily accessed from inside Vietnam, so there appears to be little effort to shield the Vietnamese from foreign reporting.

Look up vacations in Vietnam and a name likely to be somewhere on the list of options is Vinpearl, which operates a chain of 35 resorts and hotels. We stayed at two of them: Vinpearl Ha Long and Vinpearl Nha Trang. The quality of construction, service and food is competitive with some of the best in the world.

Vingroup, which owns Vinpearl and automaker Vinfast, which is planning to launch in Canada with two electric vehicles by early next year, invited 100 journalists, customers and business partners to tour the country, and visit its resorts and manufacturing facilities.

Ha Long Bay is one of the country’s jewels, with 1,969 tall islands dotting the crystal blue, heavily salted water. A dinner cruise on the bay is a must.

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On our dinner cruise on Ha Long Bay, traditional artists offered mini classes in traditional Vietnamese art.

In Nha Trang, our last stop on this six-day adventure, billions of dollars in investment — by Westin, Movenpick, Radisson and others — is clearly evident in the resorts built or under construction on the highway between Nha Trang and the Cam Ranh International Airport, which itself is undergoing hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations and construction of a new terminal building.

The Vinpearl Nha Trang, like its counterpart in Ha Long Bay, is on an island, serviced by on-demand shuttle boats. Hon Tre, as the island is called, is almost exclusively Vingroup property, and all of it is built with no half measures in play. Marble, stone, carvings — all the things you couldn’t feasibly do today in North America — are used to utmost effect.

Vinpearl Golf is one of the island’s jewels. My playing partner, fellow automotive journalist Brian Chow, and I had a great few hours of golf. Which is different than a few hours of great golf, thanks to our suddenly acquired duffer status. We blame the heat, which even ice-chilled towels couldn’t stave off. Love to come here in January, when it’s more temperate. The course, however, is beautiful, with major elevation changes, elevated tees, elevated greens and enough shade to catch the odd break from the sun.

Prices for everything are very reasonable, here. My one-hour Vietnamese massage was billed at 910,000 dong, or about C$40. Imported items are more on par with prices at home or more.

How far is it to Vietnam? It’s half the world’s time zones away. If you landed on the antipode of Winnipeg, somewhere in the Indian Ocean west of Australia, you’re almost directly south of Vietnam. It is one of the longest direct flights one can take, about 15 hours 30 minutes from San Francisco. By comparison, Toronto to Tokyo is 13 hours, and Toronto to New Delhi is 13 hours. Only a handful of flights, such as New York to Singapore (18h30) or Darwin (Australia) to London (17 hours), are longer.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

Sunset on Ha Long Bay.

If you ever wondered what it would be like to be a Klingon on the Barge of the Damned, doomed never to reach Stovilkor, take one of these flights.

All of which makes Vietnam challenging as a sole destination kind of trip, but make it a multi-destination trip with stops, perhaps, in Japan and Thailand, and the flights become more humane. Or, for the really adventurous, since you’re halfway towards circumnavigating the globe anyway, just continue the trip. It’s seven hours to Dubai and from there, only four hours to Athens or six hours to Rome.

That said, Vietnam Airlines, our ride across the Pacific, provided superb service and excellent in-flight food and entertainment. Contrary to the warnings of our host, the flights there and back each had excellent selections of English-language movies.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

The Nha Hat Lon Ha Noi, Hanoi’s classical music hall.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

The first glimpse of Hanoi’s Old Quarter is only a small preview of the craziness within.

Kelly Taylor

Kelly Taylor
Copy Editor, Autos Reporter

Kelly Taylor is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor and award-winning automotive journalist. He's been a member of the Automobile Journalists' Association of Canada since 2001.

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