Vietnamese whirl: Our luxury travel guide to Vietnam

Words by
Charlotte McManus

29th June 2020

From the skyscrapers and shops of Saigon to the world heritage sights of Hoi An, Vietnam is a sensory thrill — the only problem is the lack of time to take it all in

It’s 6am in Ho Chi Minh City. Jetlagged and bleary-eyed, my two friends and I stagger out of the airport, where the Vietnamese sunshine — and humidity — packs quite the punch. Happily, a driver is waiting to whisk us to our first destination in air-conditioned comfort. The city looms large from outside the car windows; modern skyscrapers intermixed with colonial French buildings, with endless throngs of beeping mopeds weaving their way in between. The bustle is infectious, even this early.

In District 1, we pull up outside the 40-storey Times Square Building, where The Reverie Saigon occupies the topmost floors. Opened in 2015, this unabashedly lavish property — its website uses the term “spectacularly extravagant” — comes with panoramic city views, its own private yacht and a joyfully OTT approach to Italian-inspired opulence. Gilt, marble and crystal gleam from every surface, while objet d’art abound (our jaws drop at the 24-carat gold and malachite clock looming three foot high in the lobby). Understated this is not, but the fantastical makes for great fun.

The hotel is also a mecca for lovers of luxury brands, from Frette linen and Chopard toiletries to entire suites designed by prestigious maisons, such as Provasi or Visionnaire. There are 286 plush rooms to choose from (in no fewer than 12 categories), each with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city and, if you’re lucky,
the Saigon River.

Vietnamese whirl: Our luxury travel guide to Vietnam

The Reverie Saigon is a "spectacularly extravagant" hotel gleaming with gilt, marble and crystal

After a blissful Five Elements massage — combining Tibetan techniques with five essential oils to balance the body — and a swim in the mosaic-decorated, open-air pool, we are suitably refreshed and ready to explore. Be warned: getting around in Saigon — very few locals actually use “Ho Chi Minh City”— is not for the faint-hearted. Roads are chaotic and pedestrian crossings an afterthought, so be prepared to screw up your courage and step headlong into traffic. Even better, as a local friend advised us, order a car (or a seat on the back of a moped) using Uber or local Google-translated alternative, Grab.

The Reverie is well-placed among Saigon’s attractions. A few doors down are the Cafe Apartments at 42 Nyugen Hue Street, an abandoned building-turned-shopping centre where we spend a happy afternoon discovering independent boutiques and artsy cafes. Nearby, Ben Thanh Market stocks everything from street food and local lacquerware to designer knock-offs and fresh produce — watch out for the notoriously pungent durian fruit. For a spot of culture, head to the spectacular Taoist temple at the Jade Emperor Pagoda, or the War Remnants Museum in District 3, which offers a sobering retrospective of the conflict.

Vietnamese whirl: Our luxury travel guide to Vietnam

A treatment room at The Reverie Saigon's on-site spa

As one of Vietnam’s megacities, dining options are plentiful. Tucked away on a side street rooftop, Secret Garden is a bonny spot, with leafy plants, fairy lights and the occasional footloose chicken. We grab a terrace table and feast on goi du du (papaya salad), fried squid dipped in chilli sauce and a succulent stir fry made with beef and green peppers. The next night we get a taste of real Saigon at Bahn Xeo 46a. Chef Anthony Bourdain raved about this place and it’s easy to see why — the roadside, no-frills location may not win any beauty contests, but the banh xeo (sizzling pancakes) are delicious; crispy rice batter crêpes filled with seafood and vegetables.

With booze, beer is the beverage of choice, as it is in much of southeast Asia. Named brands like Bia Saigon and Tiger are plentiful, but there’s nothing quite like a chilled jug of bia hoi (fresh beer), light and refreshing and made on the day — an ideal antidote to the humidity — which we find at many of the city’s neighbourhood watering holes. The hipster bar scene is on the rise here, too, attracting locals, travellers and expats alike — in the up-and-coming Bin Thanh district, we soon make a crowd of friends at Birdy’s bijou space before heading a few doors down to the cool new Luu Bar, where DJs spin tracks well into the night.

We also enjoy a more ritzy experience with scenic sundowners at Blank Lounge. Located on floors 75-76 of Landmark 81, Vietnam’s tallest building — the 14th tallest in the world, in fact — its well-crafted cocktails are made with homemade syrups and infusions. The Hanoi Sour is particularly good.

Vietnamese whirl: Our luxury travel guide to Vietnam

The popular Meliá Ho Tram beach resort

After a few hectic days in Saigon — and one last wickedly indulgent breakfast buffet at The Reverie’s Cafe Cardinal — we were more than ready for some R&R. A two-hour drive from Saigon — turning progressively pastoral as we pass mountains and rice fields — is the Meliá Ho Tram Beach Resort. Still relatively underdeveloped, Ho Tram’s pristine beachfront is well liked by locals looking to escape from the city, with the East Sea, Ray river and a lush mangrove forest all nearby.

With its relaxed design and tranquil ambience, the Meliá’s approach to luxury is the polar opposite to that of The Reverie. A modern Mediterranean influence comes through in neutral tones, natural materials and clean-lined decor, emphasising the site’s verdant surroundings with an abundance of trees (4,000 kinds, no less) and water features.

Vietnamese whirl: Our luxury travel guide to Vietnam

A stylish suite at Meliá Ho Tram

While stylishly appointed rooms and suites are available in the main hotel, we are lucky enough to get a private villa, which comes with a kitchen, a garden view and its own pool, where you can order breakfast served on a floating tray if so inclined. It’s not long before we are blissfully ensconced on sun loungers by the Meliá’s large palm tree-lined pool, moving only to savour the fresh smoothies and cocktails offered at the swim-up bar, or to take a stroll along the resort’s sandy beach. Moreover, as we are staying in a villa, we are privy to The Level benefits, which include access to The Level Lounge and daily “Cocktail Time” (two hours of complimentary drinks) at the private Level pool. At nightfall, we don smart-casual togs for dinner at the resort’s Muoi restaurant, which combines Vietnamese fine dining with shoreline views.

After two days’ of doing admittedly very little, we feel suitably revived and ready for the next leg of our southern Vietnamese adventure. From Ho Chi Minh City airport, we board a plane to Nha Trang on the eastern coast —domestic flights are cheap and plentiful and are the quickest way to get around this vast country; our flight only took an hour.

As a beach resort town, Nha Trang is popular with tourists both homegrown and international, meaning it’s a lively (if not exactly relaxing) place to visit. A night or two is enough to soak up the party culture; simply trawl the waterfront to find buzzy beach clubs. Make time for dinner at O.HE Nu’ó’ng & Beer in town, where you can barbecue fresh meat and fish over hot coals at your own table.

Vietnamese whirl: Our luxury travel guide to Vietnam

A tranquil beachfront villa at the Six Senses resort

Come morning, suffering with stretched stomachs and sore heads, my friends and I agree that a spot of self-care is in order — and nowhere does wellness quite like Six Senses. While the company owns a property in Nha Trang itself (Six Senses Evason Ana Mandara) we opt instead for the nearby Ninh Van Bay resort, a real hidden gem that creates the illusion of being marooned on a remote tropical island. In fact, it is a peninsula that sits on the main coastline across the water from Nha Trang, though the tropical setting is so dense that guests can only reach it by boat.

After a speedy trip over the waves, we clamber on to the jetty to discover paradise. A handful of wooden structures dot the landscape, with the occasional golf buggy making the rounds, but otherwise all is sea, sky and jungle. The resort is boutique in size, with each of its 59 (soon expanding to 62) private pool villas set around a particular aspect of the site’s gorgeous environment, from hilltop and rock to water or beachfront. We are welcomed into one of the latter, a charming split-level structure with infinity pool, outdoor shower, a huge wooden bathtub and the most heavenly of beds. The attention to detail here is first-rate — I am charmed by the three bikes stood outside, with miniature signs carved with each of our names.

Vietnamese whirl: Our luxury travel guide to Vietnam

Aerial yoga at Six Senses in Ninh Van Bay

But back to the wellness. As with all Six Senses properties, the spa is an undeniable highlight. For starters, I am hooked up to all manner of sensors as part of a “wellness screening”, the results of which can be addressed at the resort with tailor-made treatments, fitness and nutrition packages. The subsequent Six Senses Signature Tension Soother treatment is wonderfully relaxing, involving 90 minutes of therapeutic trigger techniques that magic away my muscle tension and leaves my body feeling light as air.

Come morning, suffering with stretched stomachs and sore heads, my friends and I agree that a spot of self-care is in order - and nowhere does wellness quite like Six Senses

Although the resort offers a wide range of excursions, Ninh Van Bay’s relatively remote location means that real thought has gone into the on-site offering too. We try our hand at aerial yoga and Vietnamese cooking classes, as well as a challenging early-morning jungle hike, although the unanimous agreement of the top experience was a “romantic” sunset cruise for, er, three. The cuisine is also excellent, with a well-balanced east-meets-west theme running across its various restaurants. At Dining by the Bay, we tuck into flavoursome beef pho (noodle soup), grilled lobster and garlicky stir-fried morning glory, alongside a clay pot of sticky caramelised cobia fish and a platter of perfectly cooked spring rolls. One regret is not trying out the “Wine Cave”, which offers intimate dinners and top vintages in an underground chamber.

Vietnamese whirl: Our luxury travel guide to Vietnam

UNESCO World Heritage Site Hoi An is one of Vietnam’s prettiest spots

Three days later, the Six Senses staff cheerfully wave us off as our boat speeds across the bay back to Nha Trang. From here, it’s a short flight to Da Nang, where we take a cab to our final destination, UNESCO World Heritage Site Hoi An. Historically a trading port, this waterfront town is quite possibly the prettiest spot in all of Vietnam — our Instagram feeds are soon groaning with a deluge of French architecture, charming temples and colourful paper lanterns, which flutter from almost every building. Pastel-coloured cafés offering cà phê đá (iced coffee) abound (try with condensed milk for a real treat), while we all made out like bandits at Hoi An’s famous tailoring boutiques, which will make just about any garment imaginable bespoke if you’re around for a few days — come armed with pictures of your desired style for best results. Active types can hire a bike to explore nearby rice paddies or go snorkelling among the coral reefs of the Cham Islands, a protected marine park 15km offshore (not accessible during monsoon season, October-February).

Hoi An really comes alive at night. The river is thronged with floating candles and traditional wooden boats, while the ever-busy Night Market stocks everything from silk, jewellery and those famous lanterns to banana pancakes and roasted frogs. Our last meal takes place at Miss Ly Cafe, an acclaimed family-run restaurant specialising in such local delicacies as shrimp-stuffed white rose dumplings and fried wontons, served open with salsa-like toppings. You can’t make reservations so be prepared to wait. The riverside can get a bit hectic with inebriated backpackers after dark, but the Tadioto Whisky Bar or The Quiet American (yes, inspired by the Graham Greene novel) offer more sedate options for a nightcap.

Despite the absolute overload to the senses we’ve experienced during our trip, it feels as though we are preparing to board our flight back to Heathrow almost as soon as we’ve begun. After two weeks, we have only scratched the surface of this melting pot of a country. Next time, Hanoi and the north beckons…

Rates at The Reverie Saigon start from £272 per night for two people sharing a deluxe room, including breakfast,

Rates at Meliá Ho Tram start from £83 per night for two people sharing a deluxe room,

Rates at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay start from £571 per night for two sharing a Hill Top Pool Villa, including breakfast,

Vietnam Airlines flights from London Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City start from £523

All prices accurate according to exchange rate at time of press