I never expected to fall for Southeast Asia as hard and fast as I did. Vietnam was my introduction to the region called Indochina, where I went on to have wonderful times in Laos and Cambodia, too. But it was Vietnam that started it all. Many of us have a history with this country, whether it’s firsthand or a generation or two removed. I approached with a bit of caution and was caught off-guard by a big, high-energy embrace that couldn’t have been a happier surprise.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, are as caffeinated as any two cities can be, and they wear their histories on their sleeves. French Colonial mansions cuddle up to skyscrapers that sit cheek-by-jowl with tiny traditional shops. It’s all best seen from a portable ringside seat aboard a cyclo, a bike-powered rickshaw. Even the grand hotels – best-in-the-world properties like the Park Hyatt Saigon and the Sofitel Metropole – exude a kind of buttoned-up vigor that manages to be soothing and exciting at the same time.
I’m not a person who gets too ethereal about nature, but I have to say that the Vietnamese countryside has what I can only call amazing spiritual energy. Ride a bike on a path in the level Mekong Delta, and you can really feel the life. Farmers call greetings, then bend double over the neat rows of rice plants in their paddies. A moped putt-putts past with a live pig perched in the handlebar basket. When our friend Hai Cu plucks fruit for you from a tree in his orchard and the juice drips off your chin, you’ll be tempted to think it just doesn’t get any better. Though in Vietnam, the best is always yet to come.
Like the morning you awake on a luxury junk anchored in gorgeous Halong Bay where limestone karsts soar like rugged exclamation points above the still water. Do you have any idea how good a freshly brewed cup of Vietnamese coffee tastes as the sun chases off the morning mist right before your eyes? Your appetite will be stoked, that’s for sure. Skip your usual breakfast this one time, and instead, slurp a bowl of freshly prepared pho. That bubbly inhalation isn’t only acceptable, it’s practically required. And it’s just one more way Vietnam is one of the liveliest and most sublime countries I’ve ever visited[SP1] .
I’ll always treasure Laos where I took a bath with the elephants and participated in an alms ceremony in Luang Prabang. That sunset visit to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat (and the Raffles Hotel there) are on my list of all-time favorite experiences. But lush, relaxing, vivacious Vietnam started my love affair with Southeast Asia, and it will do the same for you.