Away from all the street traffic and market hassle, Vietnam has a few places to ease into a quieter, more refined, pampered and timeless, atmosphere.
French colonial hotels
Until someone converts those gorgeous French mansions into B&B-style boutique hotels, there are a few French colonial hotels to check into for a little retro vibe. Of the best is Hue's La Residence (phone +84 54 383 7475, www.la-residence-hue.com
), a three-wing riverside hotel expanded from the 1920s home of the French governor. Ho Chi Minh City has a few options, but all pale in comparison to Hanoi's Sofitel Metropole (phone +84 4 3826 6919, www.accorhotels.com/asia
), a sleekly rejuvenated 1901 classic, with wood floors, historic prints and shuttered windows atop a buzzing lobby that looks like it came from a Graham Greene novel. For a more sedate, French country flair, Dalat's Evason Mandara Villas Dalat (phone +84 63 355 5888, www.anamandara-resort.com
) is a relaxed 57-acre resort of stand-alone '20s-era villas with mountain views.
Remove yourself from the Halong Bay circuit aboard one of the luxury cruise ships that take to the green waters peppered with limestone towers. The best is the re-built 1910 paddle steamer Emeraude
( phone +84 4 3934 0888, www.emeraude-cruises.com
), with wicker lounge chairs on the planked decks and a live jazz band in the classy wood-floor cafe. In the south, pick your own itineraries through the waterways of the Mekong Delta aboard the more intimate 12-berth Bassac
. Check www.exotissimo.com
Vietnam's best is Ho Chi Minh City's Le Maison de L'Apothiquaire (phone +84 8 3932 5181, www.lapothiquaire.com
, 64A Truong Dinh Street), built from a '50s art-deco villa and designed like a 17th-century chemist's shop. For spa retreats away from everyone, Quy Nhon's beachside Life Wellness Resort (phone +84 56 384 0132, www.life-resorts.com
) is backed by green mountains and the lone player in an off-the-beaten-track strip of beach between Nha Trang and Mui Ne. A bit more accessible is its sister spa in Hoi An (phone +84 510 391 4555), on the edge of the historic centre, with massages and body treatments in an open-area alongside the river.
Luxury beach hotels
When money isn't the issue, the mile-long private beach of Nam Hai between Hoi An and Danang, in Dien Duong village features 100 private villas and a "floating spa" that easily make up Vietnam's nicest hotel. It's nice enough for Mick Jagger anyway, who apparently bought one of the pool villas in 2007 (phone +84 510 394 0000, www.ghmhotels.com
Meanwhile, set to open in late 2009, the beach-side spa hotel Six Senses Hideaway Con Dao could be a tourism-changer for the remote Con Dao island east of Ho Chi Minh City. The site of grisly prisons during the French and American wars, Con Dao's starting to emerge as Vietnam’s new diving hub.
Shopping in Hanoi
Vietnam's shopping scene has long outgrown the Tin Tin in Vietnam
T-shirts. For the most options accessible by foot, nothing beats Hanoi. Local designers, particularly around its cathedral district, keep an eye on changing, modern tastes. Mosaique (phone +84 4 3210 5387, 6 Ly Quoc Su Street) is a two-floor showroom of sleek home decor, such as beaded lamps and tableware. Across from St Joseph's Cathedral, Song (phone +84 4 3928 8733, 27 Nha Tho Street) features the Western-style (and sized) clothing from a Hanoi-based French designer. Hanoi's gallery scene is just north, along Hang Gai and Hang Bong streets. The classiest is Apricot Gallery (phone +84 4 3828 8965, 40B Hang Bong Street), with Vietnamese scenes done in oils.
Next: One week itinerary
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