Travel: The calm and charm of Vietnam
It may be a favourite destination for backpackers, but it’s also possible to explore Vietnam in style.
Abi Jackson discovers culture, history and five-star luxury in Hue and Hoi An.
Lang Co’s fisherman’s village springs into life before sunrise. The fishermen - and fisherwomen - haul in their overnight bounties as traders set up stalls at the daily morning market.
By mid-afternoon the pace is sleepy; the occasional boat rows into shore and a small crew tend their nets, while a gaggle of local grandmas have turned the empty market tables into a convenient meeting spot, gossiping in the shade as ducks roam at their feet.
None of them speak English, but cooing at fluffy ducklings is universal, I discover, after going over to say hello.
Children on their way home from school, wearing pristine blue uniforms and curious smiles, come to join us.
It’s a simple scene, but experiences like this are what make my first ever visit to Vietnam unforgettable.
This part of the world is usually associated with backpackers, young gap-year explorers roughing it in no-frills hostels - but that’s changing.
The region is becoming increasingly popular with other groups: honeymooners seeking something a little less predictable as well as families and retired couples looking for a culture-packed adventure.
In the last couple of years the launch of direct flights from London to the capital, Hanoi, has made getting there easier, and a number of resort developments mean it’s now perfectly possible to combine five-star comfort with history, culture and authentic Eastern charm.
Lang Co, tucked between expanses of paddy fields and jungle on Vietnam’s central coast, is relatively quiet, so visitors here are still a bit of a novelty - though a very welcome one.
A short drive from the fishing village sits a stunning stretch of sandy beach which, until a few years ago, was almost completely remote.
Now it’s home to the newest addition to the Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts - Banyan Tree Lang Co and sister hotel Angsana, which opened earlier this year.
Getting to Vietnam may have become easier, but it’s still a long journey, so the VIP greeting at Banyan Tree goes down a treat.
A large gong chimes to mark my arrival and I’m handed a refreshing drink before checking in (everybody’s a VIP here). Within moments, flight-weariness forgotten, I’m wide-eyed as I take in the surroundings.
Anybody familiar with Banyan Tree resorts will know that they’re utterly stunning. There’s not a whiff of pretension and, while some luxury hotels can be slightly intimidating, it’s all about calm and serenity here.
Flanked by thickly-forested hills, there’s something enticingly James Bond-like about the place, with its grey walls and clay-tiled rooftops and a footbridge - across the river which runs through the resort - leading to the open-air lobby, where the centrepiece is a large square pond with a trickling fountain.
The resort is made up of 49 private villas. Guests are whisked to their rooms on golf buggies which can be called for at any time (or you can borrow a bike).
I’m travelling alone, which seems a bit of a waste when I clamp eyes on my villa and its huge double bed and his-and-hers bathroom with a giant tub and walk-in shower.
I also have my own garden, with a small pool, Jacuzzi, daybed, loungers and table and chairs, and a little path and gate leading onto the beach.
Though not exclusively for adults, the resort’s clearly been designed with couples in mind. At night, the river is lit with colourful lanterns and guests can enjoy a romantic boat ride.
Romantic dinners can be set up on the beach, or in your villa, though the resort’s restaurants are certainly worth a visit.
For me, a walk along the deserted beach at sunrise (5am, if you’re wondering), followed by an al fresco garden breakfast, with birdsong and the occasional butterfly for company, is a total treat.
Ten minutes down the beach, Angsana is the more family-friendly of the two hotels, with rooms ranging from deluxe doubles to a two-bedroom loft suite. There’s also a large golf course and lots of activities, including watersports, a games room and crafts club, for kids and teens.
Lang Co is within easy distance of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Hue, Hoi An and My Son.
Hue is a scenic 1.5-mile drive away. Roads here are in decent condition and relatively safe, with strict speed limits.
We pass endless rice paddies, dotted with workers wearing traditional Vietnamese conical hats and the odd water buffalo, grazing happily in the sun. “They deserve a rest - they’re the hardest workers in the field,” our guide Tran jokes.
Big blankets of rice are laid out to dry on the roadside, while pink lotus flowers and cemeteries filled with dazzling, ornate graves provide flashes of colour on the journey.
Hue city, with a population of 1.3 million, appears surprisingly modern at first, as the farmers’ traditional attire gives way to fashionable skinny jeans and tops.
The streets buzz with scooters, carrying young office workers, couples and sometimes entire families.
Perfume River separates the more developed south from the city’s north, where the heritage sites are found.
The ancient citadel - formerly the Imperial City and home to Vietnam’s Nguyen royal family - suffered severe damage during the war. Though battle scars remain, it’s been beautifully restored and Tran provides a history lesson as our tour group ambles around.
A short drive away is the impressive Thien Mu Pagoda. Built in 1601, at seven storeys high it’s Vietnam’s tallest and has an iconic status among locals.
Monks meander peacefully around the grounds while visitors snap away with their cameras. After a morning sightseeing, lunch at nearby Y Thao Garden is the perfect reward.
Tourists flock here for the delicious and reasonably-priced traditional fare, including the amusing spring roll peacock (trust me, you won’t regret it!) and the obligatory bowl of Vietnamese pho.
Historical Hoi An is perhaps the region’s most popular tourist hotspot, and it’s easy to see why. Again, a river runs through the ancient town, where a picturesque bridge, lined with brightly coloured lanterns, takes centre stage.
Lanterns are a key presence in Hoi An, with row upon row of them strung above streets and dangling from shop ceilings.
At night, the place dazzles with colour. After exploring the markets, I walked along the river and bought a candlelit Lotus float from a local schoolgirl on the bank. You launch your candle on the river and make a wish as it’s carried away.
It’s impossible not to be charmed by the locals, many of whom are Buddhist. Despite its heartbreaking history, I’m moved by Vietnam’s sense of peace, and the people are among the loveliest I’ve met.
My tour group enjoys dinner at the new Seedlings restaurant, a joint project between Banyan Tree and KOTO, a charity which supports disadvantaged youths in Vietnam, training them up as chefs and restaurant staff.
While style and luxury are at the forefront of the Banyan Tree brand, the company has a strong ethical and green ethos.
Supporting local communities is at the heart of how the resorts operate. In Lang Co, Banyan Tree has a number of conservation projects on the go, and is building ties with local farmers and fishermen - helping them grow their businesses in exchange for guaranteed trade supplying ingredients to the hotel’s kitchens.
Guests enjoy knowing they’re eating locally-sourced food, and that a luxury resort can boost a rural area without destroying its traditional charm.
Banyan Tree Lang Co only opened in May this year, but already local folk are reaping rewards, with some families being able to buy TVs and scooters for the first time. The resort’s shop also sells beautiful local art and hand-made wares.
Two lanterns, one red and one turquoise, are my souvenirs of choice, picked up for a few pounds in Hoi An. A bargain, and now hanging in my flat as a daily remember of a memorable trip.
Travel facts - Vietnam
:: A week’s stay at the Banyan Tree Lang Co starts at £1,805 per person including transfers, return flights with Vietnam Airlines from Gatwick and B&B accommodation in a Lagoon Pool Villa.
Book through Western & Oriental by calling 0207 666 1234 or visiting www.westernoriental.com