The magnificent garden at the tomb of Emperor Minh Mang outside Hue

Vietnam

The words 'five star' have become fairly meaningless in the modern tropical travel world: most high end hotels have all the amenities, to warrant such a ranking, but little heart. They feel, look and sound mass-produced: the lift music doesn’t change from continent to continent.
I happened to be present at the Four Seasons Jimbaran in Bali, in 1985, the first time a photo-stylist asked a lithesome blond in a bikini to assume the lotus position on a pool edge at sunset. This was shortly after the photographer – legendary romantic shutter-bug Tim Street-Porter, I recall – first put the same blonde in a spa bath and filled it up with hibiscus flowers. 
Nothing has moved on since then: one can now have one's soul soothed in any one of ten thousand almost identical hotels across the tropical world. The architecture, the interiors and even the service is formulaic: it's as if aliens came down and left a lot of brown things in rows evenly spaced. Glass box villas are 'symbiotic with the rich local heritage' and robotic spa treatments are 'steeped in ancient rituals'. 


The famous Austin in which the Vietnamese Buddhist monk self-immolated in Saigon in 1963; now enshrined in the beautiful 16th century Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue

Everything works better, mind you, and the fusion food has improved, but many travellers are starting to feel processed. I long for the old days when the doors didn't shut properly but smiles were genuine; before all the Balinese went to hotel training academies and the Thais were told to keep it clean. 
For that reason travellers must do due diligence to find charm and authenticity, to try and get the best out of well worn tourist haunts as,  since the introduction of budget airlines and the explosion of mass tourism, finding somewhere 'un-discovered' is not an option. 
One has to be cagey and to work the problem, unless of course you just want to lounge by a pool and read between set meals. 

•    •    •

Last month I went back to Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam and found it swarming with packaged tourists from Taiwan. I was working nearby and probably would not have risked my memories of the quiet imperial gardens I first visited 20 years ago were it not for an urge to experience, once again, first hand, the architectural and landscape design excellence of the Royal Central Vietnamese gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries.


Idyllic coastal village on Cham Island, off the Hoi An coast
Roof decoration on a temple in Hue

To avoid being trampled I stayed at a small garden cafe plus pension in the garden suburbs that surround the old town palace. There are plenty. The next morning I took a cab to the fabled tombs – the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc and the Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh – so as to arrive 15 minutes before the official opening hour, 8 a.m. I then talked my way in. I believe that gate-keepers are sympathetic to early birds dressed as colonial era administrators. This tactic has worked in Mexico, Egypt, Morocco and Java put is less likely to succeed in China, France and the U.S. 
I then quickly retreated to the old 16th century port town of Hoi An, a pleasant 90 minutes drive south, through Danang, central Vietnam's main airport hub. The town is a bit like Jogjakarta in the 1970s – bustling with backpackers and cultural tourists – all languidly criss-crossing this cultural marvel on foot, with frequent stops to sample the excellent local food at any one of the hundred or so small cafes and roadside stalls. 


The main harbour of Hoi An established by the Japanese in the 16th century to export ceramics back to Japan

From Danang, I flew back to Cam Ran Airport and drove 30 minutes to Nha Trang.
Silk Air flies into Danang daily, from Singapore. One can also fly in from Bangkok. Vietnam Airlines are excellent with multiple flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. One can fly to Nha Trang (Cam Ranh Airport) from most Vietnamese cities, on Vietnam Airlines (excellent) or direct from Moscow on either Aeroflot or Vietnam Airlines.

NHA TRANG, VIETNAM, 14th January 2014
The last time I was here, in 1990, I marvelled at the rows of charming French Colonial bungalows which paralleled the beach promenade. Giant topiarized Sea Oaks, all with white 'socks' painted on their twisted trunks, ran the full length of the beach park. In 1995 it remained as a survivor from a former age, a rare example of tropical coastal colonial cosy.


Amazing old Cassuanum trees in the coastal park in Nha Trang

Today the quaint bungalows are all but gone, replaced with Vietnam's answer to Cancun. The Sea Oaks are still there, playing host to a heavy sprinkling of social realist monuments, garish restaurants and heavy Russians (the rumour is they shoot all the good-looking ones at the airport on arrival). 


Buddhist monk goes for morning walk inside Long So’n pagoda,
Nha Trang, Vietnam

Ceramic mosaic wall decoration
at Long So’n Pagoda, Nha Trang

It only takes a few minutes, however, to realize the old hospitality and grace of the local people have not changed.
I am staying at the beachside Sunrise hotel which has the best baguettes and salad nicoise, as well as excellent Vietnamese food served in Raffles Hotel-style ambience on a broad veranda. Everyone has a spring in their step and a will to please. At night, in my room, I can hear the crashing of waves and the whimpering of young lovers in the park below.


Inspired creative re-use of wave pool at water park, Nha Trang

Nearby the hotel is the Cham Tower, an 8th - 13th century temple complex which survived the American bombings. It is a reminder of the mighty Champa Kingdom (Hindu) which once enjoyed trade and family ties with Indonesia's Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms. There are many other Champa Empire ruins with a 2-hour drive of the hotel. Two hours away also is the colonial era hill station of Dalat, famous for its cool mountain air and tribal culture.


The mandapa (hall) section of the Ponagar Champa temple on the Cai River in Vietnam

On day two, I spent a few hours at the fish market – admiring the fish and the fashion (Gaultier was on to something) – before sampling the local speciality – Pork knuckle Fa noodles – at a food stall just outside the market gates. In an adjacent cafe, workers are watching Kung Fu movies like stunned mullets; trays of pretty tea services are placed on coffee tables in front of them.


Fisherman unload a boatload of giant clam shells at the Nha Trang fish market

Lady labourer fisherwomen fashionistas
at fish market, Nha Trang

(See my video: NHA TRANG FISH MARKET : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7IyDw3bngA)


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