Vietnam comes a long way

By Mark Edward Harris

Caddies at the Montgomerie Links course.There's nothing unusual about caddies standing next to a bunker. Errant shots are a part of golf. But in this particular case, along the par-four sixth hole at the challenging Montgomerie Links located midway between Hoi An and Danang, the bunker is made of concrete.

The massive French gun emplacement is a reminder of Vietnam's turbulent 20th century. It would take far more than a sand wedge to blast out of this relic of the colonial years.

As Vietnam celebrates the 60th anniversary of the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu and prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the unification of the country in 2015, the Colin Montgomerie-designed golf course and the nearby Nam Hai beach resort, which opened its doors in 2006, serve as shining examples of just how far the country has evolved as a tourist destination since the end of the Vietnam War -- or as it is known by the Vietnamese, the American War.

The Nam Hai features 60 one-bedroom villas, 40 two- to five-bedroom residences with private infinity pools, a spa made up of eight pavilions built around a lotus pond and world-class eateries known simply as the Restaurant and the Beach Restaurant, all designed by Reda Amalou of AW2 Architects in Paris.

All this, combined with a gleaming white-sand beach, makes it difficult to leave the property. Still, one must venture forth in a land with so many extraordinary travel opportunities. (Click here or on the photos for our slideshow from Vietnam.) 

Nam Hai Beach Resort PoolNear Nam Hai are the Unesco World Heritage sites of Hoi An, a canaled town retaining much of its French Colonial architecture, and 30 miles inland, the 1,500-year-old temple complex of My Son, Vietnam's version of Cambodia's Angkor, Myanmar's Bagan and Thailand's Ayuthaya.

Dragonair's new daily route from Hong Kong to Danang makes for easy access to this central area of Vietnam across the Pacific on Cathay Pacific Airways' network.

A leisurely three-hour drive to the northwest is Hue, a city that brought the Vietnam War into the living rooms of Americans in 1968, especially with the battle for the city during the Tet Offensive. Yet here, too, rising from the ashes of the conflict, is another world-class property, La Residence Hotel & Spa.

The main building of the resort dates to 1930, when it was part of the colonial governor's residence. The Apple Tree Group led a refurbishment which maintained the interior's art deco architecture, opening as La Residence in 2005. Once again, a world-class restaurant (Le Parfum) and treatments at Le Spa might tempt many a visitor to stay put, but there are too many must-dos in this city of 340,000.

On the opposite bank of the Huong (Perfume) River from Le Residence is the Imperial City, dating to the early 19th century, when Hue was the capital of Vietnam.

Artwork For SaleCyclos arranged by the hotel take guests to the gates of this walled fortress and former palace. Bullet holes and shell craters in the stone walls, especially around the Citadel, are unfortunate souvenirs of the Tet Offensive, which began in the wee hours of Jan. 31, 1968, when North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong soldiers launched a coordinated attack on Hue as part of a countrywide assault.

An order for Allied forces to not bomb or shell the city due to its religious and cultural status was rescinded as the battle turned into house-to-house and building-to-building fighting. Out of 160 buildings in the Imperial City before the battle, only 10 major sites survived. The remaining buildings have been restored and preserved. In 1993 the Imperial City was named a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Spared the brunt of the fighting in Hue is the Tu Duc Tomb complex with beautiful temples, palaces, pavilions, courtyards, ponds and gardens. Built between 1814 and 1931, its seven tombs are laid out in accordance with phong thuy, the ancient Asian art of placement known in China and the West as feng shui. Hue remained the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty until 1945.

Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, now officially called Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi, former capital of North Vietnam and now capital of all the country, have both developed and prospered since 1995, when normalization of diplomatic relations with U.S. ushered in a wave of investment.

In the tourism arena, two of the first benefactors were the legendary hotels Caravelle in Ho Chi Minh City and Metropole in Hanoi. Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Caravelle had been taken over and renamed the Doc Lap (Independence) Hotel by the government, and soon descended into an old Eastern Bloc-feeling property.

But with the normalization of relations with the U.S. and an infusion of foreign investment, the Caravelle name was relaunched in 1998 following a complete overhaul. The renovated original 10-story hotel was joined to architect Nguyen Van Hoa's 24-story tower rising into the Ho Chi Minh City sky, earning endless praise and a five-star rating.

Its Saigon Bar, where so many journalists had swapped war stories over cocktails at the end of a day in the field, is once again a center for socializing, this time under much happier circumstances, with Prada and Vuitton replacing pens and reporter's notebooks.

Hotel Metropole Hanoi, La TerrasseThe 364-room (including 22 suites) Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is one of Asia's most iconic hotels, becoming the first Sofitel property to acquire the status of a "Legend" hotel in 2009.

Former guests at the hotel, which opened its doors in 1901, include Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and, during the war, Jane Fonda and Joan Baez. In fact, a painting of a Vietnamese child by Baez graces the Metropole's lobby. Its restaurants Le Beaulieu, Spices Garden and Angelina are among the most elegant dining spots in the capital.

During a renovation of the Metropole's pool/garden area in 2011, workers unearthed a wartime concrete air raid shelter. Rather than burying their past, the hotel embraced it, offering a Path of History Tour into this time capsule led by a local historian. The festive poolside atmosphere and the clamor of the Bamboo Bar located directly above the bunker stand in stark contrast to this relic of the war.

In addition to the standard stops on a tour of Hanoi, which include the Temple of Literature, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace, One Pillar Pagoda and the Hoa Lo Prison, an early morning stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake should be a part of any itinerary. No admission ticket is needed to watch the city come alive as its residents warm up for the day with games of badminton and tai chi routines.

(Hoa Lo Prison was dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American prisoners of war, including its more notable "guests": future senator John McCain and Douglas Peterson, the first postwar U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.)

Many of the Metropole's guests take an overnight train to Sapa, home to 30 mountain tribes in the northwest region of the country and/or a cruise in Halong Bay, the top tourist attraction in Vietnam.

Kayaking in Halong Bay.To do the train journey to Sapa in style, the Victoria Express departs Hanoi six days a week at 9:50 p.m., arriving in Lao Cai between 8 and 8:30 the following morning. The train accommodates up to 52 passengers in two luxurious, air-conditioned sleeping carriages, each with six superior cabins (four berths) and one deluxe cabin (two berths). The dining carriage, Le Tonkin, serves both Vietnamese and Western cuisine and has an excellent selection of wines.

Upon arrival in Lao Cai, prearranged shuttle buses take visitors another 20 miles through winding roads to Sapa, which was originally a hill station settled by the French in 1922. At an altitude of 5,413 feet, the town has a cooler climate than most of Vietnam.

Among the top hotels in Sapa is the four-star Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa, which operates the Victoria Express. Built as a traditional mountain chalet, the 77-room property has dramatic views of the town below. Due to its proximity to the Chinese border, hotel guests in Sapa are required to present their passport and Vietnamese visa upon check-in.

The most popular excursions in Sapa are walking tours to visit hill-tribe villages such as Lao Chai and Ta Van, home to Hmong and Dzay people. The scenery itself is breathtaking, with terraced rice paddies being passed along the way and Mount Fansipan, Vietnam's highest point, at 10,311 feet, in the distance.

For the return journey, the Victoria Express departs from Lao Cai at 8:20 p.m., arriving in Hanoi at 4:45 the following morning.

Among the ships that ply the waters of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Halong Bay is the Emeraude, a century-old converted paddle steamer celebrating its 10th anniversary as a well-appointed, three-suite, 34-cabin luxury ship offering overnight cruises. An exploration of Sung Sot (Surprise) Grotto and kayaking around the limestone karsts of Halong Bay are its top off-boat excursions. In the evening, a Vietnamese-French fusion buffet dinner is followed by a top deck open-air projection of the epic French film "Indochine." (Read the related article, "Cruising the Mekong.") 

Nearby these tranquil waters is the Gulf of Tonkin, where 50 years ago an encounter between an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, and North Vietnamese torpedo boats prompted President Lyndon Johnson to ask Congress for a decree -- the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution -- to assist Southeast Asian countries whose governments were considered to be jeopardized by "communist aggression."

U.S. conventional forces began landing en masse early in 1965 on China Beach near Danang for direct military action against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

Five decades after the Gulf of Tonkin incident and anticipating next year's 40th anniversary of the guns falling silent with the reunification of the country, a united Vietnam, with a solid infrastructure and willing and able workforce, continues its march down the tourism path of glory.

Bluffs Golf CourseIts newest golf resort, the Bluffs Ho Tram Strip Golf Course designed by Greg Norman, located in the coastal town of Ho Tram 80 miles southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, is yet another major step forward.

Norman also designed the Dunes Course at the Danang Golf Club. The Bluffs golf course, which opened in March, is one of the few championship-caliber links courses with significant elevation changes. An official grand opening with Greg Norman is scheduled for October.

The course sits perched on coastal sand dune topography and is reminiscent of the great Scottish courses where the game began in the 15th century. Like the legendary St. Andrews course, the Bluffs is exposed to high winds and seasonal inclement weather, which creates the drama that serious golfers long for.

Golfers and gamblers stay at the Grand Ho Tram Strip, which opened in July 2013 as Vietnam's first international luxury casino resort. The continuing development already features a 541-room upscale hotel, more than 10 restaurants and bars, a spa, nightclub, convention center and casino with 90 gaming tables and more than 600 slot machines.

The miles of untouched beaches along this sunshine-drenched area of the East Sea make it yet another of Vietnam's travel industry treasures.
 

Online resources

Cathay Pacific Airways:  www.cathaypacific.com  
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi:  www.sofitel-legend.com/hanoi/en/  
Emeraude Classic Cruises:  www.emeraude-cruises.com  
The Press Club:  www.hanoi-pressclub.com  
La Residence Hotel & Spa:  www.la-residence-hue.com
The Nam Hai:  www.thenamhai.com
Caravelle:  www.caravellehotel.com
Montgomerie Links:  www.montgomerielinks.com
Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa:  http://victoriahotels.asia/en/sapa
The Grand Ho Tram Strip:  www.thegrandhotramstrip.com
The Bluffs Ho Tram:  www.thebluffshotram.com
Viking River Cruises:  www.vikingrivercruises.com
AmaWaterways:  www.amawaterways.com
Avalon Waterways:  www.avalonwaterways.com 
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