In Vietnam, East and West, old and new converge

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VIETNAM-saigonmarketVietnam has always intrigued me. Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, I obviously heard a lot about the Vietnam War, but I was too young to pay too much attention. Since then, I've just heard snippets from friends who've been there about the country's great beaches and food.

So when I got an opportunity to tour Vietnam and visit its newest and most famous hotels and resorts, I jumped at it.

From bustling cities to cool mountain resorts and beaches that easily rival those of Thailand, the country has a host of places to explore. We had just 10 days, which is about the bare minimum if you want to get a full sense of the country.

Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh City, better known to Americans as Saigon. We checked in at the Caravelle Hotel, a 1950s-era property in the center of town that was once a popular gathering spot for war correspondents, then headed to Reunification Palace, site of the official handover of power after the North Vietnamese crashed through gates in 1975.

Next stop: the War Remnants Museum, where old U.S. military hardware is on display, along with walls and walls of photographs from the war.

Qui Nhon

The next day, we headed to the coastal city Qui Nhon. The hour's drive from the airport to the resort offers a glimpse at Vietnamese life: people working in rice paddies, water buffalo competing with trucks and scooters for a spot on two-lane roads, chickens and pigs for sale on the street.

The Life Wellness Resort is the only beach resort in the area, offering a true respite from the rest of Vietnam. The rooms have a feel of rustic luxury, with full views of the beach and bay. With the beach's clear, green-blue water and golden sand, I was hard-pressed to think of anyplace I had been that was more beautiful.

Dalat 

It's easy to see why Dalat is Vietnam's honeymoon capital. A mountain town built around a lake, Dalat's summer temperatures are about 20 degrees cooler than in the big cities and coastal areas, which can be sweltering with near 100-degree temperatures and high humidity.

Developed by the French as a summer getaway in the early 1900s, the town oozes European elegance. So does the hotel where we stayed, the Sofitel Dalat Palace. The hotel is one of the hidden gems in the French luxury chain's historical collection. It still has the original bathtubs and marble tile in the lobby, even working fireplaces. The hotel sits on a hill, overlooking the lake.

Hoi An-Da Nang

VIETNAM-HoiAnOur next stop was China Beach between Da Nang and Hoi An, where nearly a dozen resorts are being developed.

We stayed just south of China Beach in the year-old Nam Hai. The resort is a mix of traditional Vietnamese and ultramodern chic. There are no hotel rooms, just villas, some with multiple bedrooms and private pools. All mix tradition with modern luxuries: iPods, surround-sound audio and even espresso machines. My favorite feature was the back garden with outdoor rainfall showerheads.

Nearby are ruins from Vietnam's Cham Dynasty and the town of Hoi An, known for its street tailors and mix of Sino-Vietnamese architecture.

Hue

After two days at the Nam Hai, it was off to Hue. We arrived at yet another piece of French history, La Residence, a charming, 1930s art deco-style hotel along the Perfume River. Like the Sofitel in Dalat, the hotel is run by French company Accor.

We only had the afternoon and evening in Hue, so we headed out on foot over the river to the citadel, which housed a succession of imperial dynasties. Although the entrance and main buildings have been preserved, much of the complex is still in ruins from American bombing.

Hanoi 

From Hue, we headed to Hanoi, where we stayed at the brand-new InterContinental Hanoi Westlake, InterContinental Hotel Group's first property in the country. Like the Nam Hai, the property is a tasteful mix of modern and traditional.

Hanoi is the political center of Vietnam. It is also home to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and the Hoa La prison, or "Hanoi Hilton," where Sen. John McCain and other wartime U.S. pilots were imprisoned after being shot down.

Much of the prison is now gone, replaced by huge, modern apartments and office buildings. But the remaining section is a small museum that shows the history of the prison, originally built by the French to house Vietnamese political insurgents.

Halong

Our final stop was beautiful Halong Bay, where we took an overnight cruise aboard the ship the Emeraude through the thousands of limestone islands that earned the bay a designation as a Unesco World Heritage site.

The Emeraude is a replica of a paddle steamer that used to cruise the bay. We had a relaxing evening in a wonderful little suite and partook of surprisingly good food aboard the boat before heading back to Hanoi and the long trip home.

For more on Vietnam, visit www.vietnamtourism.gov.vn/english/.

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