The Best of Vietnam Now

The Best of Vietnam Now

Zubin Shroff
Zubin Shroff
A decade after tourists began returning, Vietnam's cultural revolution is in full swing. From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a new generation is taking over. Peter Jon Lindberg reports.

So, have you been yet?

You have no idea what you're missing. After years of false starts, Vietnam is finally having its moment, thanks to a new generation of entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, designers, club owners, and artists—many born after the war. This is no longer the hermetic nation of a generation ago: two-thirds of the population is under 30 and eager to engage the world at large. The country is still nominally Communist, and its leaders remain socially conservative. But young Vietnamese are enthusiastically absorbing and remixing global culture. I first fell for Vietnam in the mid-nineties, and have returned every year or two since—yet until my most recent visit, I'd never seen the country so visibly charged.

Foreign arrivals in 2002 shattered all previous records, while bookings on Vietnam Airlines rose by 80 percent—even as terrorism concerns cut into travel elsewhere. Indeed, post-9/11 anxiety played a part in the country's surging popularity. "Vietnam, poor but orderly, is now tourists' safe haven," declared the New York Times in January. Almost 30 years after the war, Vietnam was being touted as the safest place in Asia, owing to its stable population, effective security, and negligible crime rate. Luxury hotels were booked solid, and developers were seizing the day: Sheraton opened its first property in Ho Chi Minh City this spring, while the much delayed Park Hyatt resumed construction up the street. Restaurants and boutiques sprang up in newly trendy neighborhoods. A gleaming airport terminal opened in Hanoi, with passenger Jetways (no more trudging across the 98-degree tarmac) and actual air-conditioning. After a fitful decade, Vietnam was at last enjoying a legitimate boom.

And then SARS hit. When Vietnam reported cases in February, tourism screeched to a halt. But the virus was contained within two months, and Vietnam became the first affected country to be declared SARS-free. Tourism has been picking up where it left off.

Why such intense interest?Because Vietnam teeters giddily between fast (Saigon nightclubs) and slow (bicycle rickshaws); traditional (silk ao dai tunics) and cutting-edge (fur and vinyl ao dai tunics); exotic (barbecued goat nipples?) and familiar ("You from L.A.?My cousin's from L.A.!"). Add to the mix one of the world's great cuisines, stylish boutiques, inviting resorts, and a buzzing nightlife. Moreover, Vietnam is surprisingly accessible now: English is spoken everywhere, prices are low, and there's more to see and do than you can possibly imagine.

So, when are you going?

The Lay of the Land

• HANOI AND HO CHI MINH CITY Rarely are a nation's two poles so opposite. With its mist-shrouded lakes, faded colonial façades, and cooler climate, Hanoi is the moody, reflective older brother, harboring a rich intellectual and artistic life. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the brash younger sibling: faster, newer, hotter in every sense—Miami to Hanoi's Boston. In the nineties Hanoi was said to be 10 years "behind" cosmopolitan H.C.M.C., with fewer high-rises and discos. But the capital's culinary scene now rivals H.C.M.C.'s, and many restaurateurs and designers have outposts in both cities. Still, the two remain perfect antipodes—and antidotes—to each other.

• THE BEACHES Development has been limited to a few key areas, though the current tourism boom has quickened the pace: acres of oceanfront outside Da Nang (whose China Beach is the setting for the splendid Furama Resort) are earmarked for future hotel sites. Just 20 miles away is tranquil Hoi An, the prettiest village in Vietnam despite its increasing commercialization. There's now a nascent resort scene on the coast. Farther south, Nha Trang draws backpackers to its seaside bars and cheap guesthouses, and weekending expats to the Ana Mandara resort. Travelers seeking a less manic scene prefer Phan Thiet, an emerging resort hub close to tranquil Mui Ne Beach. Also on the radar is remote Phu Quoc Island, near Cambodia, which will surely become a full-fledged beach mecca, but for now is just a slow-paced retreat.

• HUÉ AND CENTRAL VIETNAM The old imperial capital, Hué, is sleepier than Hanoi and H.C.M.C. but compensates with a wealth of historic landmarks (the city is a World Heritage Site). Many visitors use it as a base for touring the former Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. Hué is as famous for its cuisine as for its monuments, though some of the best Hué-style cooking is actually served in Hanoi. Still, architecture aficionados and war historians will find the city compelling.

• THE MEKONG DELTA The delta is popular with tour groups and day-trippers from H.C.M.C. Endless rivers and canals wind past dripping green jungle, fruit plantations, and fishermen's shacks—but it's not as uniformly beautiful as it sounds. The marketplace at Can Tho (the delta's largest city) is a maelstrom; the Victoria Can Tho, nearby, is a pleasant riverfront resort.

• FARTHER AFIELD Those with more time might consider excursions to Dalat, a French-era mountain retreat surrounded by lakes and tea plantations; Sapa, a remote northwestern hill station populated by colorful tribal minorities; and Halong Bay, where re-created Chinese junks carry tourists past the limestone islets that jut out of the blue-green water.


Food

Restaurants serving Vietnamese food fall into two broad categories: fluorescent-lit canteens with plastic chairs and minimal decoration, and dining rooms with tablecloths and incandescent lighting, often set in restored French villas with an Indochine aura. In years past it was hard to find great Vietnamese cuisine at upscale establishments. But lately, a new breed of restaurant—one that brings together tasteful interiors, smooth service, and exceptional cooking—is catering to the country's growing middle class. Wild Rice, which opened last year in Hanoi, breaks the colonial-villa mold with its spare, modern interior, spotlighted rock gardens, and contiporary art. And the yogurt-marinated roast chicken and papaya salad with prawns are as authentic as any local kitchen's. In Ho Chi Minh City, similar culinary prowess can be found at the 10-month-old Nam Phan, housed in a gorgeous beige-and-sand-toned mansion. Tropical gardens and a cool Californian vibe make it popular with well-heeled saigonnais. When I dropped in at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, I was asked whether I had a reservation. A reservation?Two years ago the word didn't exist here.

Quan Com Ngon opened last December and has quickly become H.C.M.C.'s top Vietnamese kitchen. Its menu goes far beyond the usual chicken-with-lemongrass, offering pickled pig's ear and stewed pork topped with duck eggs. The airy, four-level space is stunning: ocher and tomato-red walls, mulberry-paper lamps, garlands of jasmine. The young Vietnamese clientele—media types, models, ad execs—is just as attractive.

Quan Ta, tucked into one of H.C.M.C.'s crowded "food streets," is well off the tourist trail, but clay-tile floors, beamed ceilings, teak tables, and warm lighting lend it an air of refinient. The food is extraordinary: perfectly seasoned pumpkin blossoms fried in garlic and oil; smoky grilled eggplant that's so tender it can be cut with chopsticks.

Chic restaurants are popping up outside the cities as well. The newest arrival in Hoi An, Song Hoai, found a prime location in a two-story riverfront villa. Its kitchen does a marvelous job with Hoi An specialties such as mi quang (thick, al dente noodles in a basil-spiked broth with pork and baby prawns) and banh bao banh vat (a.k.a. "white rose," a delicious flower-shaped steamed dumpling).

At some point in your journey, though, you'll want to forgo celadon tableware and simply eat fantastic food. That's when you head for Quan Hué, the best restaurant in Hanoi. Ambience, schmambience: this family-run joint is all Formica tabletops and flimsy plastic chairs. It's the best place to try the comfortcuisine of Hué, particularly banh khoai (crisp rice-flour pancakes folded fajita-style around a variety of fillings: pork; shrimp; verbena, basil, and mint leaves; tangy star fruit) and cua xao mien (stir-fried vermicelli with crabmeat, ear mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant dill sprigs).

Of course, in both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, you can also find countless trattorias, tandoori joints, tapas bars, and teriyaki dens, along with hundreds of French bistros (whose cuisine hardly qualifies as foreign in Vietnam). A rice-weary expat could live for months on great international food—and some do. H.C.M.C.'s La Fourchette, catering to the homesick French since 1994, is the grand-père of Gallic haunts—it's even suffused with the rich aroma of butter-drenched escargots. Upmarket Italian cuisine draws a crowd at H.C.M.C.'s new hot spot Qucina, owned by the team behind the neighboring Q Bar. On a sexy, palm-fringed terrace in H.C.M.C., Club Camargue serves mesclun-and-goat cheese salads (the imported greens are safe to eat) and squid-filled ravioli in saffron cream sauce. At Saigon's new Designed, a hypermodern restaurant-showroom run by two Frenchmen—an architect and an engineer—an arty clientele dines on foie gras, gravlax, and rillettes of rabbit. Up in Hanoi, the Press Club, an expat haunt, offers the capital's best wine list, strip steaks from Pennsylvania, Caesar salads, and some good (and laughably cheap) caviar from—no joke—China.

Even more impressive than the formal dining rooms are the cafés, pâtisseries, and sandwich shops that sei to have been airlifted from Marseilles and San Francisco. Frenchman Stéphane Calvet has opened Maison Vanille, a bakery and salon de thé that makes the priier croissants in Hanoi. In Hoi An, great pastries and rich Vietnamese coffee (with condensed milk, of course) are all the rage at the Hoi An Pâtisserie, on the river.

The Vietnamese have elevated the humble sandwich to an art form. Banh mi thit is the local take on a hero: pork sausage, pâté, ham, pickled carrots and radishes, and dried fish flakes on a warm baguette. The fast-food bakery chain Bon Banh Mi sells superb banh mi thit in locations around H.C.M.C. Two Western-style sandwich shops—No Noodles in Hanoi and Sama Café in Ho Chi Minh—combine the best imported meats and cheeses, crustiest baguettes, freshest greens, and zestiest toppings to create the ultimate five-minute lunch.

Bohemian cafés are everywhere. Hanoi's Café Puku, run by three New Zealanders, has an East Village feel, with Beck playing on the stereo and a cappuccino machine hissing on the counter. At I-Box in Ho Chi Minh, the furnishings (velvet sofas, Kashmiri pillows, Javanese tables) are as eclectic as the playlist (Edith Piaf, bluegrass, and electro-funk) and the drinks (orange juice with milk; soursop smoothies).


Shopping

While Ho Chi Minh City has always had the most forward-looking clothing designers, once-conservative Hanoi now claims a growing number of edgy boutiques. Handbag guru Christina Yu chose the capital as the headquarters for her playfully flamboyant Ipa-Nima label, now shown from Hong Kong to London; her shop sells the famous bags for 50 to 70 percent less than the overseas price. In Hanoi's Cathedral District, 25-year-old Nguyen Hoang Ngan opened Nymph last year in a closet-sized storefront, where her flirty camisoles, taffeta sleeveless tops, and miniskirts recall Catherine Malandrino—at H&M prices ($10 for a silk blouse). Frenchwoman Valerie McKenzie sells her cool, light, botanical-print cotton, silk, and linen dresses and blouses at Song, one of the few shops where you'll find an actual dressing room.

Working out of Ho Chi Minh City, Minh Hanh is the leading light of Vietnamese couture, and her theatrical designs are on view at several showrooms here. Most outrageous is the ao dai boutique, where the famous tunic-and-trousers outfit of Vietnamese women gets a Björk-worthy reworking in fur, velvet, suede, denim, and other unorthodox materials. Minh Khoa is another progressive designer, whose beautifully textured creations—blouses, jackets, and dresses—iploy intricate beadwork and ruching to great effect. The street-smart styles of Le Thanh Phuong range from casual tops to formal dresses. Tha Ca is a two-level, upmarket shop selling sophisticated, East-meets-West clothing, sandals, and handbags. Beloved by tourists from Tokyo and chic young Vietnamese women are a number of shops proffering classic floral dresses, capri pants in crisp twills and cottons, summery tops, and prim A-line skirts that conjure up Audrey Hepburn in Saigon. These stores include Ma Ena, which also has beach hats and bags (there's a sister store in Hanoi called Ma Ena Xanh); the Japanese-owned So Co La; and Theu Theu, which makes ao dais in linen rather than the usual silk. For children's clothing—such as a soft cotton one-piece embroidered with French script—the Thanh Thuy Cotton House is a must stop.

Every visitor seis compelled to get clothing made in Vietnam. I watched a backpacker enter a tailoring shop wearing Army fatigues and sandals; he ierged a few hours later in a custom-made tuxedo—and the same sandals. (His bill: $45.) Hoi An is the country's capital of bespoke, with dozens of tailors offering quick turnaround and low prices. Several fittings are required, but at these prices, it's hard to complain. Chief among Hoi An's workshops is A-Dong Silk, where Xuan, the 28-year-old head seamstress, is familiar with the latest looks.

The selection of fabrics is better in Hanoi and H.C.M.C., and the workmanship more refined, though the tailors will require more money and more time (up to a week for a dress or a suit). Most can create fine cheongsams, mandarin-collar jackets, and other Asian styles from scratch, but if you're looking for Western designs, bring them a specific piece to copy: photos from magazines won't get the same results. The tailoring shops on Hanoi's Hang Gai Street are a good place to start—especially Tan My, a cozy boutique that also sells handsome embroidered linens, pillow covers, and cotton lingerie bags.

Vietnam is one of the top places in Asia to shop for housewares, furnishings, and antiques. In H.C.M.C., essential stops are Precious Qui, a gift boutique that also sells ladies' accessories and jewelry, and Celadon Green, specializing in minimalist ceramic and lacquer tableware and sleek bone and ebony chopsticks. Both shops are owned and impeccably curated by Michele de Albert Khanh, whose husband is the famed French-Vietnamese designer Quasar Khanh. Indochine House holds several floors' worth of antique and reproduction furniture and decorative itis (chinoiserie jewelry boxes, photographs of 19th-century Saigon). If you've fallen for the retro look of Temple Club, drop into neighboring Monsoon to find furniture and collectibles in the colonial mode. A recent discovery: four rosewood Deco chairs (salvaged from an old villa and beautifully restored) for $400. The sprawling Authentique is good for budget, one-stop souvenir shopping—the ceramic teapots and wooden bowls are a highlight.

In Hanoi, Mosaïque sells marvelous lotus-shaped lanterns with taffeta panels in vibrant orange, lime green, and lavender; lamps made to look like opium pipes; and tobacco-finished lacquerware. Nearby La Casa has a broad selection of high-end housewares, including wooden trays, hand mirrors, photo frames, pillow covers, joss-stick holders, and silver candlesticks. Vanloi Oriental Style stocks classic Chinese furniture, fine art (oil portraits of young mandarins), and more of those stunning lotus-shaped lanterns, in fuchsia, violet, and celadon.


In October 2002, American Suzanne Lecht—a nine-year resident of Hanoi with a keen eye for ierging talent—opened Art Vietnam in a lavishly restored traditional Vietnamese home in the city's Old Quarter. The breathtaking space unfolds over three floors, throughout which are displayed contiporary paintings, sculpture, woodblock prints, and etchings, all by Vietnamese artists. Lecht is also a good source for advice on what to do and see throughout the country.

Nightlife

Nightspots here used to be split between defiantly local joints (run by older Vietnamese) and tony expat-and-tourist bars (often managed by Westerners or returning Vietnamese emigrants). Lately that line has blurred: foreigners are seeking out more authentic, unpretentious places while middle- and upper-class locals gravitate to high-end spots that once catered solely to Westerners. Indeed, some of the most fashionable restaurants and bars are now run by lifelong residents. While the older generation complains of encroaching Westernization—witness the Saigon-based musicians "Well-Hung" Hung and "Mean Man" Minh—the best clubs still have a decidedly Vietnamese, foreign-correspondent-club vibe. They may pour Johnnie Walker and blast Coldplay on the stereo, but they couldn't be found west of the Mekong.

H.C.M.C. still has the nightlife, from manic discos such as the infamous Apocalypse Now to cool, dim boîtes like Vasco's and Maya. After a three-year hiatus, in late 2001 Q Bar returned to reclaim the scene it had ruled throughout the nineties. The glitterati once again jam the terrace every night, seduced by perfectly mixed mojitos and sultry trance and Cuban jazz. On trendy Thon That Thiep Street, a discreetly marked, lantern-lit entryway leads guests into the gorgeous Temple Club, where colonial-era furnishings and a louche tropical ambience welcome you back to 1930's Saigon.

In contrast to those in sleek and sexy H.C.M.C., nighttime haunts in Hanoi tend toward the funky and unrefined. The hot capital nightspot these days is Highway 4, a rugged, locally run joint with floor mats and low rattan tables that is especially popular with Minsk motorcycle riders (it's named after a famous biker route up north). Here's the place to sample ruou, a fiery rice liquor infused with anything from durian fruit to geckos to insects; Vietnam's tribal minorities claim ruou can cure backaches, stomach ailments, and sagging libidos. On the edge of the Red River, beyond the dike that protects Hanoi from floods, the dive-like Phuc Tan Bar has become the late-night gathering place for a mixed crowd of hip Vietnamese and foreigners.

Of course, in both cities—and throughout Vietnam—the most devoted crowds (including locals and slumming expats and tourists) can be found at the humble bia hoi that spill onto the sidewalks every evening. Bia hoi means "draft beer," and while the brew is rarely ice-cold (it's served from sloppy plastic jugs), it's certainly cheap, and invariably accompanied by tasty snacks. Foot-high plastic stools and tiny tables on the pavient are as fancy as it gets, but the mix of balmy breezes, streetside energy, and a convivial clientele make a night at the bia hoi an essential experience.


Hotels and Resorts

Accommodations in Vietnam have improved dramatically in recent years. Most city properties are in new, often high-rise buildings, which make up in amenities and techno-fittings what they lack in character. Given the surplus of stately Beaux-Arts edifices and rambling old mansions here, it's a mystery why hoteliers aren't buying them up by the block. The few surviving properties from the colonial era (such as Saigon's Continental and Majestic hotels) are threadbare on the inside, despite the gleam of their restored façades. An exception is the grand Sofitel Metropole, a beautiful 1901 landmark in Hanoi's French Quarter; it's the capital's finest hotel, with that rare combination of contiporary luxury and classic atmosphere (swirling rattan fans, tall French windows, trickling fountains). The nearby Hilton Hanoi Opera runs a close second, with views of the magnificent opera house across the street (which the hotel's ocher façade was designed to mimic).

In Ho Chi Minh City, the Caravelle Hotel wins out for its central location on Lam Son Square (overlooking the Municipal Theater, Q Bar, and lovely colonial façade of the Continental Hotel). Smooth service and a surfeit of amenities make this the number one choice for businesspeople and well-heeled tourists—though it will face stiff competition from the Sheraton Saigon Hotel next door. The 23-story tower finally opened this June, with 382 rooms, 92 luxury apartments, a day spa, and shops selling Versace, Armani, and Bulgari. Other good choices in H.C.M.C. include the Japanese-friendly Legend Hotel (with its swish lobby and riverfront overlook) and the Sofitel Plaza (which rises above leafy Le Duan Street, across from the former U.S. Embassy, and offers terrific skyline views from its rooftop pool).

Only a few years ago the shore south of Da Nang belonged to fishermen and seabirds. But in 1997 the Furama brought Thailand-style luxury to China Beach, and it's still the best resort around, even after a recent expansion somewhat diminished its intimacy. These days, more travelers opt to spend the night closer to Hoi An. They'll find few worthy hotels in Hoi An proper, but just three miles out of town, on Cua Dai beach, are several deluxe resorts. The French-managed Victoria Hoi An resibles a more modest Amanresort, with the requisite carp ponds, tile roofs, and teak furniture.

Down in Nha Trang, the iinently tasteful Ana Mandara—now a miber of the Design Hotels group—sits at the far end of the town's pleasant public beach. With only 68 rooms, it's Vietnam's best boutique resort and draws a relatively quiet, older clientele. This year the hotel opened a full-service spa, set in a cluster of sala pavilions amid lotus ponds and coconut trees.

The Victoria hotel group has carved out an impressive niche by opening luxury properties in far-flung areas where upscale hotels are in short supply. Guests of the chalet-style Victoria Sapa (in the small hill town of the same name) can travel to the resort aboard a re-created old-time train from Hanoi. The Victoria Can Tho is the plushest hotel in the Mekong Delta: a riverside estate straight out of Indochine, now with a brand-new spa complex. This winter the group will open a resort near Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Victoria Angkor, which—if all goes according to plan—will soon be linked to the Can Tho property by Victoria's own riverboat cruise up the Mekong. The Victoria chain hasn't made inroads into Dalat yet, but, thankfully, Sofitel has: the 43-room Sofitel Dalat Palace, built as a hunting lodge in 1922 for Emperor Bao Dai (who also built Vietnam's first golf course, nearby), is one of the country's most alluring retreats, a nostalgic wonderland of claw-foot tubs and antique telephones—though I never did figure out if they're supposed to work.


Three Essential Dishes

CHA CA Tasty morsels of turmeric-dusted whitefish are fried tableside in oil and accompanied by fresh dill, scallions, basil, peanuts, cilantro, and chile sauce, along with a tangle of vermicelli. Get it at 104-year-old Cha Ca La Vong, a rickety house in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Just take a seat and a sizzling skillet appears.

PHO Vietnam's national dish is a piquant consommé spiked with ginger, cinnamon stick, fish sauce, and star anise (though recipes vary), rounded out with rice noodles and either beef (the more traditional pho bo) or chicken (pho ga). Mai Anh in Hanoi ladles out mind-blowingly good pho ga from a steaming storefront cauldron.

BO TUNG XEO Strips of tender raw beef are soaked in a sweet, tangy marinade of soy, garlic, and chiles; you barbecue the meat yourself on a tabletop brazier. Luong Son, a tin-roofed roadhouse in H.C.M.C., is famous for its bo tung xeo—not to mention unnerving specialties like deep-fried scorpion, bonded chicken feet, and fried pig's stomach.

Urban Oasis

Until recently, Vietnam had few luxury spas. But 2002 saw the arrival of H.C.M.C.'s Spa Tropic, housed in a palm-shaded villa perfumed with jasmine and lemongrass. Tasteful gamelan music plays in the treatment rooms, where the skilled staff administers a full range of services, from body polishes and mud masks to reflexology. It has quickly become popular with Japanese visitors and shiatsu-craving expats. The owner, Thuy Do, is a native of Vietnam who grew up in Colorado.

INSIDE PICKS

PHUONG ANH NGUYEN Owner, Q Bar This spring, the Vietnam-born, L.A.-bred entrepreneur scored another hit, with the restaurant Qucina. When she's not building a nighttime ipire in H.C.M.C., here's what she finds time for:
Afternoon coffee at La Fenêtre Soleil: "Great cappuccino and sandwiches in a cute, grandmotherly tearoom."
Bespoke tailoring at Thuy Nga: "Thuy's shop is my favorite—I get most of my clothes made there."
Weekends on Phu Quoc Island: "Incredibly peaceful, with lovely beaches. When there are better hotels and regular flights from Saigon, it will be amazing."

LUC LEJEUNE Co-owner, Temple Club Lejeune, who grew up in Provence, founded Temple Design, an interior design and furniture company, with two partners. In 2000 the team created Temple Club, the best-looking bar-restaurant in town. Some of Lejeune's favorites in H.C.M.C.:
Thien Hau Pagoda "One of the most exquisite temples in Cholon, Saigon's Chinese quarter."
Head massage at Hai Salon "An extended shampoo with scalp massage, for only $2. Local celebs and models go there."
Lunch at La Fourchette "Just like home in France—same atmosphere, same food."


CHRISTINA YU Founder and designer, Ipa-Nima In 1995, Yu left a career as a Hong Kong lawyer to try fashion design—in Hanoi. Now her funky Ipa-Nima handbags are at Fred Segal and Harvey Nichols. Her choice stops in the capital: "Nha Tho Street, which English-speakers call Church Street, is very hot, with great boutiques like Song—Valerie, the owner, gets linens from throughout Southeast Asia, and the quality is high. For more updated styles there's Jade Collection and Things of Substance, and for decorative stuff I like Mosaïque. I love eating breakfast at Café Puku; the omelettes are fantastic. Highway 4, where hippies and bikers drink lethal rice wine, is great fun."

Two New Neighborhoods

THON THAT THIEP STREET, H.C.M.C. The three-year-old Temple Club put this narrow lane on the map, but only lately has Thon That Thiep morphed into a bona fide bastion of cool. Just across from Chua Ba Mariamman—the city's only Hindu Temple—Saigon's beau monde is finding religion at shops like Monsoon (furniture and antiques), So Co La (girly fashion), Temple Fleurs (a trendy florist), and a new outpost of Celadon Green (high-gloss housewares). This fall, an upmarket furnishings store—some are calling it the Vietnamese Pottery Barn—is set to arrive on the block.

CATHEDRAL DISTRICT, Hanoi The blocks around St. Joseph's Cathedral form the most happening enclave in the capital—Manhattan's Nolita with banyan trees. Fashionable Vietnamese and expats outfit thiselves and their apartments at the boutiques on streets like Nha Tho, Au Trieu, Nha Chung, and Hang Bong, then meet over espresso or "333," a popular beer, in one of the district's rapidly multiplying cafés and bars. Signs of gentrification are abundant. Parking spaces are not: peering through the window of one residence, I spotted a Mercedes in the living room.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

Organized Tour or Independent Travel?
Traveling in Vietnam is easier than it used to be, but there's still good reason to let professionals handle the headaches. Booking internal flights through Vietnam Airlines is difficult (there's no proper stateside office), and only a few U.S. travel agents sei able to reserve domestic flights.

To minimize the hassle, consider traveling with either Butterfield & Robinson (800/678-1147; www.butterfield.com), which specializes in exclusive biking and walking tours and whose agents know Vietnam extriely well, or the equally well-informed outfitter Cox & Kings (800/999-1758; www.coxandkingsusa.com), which offers a number of itineraries around Indochina.

In Vietnam there are several skilled companies that can arrange flights, hotel bookings, guided tours, and overland transportation; two have offices in Hanoi and H.C.M.C. Trails of Indochina (84-8/844-1005 or, in the United States, 586/948-0835; www.trailsofindochina.com) can book Halong Bay cruises on restored Chinese junks; they also employ a good English-speaking guide in Hanoi named Nguyen Quang Hoa. Exotissimo Travel (84-4/825-1723; www.exotissimo.com), founded by two Frenchmen in 1993, specializes in custom tours and has a very established network throughout the country.


ADDRESS BOOK

FOOD
Cha Ca La Vong 14 CHA CA ST., HANOI; 84-4/825-3929.. LUNCH FOR TWO $9
Mai Anh 32 LE VAN HUU ST., HANOI; 84-4/943-8492. LUNCH FOR TWO $3
Luong Son (a.k.a. Bo Tung Xeo) 31 LY TU TRONG ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/825-1330. DINNER FOR TWO $8
Wild Rice 6 NGO THI NHAM ST., HANOI; 84-4/943-8896. DINNER FOR TWO $15
Nam Phan 64 LE THANH TON ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-2757. DINNER FOR TWO $40
Quan Com Ngon 88 NGUYEN DU ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/827-7896. DINNER FOR TWO $15
Quan Ta 39 NGUYEN THI DIEU ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/930-0788; DINNER FOR TWO $10
Song Hoai 119-121 NGUYEN THAI HOC ST., HOI AN; 84-510/910-369. DINNER FOR TWO $14
Quan Hué 6 LY THUONG KIET ST., HANOI; 84-4/826-4062. DINNER FOR TWO $6
La Fourchette 9 NGO DUC KE ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-8143. DINNER FOR TWO $20
Qucina 7 CONG TRUONG LAM SON, H.C.M.C.; 84-8/824-6325. DINNER FOR TWO $50
Club Camargue 16 CAO BA QUAT ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/824-3148. DINNER FOR TWO $55
Designed 180A NAM KY KHOI NGHIA ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/930-2600. DINNER FOR TWO $40
Press Club 59A LY THAI TO ST., HANOI; 84-4/934-0888. DINNER FOR TWO $80
Maison Vanille 49 PHAN CHU TRINH, HANOI; 84-4/933-2355
Hoi An Pâtisserie 107-109 NGUYEN THAI HOC ST., HOI AN; 84-510/910-489
Bon Banh Mi Bakery 142 VO THI SAU ST.; 84-8/820-6064. LUNCH FOR TWO $1
No Noodles 20 NHA CHUNG ST., HANOI 84-4/928-5969; LUNCH FOR TWO $5
Sama Café 35 DONG DU ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/822-4814; LUNCH FOR TWO $5
Café Puku 60 HANG TRONG ST., HANOI; 84-4/928-5244. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $8
I-Box Café 135 HAI BA TRUNG ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/825-6718; LUNCH FOR TWO $8
La Fenêtre Soleil 135 LE THANH TON ST., SECOND FLOOR, H.C.M.C.; 84-8/822-5209
Java Coffee Bar 38-42 DONG DU ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-0187

SHOPPING
Ipa-Nima 59G HAI BA TRUNG ST., HANOI; 84-4/942-1872; www.ipa-nima.com
Nymph 10 AU TRIEU ST., HANOI; 84-4/928-6347
Song 5 NHA THO ST., HANOI 84-4/828-6965; ALSO AT 76D LE THANH TON ST., H.C.M.C. (AND THREE OTHER LOCATIONS), 84-8/824-6965
Minh Hanh 128B HAI BA TRUNG ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-5714
Minh Khoa 48 NGUYEN HUÉ ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-8934
Le Thanh Phuong 40D LY TU TRONG ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-90/385-9266
Tha Ca 106 NAM KY KHOI NGHIA ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-4465
Ma Ena 81 LE THANH TON ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-5858
Ma Ena Xanh 40 HANG GAI ST., HANOI; 84-4/826-7883
So Co La 45 TON THAT THIEP ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-1279
Theu Theu 136 PASTEUR ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-90/366-6346
Thanh Thuy Cotton House 230 LE THANH TON ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/829-4774
A-Dong Silk 40 LE LOI ST., HOI AN; 84-510/863-170
Tan My 66 HANG GAI ST., HANOI; 84-4/825-1579
Precious Qui 29A DONG KHOI ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/825-6817
Celadon Green 51 TON THAT THIEP ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/914-4697
Indochine House 27 DONG DU ST., H.C.M.C., 84-8/822-7318; ALSO AT 39 HANG TRONG ST., HANOI, 84-4/824-8071
Monsoon 49 TON THAT THIEP ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/914-2149
Authentique 6 DONG KHOI ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/822-1333
Mosaïque 22 NHA THO ST., HANOI; 84-4/971-3797
La Casa 12 NHA THO ST., HANOI; 84-4/828-9616
Vanloi Oriental Style 87 HANG GAI ST., HANOI; 84-4/828-6758
Art Vietnam Gallery 30 HANG THAN ST., HANOI; 84-4/927-2349; www.vietnamesefineart.com
Jade Collection 17A PHAN BOI CHAU ST., HANOI; 84-4/822-2228
Things of Substance 5 NHA THO ST., HOAN KIEM DIST., HANOI Phone: (+844) 828 6965
Thuy Nga 7-13 LAM SON SQUARE, H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-3481

NIGHTLIFE
Vasco's 16 CAO BA QUAT ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/824-3148
Maya 6 CAO BA QUAT ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/829-5180
Q Bar 7 CONG TRUONG LAM SON, H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-5424
Temple Club 29 TON THAT THIEP ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-9244; www.Templevn.com
Highway 4 5 HANG TRE ST., HANOI; 84-4/926-0639
Phuc Tan Bar 49 PHUONG PHUC TAN, HANOI; 84-4/932-3244

SPAS AND SALONS
Spa Tropic 187B HAI BA TRUNG ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/822-8895; www.spatropic.com; TREATMENTS FROM $22
Hai Salon 169 LY TU TRONG ST., H.C.M.C.; SCALP MASSAGE $2

HOTELS AND RESORTS
Sofitel Metropole 15 NGO QUYEN ST., HANOI; 800/763-4835 OR 84-4/826-6919; www.sofitel.com. DOUBLES FROM $190
Hilton Hanoi Opera 1 LE THANH TONG ST., HANOI; 800/445-8667 OR 84-4/933-0500; www.hilton.com. DOUBLES FROM $135
Caravelle Hotel 19 LAM SON SQUARE, H.C.M.C.; 800/223-5652 OR 84-8/823-4999; www.caravellehotel.com. DOUBLES FROM $210
Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers 88 DONG KHOI ST., H.C.M.C. 800/325-3535 OR 84-8/827-2828; www.starwood.com. DOUBLES FROM $195
Sofitel Plaza Saigon 17 LE DUAN BLVD., H.C.M.C.; 800/763-4835 OR 84-8/824-1555. DOUBLES FROM $150
Legend Hotel 2A-4A TON DUC THANG ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-3333; www.legendhotel.com. DOUBLES FROM $110
Furama Resort Danang 68 HO XUAN HUANG ST., DA NANG; 800/223-5652 OR 84-511/847-333; www.srs-worldhotels.com. DOUBLES FROM $150
Victoria Hoi An Resort CUA DAI BEACH; 84-510/927-040; www.victoriahotels-asia.com. DOUBLES FROM $130
Ana Mandara Resort TRAN PHU BLVD., NHA TRANG; 800/337-4685 OR 84-58/829-829; www.six-senses.com. DOUBLES FROM $183
Victoria Sapa Hotel SAPA DISTRICT; 84-20/871-522; www.victoriahotels-asia.com. DOUBLES FROM $110
Victoria Can Tho Hotel CAI KHE WARD, CAN THO; 84-71/810-111 www.victoriahotels-asia.com. DOUBLES FROM $110
Sofitel Dalat Palace 12 TRAN PHU ST., DALAT; 800/763-4835 OR 84-63/825-444; www.sofitel.com. DOUBLES FROM $200


So, have you been yet?

You have no idea what you're missing. After years of false starts, Vietnam is finally having its moment, thanks to a new generation of entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, designers, club owners, and artists—many born after the war. This is no longer the hermetic nation of a generation ago: two-thirds of the population is under 30 and eager to engage the world at large. The country is still nominally Communist, and its leaders remain socially conservative. But young Vietnamese are enthusiastically absorbing and remixing global culture. I first fell for Vietnam in the mid-nineties, and have returned every year or two since—yet until my most recent visit, I'd never seen the country so visibly charged.

Foreign arrivals in 2002 shattered all previous records, while bookings on Vietnam Airlines rose by 80 percent—even as terrorism concerns cut into travel elsewhere. Indeed, post-9/11 anxiety played a part in the country's surging popularity. "Vietnam, poor but orderly, is now tourists' safe haven," declared the New York Times in January. Almost 30 years after the war, Vietnam was being touted as the safest place in Asia, owing to its stable population, effective security, and negligible crime rate. Luxury hotels were booked solid, and developers were seizing the day: Sheraton opened its first property in Ho Chi Minh City this spring, while the much delayed Park Hyatt resumed construction up the street. Restaurants and boutiques sprang up in newly trendy neighborhoods. A gleaming airport terminal opened in Hanoi, with passenger Jetways (no more trudging across the 98-degree tarmac) and actual air-conditioning. After a fitful decade, Vietnam was at last enjoying a legitimate boom.

And then SARS hit. When Vietnam reported cases in February, tourism screeched to a halt. But the virus was contained within two months, and Vietnam became the first affected country to be declared SARS-free. Tourism has been picking up where it left off.

Why such intense interest?Because Vietnam teeters giddily between fast (Saigon nightclubs) and slow (bicycle rickshaws); traditional (silk ao dai tunics) and cutting-edge (fur and vinyl ao dai tunics); exotic (barbecued goat nipples?) and familiar ("You from L.A.?My cousin's from L.A.!"). Add to the mix one of the world's great cuisines, stylish boutiques, inviting resorts, and a buzzing nightlife. Moreover, Vietnam is surprisingly accessible now: English is spoken everywhere, prices are low, and there's more to see and do than you can possibly imagine.

So, when are you going?

The Lay of the Land

• HANOI AND HO CHI MINH CITY Rarely are a nation's two poles so opposite. With its mist-shrouded lakes, faded colonial façades, and cooler climate, Hanoi is the moody, reflective older brother, harboring a rich intellectual and artistic life. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the brash younger sibling: faster, newer, hotter in every sense—Miami to Hanoi's Boston. In the nineties Hanoi was said to be 10 years "behind" cosmopolitan H.C.M.C., with fewer high-rises and discos. But the capital's culinary scene now rivals H.C.M.C.'s, and many restaurateurs and designers have outposts in both cities. Still, the two remain perfect antipodes—and antidotes—to each other.

• THE BEACHES Development has been limited to a few key areas, though the current tourism boom has quickened the pace: acres of oceanfront outside Da Nang (whose China Beach is the setting for the splendid Furama Resort) are earmarked for future hotel sites. Just 20 miles away is tranquil Hoi An, the prettiest village in Vietnam despite its increasing commercialization. There's now a nascent resort scene on the coast. Farther south, Nha Trang draws backpackers to its seaside bars and cheap guesthouses, and weekending expats to the Ana Mandara resort. Travelers seeking a less manic scene prefer Phan Thiet, an emerging resort hub close to tranquil Mui Ne Beach. Also on the radar is remote Phu Quoc Island, near Cambodia, which will surely become a full-fledged beach mecca, but for now is just a slow-paced retreat.

• HUÉ AND CENTRAL VIETNAM The old imperial capital, Hué, is sleepier than Hanoi and H.C.M.C. but compensates with a wealth of historic landmarks (the city is a World Heritage Site). Many visitors use it as a base for touring the former Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. Hué is as famous for its cuisine as for its monuments, though some of the best Hué-style cooking is actually served in Hanoi. Still, architecture aficionados and war historians will find the city compelling.

• THE MEKONG DELTA The delta is popular with tour groups and day-trippers from H.C.M.C. Endless rivers and canals wind past dripping green jungle, fruit plantations, and fishermen's shacks—but it's not as uniformly beautiful as it sounds. The marketplace at Can Tho (the delta's largest city) is a maelstrom; the Victoria Can Tho, nearby, is a pleasant riverfront resort.

• FARTHER AFIELD Those with more time might consider excursions to Dalat, a French-era mountain retreat surrounded by lakes and tea plantations; Sapa, a remote northwestern hill station populated by colorful tribal minorities; and Halong Bay, where re-created Chinese junks carry tourists past the limestone islets that jut out of the blue-green water.


Food

Restaurants serving Vietnamese food fall into two broad categories: fluorescent-lit canteens with plastic chairs and minimal decoration, and dining rooms with tablecloths and incandescent lighting, often set in restored French villas with an Indochine aura. In years past it was hard to find great Vietnamese cuisine at upscale establishments. But lately, a new breed of restaurant—one that brings together tasteful interiors, smooth service, and exceptional cooking—is catering to the country's growing middle class. Wild Rice, which opened last year in Hanoi, breaks the colonial-villa mold with its spare, modern interior, spotlighted rock gardens, and contiporary art. And the yogurt-marinated roast chicken and papaya salad with prawns are as authentic as any local kitchen's. In Ho Chi Minh City, similar culinary prowess can be found at the 10-month-old Nam Phan, housed in a gorgeous beige-and-sand-toned mansion. Tropical gardens and a cool Californian vibe make it popular with well-heeled saigonnais. When I dropped in at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, I was asked whether I had a reservation. A reservation?Two years ago the word didn't exist here.

Quan Com Ngon opened last December and has quickly become H.C.M.C.'s top Vietnamese kitchen. Its menu goes far beyond the usual chicken-with-lemongrass, offering pickled pig's ear and stewed pork topped with duck eggs. The airy, four-level space is stunning: ocher and tomato-red walls, mulberry-paper lamps, garlands of jasmine. The young Vietnamese clientele—media types, models, ad execs—is just as attractive.

Quan Ta, tucked into one of H.C.M.C.'s crowded "food streets," is well off the tourist trail, but clay-tile floors, beamed ceilings, teak tables, and warm lighting lend it an air of refinient. The food is extraordinary: perfectly seasoned pumpkin blossoms fried in garlic and oil; smoky grilled eggplant that's so tender it can be cut with chopsticks.

Chic restaurants are popping up outside the cities as well. The newest arrival in Hoi An, Song Hoai, found a prime location in a two-story riverfront villa. Its kitchen does a marvelous job with Hoi An specialties such as mi quang (thick, al dente noodles in a basil-spiked broth with pork and baby prawns) and banh bao banh vat (a.k.a. "white rose," a delicious flower-shaped steamed dumpling).

At some point in your journey, though, you'll want to forgo celadon tableware and simply eat fantastic food. That's when you head for Quan Hué, the best restaurant in Hanoi. Ambience, schmambience: this family-run joint is all Formica tabletops and flimsy plastic chairs. It's the best place to try the comfortcuisine of Hué, particularly banh khoai (crisp rice-flour pancakes folded fajita-style around a variety of fillings: pork; shrimp; verbena, basil, and mint leaves; tangy star fruit) and cua xao mien (stir-fried vermicelli with crabmeat, ear mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant dill sprigs).

Of course, in both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, you can also find countless trattorias, tandoori joints, tapas bars, and teriyaki dens, along with hundreds of French bistros (whose cuisine hardly qualifies as foreign in Vietnam). A rice-weary expat could live for months on great international food—and some do. H.C.M.C.'s La Fourchette, catering to the homesick French since 1994, is the grand-père of Gallic haunts—it's even suffused with the rich aroma of butter-drenched escargots. Upmarket Italian cuisine draws a crowd at H.C.M.C.'s new hot spot Qucina, owned by the team behind the neighboring Q Bar. On a sexy, palm-fringed terrace in H.C.M.C., Club Camargue serves mesclun-and-goat cheese salads (the imported greens are safe to eat) and squid-filled ravioli in saffron cream sauce. At Saigon's new Designed, a hypermodern restaurant-showroom run by two Frenchmen—an architect and an engineer—an arty clientele dines on foie gras, gravlax, and rillettes of rabbit. Up in Hanoi, the Press Club, an expat haunt, offers the capital's best wine list, strip steaks from Pennsylvania, Caesar salads, and some good (and laughably cheap) caviar from—no joke—China.

Even more impressive than the formal dining rooms are the cafés, pâtisseries, and sandwich shops that sei to have been airlifted from Marseilles and San Francisco. Frenchman Stéphane Calvet has opened Maison Vanille, a bakery and salon de thé that makes the priier croissants in Hanoi. In Hoi An, great pastries and rich Vietnamese coffee (with condensed milk, of course) are all the rage at the Hoi An Pâtisserie, on the river.

The Vietnamese have elevated the humble sandwich to an art form. Banh mi thit is the local take on a hero: pork sausage, pâté, ham, pickled carrots and radishes, and dried fish flakes on a warm baguette. The fast-food bakery chain Bon Banh Mi sells superb banh mi thit in locations around H.C.M.C. Two Western-style sandwich shops—No Noodles in Hanoi and Sama Café in Ho Chi Minh—combine the best imported meats and cheeses, crustiest baguettes, freshest greens, and zestiest toppings to create the ultimate five-minute lunch.

Bohemian cafés are everywhere. Hanoi's Café Puku, run by three New Zealanders, has an East Village feel, with Beck playing on the stereo and a cappuccino machine hissing on the counter. At I-Box in Ho Chi Minh, the furnishings (velvet sofas, Kashmiri pillows, Javanese tables) are as eclectic as the playlist (Edith Piaf, bluegrass, and electro-funk) and the drinks (orange juice with milk; soursop smoothies).


Shopping

While Ho Chi Minh City has always had the most forward-looking clothing designers, once-conservative Hanoi now claims a growing number of edgy boutiques. Handbag guru Christina Yu chose the capital as the headquarters for her playfully flamboyant Ipa-Nima label, now shown from Hong Kong to London; her shop sells the famous bags for 50 to 70 percent less than the overseas price. In Hanoi's Cathedral District, 25-year-old Nguyen Hoang Ngan opened Nymph last year in a closet-sized storefront, where her flirty camisoles, taffeta sleeveless tops, and miniskirts recall Catherine Malandrino—at H&M prices ($10 for a silk blouse). Frenchwoman Valerie McKenzie sells her cool, light, botanical-print cotton, silk, and linen dresses and blouses at Song, one of the few shops where you'll find an actual dressing room.

Working out of Ho Chi Minh City, Minh Hanh is the leading light of Vietnamese couture, and her theatrical designs are on view at several showrooms here. Most outrageous is the ao dai boutique, where the famous tunic-and-trousers outfit of Vietnamese women gets a Björk-worthy reworking in fur, velvet, suede, denim, and other unorthodox materials. Minh Khoa is another progressive designer, whose beautifully textured creations—blouses, jackets, and dresses—iploy intricate beadwork and ruching to great effect. The street-smart styles of Le Thanh Phuong range from casual tops to formal dresses. Tha Ca is a two-level, upmarket shop selling sophisticated, East-meets-West clothing, sandals, and handbags. Beloved by tourists from Tokyo and chic young Vietnamese women are a number of shops proffering classic floral dresses, capri pants in crisp twills and cottons, summery tops, and prim A-line skirts that conjure up Audrey Hepburn in Saigon. These stores include Ma Ena, which also has beach hats and bags (there's a sister store in Hanoi called Ma Ena Xanh); the Japanese-owned So Co La; and Theu Theu, which makes ao dais in linen rather than the usual silk. For children's clothing—such as a soft cotton one-piece embroidered with French script—the Thanh Thuy Cotton House is a must stop.

Every visitor seis compelled to get clothing made in Vietnam. I watched a backpacker enter a tailoring shop wearing Army fatigues and sandals; he ierged a few hours later in a custom-made tuxedo—and the same sandals. (His bill: $45.) Hoi An is the country's capital of bespoke, with dozens of tailors offering quick turnaround and low prices. Several fittings are required, but at these prices, it's hard to complain. Chief among Hoi An's workshops is A-Dong Silk, where Xuan, the 28-year-old head seamstress, is familiar with the latest looks.

The selection of fabrics is better in Hanoi and H.C.M.C., and the workmanship more refined, though the tailors will require more money and more time (up to a week for a dress or a suit). Most can create fine cheongsams, mandarin-collar jackets, and other Asian styles from scratch, but if you're looking for Western designs, bring them a specific piece to copy: photos from magazines won't get the same results. The tailoring shops on Hanoi's Hang Gai Street are a good place to start—especially Tan My, a cozy boutique that also sells handsome embroidered linens, pillow covers, and cotton lingerie bags.

Vietnam is one of the top places in Asia to shop for housewares, furnishings, and antiques. In H.C.M.C., essential stops are Precious Qui, a gift boutique that also sells ladies' accessories and jewelry, and Celadon Green, specializing in minimalist ceramic and lacquer tableware and sleek bone and ebony chopsticks. Both shops are owned and impeccably curated by Michele de Albert Khanh, whose husband is the famed French-Vietnamese designer Quasar Khanh. Indochine House holds several floors' worth of antique and reproduction furniture and decorative itis (chinoiserie jewelry boxes, photographs of 19th-century Saigon). If you've fallen for the retro look of Temple Club, drop into neighboring Monsoon to find furniture and collectibles in the colonial mode. A recent discovery: four rosewood Deco chairs (salvaged from an old villa and beautifully restored) for $400. The sprawling Authentique is good for budget, one-stop souvenir shopping—the ceramic teapots and wooden bowls are a highlight.

In Hanoi, Mosaïque sells marvelous lotus-shaped lanterns with taffeta panels in vibrant orange, lime green, and lavender; lamps made to look like opium pipes; and tobacco-finished lacquerware. Nearby La Casa has a broad selection of high-end housewares, including wooden trays, hand mirrors, photo frames, pillow covers, joss-stick holders, and silver candlesticks. Vanloi Oriental Style stocks classic Chinese furniture, fine art (oil portraits of young mandarins), and more of those stunning lotus-shaped lanterns, in fuchsia, violet, and celadon.


In October 2002, American Suzanne Lecht—a nine-year resident of Hanoi with a keen eye for ierging talent—opened Art Vietnam in a lavishly restored traditional Vietnamese home in the city's Old Quarter. The breathtaking space unfolds over three floors, throughout which are displayed contiporary paintings, sculpture, woodblock prints, and etchings, all by Vietnamese artists. Lecht is also a good source for advice on what to do and see throughout the country.

Nightlife

Nightspots here used to be split between defiantly local joints (run by older Vietnamese) and tony expat-and-tourist bars (often managed by Westerners or returning Vietnamese emigrants). Lately that line has blurred: foreigners are seeking out more authentic, unpretentious places while middle- and upper-class locals gravitate to high-end spots that once catered solely to Westerners. Indeed, some of the most fashionable restaurants and bars are now run by lifelong residents. While the older generation complains of encroaching Westernization—witness the Saigon-based musicians "Well-Hung" Hung and "Mean Man" Minh—the best clubs still have a decidedly Vietnamese, foreign-correspondent-club vibe. They may pour Johnnie Walker and blast Coldplay on the stereo, but they couldn't be found west of the Mekong.

H.C.M.C. still has the nightlife, from manic discos such as the infamous Apocalypse Now to cool, dim boîtes like Vasco's and Maya. After a three-year hiatus, in late 2001 Q Bar returned to reclaim the scene it had ruled throughout the nineties. The glitterati once again jam the terrace every night, seduced by perfectly mixed mojitos and sultry trance and Cuban jazz. On trendy Thon That Thiep Street, a discreetly marked, lantern-lit entryway leads guests into the gorgeous Temple Club, where colonial-era furnishings and a louche tropical ambience welcome you back to 1930's Saigon.

In contrast to those in sleek and sexy H.C.M.C., nighttime haunts in Hanoi tend toward the funky and unrefined. The hot capital nightspot these days is Highway 4, a rugged, locally run joint with floor mats and low rattan tables that is especially popular with Minsk motorcycle riders (it's named after a famous biker route up north). Here's the place to sample ruou, a fiery rice liquor infused with anything from durian fruit to geckos to insects; Vietnam's tribal minorities claim ruou can cure backaches, stomach ailments, and sagging libidos. On the edge of the Red River, beyond the dike that protects Hanoi from floods, the dive-like Phuc Tan Bar has become the late-night gathering place for a mixed crowd of hip Vietnamese and foreigners.

Of course, in both cities—and throughout Vietnam—the most devoted crowds (including locals and slumming expats and tourists) can be found at the humble bia hoi that spill onto the sidewalks every evening. Bia hoi means "draft beer," and while the brew is rarely ice-cold (it's served from sloppy plastic jugs), it's certainly cheap, and invariably accompanied by tasty snacks. Foot-high plastic stools and tiny tables on the pavient are as fancy as it gets, but the mix of balmy breezes, streetside energy, and a convivial clientele make a night at the bia hoi an essential experience.


Hotels and Resorts

Accommodations in Vietnam have improved dramatically in recent years. Most city properties are in new, often high-rise buildings, which make up in amenities and techno-fittings what they lack in character. Given the surplus of stately Beaux-Arts edifices and rambling old mansions here, it's a mystery why hoteliers aren't buying them up by the block. The few surviving properties from the colonial era (such as Saigon's Continental and Majestic hotels) are threadbare on the inside, despite the gleam of their restored façades. An exception is the grand Sofitel Metropole, a beautiful 1901 landmark in Hanoi's French Quarter; it's the capital's finest hotel, with that rare combination of contiporary luxury and classic atmosphere (swirling rattan fans, tall French windows, trickling fountains). The nearby Hilton Hanoi Opera runs a close second, with views of the magnificent opera house across the street (which the hotel's ocher façade was designed to mimic).

In Ho Chi Minh City, the Caravelle Hotel wins out for its central location on Lam Son Square (overlooking the Municipal Theater, Q Bar, and lovely colonial façade of the Continental Hotel). Smooth service and a surfeit of amenities make this the number one choice for businesspeople and well-heeled tourists—though it will face stiff competition from the Sheraton Saigon Hotel next door. The 23-story tower finally opened this June, with 382 rooms, 92 luxury apartments, a day spa, and shops selling Versace, Armani, and Bulgari. Other good choices in H.C.M.C. include the Japanese-friendly Legend Hotel (with its swish lobby and riverfront overlook) and the Sofitel Plaza (which rises above leafy Le Duan Street, across from the former U.S. Embassy, and offers terrific skyline views from its rooftop pool).

Only a few years ago the shore south of Da Nang belonged to fishermen and seabirds. But in 1997 the Furama brought Thailand-style luxury to China Beach, and it's still the best resort around, even after a recent expansion somewhat diminished its intimacy. These days, more travelers opt to spend the night closer to Hoi An. They'll find few worthy hotels in Hoi An proper, but just three miles out of town, on Cua Dai beach, are several deluxe resorts. The French-managed Victoria Hoi An resibles a more modest Amanresort, with the requisite carp ponds, tile roofs, and teak furniture.

Down in Nha Trang, the iinently tasteful Ana Mandara—now a miber of the Design Hotels group—sits at the far end of the town's pleasant public beach. With only 68 rooms, it's Vietnam's best boutique resort and draws a relatively quiet, older clientele. This year the hotel opened a full-service spa, set in a cluster of sala pavilions amid lotus ponds and coconut trees.

The Victoria hotel group has carved out an impressive niche by opening luxury properties in far-flung areas where upscale hotels are in short supply. Guests of the chalet-style Victoria Sapa (in the small hill town of the same name) can travel to the resort aboard a re-created old-time train from Hanoi. The Victoria Can Tho is the plushest hotel in the Mekong Delta: a riverside estate straight out of Indochine, now with a brand-new spa complex. This winter the group will open a resort near Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Victoria Angkor, which—if all goes according to plan—will soon be linked to the Can Tho property by Victoria's own riverboat cruise up the Mekong. The Victoria chain hasn't made inroads into Dalat yet, but, thankfully, Sofitel has: the 43-room Sofitel Dalat Palace, built as a hunting lodge in 1922 for Emperor Bao Dai (who also built Vietnam's first golf course, nearby), is one of the country's most alluring retreats, a nostalgic wonderland of claw-foot tubs and antique telephones—though I never did figure out if they're supposed to work.


Three Essential Dishes

CHA CA Tasty morsels of turmeric-dusted whitefish are fried tableside in oil and accompanied by fresh dill, scallions, basil, peanuts, cilantro, and chile sauce, along with a tangle of vermicelli. Get it at 104-year-old Cha Ca La Vong, a rickety house in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Just take a seat and a sizzling skillet appears.

PHO Vietnam's national dish is a piquant consommé spiked with ginger, cinnamon stick, fish sauce, and star anise (though recipes vary), rounded out with rice noodles and either beef (the more traditional pho bo) or chicken (pho ga). Mai Anh in Hanoi ladles out mind-blowingly good pho ga from a steaming storefront cauldron.

BO TUNG XEO Strips of tender raw beef are soaked in a sweet, tangy marinade of soy, garlic, and chiles; you barbecue the meat yourself on a tabletop brazier. Luong Son, a tin-roofed roadhouse in H.C.M.C., is famous for its bo tung xeo—not to mention unnerving specialties like deep-fried scorpion, bonded chicken feet, and fried pig's stomach.

Urban Oasis

Until recently, Vietnam had few luxury spas. But 2002 saw the arrival of H.C.M.C.'s Spa Tropic, housed in a palm-shaded villa perfumed with jasmine and lemongrass. Tasteful gamelan music plays in the treatment rooms, where the skilled staff administers a full range of services, from body polishes and mud masks to reflexology. It has quickly become popular with Japanese visitors and shiatsu-craving expats. The owner, Thuy Do, is a native of Vietnam who grew up in Colorado.

INSIDE PICKS

PHUONG ANH NGUYEN Owner, Q Bar This spring, the Vietnam-born, L.A.-bred entrepreneur scored another hit, with the restaurant Qucina. When she's not building a nighttime ipire in H.C.M.C., here's what she finds time for:
Afternoon coffee at La Fenêtre Soleil: "Great cappuccino and sandwiches in a cute, grandmotherly tearoom."
Bespoke tailoring at Thuy Nga: "Thuy's shop is my favorite—I get most of my clothes made there."
Weekends on Phu Quoc Island: "Incredibly peaceful, with lovely beaches. When there are better hotels and regular flights from Saigon, it will be amazing."

LUC LEJEUNE Co-owner, Temple Club Lejeune, who grew up in Provence, founded Temple Design, an interior design and furniture company, with two partners. In 2000 the team created Temple Club, the best-looking bar-restaurant in town. Some of Lejeune's favorites in H.C.M.C.:
Thien Hau Pagoda "One of the most exquisite temples in Cholon, Saigon's Chinese quarter."
Head massage at Hai Salon "An extended shampoo with scalp massage, for only $2. Local celebs and models go there."
Lunch at La Fourchette "Just like home in France—same atmosphere, same food."


CHRISTINA YU Founder and designer, Ipa-Nima In 1995, Yu left a career as a Hong Kong lawyer to try fashion design—in Hanoi. Now her funky Ipa-Nima handbags are at Fred Segal and Harvey Nichols. Her choice stops in the capital: "Nha Tho Street, which English-speakers call Church Street, is very hot, with great boutiques like Song—Valerie, the owner, gets linens from throughout Southeast Asia, and the quality is high. For more updated styles there's Jade Collection and Things of Substance, and for decorative stuff I like Mosaïque. I love eating breakfast at Café Puku; the omelettes are fantastic. Highway 4, where hippies and bikers drink lethal rice wine, is great fun."

Two New Neighborhoods

THON THAT THIEP STREET, H.C.M.C. The three-year-old Temple Club put this narrow lane on the map, but only lately has Thon That Thiep morphed into a bona fide bastion of cool. Just across from Chua Ba Mariamman—the city's only Hindu Temple—Saigon's beau monde is finding religion at shops like Monsoon (furniture and antiques), So Co La (girly fashion), Temple Fleurs (a trendy florist), and a new outpost of Celadon Green (high-gloss housewares). This fall, an upmarket furnishings store—some are calling it the Vietnamese Pottery Barn—is set to arrive on the block.

CATHEDRAL DISTRICT, Hanoi The blocks around St. Joseph's Cathedral form the most happening enclave in the capital—Manhattan's Nolita with banyan trees. Fashionable Vietnamese and expats outfit thiselves and their apartments at the boutiques on streets like Nha Tho, Au Trieu, Nha Chung, and Hang Bong, then meet over espresso or "333," a popular beer, in one of the district's rapidly multiplying cafés and bars. Signs of gentrification are abundant. Parking spaces are not: peering through the window of one residence, I spotted a Mercedes in the living room.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

Organized Tour or Independent Travel?
Traveling in Vietnam is easier than it used to be, but there's still good reason to let professionals handle the headaches. Booking internal flights through Vietnam Airlines is difficult (there's no proper stateside office), and only a few U.S. travel agents sei able to reserve domestic flights.

To minimize the hassle, consider traveling with either Butterfield & Robinson (800/678-1147; www.butterfield.com), which specializes in exclusive biking and walking tours and whose agents know Vietnam extriely well, or the equally well-informed outfitter Cox & Kings (800/999-1758; www.coxandkingsusa.com), which offers a number of itineraries around Indochina.

In Vietnam there are several skilled companies that can arrange flights, hotel bookings, guided tours, and overland transportation; two have offices in Hanoi and H.C.M.C. Trails of Indochina (84-8/844-1005 or, in the United States, 586/948-0835; www.trailsofindochina.com) can book Halong Bay cruises on restored Chinese junks; they also employ a good English-speaking guide in Hanoi named Nguyen Quang Hoa. Exotissimo Travel (84-4/825-1723; www.exotissimo.com), founded by two Frenchmen in 1993, specializes in custom tours and has a very established network throughout the country.


ADDRESS BOOK

FOOD
Cha Ca La Vong 14 CHA CA ST., HANOI; 84-4/825-3929.. LUNCH FOR TWO $9
Mai Anh 32 LE VAN HUU ST., HANOI; 84-4/943-8492. LUNCH FOR TWO $3
Luong Son (a.k.a. Bo Tung Xeo) 31 LY TU TRONG ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/825-1330. DINNER FOR TWO $8
Wild Rice 6 NGO THI NHAM ST., HANOI; 84-4/943-8896. DINNER FOR TWO $15
Nam Phan 64 LE THANH TON ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-2757. DINNER FOR TWO $40
Quan Com Ngon 88 NGUYEN DU ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/827-7896. DINNER FOR TWO $15
Quan Ta 39 NGUYEN THI DIEU ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/930-0788; DINNER FOR TWO $10
Song Hoai 119-121 NGUYEN THAI HOC ST., HOI AN; 84-510/910-369. DINNER FOR TWO $14
Quan Hué 6 LY THUONG KIET ST., HANOI; 84-4/826-4062. DINNER FOR TWO $6
La Fourchette 9 NGO DUC KE ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-8143. DINNER FOR TWO $20
Qucina 7 CONG TRUONG LAM SON, H.C.M.C.; 84-8/824-6325. DINNER FOR TWO $50
Club Camargue 16 CAO BA QUAT ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/824-3148. DINNER FOR TWO $55
Designed 180A NAM KY KHOI NGHIA ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/930-2600. DINNER FOR TWO $40
Press Club 59A LY THAI TO ST., HANOI; 84-4/934-0888. DINNER FOR TWO $80
Maison Vanille 49 PHAN CHU TRINH, HANOI; 84-4/933-2355
Hoi An Pâtisserie 107-109 NGUYEN THAI HOC ST., HOI AN; 84-510/910-489
Bon Banh Mi Bakery 142 VO THI SAU ST.; 84-8/820-6064. LUNCH FOR TWO $1
No Noodles 20 NHA CHUNG ST., HANOI 84-4/928-5969; LUNCH FOR TWO $5
Sama Café 35 DONG DU ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/822-4814; LUNCH FOR TWO $5
Café Puku 60 HANG TRONG ST., HANOI; 84-4/928-5244. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $8
I-Box Café 135 HAI BA TRUNG ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/825-6718; LUNCH FOR TWO $8
La Fenêtre Soleil 135 LE THANH TON ST., SECOND FLOOR, H.C.M.C.; 84-8/822-5209
Java Coffee Bar 38-42 DONG DU ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-0187

SHOPPING
Ipa-Nima 59G HAI BA TRUNG ST., HANOI; 84-4/942-1872; www.ipa-nima.com
Nymph 10 AU TRIEU ST., HANOI; 84-4/928-6347
Song 5 NHA THO ST., HANOI 84-4/828-6965; ALSO AT 76D LE THANH TON ST., H.C.M.C. (AND THREE OTHER LOCATIONS), 84-8/824-6965
Minh Hanh 128B HAI BA TRUNG ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-5714
Minh Khoa 48 NGUYEN HUÉ ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-8934
Le Thanh Phuong 40D LY TU TRONG ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-90/385-9266
Tha Ca 106 NAM KY KHOI NGHIA ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-4465
Ma Ena 81 LE THANH TON ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-5858
Ma Ena Xanh 40 HANG GAI ST., HANOI; 84-4/826-7883
So Co La 45 TON THAT THIEP ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-1279
Theu Theu 136 PASTEUR ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-90/366-6346
Thanh Thuy Cotton House 230 LE THANH TON ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/829-4774
A-Dong Silk 40 LE LOI ST., HOI AN; 84-510/863-170
Tan My 66 HANG GAI ST., HANOI; 84-4/825-1579
Precious Qui 29A DONG KHOI ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/825-6817
Celadon Green 51 TON THAT THIEP ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/914-4697
Indochine House 27 DONG DU ST., H.C.M.C., 84-8/822-7318; ALSO AT 39 HANG TRONG ST., HANOI, 84-4/824-8071
Monsoon 49 TON THAT THIEP ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/914-2149
Authentique 6 DONG KHOI ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/822-1333
Mosaïque 22 NHA THO ST., HANOI; 84-4/971-3797
La Casa 12 NHA THO ST., HANOI; 84-4/828-9616
Vanloi Oriental Style 87 HANG GAI ST., HANOI; 84-4/828-6758
Art Vietnam Gallery 30 HANG THAN ST., HANOI; 84-4/927-2349; www.vietnamesefineart.com
Jade Collection 17A PHAN BOI CHAU ST., HANOI; 84-4/822-2228
Things of Substance 5 NHA THO ST., HOAN KIEM DIST., HANOI Phone: (+844) 828 6965
Thuy Nga 7-13 LAM SON SQUARE, H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-3481

NIGHTLIFE
Vasco's 16 CAO BA QUAT ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/824-3148
Maya 6 CAO BA QUAT ST., H.C.M.C. 84-8/829-5180
Q Bar 7 CONG TRUONG LAM SON, H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-5424
Temple Club 29 TON THAT THIEP ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/829-9244; www.Templevn.com
Highway 4 5 HANG TRE ST., HANOI; 84-4/926-0639
Phuc Tan Bar 49 PHUONG PHUC TAN, HANOI; 84-4/932-3244

SPAS AND SALONS
Spa Tropic 187B HAI BA TRUNG ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/822-8895; www.spatropic.com; TREATMENTS FROM $22
Hai Salon 169 LY TU TRONG ST., H.C.M.C.; SCALP MASSAGE $2

HOTELS AND RESORTS
Sofitel Metropole 15 NGO QUYEN ST., HANOI; 800/763-4835 OR 84-4/826-6919; www.sofitel.com. DOUBLES FROM $190
Hilton Hanoi Opera 1 LE THANH TONG ST., HANOI; 800/445-8667 OR 84-4/933-0500; www.hilton.com. DOUBLES FROM $135
Caravelle Hotel 19 LAM SON SQUARE, H.C.M.C.; 800/223-5652 OR 84-8/823-4999; www.caravellehotel.com. DOUBLES FROM $210
Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers 88 DONG KHOI ST., H.C.M.C. 800/325-3535 OR 84-8/827-2828; www.starwood.com. DOUBLES FROM $195
Sofitel Plaza Saigon 17 LE DUAN BLVD., H.C.M.C.; 800/763-4835 OR 84-8/824-1555. DOUBLES FROM $150
Legend Hotel 2A-4A TON DUC THANG ST., H.C.M.C.; 84-8/823-3333; www.legendhotel.com. DOUBLES FROM $110
Furama Resort Danang 68 HO XUAN HUANG ST., DA NANG; 800/223-5652 OR 84-511/847-333; www.srs-worldhotels.com. DOUBLES FROM $150
Victoria Hoi An Resort CUA DAI BEACH; 84-510/927-040; www.victoriahotels-asia.com. DOUBLES FROM $130
Ana Mandara Resort TRAN PHU BLVD., NHA TRANG; 800/337-4685 OR 84-58/829-829; www.six-senses.com. DOUBLES FROM $183
Victoria Sapa Hotel SAPA DISTRICT; 84-20/871-522; www.victoriahotels-asia.com. DOUBLES FROM $110
Victoria Can Tho Hotel CAI KHE WARD, CAN THO; 84-71/810-111 www.victoriahotels-asia.com. DOUBLES FROM $110
Sofitel Dalat Palace 12 TRAN PHU ST., DALAT; 800/763-4835 OR 84-63/825-444; www.sofitel.com. DOUBLES FROM $200

Did you enjoy this article?

Share it.

Explore More