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The Best of Vietnam Now

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.

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