Think of South East Asia and you think of gap year students, hostels and friendship bracelets. And while it is a truly magnificent part of the world, backpacking, fun as it must be, just seems a bit too itchy.
Surely the scenery, glorious beaches and fascinating culture can be done with a bit more glam?
So Yahoo Style did just that. We wanted to show how to experience SE Asia a bit more comfortably while not staying solely in a six-star resort bubble.
We bravely set off for Vietnam at the beginning of November, brand new Radley super-case at the ready. A mere 21kg of beachwear, floaty things, heels, jewellery – an umbrella? – and a mountain of anti-frizz hair products (Vietnam is beyond humid).
We were to fly on TUI’s inaugural flight to Phu Quoc in northern Vietnam in one of their new fancy Dreamcatcher planes. The itinerary once we were there was all pre-planned by the lovely lot at TUI as well, so we were just going to totter where we were told.
The 11-hour flight was a dream. Premium economy all the way (there’s only two options on TUI flights so do go for the latter – it’s not even that much more expensive). Big seats, great food and limitless drinks with mood lighting.
We arrived at 6.30am local time and were ferried to our first stop – The Novotel Phu Quoc.
The Novotel was a delicious start to the trip and ideal for the travel weary. Our room was cool, hushed and done in soothing maritime shades with a bed the size of a car park. Exciting.
Having our own private pool was quite the unexpected bonus and all the suites are set apart in lush, private grounds. Not a shared dorm in sight. Hurrah! There’s also a two award-winning restaurants, a huge infinity pool and a splendid spa.
(We had a treatment where the masseuse deftly jumped on our back halfway through and we had to pretend that was totally normal and we were fine with it.)
After a quick two-hour flight from the island we checked into the Ann Hotel in Hanoi City. Going from the zen tranquillity of Phu Quoc to the neon chaos of Hanoi was a bit of a shock to the system. The driving situation was in a word, unhinged. Nerves of steel doesn’t come into it.
The hotel was in a great location, clean, comfy and with a rooftop pool. Obviously in a massively built up area like Hanoi City you cannot expect your own private pool / terrace / hammock scenario so after a very brief sulk, we got over ourselves and ready for our night on the town (more of THAT later)
The itinerary said ‘delightful water puppet show’ before dinner. How mysterious. We hopped in a cab to the Old Quarter and were ushered into a packed theatre with a water pool instead of a stage and live instrumentalists.
What followed was the trippiest thing ever. Puppets molesting each other during inexplicable plot lines, some tigers, a baby and some poor old man getting eaten by a fish. Or something. We’ll never probably know. The locals loved it though and chuckled along heartily. Definitely one to experience.
After we ate at local restaurant Wild Rice and stuffed our faces with local fish, spring rolls, rice and loads of other tasty and healthy fare.
From there we bravely headed out into Friday night, Hanoi style. We hit a crazy club where we were promptly handed shots of expensive vodka mixed with lychee juice. Healthsome yet intoxicating. Yay! The bass was mighty and the place heaving and our host, owner of the Ann hotel, was hilarious with a strange mockney accent, very sharp shoes and seemingly limitless pockets. We spent the evening in the VIP area overlooking all the gap year sweatiness, feeling smug. We got home very late indeed.
Next day was jam-packed with sightseeing. With a slightly sore head, we set off for Ho Chi Minh’s house (their revered former leader and former Chairman of the Workers Party). We walked around the grounds wearing our hotel robes like a posse of morons as we forgot you had to cover up in official areas but the trip was interesting in the extreme.
Next stop was the Temple of Literature, which was Vietnam’s first university. Hundreds of students had recently graduated so the place was awash with photo shoots. A preferred pose – with the girls at least – seemed to be gazing pensively into the distance as if thinking big brainy thoughts or looking demurely down towards their shoes.
Lunch was more clean traditional eating at Koto restaurant before visiting the Hanoi Prison, home to American POWs during the Vietnam War and Vietnamese political prisoners during the French colonial reign. A creepy place, made even stranger by the relentless, uncomfortable propaganda all over the walls and coming through the speakers. But an important piece of history so worth visiting plus you feel nice and cultural after and not at all guilty for having a cocktail straightaway.
Our next stop was to a two night stay on a boat in Halong Bay. We loved the old school glamour of the ‘Black Pearl’, a traditional wooden junk boat modernised for luxury tours round the bay. The thousands of tiny islets we sailed through were breathtaking and in the evenings a creepy mist descends that gives a real Pirates of the Caribbean vibe.
During the days we kayaked to floating fishing villages, took in a famous pearl farm and visited Surprise Cave, one of the biggest grottos in Halong Bay. Oh and got on a smaller vessel to sail to a cove that was overrun with very confident monkeys. That bit got slightly Planet of the Apes to be honest so was glad when it was over.
Our last treat before home was a day and two night at the brand new Sol Beach House back in Phu Quoc. We were tired from a full day of travelling so the spacious, bright, calming sleeping quarters were extremely welcome. We had a terrific feast of teriyaki steak, prawn salad and many many cocktails at the hotel’s restaurant before jumping into a cab for a late night dance at nearby Rory’s Beach Bar, a hidden shack down a long, dark track where you can sit on logs right by the sea and dance to backpacker cheese. Another very late night.
Our last memory of Vietnam was a dreamy, drunken day by the pool. Sunbathing, reading, some posing for last minute Instagram pics and some paddle-boarding in the afternoon. Sol Beach is ideal for couples and for those who really enjoy resort holidays and like the convenience of all inclusive. (Sol Beach is not part of a TUI multi-centre break but can be booked as part of a package holiday)
Vietnam probably doesn’t have the same crazy party vibe as Thailand and it must be noted that it’s a Communist country so there a certain things to be considered. Most bars aren’t open past midnight and clubs after 2am. And modesty must be observed in some public places and places of religion.
The weather was hot but overcast in November and if you’re prone to mosquito bites like us, DOUSE yourself in spray and cover up as they are everywhere.
However, its a country of such history and culture, it’s hard not to love it. The people are friendly and courteous, the food healthy and plentiful (though don’t eat street pork we were warned several times) and the vibe, dynamic and just a little bit mystical. And that’s just the small part we saw!
TUI offers a seven night multi-centre holiday to Vietnam on the Wonders of Halong Bay tour and stay which includes 5 nights on the Wonder of Halong Bay Tour followed by a2 night stay in Phu Quoc from £1,801 per person. Price is based on two adults sharing and includes flights departing from Gatwick airport on Wednesday 21st February 2018and all transfers. To find out more about this holiday or to book go to tui.co.uk and www.tui.co.uk/holidays/multi-centre