Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

On dry land and the waterways

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Phnom Penh’s first capsule hotel opens. And take the opportunity to enjoy the Mekong waterways in style.

A deluxe room at the Tama Hotel

A deluxe room at the Tama Hotel

The Tama Hotel is perched on the 22nd floor of the Phnom Penh tower, an addition to the already existing chic D22 Restaurant, which serves French-Italian cuisine. The hotel – also known as H22 – is Phnom Penh’s first ever capsule hotel. Hotel guests can squeeze themselves into narrow bunks, which are right next to the glass windows of the tower, to enjoy a stunning aerial view of the city. For those visitors requiring a bit more space, larger deluxe and superior rooms are available. 26 rooms in total. Definitely a room with a view.

Down on the South Coast, the desirability of Kep is showing no signs of slowing down with roads in and out of the resort dramatically improved in recent months. Another new face on the accommodation front in town is a new private beach hotel, Samanea, which is spread over two hectares of natural landscape with 10 spacious and elegant villas, a sea-front infinity pool, al fresco restaurant and spa. Well worth checking out.

Cruising the waterways of Cambodia and Vietnam, is becoming increasingly popular for many visitors. With that in mind, Haimark are keen to expand their operations along the Mekong River and will introduce the 68-guest Mekong Navigator in September, a few days after they launch the 56-passenger Irrawaddy Explorer in Myanmar. In twelve months time, they will also set sail with a 24-guest, all-suite, “spa concept” ship named Mekong Princess. The company says it will have “the most extensive spa menu of any ship on the Mekong River” with several types of massages, facials, scrubs, and body wraps. Each guest will receive one free hour-long spa treatment during the cruise to begin the week-long rejuvenation.

Also gearing up for a luxury river-cruise launch is the Aqua Mekong in September. They will be offering a truly personalized, enriching and unique life-on-the-river experience, on board a five-star floating boutique hotel. Their itineraries have been customized to allow guests to get up close to life on the river and experience first-hand the colorful and varied cultures, religions and timeless traditions. After the excursions each day, guests are able to return to an elegant river facing suite on their floating sanctuary, and enjoy the comforts of the ship, like the plunge pool, indoor and outdoor bar, observation deck and gym, private screening room, games room, library, and last but not least, the spa. The cuisine will be taken care of by Chef David Thompson who has just been named a top ranked chef in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.

Lonely Planet’s Vietnam

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Lonely Planet has the low down on Vietnam. Check it out.

Beautiful Hoi An

Beautiful Hoi An

The brand new Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam is fit to burst with detailed information on what to see and enjoy in this beguiling country. Over 500 pages with great tips, maps, photographs and recommendations that will help make your visit so much more enjoyable. Their Vietnam Top 20 is a listing of what you must not miss. Here it is:

1 -Hoi An. 2 – Food. 3 – Mui Ne. 4 – Sapa & the Tonkinese Alps. 5 -Hue. 6 – Halong Bay. 7 – Ho Chi Minh City. 8 – Phong Nha-Ke BAng National Park. 9 – Angkor Wat (in Cambodia). 10 – Biking the North. 11 – Cat Tien National Park. 12 – Phu Quoc Island. 13 – Hanoi’s Old Quarter. 14 – Coffee Time. 15 – Con Dao Islands. 16 – Ba Be National Park. 17 – Nha Trang. 18- Bia Hoi. 19 – Ethnic Minority Markets. 20 – Dalat.

So why did Hoi An make it to the top spot? Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan and civilised town, this beautiful, ancient port is bursting with gourmet Vietnamese restaurants, hip bars and cafes, quirky boutiques and expert tailors. Immerse yourself in history in the warren-like lanes of the Old Town, shop till you drop, tour the temples and pagodas, and dine like an emperor on a peasant’s budget (and even learn how to cook like the locals). Then hit glorious An Bang Beach, wander along the riverside and bike the back roads. Yes, Hoi An has it all. So now you know.

Vietnam – courtesy of Lonely Planet

Monday, July 21st, 2014

Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam – A Mecca for foodies and a paradise for beach bums, Vietnam is also loaded with cultural interest.

The Hue Citadel and its royal buildings in Central Vietnam

The Hue Citadel and its royal buildings in Central Vietnam

Sensory Overload

Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam.

There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a Chinese junk in Halong Bay.

The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi.

The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

The comical: watching a moped loaded with oinking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane.

And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of tens of thousands of war victims.

A Culinary Superpower

The Thais may grumble but in South-East Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travellers – the dozens of cooking schools in Hoi An are testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavours influencing the soups of northern Vietnam, spices sparking up southern cuisine and myriad herbs and complex techniques typifying the central region, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean epicentre.

Thrills & Chills

If you’ve got the bills, Vietnam’s got the thrills and chills. Some activities require physical effort, like motorbiking up the jaw-dropping Hai Van Pass in central Vietnam. Others require even more sweat: kitesurfing the tropical waters off Mui Ne or hiking the evergreen hills around Bac Ha or Sapa.

And after the adrenalin rush, relax and indulge in Vietnam’s outstanding spas – from marble temples of treatments, to simple family-run massage salons with backpacker-friendly rates.

Meet the Locals

The Vietnamese are energetic, direct, sharp in commerce and resilient by nature. The locals love a laugh and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to socialise with them and hear their tales.

Generally, the rule is the more uncomfortable the (always tiny) seats in the bar or cafe, the more fun you’ll have.

Poor in parts but never squalid, Vietnam is developing at an astonishing pace and inevitably there are some issues to consider (including a few minor scams).

However, on the whole this is an extremely safe (apart from the traffic!) and wonderfully rewarding country to explore.

Vietnam Top Five

1. Hoi An

Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan and civilised town, this beautiful, ancient port is bursting with gourmet Vietnamese restaurants, hip bars and cafes, quirky boutiques and expert tailors. Immerse yourself in history in the warren-like lanes of the Old Town, shop till you drop, tour the temples and pagodas, and dine like an emperor on a peasant’s budget (and even learn how to cook like the locals). Then hit glorious An Bang Beach, wander along the riverside and bike the back roads. Yes, Hoi An has it all.

2. Food

Perhaps Asia’s greatest culinary secret, Vietnamese food is on the radar but hardly a global phenomenon. Essentially it’s all about the freshness of the ingredients – chefs shop twice daily to source just-picked herbs from the market. The result? Incomparable texture and flavour combinations. For the Vietnamese, a meal should balance sour and sweet, crunchy and silky, fried and steamed, soup and salad. Wherever you are, you’ll find exquisite local specialities – the “white rose” of Hoi An, the canh chua of the Mekong Delta or the good ol’ pho of the north.

3. Mui Ne

Perhaps the adrenalin epicentre of Vietnam, the relaxed, prosperous beach resort of Mui Ne is a kitesurfing capital with world-class wind and conditions, and excellent schools for professional training. For those who prefer dry land, sandboarding and golf are popular alternatives. The resort itself has more than 20km of palm-fringed beachfront that stretches invitingly along the shores of the South China Sea. From guesthouses to boutique resorts, designer bars to fine-value spas, Mui Ne has a broad appeal.

4. Sapa and the Tonkinese Alps

Dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French, the spectacular Hoang Lien Mountains soar skywards along the rugged edges of northwest Vietnam towards the Chinese border. Shape-shifting clouds and mist ebb and flow in the mountainous area around Sapa, parting to reveal a glimpse of Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. From the sinuous and spidery ridges, rice terraces cascade down into river valleys, home for several centuries to ethnic minority villages of H’mong, Red Dzao and Giay peoples.

5. Hue

The nation’s capital for 150 years in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hue is perhaps the easiest Vietnamese city to love. Its situation on the banks of the Perfume River is sublime, its complex cuisine is justifiably famous and its streets are relatively traffic free. And that’s without the majesty of the Hue Citadel, with its royal residences and elegant temples, formidable walled defences and gateways. On the city’s fringes are some of Vietnam’s most impressive pagodas and royal tombs, many in wonderful natural settings.

What’s New

> Zone 9, Hanoi

Filling a former pharmaceutical factory with bars, galleries and art spaces, Hanoi’s Zone 9 precinct is the city’s hippest and most vibrant new destination.

> Hill Station Signature Restaurant

In chic surroundings in Sapa, learn how to cook H’mong cuisine at the Hill Station Signature Restaurant. Wash it all down with a tasting set of delicious ruou (traditional rice wine).

> Cat Ba Island Hotels

New hotels are opening up on private islands in the Cat Ba area, including Cat Ong Beach Cottages, which has its own private beach and bungalows.

Getting There

Vietnam Airlines, the state-owned carrier, flies to 28 international destinations, including Australia.

Top Tips

Prepare yourself for the crazy driving: traffic can come at you every which way, and in the cities swarms of motorbikes reach biblical proportions.

Try to keep calm and consider arranging a massage after a long journey. Be aware that Vietnam has more than its fair share of scams; most concern overcharging.

Though very rare, there are some more serious dangers (like unexploded ordnance) to also be aware of. Relevant warnings are given in destinations throughout this guide.

In towns like Hue and Sapa, and beaches popular with tourists, expect plenty of hustle from street vendors, cyclo drivers and the like.

Off the beaten track there’s little or no hassle.

This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet Vietnam (12th Edition) by Iain Stewart and Hanuman’s own Nick Ray amongst others.. © Lonely Planet 2014. Published this month.

Sailing the Mekong

Saturday, July 12th, 2014
Pandaw on the Mekong

Pandaw on the Mekong

The mighty river Mekong flows from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and the South China Sea. You can experience the fascinating and varied river life along the Mekong between Vietnam and Cambodia on a river cruise aboard the RV Mekong Pandaw. Pandaw River Expeditions operates weekly departures between Saigon and Siem Reap/Angkor. You will pass from the vibrant French colonial port of Saigon, through the vast delta so rich in human life and endeavour, to travel along the main channel into the rich countryside of Cambodia.  With a full day in charming Phnom Penh, you will then explore remoter waterways on the way to the great monuments of Angkor.

The RV Mekong Pandaw received a full refit in September 2013. In their spacious state rooms, guests can find finest teak wood, new bathroom, new air conditioning and new sliding French windows leading to the promenade deck. The numbers of cabins have been reduced to just twenty-four making way for a much enlarged spa, new gym, lecture and movie theatre, art gallery, fair-trade-shop and library on the lower deck.

Pandaw is providing pre-programmed iPads with new one-touch-applications to its guests on the RV Mekong Pandaw: itineraries, meal and spa menus, gather information on rivers tops, weather forecast, skype, send e-postcards, watch movies, read e-books and surf the internet. This ship has the largest public space to passenger ratio of any cruise ship in the world. Pandaw is preserving the classic yacht atmosphere but enhances service and facilities. On all Pandaw ships you will experience Asian hospitality and enjoy the highest staff – guest ratio afloat ensuring sensational service.

For July and August sailings the prices are reduced by up to 20%. Fantastic deals, contact the Hanuman Team today for more details.

Vietnam’s Remote Beaches

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Vietnam is is fast emerging as one of Southeast Asia’s new beach destinations.

Vietnam's Remote Beaches

Vietnam’s Remote Beaches

Some of Vietnam’s beaches are already quite heavily developed, but this 8-day itinerary from Hanuman ventures off the trail to connect you with some more remote beach destinations. The journey begins in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) where we visit the War Remnants Museum and the haunting Requiem exhibition of war photography. Later we venture further afield to see the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh, a unique religion that blends the world’s spiritual beliefs together. We also venture underground to explore the Cu Chi Tunnels. We then fly to the remote Con Dao Islands. Once used as a political prison by the French authorities, they are emerging as Vietnam’s best kept secret. Try pristine snorkelling or just relax on the beach. We then continue south to Phu Quoc, destined to become the Phuket of Vietnam one day soon. Relax on the beaches or explore the nearby An Thoi Islands or inland forests. This is a beach holiday with a difference.

For our top recommended hotel on this itinerary, look no further than Six Senses. The spectacular Con Dao archipelago of islands hosts the Six Senses Hideaway Con Dao along a white sand beach surrounded by dramatic mountain landscapes. The remote setting and preserved natural landscape provides an extraordinary sense of seclusion, creating an ideal place to escape and relax close to the natural elements. Six Senses are masters of subtlety and style and their new development in the Con Dao Islands is the perfect blend of eco-friendly island retreat, modernist design and unabashed luxury. A different destination, done differently, look forward to exploring these beautiful islands the Six Senses way. Embrace the slow life.

Contact the Hanuman sales team for more details or visit our website here.

Six Senses Con Dao

Six Senses Con Dao

Aqua Mekong Set for Maiden Voyage in 2014

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Aqua Mekong, the latest vessel from Aqua Expeditions, is set to launch on the Mekong River in August 2014. Check out this video on the inspiration behind expanding from the Amazon to the Mekong.



CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro dropped into the Hanuman offices earlier this week to discuss a pioneering approach to promotional videos. The Aqua Mekong looks set to take Mekong cruising to a whole new level. With just 20 cabins, this will be the most exclusive cruise boat on the Mekong River.

Aqua originally started offering luxurious, exploratory cruises on the Peruvian Amazon, from the jungle city of Iquitos to the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve which has proved to be very successful and we are excited to see them expanding into Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s very much aimed at discerning clients who want a luxurious experience whilst discovering the Mekong in depth. They offer a range of itineraries both upstream and downstream from 3 to 7 days.

They have also got Michelin-starred chef David Thompson on board, and he’s been appointed executive chef for the Aqua. He is renowned for his Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese cuisine and runs the famous Nahm restaurant at the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok.

We have negotiated the best possible rates with them. Contact our Sales Team for more on the Aqua Mekong.

Inside Hang Son Doong, the World’s Largest Cave

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Hang Son Doong is the largest cave in the world, located in the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in Quang Bing Province in North Central Vietnam. Check out this video showing an Oxalis expedition into the cave.

Only explored for the first time by a British caving team in 2009, it is now possible for very limited numbers of visitors to undertake an expedition to Hang Son Doong. Only 22o permits are available to explore this cave complex in 2014 and group departures are limited to just eight people per day. Oxalis Adventures offers 7 day/6 night tours of Hang Son Doong costing US$3000 per person. For some incredible photos of this cave complex, check out the National Geographic images by Carsten Peter: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/largest-cave/peter-photography#/04-jungle-inside-cave-714.jpg

For more on Hang Son Doong, visit http://www.sondoongcave.org/. For more on tours to Hang Son Doong, visit http://www.oxalis.com.vn/son-doong-cave

Our Top Ten Experiences

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Try Hanuman’s Top Ten Authentic Experiences in Indochina.

Elephants in Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Elephants in Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Enjoy a helicopter ride over remote temples or the islands of Halong Bay, enjoy a nostalgic city tour by vintage car, meet leading artists and sculptors in the regional art scene, learn the secrets of local recipes with a celebrity chef and learn the art of travel photography with a professional. All these authentic experiences are possible in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam through Hanuman.

Helicopter Flights : Take to the skies to see the region from a different view. Fly to remote jungle temples in the far north of Cambodia, the endless array of temples in Bagan or discover the dramatic scale of Halong Bay from the air.

The Art of Travel Photography : Learn the tricks of the photographic trade from one of the professional photographers living in the region, including diverse destinations such as the temples of Angkor, lovely Luang Prabang, balloons over Bagan and the Mekong Delta.

Living History in Selected Cities : Understand the complicated history of the war years in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam with a history tour of the leading cities. Experience an intimate tour of iconic locations in Phnom Penh, Saigon and Vientiane.

Wine and Dine in Memorable Places : Enjoy an exclusive private champagne dinner in a unique location. Imagine dinner at one of Angkor’s ancient temples or a romantic picnic on a deserted tropical island.

Encounter Wildlife in Remote Places : Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have an extensive network of national parks. Sleep in a treehouse with the Gibbon Experience in Laos, visit Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary near Siem Reap or see rare langurs in Vietnam.

Cooking with a Celebrity Chef : Experience a cookery demonstration with one of the region’s finest chefs to learn more about the delights of Cambodian, Laotian or Vietnamese cuisine. This can be arranged in most popular visitor destinations.

Meet the Movers and Shakers : Enjoy a private meal with one of the leading lights of the Mekong region, from royal family members in Cambodia to respected international figures who live in Laos and Vietnam.

Hidden Treasures of Indochina : Enjoy exclusive access to leading museums and conservation departments of the region with leading art experts and archaeologists. Go behind the scenes to see forgotten treasures not on display.

City Tour by Vintage Car or Motorcycle : Explore the bustling streets of cities in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam by vintage car. For the more adventurous, it is possible to experience a city tour on the back of an old motorbike.

Yoga Class in Unique Locations : Relax and unwind with your own private yoga session somewhere to remember. Try one of the more remote and secluded beaches of Vietnam or one of the lesser known temples around Angkor.

See Hoi An in Central Vietnam from another angle

Friday, February 21st, 2014

Check out this new video of Hoi An including some inspirational aerial footage from a drone-mounted camera.

Some of the Hanuman team were in Hoi An last weekend to discuss some exciting new travel initiatives in the Central Vietnam region and met up with event and travel media company Key Productions, who produced this short film, including some soaring aerial shots.

Hanuman Films has long produced high-quality travel videos for hotels, cruises and events in the Mekong region, including lots of great videos for Hanuman Travel TV. We’ll be adding some Vietnam videos to the channel in the coming months so watch this space: http://www.youtube.com/user/HanumanTourism?feature=watch

Escape to Vietnam’s islands

Monday, January 13th, 2014
Vietnam’s islands: an escape route to peace - an article in the Telegraph Online by Lonely Planet’s Iain Stewart.

Away from the bustle of the mainland, on islands that were once hell on earth for thousands of prisoners, tranquility now reigns.

Vietnam is very densely populated. With most of its 90 million people living along a narrow coastal strip, it’s all too easy to experience the country through a blur of exhaust fumes, struggling along Highway 1 and stopping off at the most popular towns and cities along the way. As it’s a lot to take in, you would do well to factor in time away from the mainland, on one of the country’s beautiful islands that are fast attracting visitors.

In the north, the Ha Long Bay area has more than 2,000 craggy limestone islets, but you need to choose your boat trip carefully as the Unesco-listed region is wildly popular. So it’s worth investing a little time to explore the less-visited, outer islands.

Off the central coast, the Cham Islands are a great day trip from historic Hoi An, while in the deep south, Phu Quoc is developing fast but has a lush interior and unspoilt beaches. For the ultimate escape, however, my pick would be remote Con Dao, with a fascinating history and empty beaches.

Con Dao:

The Con Dao islands have an utterly unhurried ambience. “There are two traffic lights, but no work,” the bike rental guy said apologetically as he gave me the island rundown. “One gas station, but close for lunch. Only one road, so you no lost. Right to airport or left to prisons and port.”

Moped key in hand, I was relishing the chance to get out and explore some empty roads in search of a perfect beach for the day. I’d spent the previous week embracing Vietnamese city culture and its furious energy and commerce, but was now in need of some serious hammock time.

A cluster of 16 islets in the South China Sea, the Con Dao islands are 155 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. Only the main island, Con Son, is inhabited (its population is just 6,000), though the other islands can be visited.

Once hell on earth to thousands of prisoners incarcerated by French colonists and the American military, today the Con Daos are blissfully tranquil. With their ravishing sandy bays, rainforests and healthy coral reefs, their tropical appeal is easy to grasp. Flight connections used to be atrocious, but Vietnam Airlines now offers three daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City (£52 one way).

The rental guy had lied about the one road. Easily sidetracked, my Honda and I had chanced upon a rough track close to the airport, and our inquisitiveness had rewarded us royally in the form of Dam Trau beach, a sublime half-moon crescent of pale sand, bookended by forest-topped rocky promontories.

After an hour’s snorkelling, exploring the kaleidoscopic coral teeming with macro life and spending five minutes swimming eye-to-eye with a hawksbill turtle, I retreated to the plastic chairs in the bay’s seafood shack, picked a victim from the live fish tank and gorged on crab with tamarind and chilli. The only other diners were a group from Hanoi, employees of a state-owned bank on a corporate jolly-with-a-purpose.

Vietnam is a country steeped in revolutionary rhetoric, and Vo Thi Sau, a teenage resistance fighter executed in Con Dao during the French occupation, fits the bill perfectly. (She killed a captain in a grenade attack at the age of 14, and wasn’t captured until years later.) The bank staff were here to pay their respects to this national heroine, and to the thousands of others who lost their lives in Con Dao’s 11 prisons.

Ghosts are everywhere in Con Dao, nowhere more so than at Phu Hai jail. Built in 1862, it once housed 20,000 prisoners – political and criminal inmates chained together naked in rows. The really troublesome individuals were kept in “tiger cages”, with six to 10 men crammed into a tiny open-roofed enclosure, beaten with sticks from above and dusted with lime and water (which burns the skin). Unbeknown to the world, the Americans continued operating these tiger cages until 1970 when a Life magazine report broke news of their existence, provoking an international outcry.

It had been a chastening day, the brutality of prison conditions contrasting acutely with the overwhelming beauty of my surroundings. As I strolled along the seafront promenade in Con Son town, it was easy to marvel at the sheer gentility of this pocket-sized island capital, its litter-free streets, French-era villas, well-kept municipal buildings and air of calm and prosperity.

Con Son town has a dozen or so hotels and guesthouses but the Six Senses resort (sixsenses.com; from £441), a short ride away to the north, really is in a class of its own. Occupying the island’s best beach, it comprises 50 or so ocean-front, timber-clad beach villas, each fusing contemporary style with rustic chic.

The next day I dropped by the National Park offices just outside Con Son town. The islands’ ecosystems are unique, with 11 trees found nowhere else in the world. It’s thought that a dozen or so dugong, or “sea cows”, remain in the waters around Con Dao, though they are extremely elusive.

You’ve a much better chance of seeing sea turtles as the islands are Vietnam’s most important nesting ground. The World Wide Fund for Nature has supported conservation efforts to protect the green turtle, and national park rangers run night-time boat trips to neighbouring Bay Canh island (the main turtle-nesting season is May to November).

I’d already been lucky enough to snorkel with a turtle, so I fixed up a hike with a ranger instead. Following a slippery but well-marked trail we entered the ever-dripping island rainforest, inching up a mountainside past giant creepers, roots and shoots, picking our way over colossal hardwood buttresses up to the long-abandoned So Ray Plantation, established by the French but now occupied by a sociable troop of long-tailed macaques which are thriving amid the fruit trees planted decades earlier.

On my last day I hooked up with a Honda again for a ride south. Bicycles are also available for rent from hotels (from £2 per day) and taxis can be booked, though they are quite pricey. We hugged the coastline, buzzing past coves and beaches, the lonely road lined with wild bougainvillea and the curious aerial-rooted pandan tree. Towering granite cliffs cascaded down to a turquoise sea as we rounded Ca Map point before rolling into Ben Dam, a no-nonsense port preoccupied with the gritty business of Vietnamese life.

Here sailors sell giant durian fruit from boats and their decks are crisscrossed with clotheslines pegged with drying seaweed, fluttering in the ocean breeze. I ordered a treacle-thick Vietnamese coffee from a café to fix me up for the return leg and paused to watch ruddy-cheeked, beer-happy men paddle from the shore in bizarre coracle-like contraptions back to their fishing boats moored in the bay.

My final stop was Hang Duong cemetery. In the windy season, bones lie exposed in the sun here when the sandy topsoil is blown away. But today there was just the gentlest of breezes, on which drifted the smell of incense.

Following the scent through the flowering scrubs and trees, I was guided to a specific grave, one of thousands there. Here I found the group of bank workers again, heads bowed, at the tomb of Vo Thi Sau as prayers were offered and thanks given to a national icon.

I found myself contemplating the nature of the modern Vietnamese nation: the long struggle for independence and years of suffering, today’s breakneck pace of development, the economic successes and the inevitable growing pains. Here in Con Dao, I enjoyed the silence.

Cat Ba:

Rugged, mountainous Cat Ba island is emerging as a great base to explore the wider Ha Long region. Most of the island is a national park, with trails that fringe the habitat of one of the world’s rarest primates, the cherubic-looking, but highly endangered Cat Ba langur.

Cat Ba is also something of an adventure sports mecca thanks to pioneering work by Asia Outdoors (asiaoutdoors.com.vn), which has established dozens of climbing routes on the spectacular limestone islets that fringe Cat Ba, and also offers all sorts of kayaking and sailing excursions.

In Vietnam you’re never far from a reminder of the conflict locals call the American War. Cat Ba’s amazing Hospital Cave was used by the North Vietnamese as a safe shelter for the military elite, and has its own operating theatres, a small swimming pool and even a cinema.

Cham Islands

Until a few years ago the Cham islands in central Vietnam were a military zone and off-limits to tourism. Times have changed and the islands are now accessible by boat trips (April to September only) from Hoi An.

During the main Vietnamese holiday season (July and August) local tour groups can swamp the golden beaches, but after they’ve departed (around 2pm) normal service (peace) resumes.

There’s decent diving, though visibility can be challenging. Try Cham Islands Diving (vietnamscubadiving.com) and Blue Coral (divehoian.com).

Make sure to drop by the unusual little temple Ong Ngu in Bai Lang, which is dedicated to the whale and whale shark (regarded as oceanic gods by locals until a generation or two ago).

Phu Quoc

In Vietnam’s extreme south, Phu Quoc island is tipped to be the country’s next beach hot spot. A new international airport opened in 2012 (daily flights arrive from Ho Chi Minh City) and dirt roads are steadily being paved.

For now it’s still possible to find a quiet place to escape the mainland crowds. Try eco-friendly Mango Bay (mangobayphuquoc.com; from £80) or Itaca (itacalounge.com), which offers modern-Mediterranean and Asian food, hip decor, DJs and a chilled atmosphere.

Break up the beach-hopping, if you can brave the smell, with a visit to the nuoc mam (fish sauce) factory in Duong Dong, the main town.

When to go

Vietnam has a very complicated climate. The best time to visit the Con Dao islands is between November and March.