Vietnam - The Land of the Ascending Dragon

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

This dragon-like slither of a country, draped across the borders of Laos, Cambodia and China, has spiced the tongues of travellers for generations. Even the slightest mention of Vietnam will incite a conversation that weaves from bubbling bowls of Pho to moped-stuffed cities via white sand beaches, emerald-coloured mountains, and the Vietnam War. But with more opportunities for luxury than ever, with numerous Five-star hotels and residences set to open in the 2020s, as well as Vietnam’s first-ever Michelin restaurants awarded in 2023, there has never been a better time to get to know the Land of the Ascending Dragon.

Introductions in Hanoi’s Old Town

The bustling capital with its eclectic neighbourhoods, pagodas, and lakes is as good an introduction to Vietnam as any, but the food in particular is of note. Bubbling bowls of Pho with sides of deep-fried banh quay, Hanoi beer, and unending mopeds laden the air with a heady mix of spice, flame and petroleum. Wander the French Quarter and the old town, and you’ll find them lush with trees and plants, many draping across walls and forming archways over roads heavy with traffic and the cacophony of a hundred motorcycle horns. But it's the colourful tube houses, synonymous with Hanoi, and the delicious street food that resonates. Foodies animate roadside eateries atop tiny stools in red and yellow, eating Pho for breakfast, Banh Mi stuffed with pork for lunch, and catfish marinated in Turmeric for dinner, all sunken down with frothy egg coffee and refreshing Hanoi beer.

Excitingly, Vietnam received Michelin recognition in 2023, with four restaurants becoming Vietnam’s first to receive stars, alongside more than a hundred Bib Gourmands. Of the four newly-starred Michelin restaurants, three are in Hanoi. Try the exquisite 12-course menu at Gia, across the road from the Temple of Literature, for an elevated glimpse of Vietnam’s expansive culinary heritage. Perfect after a day trip to Trang An or Ninh Bính.

Trekking the Paddies in Sapa

The terraced rice paddies, carved across Sapa’s hills and valleys, are gorgeous year-round, but visit from late August to the beginning of October to see the picking season. The rice is cut by hand, leaving the fields a striking honey hue, a sharp contrast to the peaks of the Hoang Lien Son mountains draped with thick cottony clouds, gifting the area a sweeping cinematic aesthetic. The trekking is sublime, with 360-degree views leaping across mountain ridges and down valleys cut with babbling streams. Villages are sketched into hills, interwoven by dirt paths through woodlands, with ethnic minorities making up the bulk of the locals, most more than happy to tag along on walks, often selling handmade accessories and jewellery, a result of hundreds of days of craftsmanship.

Icons up close: Halong Bay

A day or two spent amongst those enigmatic emerald peaks breaching the crystal clear waters of Halong Bay and Lan Han Bay is more than worth the travel time from Hanoi. But while the monoliths poking from the water are stunning, they’re best seen from a private tour or yacht as the cut-and-paste cruises that swarm the area get in the way of each other and can lessen the bay’s appeal when all the boats group up for the evening. But spend a day sailing and kayaking to see the karst mountains up close, stopping at stunning beaches like Ba Trai do and Van Boi.

Two Sides of Da Nang

Perhaps one of Vietnam’s most intriguing cities, Da Nang has a charm equal parts Hong Kong and Phuket. The centre is a waterfront of neon-drenched skyscrapers creating a futuristic topography best viewed from a rooftop bar on the Han River, preferably with views of the Dragon Bridge breathing fire to the delight of vast audiences twice a week. But walk to the eastern seafront, and the city begins to change, with long stretches of beach flanked by international hotels and raucous beach bars, good for a few days of sand but lacking the personality of Da Nang proper.

Forward-thinking and absurdly excellent cocktail bars such as Té (with garlic infusions from Ly Son Island and herbs from the local markets) are hidden, speakeasy-style, behind the entrances to cafes on the west side of the Han, but much of Da Nang’s drinking and eating takes place in the youthful Helio Night Market.

Four Seasons Hoi An

While Hoi An is stunning, with those flower-dressed streets and boats illuminated with paper lanterns, its popularity has soared, leaving its quaint streets overrun at times. But a convenient reprieve can be found in the stunning Four Seasons Nam Hoi, nestled on a stretch of fiercely beautiful beach with far-off views of the Son Tra Peninsula.

It's at its best in the beach view pool villas, spread across two traditionally presented houses with a chic raised double bed centrepiece in the main house and an immensely generous swimming pool carved into a private garden. The private beach is astounding, so large as to feel empty and kept stunning by a small army of conical-hatted workers tending its every inch.

The food and drink are inspired by Vietnam’s rich heritage, from the exceptional Pho cocktails in the bar to lemongrass-infused chicken served in bamboo in Lá Sen restaurant. Additionally, the ancient temples of My Son and the faux-classical, intensely Instagrammed bridge held up by hands at Ba Na Hills are all an easy day trip away.

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