Wheels are turning in Vietnam. I realised this as soon as I crossed the street in the city formerly known as Saigon and stepped into Givral café. The logo says it has been here ‘since 1950’, but that is slightly bending the truth. A landmark café by that name did open in 1950. A meeting ground for the city’s creative set, it stayed open for 60 years but was demolished to make space for a new development, Vincom Center A (part five-star hotel, part shopping mall), in 2010.

This Givral, on level one of the mall, with its whitestudded sofas, red-skirted waitresses serving Cherry Chantilly gâteaux, picture windows opening onto the 19th-century Opera House and the Hotel Continental Saigon made famous by playwright Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (2002), has only returned to this site last year. Today’s Givral is a little brash, quite flashy, and serves as a reminder that in Vietnam the wheels of change are turning fast. Welcome to new Saigon, I thought.  

The Opera House in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
I had arrived with an abiding image of a very different wheel, the spinning of an overhead fan in a Saigon hotel room, and of a military helicopter rotor—both of them from the opening sequence of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—that epic Vietnam War film. I was not alone in coming to Vietnam with a head full of such images set against a backdrop of tropical beauty. Don, a 70-year-old Californian I met in the downtown market that first day, had come with the same ideas. But his wife saw things differently and was shopping for just about anything she could lay her hands on.

“Don, do you like this?”
“No, dear.”
“Don, shall I get this?”
“No, dear.”
 “Don, you’re not trying. We need to help these people and I’m trying to do that by shopping. Now, how about this?”
“No, dear, I don’t need to try: we don’t need that.”

There was something Don did need. He needed to talk. He was surprised by how Vietnam had changed in the decades since his last visit. It still had all the attractions of old — beautiful landscapes, great beaches, historic structures, delicious food—but it now had all the comforts of Thailand, was more accessible than Myanmar, and it was home to some of the friendliest people he had ever met. “So warm, so gentle,” he observed. 

“Last time I was here, things were a little different. They were shooting at me.” Don had been a combatant in what the Vietnamese call the American War. “The thing is,” and suddenly he was emotional, “they have no rancour. They seem to have moved on.” He scratched his head. “I guess it’s time for me to do the same.” He mentioned that he had been based in Danang. “I’m not going back there,” he said. But I was.

More wheels — this time on the overnight Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang. I love train travel. But this was neither the most glamorous nor the most comfortable ride. It was worth it for the time it gave me to catch up with myself and for the glimpse of the countryside, rice paddies, Chinese-style tombs on the edge of fields, and for the puzzle of gardens lit through the night that turned out to be chrysanthemum plantations.

Danang, which we reached in the morning, is the economic heart of central Vietnam — its largest city, biggest port and now the centre of its tourism industry. A city of nearly 10 lakh people and what seems like one crore motorbikes, it might not be the sort of place you will want to spend much time on holiday. Still, there are reasons to stop and one is the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture (Cham being the people who came from the kingdom of Champa), facing the new Dragon Bridge over the Han River.

The French created the museum in 1919 to house sculptures salvaged from the ruins of Champa, which survived from the 2nd to the 17th century AD. Among the lost Champa cities are Dong Duong, almost completely destroyed by time and war, and My Son, which has done better. Buddhism prevailed at Dong Duong and one of the surviving masterpieces is a 2ft-high statue of Lady Tara, cast in bronze, with a cloth tied at her waist, her breasts bare and her palms forward—an image of great elegance and beauty. The carvings from My Son will be familiar to anyone who knows India, for the Cham kings worshipped the Hindu gods as far back as the 4th century and their artists recreated in stone the stories of Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Parvati, and the many twists and turns of the Ramayana.

The second reason to stop in Danang is the newly opened InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort. It is here that Michel Roux Sr has opened his first Asian outpost, La Maison 1888, a smart restaurant with a dining room designed to feel like a fin de siècle French mansion. This resort sits on a finger of the Sun Peninsula, where the hills come close to the coast; the resort tumbles down the slope to a pristine curve of beach in a series of black-and-white terraces.
A fisherman casts from a pontoon on Ho Tay Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Like its regional rivals Thailand and Myanmar, Vietnam has monuments, beaches, stunning landscapes and excellent hotels. But unlike in those other countries, where you often have to sacrifice comfort (or pay a hefty price) for the sights, the beach or an excellent meal, in Hoi An City, some 30 km to the south of Danang, these things all come together.

Hoi An’s pristine, palm-edged beaches are as good as any in Thailand and home to the sort of sophisticated resorts you would expect to end there. Among them is The Nam Hai — a series of 100 villas built in hoops along the beach, facing the sea — which calls itself Vietnam’s ‘premier luxury resort’. It is also an easy drive from here to the ancient ruins at My Son, whose beautiful temples and monuments are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. And Hoi An is also within reach of three of Vietnam’s best golf courses, the Colin Montgomerie-designed Montgomerie Links, Greg Norman’s Danang Golf Club and Nick Faldo’s new Laguna Lang Co Golf Club (marketed together as Golf Coast Vietnam). But the main reason to stay in Hoi An is the charm of the city itself.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, Hoi An was one of South-East Asia’s most important ports. When the port silted up, trade moved elsewhere and much of the 20th century simply passed by. Which, in part, explains why crossing the Thu Bon River by the Japanese Covered Bridge feels like stepping into a lost town of two-storey shop-houses and local markets. They have banned cars from the centre of Hoi An, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So the only wheels that turn belong to bicycles.

When I first went, the feeling of stepping back in time was enhanced by the fact that I had arrived on the night of a Full Moon Festival (the 14th day of every lunar calendar month), when the town’s streetlights are switched off and candles float down the river.

Beyond its architecture, Hoi An is famous for its tailors and chefs. I had brought some tweed from the Isle of Harris and a jacket that I wanted copied. The tailors at Yaly Couture knew exactly what they were doing, and two sittings and two days later, produced a faithful copy, although the new one had the embellishment of a Viet silk lining and cost a fraction of the original. Hoi An’s chefs were equally pleasing.

On my first night, I ate at Morning Glory, which prides itself on the authenticity of its Viet food. Run by Trinh Diem Vy, who’s produced a bestseller cookbook and has taught students at New York’s venerable Institute of Culinary Education, it serves dishes such as cau lao noodles (said to be made with water from a secret Cham-era well) and duck breast with banana-flower salad. Ms Vy also runs a cookery school, where you can learn to cook some of the dishes served in her restaurant.

On my last night, I had a very different meal at the Mango Rooms. Tran Thanh Duc, the restaurant’s chef-proprietor, was born in the then Saigon, but at the age of 16, he was sent away to what his parents hoped would be a better life. He returned many years later via Malaysia, Texas, Australia and other points East and West, with a love of food, the skill to cook it and the laid-back attitude of a Californian surf dude. “I’ve been cooking fusion food here for nine years,” he said, as I ate his seared tuna with mango sauce. “But now it’s time to cook the food I grew up with.” Mai Fish, his new restaurant, has just opened a short walk away from Mango Rooms in homage to his mother’s kitchen, serving brilliant cha gio (fried spring rolls). I could have happily spent a week in Hoi An, travelling into the countryside to see the sights, lazing on the big beaches and eating. But Hué was just a couple of hours’ ride along a train track that passed through what writer Paul Theroux once called the most beautiful scenery he had seen since leaving London (and by then he had crossed Europe, the Middle East, India, Thailand and Malaysia). The twisting waterside track was still beautiful when I went, especially when the jungle closed in on us. But I remember more the fun on the train when a group of businessmen hung up their jackets, poured out rice wine and started dealing cards.

Like Hoi An, Hué has plenty of atmosphere, but while Hoi An’s was that of a trading town, Hué’s is all faded grandeur. Until 1945, the Forbidden Purple City and its surrounding citadels, built on the banks of Perfume River, were home to emperors, their retinue and the imperial administration. Like Hoi An, it gives the impression of having changed little over the centuries, and arriving by cyclo helped that illusion. But inside its 10km of surrounding wall, the great red-and-gold palace chambers, with their tiled roofs and intricate carvings of dragons, phoenix, unicorns and turtles—the four protective spirits—have either been much restored or entirely rebuilt.

The illusion continued that evening when I dined on Franco-Viet fare beneath the wheeling fans at Les Jardins de la Carambole, where the imperial red cloths and shuttered windows could have been relics from French-ruled Indochine, although the place is a recent creation by a Frenchman.

The illusion was no less complete the next day at Tha Om Garden House, the ancient-style but modern-build home of Pham Ba Vinh and his wife Ton Nu Cam Tu. Mr Pham is descended from an old mandarin family and the feast he served in his beautiful house, which included lantern-shaped spring rolls and grilled beef dished up on a tile, was imperial both in style and scale. 

If there is any doubt as to how far the wheel has turned in Hué, there is none at all in the capital, Hanoi. The city is in perpetual motion, which seems appropriate for a place that has as its logo a circle enclosing an icon that looks very similar to a steering wheel. Change here is super-charged. Ironically, then, this was also where I walked the most. I spent several days on foot in Hanoi’s endlessly restless Old Quarter. I trawled some of the shops in the area around St Joseph’s Cathedral and grazed at a number of food stalls. (I avoided Nghi Tam, the alley of dog-meat stalls, and ate well on Hang Ga and Cau Go streets.)

I walked around the West Lake at the heart of the city, around the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh, the man credited with creating the nation as it exists today. I strolled through the brilliant displays of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (a glimpse of a different life in the mountains) and the trophies of battle at the Military History Museum. Then I ended up in the Metropole, the old colonial hotel where Charlie Chaplin stayed on his honeymoon, Graham Greene wrote and Joan Baez sang through a US air raid. Now remodelled and renamed Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, it is the city’s most prestigious hotel and also the best place to muse on the pace and scale of the change that is sweeping through the city and the country.
The Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The Metropole’s Le Beaulieu restaurant is part of the original hotel and probably the city’s oldest surviving restaurant. Breakfast there is a sumptuous affair, made more so by a seemingly endless line of couples just beyond the streetside bar, La Terrasse. Driving up on motorbikes and in taxis, wearing hired suits and gowns, they choose to have their wedding photographs taken, not in front of ‘Uncle’ Ho’s mausoleum or the 11th-century Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius, but instead with the Metropole—that icon of a more glamorous age—as a background. Hanoi, like much of Vietnam, is changing fast, but some things stay the same. Plus ça change…

Look for this story in the Aug-Sep issue of Conde Nast Traveller
To know more, grab a copy of the Condé Nast Traveller India August-September 2013 issue, out on stands now