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A holistic traveller’s guide to Vietnam

Vietnam might not immediately come to mind as a destination for a relaxing, meditative journey. A place for thrill seekers, certainly; for sheer excitement, crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City is on par with running from the bulls in Pamplona. The hordes of motor scooters on the city streets heading towards each other from both sides like opposing armies, only for each one to splinter off and dart through the oncoming throng, seem to be a perfect symbol of a nation on the move, in many directions at once.

Miraculously, the drivers — mothers with up to four children in tow, workers with ladders protruding out the back to their full two-metre length, happy 20-somethings excitedly chatting on their phones non-stop while zigzagging around their fellow motorists — rarely collide. Nonetheless, their calmness suggests remarkable faith. Perhaps, in this strongly Buddhist society, it expresses meditation at work.

As the economy has grown, larger vehicles have become more common but scooters still rule the roads in the capital city. For a pedestrian, rather than waiting for a gap in the traffic (which, in some parts of Ho Chi Minh City, will never happen), it’s best to walk blindly across the road, allowing the traffic to weave around you. I only once had a near-collision when I nervously stopped in the middle of the road so a scooter could go in front of me. Stopping on the road? The scenario might seem like chaos, but a surprise move like this could easily upset the equilibrium in which traffic seamlessly flows.

It’s easy to be carried away by the busy life of Saigon (the old name of Ho Chi Minh City, which many locals still prefer to use). At six o’clock every morning, the locals congregate in the many parks for their morning exercises: crowded aerobics sessions, gym training, squash practice.

Afterwards, a few moments might be spent at a coffee shop for a dose of caffeine Viet-style: drip-filtered into a glass, with a thick base of condensed milk. Stir it and it’s creamy and super-sweet; leave it be and it’s black and strong. Either way, it’s terrific.

The city dwellers are cheerful, friendly and seemingly with neither the time nor the inclination to rest their weary (if obviously resilient) bodies. However, the massage centres can be spotted behind the market stalls, tucked between the pho eateries and the tea shops.

Vietnamese massage has elements of Chinese, Thai and Balinese massage — soothing but potent. As in Thailand, the average masseuse is a deceptively small woman whose powerful hands seem capable of curing any aches and pains with the aid of hot basalt stones. Incidentally, her size is relevant. In a full-body massage, one way she performs her magic is by climbing on to a stool and literally walking on her client, capably stepping on the correct pressure points. Though she distributes her weight by holding on to bars in the ceiling, you wouldn’t want such treatment from a larger, less sprightly person.

Homemade goodness

The Vietnamese know their native ingredients to the healthiest level. Take snake wine, in which a cobra is placed inside a bottle of rice wine. This is buried for two years, then served with the snake still inside. The result is a sweet (and understandably expensive) tonic for energy, back pain and — most of all — virility. (Tourists, trying to clinch a bargain, might unwittingly take home a wine-drenched rubber snake.)

Farmers in southern Vietnam also make scorpion wine, seahorse wine (at US$250/AU$260 a bottle) and, for wealthy people, “gun and bullet wine”, in which the severed member of a goat or a tiger is submerged. These wines are strictly for men and, as you might assume, are used to improve sex drive. One of the local men proudly informs me that Viagra and similar companies have never done good business in Vietnam.

Homemade wine is a family craft among the Vietnamese, as much a tradition as homemade jams and spreads in the West. The wines are usually made from rice or corn and drunk communally from a ceramic pot. If this seems like pure indulgence, note that they are mostly medicinal. In the villages, every woman knows the recipes for banana wine (for back pain), coconut wine (for the eyes) and tapioca wine (a northern speciality, scorned by southerners). In the Ninh Thuan province of central Vietnam, believe it or not, they even make wine from grapes!

But perhaps the main secret behind the Vietnamese energy and good spirits is the food: tasty and uncomplicated. Despite the Buddhist culture giving rise to vegetarian restaurants like the Original Bodhi Tree (a Saigon institution), most Vietnamese are happily omnivorous.

Heading to the Mekong Delta, our local guide says they will eat almost any animal. Elephants? “Yes, we eat elephant.” Rats? “The country rats are much nicer than the city rats. Eating one is like the first time you kissed your girlfriend.” Grasshoppers? “Barbecued insects are a delicacy in Vietnam street stalls, filled with protein.” He says that only three animals are banned from the kitchen: dragons, unicorns and phoenixes. (I later discover that sea turtles, as a protected species, are also — literally — a culinary crime.)

The best places to shop for fresh fruit and vegetables are the floating markets of the Mekong Delta. These were not established for tourists, but have existed for centuries. From the town of Can Tho on the delta, we board a small boat and sail to Cai Rang, the smallest of the three markets in the region. First we are approached by a speedboat, a floating cafeteria, offering Vietnam-style coffee and the ubiquitous cans of Coke. A few minutes later, we see some 100 larger boats selling tropical fruits, vegetables and rice. Our guide insists that the food is all organic and chemical-free. Based on the full-bodied flavour of the pineapple, I’m willing to believe him.

Beaches and dreams

Vietnam has followed most of Southeast Asia into the tourist world. Jade Huynh, publisher of the guidebook Rest-Relax Vietnam, recently pondered what the nation offered that couldn’t be provided by, for example, Thailand or Indonesia. “The country’s charm, our people’s energy and drive and our colourful moving history make it stand out from others in Asia,” she noted. Not that Thailand or Indonesia don’t have charm; it’s just that Vietnam’s is unique.

The nation also has the Mekong Delta, the limestone islands of Ha Long Bay (which was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011, outpolling the Great Barrier Reef) and a coastline of spectacular beaches leading to resort towns such as Nha Trang.

For all its appeal, Nha Trang has morphed into a bustling city, so the best locations to sink into shameless idleness are in the tourist islands a few minutes across the East Sea. Vinpearl (“Pearl of Vietnam”) announces itself on a mountain with large capital letters in the style of California’s famous HOLLYWOOD sign. The island includes an amusement park, golf courses and a handful of five-star resorts. More quietly, Hon Tam Island is the classic palm-lined tropical retreat with deluxe bungalows disguised as grass huts. It promotes itself as a honeymoon spot — a fair claim.

Travel is a fast-moving business. Once an unspoiled paradise is discovered it doesn’t remain that way for long. Those who are intrigued by Vietnam but believe Asia is “ruined” by tourism might wish to visit very soon. At least, you should waste little time visiting Phu Quoc Island, geographically off the Cambodian coast but technically part of Vietnam. (Combined boat/bus journeys are advertised on the tiny travel booths: US$20/AU$21 to Phnom Penh, US$30/AU$31 to Siem Reap.)

Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island, a skinny 52 kilometres long. It has some of the region’s best beaches: white sand on the west coast, golden sand on the east, with diving, snorkelling and fishing from both sides. The vibrant seafood markets offer freshly caught carp, mudfish, prawns, squids, lobsters and other delicacies, still in their aquariums. Most of the island’s interior is covered in dense forest and national park.

If Nha Trang is for the honeymooners and families, Phu Quoc invites the backpackers, recovering after a week of Hanoi or Saigon nightlife. Still, it is mostly uncharted and, of the 340,000 tourists a year, 80 per cent are locals. To the government and tourist operators, however, this island is the future. A bright new airport was recently built. The hub of Tran Hung Dao Street, along the west coast, is a hive of construction. While it doesn’t yet have the crowded tourist development on the scale of Bali or Phuket, it’s certainly heading that way.

Not just a backpacker haven, Tran Hung Dao Street has boutique resorts, notably the French-style La Veranda Resort, which already attracts many Australian visitors who enjoy the beach by day and karaoke by night. Others, however, might prefer more serene and therapeutic pleasures. The staff take justified (and obviously sincere) pride in the spa, which is colourfully lit rather than dark and ambient.

“Traditional” Vietnamese massage is the signature treatment at La Veranda, using natural body oils with local ingredients: pomelo and lime for “awakening”; bergamot for meditation and “uplifting”; patchouli for relaxation; ylang ylang for calming. Like Chinese massage, it uses acupressure and hot cupping, a technique publicly demonstrated on clients in the night markets of Ho Chi Minh City. This seems to be an extreme version of the Chinese therapy. Cups, heated by flame, are attached to the client’s back through suction — up to a dozen at once. To a spectator, it looks painful, a feat of endurance. In truth, you don’t notice as the cups are placed on your back. It’s only when they are removed that you feel a raw, pinching sensation.

Wellness boom

Vietnam’s spas, spread throughout the nation, are a large part of its growing tourist market. Despite the renowned resort areas of Phan Thiet, Hoi An and the Nha Trang region, perhaps the best place for health resorts is the coast of Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city. Da Nang’s first five-star resort, the Furama Resort, was opened in 1997. Furama offers spa packages like the Amorous Couples Delight (which will “remind you why you are so lucky to have each other”) and the Anti-Stress Statesman, which treats such symptoms as mood swings and food cravings.

Furama’s reputation now precedes itself, so that locals couldn’t imagine any sensible visitor going elsewhere. However, it has recently been upstaged by one of the new kids on the block, the Fusion Maia Da Nang, recently named one of the world’s 101 best hotels by the Tatler Travel Guide. Among its attractions: the largest spa in Vietnam.

The Fusion Maia greeted me with a good omen. My camera, which had somehow ceased functioning during my previous stop in Nha Trang, was suddenly working again for no apparent reason. It might have been a coincidence (well, OK, it probably was) but I put it down to something mystical about the resort itself. It is undoubtedly a special place. Here is a resort where health and meditation aren’t simply part of the service but a major focus.

The room rate for each guest includes two spa treatments a day — facials, reflexology, wraps, manicures, hair treatments, various types of massage — as part of the deal. The spa has a staff of more than 100, many of whom are multitalented. One could be taking a yoga session with you in the morning then give you a spa treatment in the evening. The front bar is the Tonic Bar, specialising not in wine (though it has plenty) but in herbal tea and Asian tapas. The pool bar (the suitably named Fresh Pool Bar) offers salads, wraps and juices, in such a nourishing environment that it doesn’t seem right to ask for a beer.

Somehow, this resort — an effortless blend of decadence and good health — seems perfectly at home in a nation where thousands of scooters can scurry through anarchic traffic with no hint of fear. Whether or not you are a Buddhist, Vietnam seems to work in mystical ways.

 

Mark Juddery is an author, journalist and travel writer whose newest book is Best. Times. Ever. Why Almost Everything Is Better Than It Used to Be (Hardie Grant).

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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