English journalist Thomas Barrett returns to Vietnam as a tourist for the first time since the pandemic and discovers that things have definitely changed since he lived here five years ago.
A holiday to Vietnam with my wife was always the prize that got us through those mean months of UK lockdown in 2020 and 2021.
But the world has changed and I feared Vietnam would be different.
I was here in August for three weeks, with my wife staying on for a little longer. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City which would be our base before trips to Hoi An and Hanoi with our family.
After a dismal time treading through Manchester Airport in the UK, getting out of Tan Son Nhat Airport was a breeze.
I’m eligible for the five-year Temporary Resident Card but my previous one had expired and I’d not got round to renewing it.
So it was the 30-day Government e-visa for me, a welcome development that removes the need to queue at the airport for one – or employ questionable agents. If I wanted to stay longer, however, I may be grumbling…
I’ve returned to Vietnam several times as a tourist since living here in 2016 and 2017. That first bath of pure watery heat as you step out of Tan Son Nhat followed by the bleary-headed taxi ride into the belly of the beast will never stop being thrilling to me.
We began with a couple of days in Saigon before a three night stay in Hoi An, staying at Hoi An Memories (VND1.7 million per night), a resort uncannily built in the style of the ‘old town’ of Hoi An itself.
I’ve heard about replicas of Paris or Florence in China but to build a version of Hoi An on an island directly opposite the real thing felt ballsy and just a little bit surreal.
There’s even a Hoi An Memories Theme Park on site. It offers a ‘step back into Hoi An’s golden age’ and includes a Japanese ninja show (!) as well as a spectacular performance that delights punters and tells the 400 year story of Hoi An.
Every time I return to Hoi An it feels a little busier.
“The Vietnamese have discovered Hoi An,” I was told, and good for them.
It’s easy to be cynical about the incense, the lanterns and the hawkers but as a tourist destination it is very, very successful and for me, still retains some of the mystery and magic that makes me want to come back.
We spent a day scuba diving in the spectacular coral around the Cham Islands with Blue Coral Diving. (VND2.2 million per person, per day, food included).
I asked one of the instructors, a fellow Brit called Chris, how the last couple of years have been for them. “Absolutely terrible,” he deadpanned, before adding with a grin, “But there are worse places in the world to be stranded”.
Chris told me that pre-Covid, the boat would have been full with 30 tourists but today there was just 9. The majority on the day were Korean, a market that Danang and Hoi An has relied upon in the past and is returning.
But one of the Korean lads got badly sea sick and spent most of the journey upstairs with his head in his hands, wishing he never came.
These crew of hardy sea dogs at Blue Coral Diving were the kind of blokes you root for, clearly passionate about tourism and diving in Vietnam, and I left hoping next year will be better for them.
We then took a flight north to Hanoi. This part of the trip was less about tourism and more about family reunions after three tough years.
I did have a couple of days in Ninh Binh, which took me back to my first wide-eyed adventure around Vietnam six years ago.
The mountains there are still utterly beautiful but my homestay felt quiet, perhaps too quiet, and its owner seemed doleful with just a trickle of tourists braving the afternoon sun on bicycles.
In the capital city, we spent a week in the lovely Thang Long Opera Hotel (VND2.5m million per night). Located on Tong Dan Street, a stone’s throw from Hoan Kiem lake and the opera house, it’s an ideal place to explore or retreat from the city.
The restaurant can often let a good hotel down but its Lam Dien eatery was superb and probably served up the best traditional Vietnamese fare I ate during this trip in Vietnam.
The hotel was also ideal for the forgetful traveller, as the general manager even posted my Kindle to Saigon after I left it behind.
The final stretch in Saigon was about using muscle memory to return to old haunts – Quán Ngõ 89 on Nguyen Du St, Nong Trai Khoai bar in Binh Thanh, and a chè chuối stall down a hem somewhere off the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal – and discovering some new ones too.
Other places I had enjoyed in the past, like Phat’s Dumpling House in Thao Dien, had disappeared, as had an excellent pho joint over the road from it.
But like all the great cities, Saigon quickly regenerates, which means there’s always some place new to discover.
On my last night in the city, I met up with a friend in her early 20s, who had quit her job in the UK to travel around South East Asia. I felt excited for her to experience Vietnam with fresh eyes.
But contrary to the cliche that stipulates once tourists visit this country they never come back, I have always found Vietnam rewards the repeat visitor.
Before I came I feared everything would be different post-Covid, but during this time in Vietnam the food was better, the people were friendlier, the country felt even more dynamic and when I left I was already looking ahead to my next visit.
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