WHO needs the euro, the dollar or the Vietnamese dong? Not me. I discovered the ideal currency on a seemingly endless beach where we paddled for miles, exploring rocky caves, splashing in the warm waves of the South China Sea, chasing the occasional scuttling crab and picking up beautiful seashells.
'A clear blue sea whipped by November winds that sent our speed boat bouncing towards a jetty for a welcome with cool scented towels and cooler lemongrass and ginger tea'
Each was perfectly round, flat, white and etched with a delicate daisy petal pattern. And when I showed them to my butler – yes, butler in this very posh Southern Vietnamese resort on the island of Con Dao – I was reliably informed that these little sea urchin shells were ‘sand dollars’ to be used as currency at the bar. Three would buy me a mocktail, nine a cocktail.
So with the grand total of 18 my friend and I happily sipped concoctions of pandan leaves, lime juice, sugar cane and vodka, reclining on plump cushions on a day bed overlooking a beach fringed with sea lettuce and wild pineapple.
Five star heaven, set in a protected national and marine park guarded by Elephant Head Mountain.
I had discovered my sixth sense: well-being, thanks to Six Senses, a chain of luxury resorts that pamper guests, including princes and Hollywood stars such as Angelina Jolie, from sleepy head (there’s a menu of pillows to choose from) to glossily manicured toes.
With meticulous attention to detail nothing appears too much trouble, for Korean Mehye, our butler/guest experience manager, chauffeuring us by buggy from our rock-top villa, where Princess Caroline once stayed. She ferried us to the spa for a soothing all-body massage in citrus oils, booked our tai-chi workshop, a hike into the hills to spot an endangered black shank monkey (we didn’t), and organised a light lunch of seafood and shredded coconut salad and mango sorbet on the terrace around a personal infinity pool that turned ruby red at sunset.
I don’t know how I ever lived without someone like Mehye, who could be summoned day and night by the press of a smiley face on the bedside phone.
She was at the first of our two Six Senses beach resorts: Ninh Van Bay, a peninsular jutting into a clear blue sea whipped by November winds that sent our speed boat bouncing towards a jetty for a welcome with cool scented towels and cooler lemongrass and ginger tea. I felt like the millionaire I had suddenly become: just £200 at a bureau de change bought me nearly six and half million dong.
Millionaires – including royalty, Russian oligarchs, sports and film stars – can’t abide cheap plastic. Bamboo, teak, stone, leather and rattan dominated our spacious villa. Even light switches hid in little wooden boxes. A wooden tub of Titanic proportions provided serious scented soaking in bath salts and bubbles while an outside shower embedded in rock released our inner Aphrodite.
Thanks to the rainy season I’ve never spent so much time in water. It might have curtailed our plans to snorkel in a sea too churned up and sandy to see the parrotfish and sea horses – scuba divers should avoid November to January. But squalls didn’t stop us hiking with our guide, Hieu.
After an energy-boosting breakfast from a vast array of goodies ranging from local treats to Western dishes including waffles and Eggs Benedict, all freshly cooked, together with fruits, juices, yoghurts and cereals we were greeted by Hieu.
The hike turned into challenging bouldering that saw us scrambling over rocks and hauling ourselves up slippery slopes and down dells with the aid of ropes and tree trunks, avoiding the thorny wild lemon tree, scattering butterflies.
Hieu related the Chinese folk tale of two ill-fated lovers whose parents forbid them marrying. Heartbroken, he pines away, she jumps into his open grave and, as the ground engulfs her, two beautiful butterflies emerge to flutter off together. Entranced, I lost my footing and planted my head into a rock.
Alcohol, applied externally, and arnica internally powered me to the pinnacle of our three hour hike: a 120 metre high viewing position for an unparalleled view of the sweeping Ninh Van Bay with its bobbing fishing boats and lobster farm.
A foot massage by a blind masseuse revived my feet for a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. What a change of pace: manic traffic with mopeds and pedestrians vying for pavement space; busy markets selling watches that wouldn’t last the trip (mine was binned within days); and very efficient pickpockets (my friend was robbed of her smartphone as soon as she zipped it back in her rucksack).
But HCMC, the city they still call Saigon, is unmissable. Rickshaw Travel made all the arrangements for a whistle-stop tour, including a nighttime vintage Vespa ride as a pillion passenger. Steely nerves were tested as we weaved our way between scooters bearing entire families, crowded buses, brave cyclists and pluckier jaywalkers.
First stop was for cocktails at Café Zoo bar before feasting on street food – frogs a speciality – at the Vinhkhahn seafood restaurant. After crab claws with lemongrass, clams and chilli, mussels with chopped peanuts in noodles as appetisers we negotiated more narrow streets and alleys to the Pancake Inn for shrimp rolls, beef, radish, star fruit and young banana wrapped in rice paper, a rice pancake with bean shoots and shrimps.
They do a lot of rice in Vietnam: growing, papermaking, eating and drinking it as wine and very strong spirit. I sampled the snake sake. The vipers, very dead, were neatly coiled up in the bottom of the jar, adding that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the mix.
A plethora of grand architecture, galleries and gardens, the Opera House and coffee shops, museums and markets made for a memorable city break before we changed gear again for a relaxed Mekong Delta boat trip, again with Rickshaw Travel.
The Delta is Vietnam’s rice bowl and supports coconut palms, fruit orchards and sugar cane groves. The river is a teeming waterway, its banks sprouting ramshackle homes on stilts, launderettes, light industry, timber mills, temples and thousands of family businesses.
It is the lifeblood of the region, a workplace and playground, scenic and serene, bustling and bursting with vitality – a moving riverscape rolling past as we reclined in our comfy deck loungers for a seven hour voyage to Can Tho City, stopping en route for crazily cheap street food in Vin Long City, then waking before dawn to witness the Cai Be floating market with its roaring trade in fruit and vegetables.
In jolting contrast to Vietnam’s current vibrancy and delights we discovered the darker side of a country beset by wars waged against both French colonists and American troops. The War Remnants Museum in HCMC is a chilling reminder of the US conflict, exhibiting unflinching images of the devastating legacy of Agent Orange, deployed to flush out the Viet Cong.
From HCMC travellers can experience the dark, dank Cu Chi Tunnels where resistance fighters became human moles to hide from US forces. Don’t try this if you are claustrophobic.
Just 150 miles away the Americans commandeered the idyllic island of Con Dao to incarcerate prisoners in Phu Hai prison, until its liberation in 1975. The French built the jail in 1861, using brutal ‘tiger cage’ pits to pen men, women and children who made this ‘journey to hell.’ It remains a testament to man’s inhumanity to man, a shrine where visitors shiver among figures of emaciated, beaten inmates in gloomy cells.
We cast off the gloom in the glorious golden sunshine as we headed from Hades to the heavenly view of the Six Senses’ sweeping beach, ordering a stiff drink at the welcoming cocktail bar. Only one problem in Paradise – we’d run out of ‘sand dollars.’
Gill Martin travelled with Vietnam Airlines, which offers the only direct flights from the UK to Vietnam, with twice-weekly non-stop flights to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Prices for travel in 2014 start from £579 per person including taxes. From July 2015 Vietnam Airlines upgrades its services with the introduction of new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, complete with new look interiors, in-flight wifi and fully flat beds in Business Class.
She stayed at two Six Senses spa resorts.
Six Senses Con Dao offers an Ocean View Duplex Pool Villa from £507 per night, including taxes and fees. Price includes buffet breakfasts and airport transfers. Flights from HCMC can be booked via the resort for USD 210 US dollars net return, or online with Vietnam Airlines.
Six Senses Ninh Van Bay offers a Hill Top Pool Villa from £561 per night, including taxes and fees. Price includes buffet breakfasts, snorkelling and kayaking. Flights are booked directly with Vietnam Airlines, Jet Star Pacific, or Viet Jet Airways.
Rickshaw Travel offers ready-made itineraries or the opportunity to build your own trip from a series of bite-size tours. Prices start at £155 for two nights accommodation, airport transfers and the Vespa tour. Prices for a 5 day (4 night) bite size tour start from £225 (or £298 ‘in style’) per person based on two sharing and includes one night in a simple hotel on the Mekong Delta and 3 nights in a central hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Price includes transport, accommodation with breakfast, guide and entrance fees for the Cu Chi tunnels. For more information visit their website or call 01273 322041.
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