TransIndus Southeast Asia Tailor-Made Holidays e-Brochure

Tailor-made Vi etnam | Cambod i a | Laos | Myanmar Tha i l and | Ma l ays i a | I ndones i a | S i ngapore Southeast Asia

Ta i l o r - m a d e S o u t h e a s t A s i a b y T r a n s I n d u s

Welcome to TransIndus

W ith its sublime landscapes, vibrant ethnic diversity, sophisticated cultural traditions and astounding historic monuments, Southeast Asia could define the word ‘exotic’. In few regions of the world can you gaze on ruined cities as splendid as Angkor in Cambodia, swim in seawater as transparent as those lapping the karst islets of Thailand, or walk through rainforest as pristine as those of inland Borneo. Nor are there many parts of the planet where traditional ways of life flourish as they do in the remote valleys of northern Vietnam, Laos and Sulawesi. Moreover, Southeast Asia boasts a world-class visitor infrastructure these days, enabling you to travel in considerable comfort. Development has taken place at a particularly brisk speed in the tourism sector. Each year, our team uncovers ever more inspirational places to visit, whether homestays with minority communities along obscure stretches of the Mekong River or Dutch-era coffee plantations hidden amid the volcanic uplands of Java. Sublime landscapes and distinctive local traditions are a constant source of fascination, wherever you travel. But what makes Southeast Asia such a uniquely rewarding one to explore, as anyone who has taken a holiday there will confirm, is the great openness and warmth of its people. This pervasive generosity of spirit was very apparent to me while growing up in Myanmar (then Burma), where I was born and raised, and is a big part of why I feel such an affection for the country and its neighbouring states today. Like me, all of our consultants have lived, worked and travelled extensively throughout the region, and return there regularly. Sharing one’s love of a destination and translating it into enjoyable holidays for our guests are among the most enjoyable aspects of our job. At TransIndus we also take great pride in our standards of personal care and attention to detail –

qualities that have repeatedly made us an award-winning tour operator. We hope you’ll agree that this passion and expertise shines through the writing and photographs presented in the following pages. Our goal has been to gather together our favourite destinations for each country, in order to provide you with an inspirational overview of Southeast Asia – whether you are a first-time visitor, or an old hand. It includes the must-see monuments, of course, from Angkor Wat to Borobudur and Bagan, but also a selection of lesser known gems. One particularly relaxing and luxurious way to get off the beaten track is on a river cruise. The great waterways of Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam lend themselves supremely well to boat travel. Many excellent options are available and you’ll find the cream of the trips described in special feature pages. Throughout the brochure, we also include suggestions for activity-based excursions where you can join local people as they go about their everyday lives – cycling, walking or at work in craft workshops, potteries, farms and local monasteries. Finally, at the end of each country section we feature a round- up of our preferred accommodation choices, whether heritage boutique properties in dreamy spots away from the wider world, or characterful colonial-era, five-star hotels in the heart of the city. The short profiles will give a first impression of the kind of places on offer, but any of our team will be happy to discuss these, and other hotels, at greater length, having tried and tested them on the ground. Producing this brochure has rekindled wonderful travel memories for us, and we hope it will provide plenty of fresh inspiration for your own journeys through these astonishing countries over the coming year.

Amrit Singh Managing Director

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Southeast Asia E xtending from the ice peaks of the eastern Himalayas to the fringes of Melanesia, the countries of Southeast Asia encompass a region of incomparable scenic and cultural diversity. Indonesia alone holds over 17,000 islands, with a staggering 742 official languages and dialects. In just a day’s journey from modern cities such as Bangkok or Singapore, you can be gazing at the sunset in mountains inhabited by minority people whose way of life has altered little in centuries; be walking on pristine shell-sand beaches unchanged since they were fought over by spice traders in the Elizabethan era, or peering through primary rainforest in search of civilizations of India and China, Southeast Asia has for thousands of years served as a conduit for exotic merchandise, ideas and inventions. Buddhism and Hinduism mingled with indigenous beliefs to create temple complexes as in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand (Siam) and Khmer-era Cambodia, whose scale and sophistication would not be rivalled in Europe for centuries. Today, the region remains a vast melting pot of people drawn from the four corners of Asia – one that has given rise to some of the most compelling and diverse cultural forms on the planet. Ancient Tamil sculpture springs to life in the classical dance of Mandalay. Motifs woven in the ikat workshops of Java would have been familiar to the ladies of the late-medieval Portuguese court. And in the restaurants of Georgetown and Melaka you can feast on dishes whose flavours still bear the imprint of colonial trade with the Hague and Peking. some of the world’s rarest mammals. Melting Pot | Lying between the great

Surviving too, in more remote corners, are numerous indigenous communities whose isolation has preserved their unique ways of life. Indeed, one of the great joys of travelling around Southeast Asia is the chance to experience these minority cultures at close hand, whether amid the forests of Sarawak, remote atolls of eastern Indonesia or uplands of Myanmar and Indochina. Varied Experiences: Great Value | Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all, though, is that these days it’s possible to travel to even the most far-flung corners of Southeast Asia in great comfort. Tracts of dense jungle in Borneo, which a generation ago required weeks of gruelling travel to reach, are now equipped with stylish ecolodges, while tiny islets on a reef-edged archipelago in Indonesia or coastal Borneo sport gorgeous barefoot- luxury diving resorts. You can track orangutans, explore distant stretches of the Mekong and discover forgotten Buddhist monuments along Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River from the seclusion of a luxury cruise boat – all at prices unimaginable in Europe or North America. Moreover, first-class transport infrastructures enable travellers to splice an astonishing range of experiences into a single itinerary. A typical two or three-week holiday may incorporate a visit to a UNESCO World Heritage monument such as Angkor Wat or Bagan, with a spell on an idyllic beach, hill tribe trek, city break, stay at an elephant camp in the jungle or a relaxing river cruise. Whatever your dream holiday, Southeast Asia is guaranteed to surpass your expectations!

Content

Welcome to TransIndus Introduction to Southeast Asia Vietnam 8–25 River Cruising Vietnam Cambodia 26–27 Cambodia 28–39 Water Festivals Southeast Asia 40–41 Laos 42–53 Myammar 54–75 2–3 4–5

Southeast Asian Cuisine

76–77 78–95 96–97 98–117 118–139 140–141 142–143 142–143

Thailand

Family Travel Southeast Asia

Malaysia & Borneo

Indonesia

Singapore How to book Responsible Tourism

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Tailor-made Holidays

Why TransIndus?

Among the UK’s largest and most successful operators of tailor-made tours to Asia, TransIndus features twenty different countries in the continent. With decades of experience designing journeys and a wealth of hard-won travel knowledge and local contacts to draw on, we are able to create trips of the highest possible quality, featuring the most desirable destinations and memorable activities. This expertise, backed by gold-standard customer service, has ensured our company consistently generates satisfaction ratings of 99%. Over half our clients travel more than once with us, or else have been referred by family, friends or colleagues. ’Your journey. Our expertise’ | Our goal is simple: to devise holidays that are both relaxing and culturally stimulating, and perfectly tailored for your needs. To do this, this we first have to gain a clear sense of what you’re hoping to experience – ideally face-to-face over a glass of wine, cup of tea or coffee at our office (‘The Old Fire Station’, in Ealing, London; see p142), but over the phone is fine too! Inspired by an extensive, first-hand knowledge of Southeast Asia, one of our consultants will draw up an initial itinerary, which can be further refined according to your wishes. All TransIndus team members travel regularly to their specialist regions to keep abreast of the latest developments, and are passionate about sharing their discoveries. If a beautiful new boutique hotel opens in an off-track location, they’ll know if it’s worth staying there and which its best rooms are. If a particular coastal resort has grown too crowded, they’ll be able to suggest a lesser frequented alternative, and the best monuments, nature sanctuaries and lunch stops to pause at en route. Or if you want to spend a few days river cruising, they’ll know which of the boats offer the most varied routes and best value for your budget. Sound Advice | Throughout, ‘authenticity’ is our watchword. We want our clients to enjoy not just a revitalizing, inspirational holiday, but return home feeling that they have had a genuine insight into the countries visited. Whether you’re dreaming of a cultural trip highlighting historic monuments and the arts, or a nature-based one with wildlife as its focus, you will find us passionate about our destinations and committed to offering you quality at every step of your journey. All our clients are financially protected. When booking with TransIndus, you can rest assured that, should your travel arrangements be disrupted by circumstances beyond your control, you’ll be fully refunded. Flight-inclusive holidays are covered by our Air Travel Organiser’s License (ATOL 3429), granted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), while those without flights are protected by our financial bond with the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA V0709). In the unlikely event of an emergency, the CAA and ABTA ensure you will not be stranded abroad. And if you haven’t already left the UK, they’ll also make sure your money is fully refunded.In addition, we are proud members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), whose ‘client’s charter’ assures you of the highest standards of service. Financial Protection: Peace of Mind

Tailor-made holidays are devised bespoke to suit your requirements. After an in-depth consultation, we’ll put together an itinerary which we think best meets your requirements, taking into account the kind of holiday you want, how long you have to spend away, and your budget, but the shape and substance of your trip will be determined essentially by you. Flexibility | Travelling tailor-made instead of opting for an off-the-peg trip gives you much greater flexibility. Although every country and sub-region has its unmissable highlights, there’s rarely a single route around them. You may have specific interests which you’d like to pursue, or a list of less well known destinations that you’d like to tie into your trip. This is where our expertise comes in: having explored each destination in depth, often several times over, our consultants will be able to suggest the best order in which to visit them, as well as the most suitable hotels. Smooth Travel | We’ll also discuss meal plans with you, and make all your transport arrangements in advance. Chauffeur driven, air-conditioned cars tend to be our preferred option for most Southeast Asian countries, as they allow you to stop to engage with much along the way – though you may well TransIndus tailor-made holidays

need to add some domestic flights to cover longer distances. One of our expert, English-speaking guides will also be assigned to you for day trips to historic and religious sites, markets and other destinations where in-depth local knowledge is desirable. A critical element we take care of, of course, is your international flight. Experience has shown us the best routings, stopovers and departure times for Southeast Asian hubs, and we’ll be able to suggest the most comfortable, time-saving option for you, whether you’re travelling alone, as a couple or in larger family group with children. Special Places to Stay | TransIndus understand how important accommodation is to one’s overall enjoyment of a country while travelling, which is why we go to great lengths to find the loveliest hotels and guest houses in all of our destinations. Landmark luxury hotels, particularly those with a colonial-era pedigree, are perennial favourites among our clients, but we also favour smaller heritage and boutique properties where greater emphasis is placed on traditional architecture and interior design, and where the setting of the hotel itself is central to its appeal.

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Ta i l o r - m a d e V i e t n a m b y T r a n s I n d u s

Vietnam F ew countries in the world elicit such a passionate response among travellers as Vietnam. Blessed with beautiful landscapes, evocative monuments and great cultural diversity, the nation has emerged from decades of war to become one of the world’s most beguiling destinations. While the capital, Hanoi, retains the gentility of colonial times, go-ahead Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), in the south, showcases the nation’s more upbeat, modern face. Between the two lie a chain of former Imperial capitals, replete with ancient temples and palaces, as well as colonial ports and villas. Trips along the southern Mekong Delta or into the northern mountains of the Tonkinese Alps bring you face to face with a timeless vision of Vietnam, where buffalo plod along dirt tracks and women in conical straw non la hats work the rice fields. Poverty is far from absent here but is on the wane. Vietnam is now officially the fastest developing country in Asia. For visitors, this dramatic transformation is most discernible in the country’s new beach resorts and bijoux historic towns. Travelling between them, you cannot fail to be impressed by the understated warmth and gentleness of the Vietnamese people themselves – a testament to this country’s astonishing capacity for rejuvenation.

Highlights of Vietnam Old Quarter, Hanoi | Lined with medieval tube houses and merchants’ mansions, the packed streets of old Hanoi’s market district make for a fascinating area to wander, people watch and shop for authentic souvenirs. Halong Bay | Vietnam’s most spectacular scenery: stunning limestone and dolomite outcrops, rising from a blue bay, which visitors can explore on photogenic wooden junks.

Sapa | Set amid cascading rice terraces, Sapa is a delightful hill station offering treks, walks and colourful weekly markets which local minority communities attend wearing vibrant traditional costumes. Hue | With its ancient pagodas and majestic imperial mausoleums, this city on the Perfume River – capital of the Nguyen dynasty – is still regarded as the nation’s cultural hub.

Mekong Delta | An obligatory trip while in Vietnam is a journey along the mighty Mekong River, whose silty waters flow across the country’s southern alluvial plain – a world little changed in centuries. Hoi An | The ancient trading town of Hoi An retains much of its old-world, cosmopolitan character, as well as great museums, galleries, restaurants and shops.

Floating Market, Cai Rang | In the market towns of the Mekong Delta, traders in conical straw hats paddle their wares around congested waterways in heavily laden sampan – a glorious spectacle. Phu Quoc Island | Luxuriate in the translucent waters of Phu Quoc, the pristine, tear-shaped island located in the Gulf of Thailand, only a 50-minute hop by plane from Ho Chi Minh City. Be inspired Speak with one of our Vietnam specialists who will be delighted to help you plan your ideal holiday. Tel: 020 8566 3739 Web: www.transindus.com

When to go Month

Travel Information Time zone: UTC+7 hours Flying time: 13 hours Currency: Dong Capital: Hanoi

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Temperature °C 16 17 20 24 28 30 30 29 28 25 22 18 Rainfall mm 19 26 44 90 189 240 288 318 265 131 43 23 Best to travel l ll ll ll l l l l l l l l ll The best time to travel l A good time to travel l Low season

Flower Farm, Da Lat

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Ta i l o r - m a d e V i e t n a m b y T r a n s I n d u s

Ninh Binh

This unprepossessing industrial town 59 miles (95km) south of Hanoi yields few hints of the scenic and cultural wonders hidden in its hinterland, but does provide a convenient base. Often dubbed “Halong Bay on land”, Tam Coc is the area’s real highlight: a tract of spectacular karst mountains rising vertically from carpets of lush green rice paddy. As with the Perfume Pagoda, metal sampans rowed by women are used to ferry visitors around the sights, which include a succession of low-roofed grottos, temples and pretty stilt villages. During season, a large fleet of boats may be on the water at any one time, which is why we recommend visits to other less well known beauty spots such as nearby Trang An, where the scenery is no less awesome but crowds considerably lighter. Also worth a detour are the ruins of Emperor Tien Hoang De’s imperial capital at Hoa Lu, where jungle-draped limestone hills serve as a backdrop for ancient citadels, temples and impressive fortifications.

Perfume Pagoda

Clinging to the flanks of a soaring, limestone escarpment around 90 minutes’ drive southwest of Hanoi, the legendary Perfume Pagoda is one of Southeast Asia’s most arresting spectacles. The complex, buried deep in the wooded slopes of Nui Huong Tich (‘Fragrant Vestige Mountain’), comprises 30 separate shrines, the most revered of them the Huong Tich Pagoda, which is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy and occupies a deep, incense-filled cavern. Visitors travel to the foot of the sacred mountain up a flooded valley in a fleet of small river boats, rowed exclusively by women – a journey through a sublime landscape of forested karst hills and waterlogged paddy fields.

Ancient Bich Dong pagoda, Ninh Binh

Street Food Tour

Hanoi’s five stars don’t have a monopoly on fine dining. In fact, some of the most authentic and delicious dishes in the city are served in the open-air kitchens of the old quarter. Join our popular ‘Street Food Tour’ for a trip around the district’s hidden culinary hot spots, led by local expert foodies. Set off on a morning tour, and you’ll be able to sample the quintessential Hanoi breakfast of hot pho – a fragrant beef noodle soup served from large, steaming cauldrons to punters perched on low stools. Another local favourite is banh cuon , silky streamed rice pancakes of pork mince and black mushrooms, topped with crunchy caramelised shallots and a twist of lime. At lunchtime, braziers belch clouds of aromatic smoke from skewers of squid or spicy pork. Cult cafés also feature prominently on the tour where you can sample that rarest and most exotic of all Vietnam’s brews: chon , a smokey, chocolately and utterly delicious coffee made with beans harvested from the dung of civet cats!

Hanoi

Tran Quoc Pagoda, Hanoi

V ietnam’s charismatic capital, on the Red River, may be expanding and modernizing at an extraordinary pace, but it’s a great city to explore on foot. Surrounded by parks and tranquil lakes, the core is a medieval Old Quarter – one of the most atmospheric square kilometres in all of Asia – where traditional craftsmen ply their trade in narrow alleyways lined with antique tube and shop houses. Uptown, colonial mansions and relaxing cafés flank the boulevards and leafy shores of Hoan Kiem Lake, but the prime attraction in the wider city is Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, where the Great Leader’s remains are embalmed in a sombre marble tomb. Other iconic landmarks include the 11th-century One Pillar Pagoda, and Temple of Literature; a feast of medieval Vietnamese architecture erected in 1070 AD. After a busy day’s sightseeing, unwind in one of the city’s traditional Vietnamese restaurants, or catch a performance of old-style puppetry, where performers stand waist-deep in water wielding elaborate fire-breathing dragons and other ornate figures to a soundtrack of exotic live music.

Craft Villages, Hanoi

Scattered around Hanoi, and reachable in easy day trips by car, are a string of little bamboo- screen villages where visitors may visit traditional crafts workshops and farms. Home to silk weavers, carpenters, snake breeders and ceramicists, the settlements are repositories of old skills fast dying out elsewhere in the country. One specializes in the conical straw hats known as non la , that are ubiquitous in the markets and fields of Vietnam.

Presidential Palace, Hanoi

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Cruising Halong

beaches. Whichever option you choose, superb landscape is guaranteed, along with opportunities to swim, lounge on deck, sunbathe or kayak and enjoy guided cycle or jungle treks on the larger islands. The following number among our favoured cruisers at Halong Bay. All operate to the highest international standards of safety and service, ensuring a matchless experience of Halong’s iconic landscapes.

On an overnight trip, it’s possible to take in the more famous landmarks, such as Hang Dau Go (the ‘Cave of Marvels’), with its extraordinary stalactites and stalagmites, and Hang Sung Sot (‘Cave of Awe’), famed for its phallic rock formation. But with two nights, you’ll have time to explore the more rarely visited eastern fringes, or venture further south to idyllic Lan Ha Bay, where many of the islands are fringed by exquisite white sand

Au Co | Au Co’s state-of-the-art, triple decker cruiser is one of the newest vessels in the Halong Bay fleet. A floating five-star hotel, complete with on-board spa, Jacuzzi and gourmet restaurant, it boasts 32 cabins with French balconies that allow you to savour the views from the exclusive comfort of your own bed. Aside from the high levels of luxury it offers, Au Co’s main selling point is that it is the only operator with permission to run longer, 3-day/2- night trips that take to remote areas such as Lan Ha Bay, to the south of Halong – beyond the range of other outfits. Hiking, kayaking and fishing excursions are optional extras. Indochina Sails | This outfit was one of the first to operate overnight cruises in the Halong Bay area, and has continually raised its standards of service over the years. The Valentine, an intimate 5-cabin, double-decker junk is of a classic oriental design, sporting two fan-shaped sails. Each of the rooms have large picture windows and polished wood panelled walls, with luxury silk bedding for extra comfort. The on-board restaurant specializes in fresh local seafood. Wooden junks with trademark fan- shaped sails have for centuries been used to transport goods around the coast of Vietnam. You still see the odd antique vessel chugging around Halong Bay, but the majority cruising the UNESCO World Heritage Site are of more recent vintage. Literally hundreds operate in the area, holding anywhere between one and 36 cabins ranged over two or three storeys, surmounted by cotton sails dyed a traditional dark ochre or burgundy colour. Traditionally, the prows of junks are carved in the shape of a sea monster – an echo of the legend that the limestone islands were created by the flailing tail of a mighty dragon (whence the name ‘Halong’, which means ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’). The Junks of Halong Bay

Legend Halong | With a choice of one, two, three and four-cabin boats, Legend Halong offers total exclusivity and is ideal for couples, families or groups of friends who want to enjoy an intimate cruise. By chartering a vessel, you get to choose the itinerary and enjoy personalized service from a dedicated crew, including a gourmet chef. Legend can offer unique experiences such as candlelit dinners on deserted coves, and individually guided canoe, cycling or trekking trips on the larger islands. cabins, a bar, lounge and restaurant. Halong Violet offers a more intimate and exclusive experience, with five luxury cabins each with floor-to-ceiling windows. The cruise also features a gym, sauna, spa, restaurant, lounge and a rooftop sundeck. Heritage Line | Heritage Line operate three boutique cruisers in Halong Bay. Launched in 2006, Halong Ginger combines the traditional elegance of a Vietnamese junk with cutting-edge design. It is custom built with three decks, and features ten luxury en-suite cabins, two bars and a restaurant. Halong Jasmine is a rather grander affair, with polished wood décor that harks back to French Indochina of the 1930s. It holds 23

R ising in majestic fashion from the northern shore of Vietnam, the karst limestone formations of Halong Bay create a unique, spellbinding landscape. Around 2,000 islands, islets, outcrops and towering mountains, draped in vegetation and riddled with grottos, soar above the green-blue waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. A fleet of converted junks guide visitors around the finest viewpoints and beauty spots, the most popular of them grouped on the western side of the bay, which is best visited on an overnight excursion from Halong City (the area’s main hub). However, to reach the lesser frequented caverns, lagoons and beaches on the more distant and quieter shores, we recommend a longer cruise of at least two nights and three days. Halong Bay

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Ha Giang

Ba Be National Park

Mai Chau

One of the unsung delights of Vietnam’s far north is beautiful Ba Be Lake, focal point of an eponymous national park that preserves a tract of superb limestone mountains and forest. Hills dotted with ancient pines surge from the glassy waters of the lake, providing sanctuary for a range of rare creatures, including the endangered Tonkin snub-nosed langur. Few visitors travel here outside the summer holiday season, ensuring a tranquil experience of this pristine area. Excursion boats are on hand for leisurely trips on the lake to hidden waterfalls, caves and minority villages. The most popular excursion is the one into Hang Poung Cave, a 300-metre-long grotto which tunnels through the base of a mountain. The jungle area around the lake is also dotted with ethnic minority villages belonging to the H’mong, Dao and Tay, some of which hold attractive homestays.

The remote Mai Chau Valley, a couple of hours’ drive out of Hanoi in the lower reaches of the Truoung Son Mountains, makes an excellent base for treks into the nearby hills, inhabited by a mix of ethnic minority communities, including the H’mong and Tai. Staying in local houses, you’ll have opportunities to meet local people and go for extended cycle rides through rice fields and villages of wooden stilt houses in which the livestock are stabled on the ground floor. In the evenings, be sure to sample rice wine, or ruou can , drunk communally from large jars using bamboo straws – the perfect primer for sessions of traditional music and dance, which many homestays offer as entertainment. Standards of both hospitality and hygiene are high in the valley, making its homestays comfortable bases from which to make treks deeper in the surrounding hills.

In the extreme north of the country along the Chinese border, Ha Giang is Vietnam’s most remote and mountainous province. Local markets provide the best opportunities to meet its ethnic minority people, dressed in their dazzling attire, and to shop for the vividly patterned, hand- woven textiles and silver jewellery that are a local speciality. Overland journeys in Ha Giang tend to be long and winding, but enthralling from start to finish. A mix of limestone outcrops and dramatic gorges interspersed by rice fields and orchards, the scenery ranks among the most spectacular anywhere in Southeast Asia. Highpoints include the awesome Ma Pi Leng Pass (1500m/4921ft) between Dong Van and Meo Vac, and the equally spectacular Quan Bai Valley (‘Heaven’s Gate’), a vale of bucolic minority villages swathed in groves of plum and peach trees, where ginseng and cinnamon are widely cultivated.

Sapa

French colonials originally founded this hill station, scattered over the eastern slopes of the Hoang Lien Mountains (the ‘Tonkinese Alps’), as a summer retreat. It was badly damaged by the Japanese in the 1940s, and again during the Vietnam-China War of 1979, but is today enjoying a new lease of life as a holiday destination thanks to its relaxing climate and proximity to some glorious hill country, where minority communities such as the Black H’mong and Red Dao (known locally as the ‘montagnards’) are famed for their traditional costumes. Over the years, TransIndus has identified a handful of welcoming local homestays and ecolodges where you can experience village life at close quarters. For the more adventurous, a network of trails also leads to far- flung upland settlements where life has altered little in centuries.

Luxury Train Hanoi to Sapa

The most relaxed way to reach Sapa is to take an overnight train – ideally the luxurious Victoria Express from Hanoi, whose wood-lined Pullman carriages and dining car recall the elegance of the colonial era. A range of other tourist trains, operated by firms such as Livitrans, Tulico and Fanxipan, have in recent years also started to cover the same line. Travelling overland, by car is also an option, the main advantage being that you can visit the famous rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai in Yen Bai Province, which sculpt the sides of a deep river valley in hundreds of manicured steps – a sight that’s particularly magical in late-summer/ early autumn, when the paddy turns a golden colour.

Ethnic Minorities of North Vietnam

vibrantly dressed of all, the Flower H’mong. With more time, you can also drive to the extreme north to the area around Ha Giang, where the land- scape is wilder and visitors fewer in number. Whichever route you opt for, experienced guides are essential. Apart from translating and advising on etiquette, they’ll also help you to learn a few phrases in the local dialects, which serve to break the ice with your hosts. Guides employed by TransIndus are chosen for their expertise on the region and its people.

Around six million minority people inhabit the northern provinces of Vietnam, bordering Laos and China. The most numerous are the Muong and Tai in the northwest, the Tay and Nung in the northeast, and the H’mong and Dao, who are scattered across the region. Originally migrants from southern China, the groups are distinguishable by their varied and colourful forms of traditional dress. Sunday markets in the towns of Sapa and Bac Ha attract large numbers of minority people, including the most

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Hue

Da Lat

Hoi An

My Son

A thriving port before it was eclipsed by nearby Da Nang, Hoi An’s Old Quarter preserves a unique cultural legacy spanning more than three-hundred years of colonial trade. Wandering its grid of 17th-century streets, you’ll pass some fine examples of old tube houses, Chinese pagodas, elaborately decorated community halls and shrines, and a wonderful Japanese covered bridge, as well as a restored French enclave. Tourism has certainly made its mark here, but most of the town is traffic free and ideal for relaxed wanderings. Savour the traditional Vietnamese atmosphere of the riverfront and market district, and the old-world, hybrid charm of antique houses. Or shop for locally made art, crafts and silk garments, displayed in numerous boutiques around the backstreets. Hoi An’s traditional tea shops and restaurants are also good places to sample local dishes such as spicy steamed mackerel in banana leaf, cau lau noodles, and white-rose dumplings.

Foremost among the attractions around Hoi An are the ruins of ancient My Son, an important Cham religious centre between the 4th and 13th century, which was badly damaged by American bombing in 1968. Classed as a World Heritage monument by UNESCO, the site originally comprised 70 structures, although only around 20 remain intact today. The most striking of them feature tall sanctuary towers, or kalan, adorned with decorative brickwork and exquisite sculpture. Depicting Hindu deities, celestial nymphs (apsaras), dancing girls, demons and musicians, the figures exhibit traits drawn from both Javanese and Indian tradition. The valley setting of My Son is wonderful: lush forested hills enfold the ruins, which are thought to have been the longest inhabited ancient city in Southeast Asia. Hoi An or the resort of nearby Cua Dai Beach lie around 40 minutes’ drive away and make ideal bases for visits.

During the 143-year reign of the Nguyen dynasty (1802–1945), the last ruling family of Vietnam, Hue was an imperial capital famed for the piety of its monasteries and splendour of its royal palaces and mausoleums. Much damage was inflicted on its monuments by the Indochina wars, but extensive restoration work has revived some of the town’s former glory. Hue’s north side is dominated by the Imperial City or Dai Noi (literally ‘Great Enclosure’) – a splendid fortress of interlocking courtyards encircled by high ramparts. At its heart lies the ‘Forbidden Purple City’ where the Emperor, his Queen and five ranks of concubines, servants and eunuchs resided amid fabulous pomp. No less architecturally impressive are the Nguyen’s ornate tombs, dotted over pretty farmland to the south of the town, best reached by bicycle or river cruise.

Developed by the French as a refuge from the stifling humidity of Saigon, Da Lat is today Vietnam’s most popular hill resort. Its refreshing climate and faded Gallic ambiance have made it a favourite destination for Vietnamese newly-weds and courting couples, who flock here to enjoy trips in swan shaped paddle boats on the Lake of Sighs, admire views of the Valley of Love and giggle their way around the quirky Hang Na Crazy House – a cross between an amusement park ghost castle and guest house made of concrete mushrooms and tunnels. Foreign visitors, meanwhile, come for the fresh air, delightful scenery and crafts produce sold at the local markets and out in the surrounding villages, where members of the Kh’o, Chill and Ma ethnic minorities produce a fabulous array of hand woven and embroidered textiles. Buying is typically conducted at a leisurely pace over cups of fragrant green tea.

Cooking Classes in Hoi An

Should you feel inspired to find out more about the town’s distinctive culinary traditions, join our highly recommended cookery classes, staged in one of Hoi An’s most famous restaurants. The day begins with a guided shopping trip around the fresh produce market to source ingredients, such as saw-tooth coriander and local mint, then moves on to sessions in an al fresco kitchen where you’ll learn how to prepare a number of different dishes for a slap-up supper, served for travelling companions.

Visiting the DMZ

Combat Base (KSCB), scene of a particularly fierce and protracted battle in 1968, and the Vinh Moc Tunnels, where an entire village lived underground for two and a half years. As the sites are spread out and retain scant physical remains, knowledgeable and enthusiastic experts such as the local guides we use are essential for appreciating the wider historical context of the DMZ.

The so-called ‘DMZ’, or ‘De-militarized Zone’, is a tract of rough jungle and hills that formerly separated North and South Vietnam, and which saw some of the most intense fighting during the war. For anyone with even a passing interest in the conflict, a day visit to the area is worth considering. Tours generally include stops at US marine and artillery outposts, such as the infamous Khe San

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Cao Dai Holy See

Cu Chi Tunnels

Another highly recommended day trip from HCMC is to the Great Divine Temple of the Cao Dai religion at Long Hoa village, 59 miles (96km) northwest of the city. Founded in 1926, Cao Dai is an amalgam of Taoism, Confucism, Christianity and Islam and its holiest place of worship reflects this diverse mix of influences. Around 3 million worshippers come here annually, dressed in white or coloured robes, to participate in the ceremony held at noon each day. Visitors are welcome to watch from the balcony, which yields a jaw-dropping view of the elaborately decorated Prayer Hall, with its polychrome pillars and dramatic ‘Altar of the All-Seeing Eye’.

During the Vietnam War, among the tactics used by Vietcong guerrillas to evade capture, was the digging of extensive tunnel networks, protected by hidden entrances. One of the largest of these secret underworlds survives at Cu Chi village, just north of HCMC, where visitors can explore a small section of a staggering 125 miles (200km) of cavities carved on various levels – a testament to the tenacity of the North Vietnamese forces in the face of the American onslaught. At nearby Ben Duoc, a smaller tunnel system purpose-built for tourists offers a less claustrophobic experience.

H o Chi Minh City – or ‘HCMC’ as it’s more often referred to these days – epitomizes the contrasting facets of modern Vietnam. Vibrant, dynamic and evolving at a breathless pace, it also retains strong connections with its past. As ‘Saigon’, the metropolis served as the capital of French Indochina, acquiring a spread of suave buildings and boulevards that earned for it the epithet ‘Paris of the Orient’. More than a hint of Gallic grandeur survives in the swanky Dong Khoi district, setting for Graham Greene’s era-defining novel, The Quiet American , where now designer boutiques line up alongside some of Asia’s finest restaurants and smartest hotels. In 1975, tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace a few blocks away from Dong Khoi to signal the end of the Vietnam War. Since re-christened ‘Reunification Hall’, the 1960s concrete behemoth has been turned into an extraordinary museum where visitors can marvel at the kitsch furniture and decadent décor installed by the leaders of South Vietnam, who ran the war from a command centre in the basement. No less extravagant, though on a smaller scale and more traditionally Asian, is the resplendent Jade Emperor Pagoda, the loveliest of HCMC’s many Chinese-style temples. Roofed with green ceramic tiles, its salmon-pink walls enclose chambers filled with colourful papier-maché deities and richly carved wood. The building was erected by Cantonese merchants at the start of the 20th century, along with many others in the atmospheric Cholon quarter, whose markets are brimming with silk, spices and jade souvenirs. Ho Chi Minh City

Vespa Tour of HCMC

Vietnamese attractions, such as the ‘Bird Lovers’ Club’ in Tao Dan Park, the flower market on Nghi Tam Avenue, a funeral home (to experience a traditional funeral service), traditional textile bazaar and Chinese medicine quarter. Other tours focus on street food, music and nightlife.

A great way to pack a lot of sights into a short time while in HCMC is to join a guided Vespa tour. Visitors travel pillion or on their own vintage Vespa while their English speaking guide leads them through the swirling HCMC traffic to visit some quirky, off-beat and quintessentially

Thien Hau Pagoda

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Can Tho

Chau Doc and Sam Mountain

Although the Delta is primarily a rural region, it holds plenty of large, bustling towns too, and Can Tho is the liveliest of them. It’s also the most rewarding to explore, thanks to the wealth of Vietnamese pagodas, Chinese and Khmer temples, mosques and churches lining its streets. Most visitors, however, come to visit the wonderful floating markets a short trip upriver, where local people buy and sell a prodigious array of fresh produce, piled on to an equally amazing selection of craft, ranging from tiny rowed sampans to lumbering houseboats. Easily reachable on a day trip from Can Tho is the delightful Bang Lang Bird Sanctuary, a 1.2-hectare wetland area famous above all for its population of resident storks, egrets and cormorants. Whether perched in the reserve’s partly submerged trees or wheeling through the air in spectacular flocks, the birds create a mesmerizing spectacle.

Like Can Tho, this busy border town is an important market hub with an ethnically mixed population of Cham, Chinese, Khmer and Muslims, many of whom live in large houseboats or rickety stilt houses. Located on the Hau Giang River, it’s also a major staging post for water-borne traffic heading to or from Phnom Penh. Well worth a side trip from the town is Sam Mountain, a few miles southwest, whose wooded slopes rise from a sea of viridescent rice paddy. Vietnamese visitors pour through to pray at the cluster of gaudily decorated shrines and pagodas at the foot of the hill, from where a pathway winds through boulders and trees to a spectacular viewpoint at the summit. Also nearby is a beautiful bird sanctuary called Tra Su, where visitors are paddled in canoes under a canopy of cajuput trees teeming with colourful birdlife and butterflies.

T he Delta of the Mekong River begins a couple of hours’ drive south of Ho Chi Minh City, and extends west over 15,000 sq miles (39,000 sq km) to the Gulf of Thailand. Known as ‘Vietnam’s Rice Bowl’, it’s one of the most intensively farmed, densely inhabited regions in Asia. Mile upon mile of lush paddy fields carpet the flat landscape, lined by fruit orchards and coconut groves. Encompassing a chequerboard of cultures, this is also one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country – a fact reflected in the rich architectural heritage of the larger towns, many of whose inhabitants live crammed into houseboats on the river, or in stilt houses perched above it. As picturesque as it is fascinating for the visitor, the Delta’s unique way of life can only really be observed from the water, and travelling around the region you’ll have numerous opportunities to take a boat trip – whether a short foray to a local market, or an overnight cruise north towards the Cambodian border. Either way, the scenes of everyday local life glimpsed from the water are likely to leave the most lasting impressions: field workers in conical straw hats hunched over fields of ripe rice paddy; houseboats piled high with cargoes of pink dragon fruit and pineapples; children sluicing water over their buffaloes in the morning, or pedalling home from school in immaculate uniforms later in the day, as fishermen cast handnets from tiny canoes, and saffron-robed monks stroll to evening prayers through shafts of angled sunlight. A great way to experience life in the Delta at close quarters is to take a cruise on a song xanh river boat. These stately craft may be used for short day cruises and longer multi-night trips. For more, see our special section on river cruising in Indochina, p26. The Mekong Delta

Floating Markets

Cycling in the Mekong Delta

The daily fresh produce markets of the Mekong Delta provide the best opportunity for visitors to experience local life at its most colourful and compelling. As with most other activities in this riverine world, business is typically conducted on the water. An early start is essential. Farmers begin to gather shortly before dawn, advertising whatever produce they may have to sell that day by tying samples to tall bamboo poles (in the absence of space for stalls) and hoisting them into the air. Buyers chug or paddle around the wholesale vessels in smaller craft to compare prices, serviced by a flotilla of longtailed boats selling hot-noodles-and-crab-broth breakfasts, with steaming cups of coffee.

The flat countryside of the Delta makes perfect pedaling terrain, and bicycles afford an enjoyable way to immerse yourself deep in the bucolic life of rural Vietnam. We offer a choice of different guided trips, starting from various hubs (including Ho Chi Minh City) and taking you to fruit orchards and farms, paper-making factories, floating markets, local rice mills and boatyards. Lunch is typically served in a village house, giving you an opportunity to sample traditional Mekong food in an authentic setting. Longer excursions of 12–18 miles (20–30km) may also be arranged for more committed cyclists. Tours may be self-guided or accompanied, as desired. The terrain is flat throughout and there’s generally plenty of shade, with regular tea stops at local cafes.

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Six Senses are an international, multi-award- winning chain of boutique hotels and spa resorts specializing in modern eco luxe – exclusive retreats at incredibly beautiful locations across the world, with an emphasis on deep relaxation. ‘Low-key, high style’ could be their moto. Natural wood, stone and white silk are used to create irresistibly stylish, elemental hideaways where you can indulge in cutting-edge cuisine, holistic spa therapies and tailor-made activities amid settings of undreamed-of scenic splendour. In Vietnam, Six Senses currently run two separate properties. Hidden on a remote peninsula midway down the east coast, the Ninh Vanh Bay can Victoria, Phan Thiet | Victoria resorts offer superb value at choice locations and this luxury resort outside Phan Thiet is no exception. Spread across lush, bougainvillea-filled gardens above a perfect golden sand beach, the hotel consists of 60 pretty, Vietnamese-style cottages with high red- tiled roofs and terracotta floors, each with its own private courtyard and veranda where you can laze in a hammock while enjoying cool breezes off the South China Sea. Two large swimming pools offer alternatives to the transparent water of the bay, and kayaks are also available for the more adventurous. Six Senses Luxury - Vietnam Furama Resort, Da Nang | A lavish, award- winning five-star resort, set against a backdrop of forested mountains, the Furama occupies a prime stretch of famous Da Nang Beach, to the south of Da Nang city. Its spacious villas and suites come in four categories and are all conceived in a blend of French colonial and traditional Vietnamese styles. A big plus of this resort is its proximity to the exquisite Son Tra (‘Monkey Mountain’) peninsula – perfect terrain for leisurely walks, cycle rides and fishing trips. There are also two world-class, 18-hole golf courses nearby. Nam Hai, Hoi An | A shrine to high-design on golden Ha My Beach, the Nam Hai is the hippest, sleekest, most effortlessly stylish address in central Vietnam, and quite simply one of the world’s coolest hotels. It’s 100 free-standing villas are widely spaced around artfully landscaped, sea-facing gardens. Dark, tropical woods and egg-shell lacquer infuse a classical Asian feel to the contemporary interiors. For those who can bear to tear themselves away, Hoi An is only a 20-minute minibus ride away.

Banyan Tree, Lang Co | This luxury beach property was the first big name hotel to spot the potential of the heavenly stretch of coast dividing Hue and Hoi An. It enjoys a sublime location at the head of a gently curving bay, framed by a backdrop of jungle and soaring mountain ridges. The rooms are all red-roofed villas featuring ultra-stylish interiors and their own plunge pools overlooking the beach. Wood beams and little private courtyards lend the feel of a traditional Hue dwelling. the most desirable location in Nha Trang. Screened by palms, it opens straight on to its own secluded stretch of sand – the only one in town to do so. Yet the bright lights of the buzzy restaurant quarter are just a 20-minute stroll away. Styled with limewashed walls and high- thatched ceilings, rooms come in 3 categories (sea, beach and garden-facing), while exclusive suites set in their own walled gardens offer greater privacy. La Veranda, Phu Quoc | Oozing Indochina chic, this is the smartest option on the island’s famous ‘Long Beach’, with an old-world elegance created by its butter-yellow exteriors, paddle fans and deep, sea-facing verandas. The rooms are simple and airy, opening on to lush tropical gardens where there’s a generous sized pool (try the heavenly sorbets served straight to your sun lounger). Nicest of all, and closest to the waves, are the detached ‘Deluxe Villas’, which boast their own four-posters and breezy terraces. Evason Ana Mandara, Nha Trang | Few would argue that the Evason Ana Mandara occupies

A t some stage in their holiday, many visitors to Vietnam wish to experience the translucent, blue-green water, white sand and tropical greenery of the country’s beautiful coastline, and there are a wealth of resorts to choose from, ranging from boutique places on big-city beachfronts to Robinson-Crusoe-esque hideaways on tiny coral-edged islets. Midway down the coastline of the South China Sea, Lang Co, Hoi An and Da Nang all lie on the fringes of Vietnam’s cultural hub. With accommodation options to suit every budget, their beautiful beaches and lagoons provide relaxing bases from which to explore the Cham ruins, pretty merchants’ towns and former royal centres inland. Relaxing spells on the beach may be mixed with visits to traditional fishing settlements, floating markets and cruises along narrow canals. Thanks to its spectacular, 4-mile (6km) arc of golden sand and surf, Nha Trang, in south central Vietnam, ranks amongst the country’s top beach destinations. Offshore, a scattering of islands hold world-class scuba diving and snorkeling, and provide targets for leisurely boat excursions that pause in hidden coves for wild swims and fresh seafood barbeques. Further south, and closer to Ho Chi Minh City, Phan Thiet has in recent years been upstaged by its livelier neighbour, Mui Ne, but as a consequence offers more peace and quiet, and some great value accommodation overlooking the town’s superb, golden sand beach. The red dunes and palm-shaded lanes of nearby fishing villages also make ideal terrain for short cycle rides. If you’re looking for somewhere really far-flung to unwind, the teardrop-shaped island of Phu Quoc in the Gulf of Thailand, 9 miles (15km) south of the Cambodian coast, is hard to beat. A brace of idyllic hideaways have sprung up in recent years alongside its powder-soft, white-sand beaches. The island also boasts one of Vietnam’s most highly rated diving and snorkelling sites – the An Thoi archipelago – where dugong, grouper and parrot fish are regularly sighted amid colourful coral reefs. Beaches of Vietnam

only be reached by boat. Staying here feels like becoming a pampered castaway. Each of its villas have their own pools, nestled amid the granite boulders or overlooking the treetops to the turquoise water and white sand of the bay below. The complex is interconnected by rope bridges, achieving a perfect equilibrium between nature and contemporary luxury. The other is further south at Con Dao. Set above a gloriously far-flung bay of turquoise water and soft, golden sand, its teak villas feature antique, carved panels from old Vietnamese houses, and are all split-levelled, with private plunge pools and heavenly views over the beach to jungle-covered islands in the distance.

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