Vietnam is now an escape route to peace.
The remote and beautiful islands of Con Dao are south Vietnam's secret paradise. There are 16 islets in total, the main one being called Con Son - a truly ravishing place with sandy bays made up of miles of soft white beaches fringed with dense hedges of sea lettuce and wild pineapple trees. It's honestly the kind of island hammocks were invented for.
About 145 miles from Ho Chi Minh, Con Son constitutes about 80 percent national park. Nature takes priority and although you can hear the indigenous long-tailed macaques chattering as you drive past the dense vegetation, they haven't yet learned that tourists equal easy food so you'll be lucky to see them. What you will see, and will probably do a double take when you do, is Con Dao's unique black squirrel. "It can grow to the size of a cat," I was told. Between June and September, green and hawksbill turtles lay their eggs on three of the archipelago's islands -- a natural spectacle you can take a boat to watch. Time it right and you might get to see the transparent young take their first swim in the turquoise shallows of the South China Sea.
Back on Con Son, in a secluded bay protected by Elephant Head Mountain, is Six Senses, a luxury resort that a few years ago hosted Angelina Jolie, her family and more poignantly, her Vietnamese adopted son Pax. Accommodation there, which you can also purchase if you have a spare $1.5 million or thereabouts, comprises of around 50 standalone wooden villas, either one or two floors, and three or four bedrooms. Colonial in feel with marble baths and a huge double bed swathed in muslin mosquito nets, each villa has an infinity pool and leads straight to the beach, which makes access to kayaking and snorkeling in the open sea very easy.
The coral reefs there are home to nudibranch, sea horses and pipefish and if you scuba dive you might find the elusive dugong, a relative of the manatee. Collecting bleached sand dollars (sea urchin shells with beautifully stenciled flowers at their center) on the beach, will make you feel like you're in a Bond movie. Doubly so when you exchange three of them at the bar for a mocktail of muddled pandan leaves, lime juice and sugar cane. For nine, you can add a shot of vodka or whisky.
It's hard to see why Con Dao was once dubbed hell on earth, but every country has a dark side. Phu Hai Jail, built by French colonists in 1861, and used latterly, by the American military during the Vietnam war, is Con Dao's. Exposed in 1970 by Life magazine, with its cramped, inhumane tiger cages, where men, women and children were incarcerated, it now stands as a museum and a reminder of past brutality.
Visiting Vietnam without thinking about the American war is impossible, and Ho Chi Minh City is only a 45 minute flight from Con Dao. In the War Remnants Museum there, you'll see mostly exhibits relating to the American phase of the war, with traumatic photographs of civilian victims and those affected by Agent Orange.
There is a lighter side to HCMC, although watch your stuff, smartphones attract pickpockets like magpies. I lost mine within an hour of arriving having just photographed a café called Phuc Long. The police marked it down as 'lost' rather than 'stolen'. 'You no see who took it?!' They said. But I loved the Vespa tour of the city at night. Vespa Adventures (vietnamvespaadventures.com) promise 'the ride of your life' if you choose to see Saigon as a pillion passenger. Their orange t-shirted drivers are charming and gentle and take you on a tour to sample delicious street food in out of the way restaurants before stopping at a hidden music venue. It looks slightly dangerous as you walk up a battered staircase into a dingy room full of Vietnamese students torn between their iPhones (I looked, but couldn't see mine) and the live music entertainment, but it's safe and fun.
A fascinating excursion from HCMC is a trip to the Mekong Delta, Vietnam's 'rice bowl'. Start in Tien Gian province and end in Can Tho seven hours later stopping at islands and towns on the way. The Mekong is a floating landscape with hundreds of rivers and canals that are lined with houses and restaurants. Boats are there for business and pleasure, and tours stop so that you can see all the different products made from rice - paper, popped rice and or course sake - rice wine. I confess I'd never seen snake sake before, and a jar full of stripped vipers, covered with alcohol is unnerving. It tastes no different to regular sake though. The Cai Be floating market is where farmers sell fruit and vegetables to each other; I sampled delicious street food in Vin Long City - glass noodles, shrimp, herbs and the tastiest spring rolls - which cost less than £1. An overnight stay at the comfortable Kim Tho hotel in Can Tho ended the tour and its roof bar offers the perfect panorama.
But really, Six Senses dominated my trip which began in the breathtakingly tranquil honeymooners paradise Nin Van Bay, a crescent-shaped private cove accessible only by boat, near Nha Trang, beach capital of Vietnam. Waiting by the dock you get a flavor of what's to come when you're handed a scented cold towel and a reviving lemongrass and ginger tea.
Six Senses has attracted royals - Prince William and Andrew - Russian oligarchs and Michael Schumacher - before his accident. All appreciate the private luxury thatched villas that blend thoughtfully with the local vegetation. The whole place is protected by forested hills and those same hills provide a challenging two to three hour hike, which involves pulling yourself up and down ropes and over boulders. At the summit, about 120 meters, you're rewarded with a panoramic view of the bay and collected from the beach at the end by speed boat.
A butler - or experience manager - is assigned to you for your stay, and mine was the fabulously efficient Mehye from Korea, who could be summoned by pressing the smiley face on my room phone. She effortlessly sorted spa treatments and excursions, dinner reservations and newspapers, collected me from my secluded hill top villa in a golf buggy for breakfast and dinner and returned me at the end of the night where the sea lulled me to sleep.
The spa was reviving and welcome. I enjoyed an oxygen facial that really did melt away fine lines; a Vietnamese massage in a perfumed room, a bowl of floating flowers placed thoughtfully beneath my massage bed. Later I learned how to do the massage myself as part of the spa's complimentary list of daily activities and took advantage of Tai Chi. But my favorite moment was the small talk during my pedicure. "Have you seen the ladyboys in Thailand?" asked one inquisitive Vietnamese beauty therapist. We descended into gales of laughter and much discussion about cross-dressing.
Three chefs, one Italian, one Sri Lankan and one Vietnamese, create mouth-watering dishes. Perfectly sized portions of lobster carpaccio with a cucumber relish which exploded with bursts of grapefruit when you ate it, followed by a violet jam compote and coconut milk, were typical. Breakfast was a daily feast, from Vietnamese soup, to eggs any way, with a whole room dedicated to fruit, cold meats, cheese and yogurt.
My last night was spent sipping cocktails at the bar by the bay with guests and Gary Henden, Nin Van Bay's general manager. I learned much about the hospitality industry, but the main thing I learned was that cocktails taste so much better when your vista is paradise.
Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) offers direct flights from the UK to Vietnam. Prices for 2015 start from £625 per person including taxes. From July 2015 Vietnam Airlines introduce new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, complete with new look interiors, in-flight Wi-Fi and fully flat beds in Business Class.
Six Senses Con Dao:
Rates from USD 595 per night. Price subject to 10 percent government tax and 5 percent resort service charge. Includes local airport transfers and daily bed and breakfast. Flights from HCMC can be booked via the resort for USD 210 net return, or online with Vietnam Airlines.
Six Senses Ninh Van Bay:
Rates from USD 725. Taxes and transfers as above. Flights are booked directly with Vietnam Airlines, Jet Star Pacific, or Viet Jet Airways
Scooting through Saigon:
Rickshaw Travel offer 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. For more information visit www.rickshawtravel.co.uk or call 01273 322041.