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Vietnam proves a wonderful assault on the senses

Rural villages, floating markets and top-class tailors are all highlights of a trip to Vietnam, says Tori Mayo. A blossoming peach tree, a doe-eyed baby peering over her mother’s shoulder, an armchair and even a whole roasted pig – I see all sorts of curious cargo being carried on the back of mopeds as my rickshaw ambles through the backstreets of Hanoi, the bustling capital of Vietnam.This South-East Asian country is home to 88 million people, 35 million mopeds and motorbikes and now an increasing number of tourists.Since direct flights from the UK launched more than a year ago, Vietnam has rocketed in popularity with the British market. Great prices, safe passage and a fascinating culture are attracting more and more visitors.The country is a patchwork of vivid green rice fields and vibrant cities, dotted with UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the ancient town of Hoi An and the picturesque Halong Bay.One of the best ways to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam is on a whistle-stop escorted tour of the country. In 12 days, I’m able to sample some of the highlights.I start my journey in Hanoi, a city teeming with activity. Every moment spent exploring the busy streets is an assault on the senses.Tiny mobile food stalls selling sweet-smelling sticky treats are set up wherever the industrious see fit, while customers squat on tiny plastic stools. Barbers snip away in pop-up pavement salons, while vendors wearing traditional conical hats trade their wares from baskets.It’s quite a contrast to the peaceful Halong Bay, where we cast off for a relaxing cruise of the emerald waters aboard a deluxe junk boat. Decked out in polished dark wood, our vessel features gorgeous en suite cabins, a restaurant, bar and spa.Setting sail at lunchtime, we cruise for a few hours through the Bay’s iconic limestone karst islands, then downsize to traditional rowing boats. Local women steer our flotilla on a gentle meander through the tiny floating fishing area of Vong Vieng, where villagers reside on pontoons. Back on our junk, we dine on a seafood supper and even learn how to catch our own squid.We drop anchor overnight and awaken to see the rocks emerging through the morning mist.
Back on land, the 11-hour sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue is a very real Vietnamese experience. We bunk in basic four-berth cabins while the carriages clunk through the night.The historical sites of Hue, the country’s capital from 1802 to 1945, include the ancient walled citadel and its imperial Purple Palace, similar in many ways to the Forbidden City in Beijing.Our tour group take to two wheels for a gentle bicycle ride through the rice fields, passing grazing water buffalos, to Tra Que village.Rivalling Halong Bay, the old world port of Hoi An is undoubtedly a highlight of this adventure. From the mid 16th Century to the early 19th, Hoi An was a thriving trading post.Artisans and merchants sold their wares from narrow shophouses, which had a shop at the front, workshop in the middle and export facility directly on to the port at the rear. A couple of these have been restored and are worth a visit.The iconic Japanese Bridge, Chinese temples and low-rise ochre-coloured architecture add to the charm of this colonial gem.I’m told Yaly is the best tailor in town so I take clothes to be altered and even have a pair of patent leather bespoke brogues made. I’m thrilled with the quality.Escaping the city, we take to the water again, this time on the Mekong River via sampan boat to Cai Be and Cai Rang’s famous floating markets where traders jostle to sell produce from their long narrow boats. Modern Vietnam is emerging from the South, the most progressive city being Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).Located on the edge of the Mekong Delta, it’s the last stop on our epic trip. Tattoo parlours, neon lights and noisy bars with Western clientele sit shoulder to shoulder with Vietnamese cafes and street stalls.For an impression of this sprawling city by night, I opt for a bird’s eye view from Vietnam’s first fully open-air, swanky sky bar, Chill, at the top of the AB Tower. Swirling streams of traffic and skyscrapers displaying giant electronic advertisements are visible below.As moped and motorbikes criss-cross the narrow streets, I marvel at how life in these fast lanes is changing so quickly.

Vietnam Travel Company, Vietnam Travel Agency

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