All posts by Mark Sullivan

A full moon rising over our resort

It’s the kind of place where they can actually produce a good martini!

Evening entertainment from our Transnistrian jazz duo

From Dalat we traveled by car 3-1/2 hours back to the coast, but further south, where the turquoise sea meets craggy mountains ringed by sandy beaches. Near a village called Vinh Hai is a resort called Amanoi, part of the very swish hotel group Aman. Saving the best for last, we reserved a room here for our final resort stay of the trip.

The hotel was fantastic, but the weather was not exactly cooperative. It was hot and sunny enough, for sure, but it was also incredibly windy. The whole time. Jim didn’t even seem to mind much, but I can only enjoy the beach so much with endless, persistent wind. Five days of wind, wind, wind.

One funny story from the Amanoi: We’d read that there was a jazz duo from Moldova in residence for a couple months to entertain us in the lounge area. Moldova is kind of an obscure place, the least visited country in Europe. We have actually been there, though most people know pretty much nothing about the place.

We chatted a bit with the performers, and I asked, “So, you are from Moldova?” The very friendly singer responded that they were actually from a place nobody ever heard of called Transnistria. You may recall that we’ve also been to Transnistria, the very bizarre breakaway Russian enclave on the edge of Moldova. When we told her we’d actually been there, she seemed almost confused and said, “Oh, I guess it must be getting more popular.” I assured her that was not the case.

A pretty lake on the extensive grounds of the Amanoi

A dining table at the extremely Zen-elegant Amanoi

The Cliff Pool. We would have this entirely to ourselves for hours in the morning.

The beachfront pool. It was pretty, but windy as hell.

Buzzy Saigon

In front of Xu, a cool restaurant in Saigon

From Ninh Hai we caught a quick flight to Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City, but people still call it Saigon) for our last two nights in Vietnam. It felt like sort of an obligatory stop since we needed to fly out of there to get home. And if we have to go there, we might as well book two nights, though we wouldn’t want any more than that. We remembered Saigon as a big, crowded, super hot place we don’t love that much.

But then we noticed something unexpected from our last blog post from Saigon 9 years ago. That time we had booked a hotel there for three nights — no more than that, since we remembered it as big, hot, and crowded. But we got there and loved it so much we extended our stay for two nights — and then went back for another couple after that! We’d just completely forgotten that discovery.

While there was no opportunity to extend our stay this time, we did again discover a city that is really pulsing with life. It’s got an excitement you can only have in a nation’s biggest city. There’s more wealth, more color, better restaurants, better spoken English. Like New York, the nation’s premier city attracts the best of the best.

At a lovely colonial style French restaurant in Saigon

A plaza wrapped in dragons

Lunch at the French place

[ So that is the official end of our trip to Vietnam. You may, gentle reader, wish to leave this blog now. Do not continue on unless you are willing to be subjected to a long, angry travel nightmare rant. I will at least compensate you with pretty pictures from Doha, Qatar along the edges. ]

Lunch at an Iraqi restaurant in Doha

The National Museum of Qatar is a stunning piece of architecture by Jean Nouvel

The exhibits include incredible wall projections throughout the huge museum

An amazing Japanese dinner at our hotel’s rooftop restaurant

So then it was time to catch our flight home — which would consist of an 8-hour flight to Doha, Qatar, and then a 14-hour flight to JFK. We could have done two flights with a minimal connection time, but that would have gotten us home to New York late at night, and I hate arriving home late at night. I find that depressing. So I instead booked flights that gave us an overnight in Doha, followed by a nice afternoon arrival back home. We’ve been to Doha before, and it has its charms.

But when we arrived at the check in desk at the Saigon airport, we were informed that the flight to Doha was overbooked, every single other person had checked in, and there were no more seats. But no problem, they said, they had re-booked us on another airline, Cathay Pacific, with a one-hour connection in Hong Kong. Apparently it had not occurred to them that maybe we had plans in Doha. And a non-refundable hotel room there. And that we’d paid thousands of dollars for the flights that worked for us. And that it is against U.S. law to sell us a plane ticket and bump us without compensation that we’ve agreed to. And that someone was staying at our house for the month, and we didn’t really care to get home a day early and boot her out.

We were shocked and furious. And they were implacable. They’d given our (reserved) seats away to someone else, and there was absolutely no room for us. Nothing we could do. We tried to fight them and got nowhere. Then two more people arrived at the business class check in to be told that they, too, were screwed out of their seats. A manager who was now involved kept insisting, as if it were a great consolation, that we could email a complaint to the airline. That didn’t make us feel one bit better.

At one point during this dreadful standoff, Jim conceded that there was really nothing we could do. We probably just had to accept the new seats on Cathay Pacific and deal with all the associated problems. So we told them to go ahead and give us the new boarding passes. The manager pointed to some crummy, crowded seats nearby and told us to go wait there because the Cathay Pacific desk wouldn’t open for another hour and a half.

That was it. Jim informed the agents that we would do no such thing. We were going to stay right where we were, in their faces, until we had the seats we’d paid for. The two other victims were pretty equally insistent that they weren’t going anywhere either.

About a half hour into this ugly standoff, the original agent quietly told us that she could now go ahead and print up our original boarding passes. After a few more minutes, all four of us had boarding passes for the very seats we had reserved in the first place. There was no explanation offered as to how the situation suddenly got resolved. It seems like they were simply lying to us, hoping that we’d take the fall instead of whoever came along next.

Incidentally, when we booked these seats many months ago, we had two possible routes, at similar cost, that worked equally well — one on Singapore Airlines and this one on Qatar. I chose Qatar because I’d just read a survey that ranked them as the best business class airline in the world. Our experience both in and out of Vietnam was a nightmare. They lied to us on both ends. Do not fly Qatar Airways.

The spectacular Doha skyline from dinner

A rare moment when the sun came out

Our stay in Quy Nhon — and indeed this whole trip to Vietnam — was all triggered by an article I saw in a travel magazine just about a year ago. I read about this cool train called Vietage that makes a six-hour journey through central Vietnam, linking the Anantara hotels in Hoi An and Quy Nhon. In fact, Vietage is a single luxurious train car, organized by Anantara, that is added onto a standard Vietnam Railways train for this particular 200-mile segment of its route. Its passengers pass the time in great style, enjoying lounges, cocktails, and fine dining.

I shared the article with Jim, and we both got excited about doing another trip to Vietnam, with this train journey as one highlight. I soon set about planning, finding flights, booking hotels, etc. I get very engrossed in this type of planning and focus on it intensely for a couple weeks until an itinerary is in place.

But I found the process for booking the train very confusing. I inexplicably could not choose the dates I wanted on the website. I eventually wrote to someone at Anantara for help. They wrote back that the train was out of commission for some kind of maintenance for the entire month of February. What a disappointment! Here I am planning a whole trip around this fictitious train!

I lost my enthusiasm and just quit my planning for a couple weeks. Fortunately, I had not yet made any non-refundable commitments. We eventually decided we were excited enough about Vietnam, fancy train or not, and I should finish my arrangements.

Exploring the village of Bai Xep for a lunch spot. This turned out to be a bust.

At least I didn’t much worry about Jim getting hit by a car because of low visibility in the gloomy weather

We ended up hiring a driver for the journey from Hoi An to Quy Nhoh, and that did actually go quite smoothly. We expected a 5-1/2 hour drive and it actually went an hour faster than that. But no cocktails.

So that is how we ended up at the Anantara resort in Quy Nhon, a place that is otherwise a bit off from the standard tourist route. The resort was nice enough, though the weather and other surroundings were less than entirely hospitable.

Quy Nhon is a beachside community that is a very popular retirement destination for well-to-do Vietnamese. But, according to our travel guide, “for most travellers its attractions are perhaps less compelling.” In fact, the resort was about 15 minutes south of Quy Nhon, a short walk from a village called Bai Xep, which the guide book suggested was more charming.

Now we love nothing more than escaping from a resort for a somewhat more authentic dining experience. So on our second day we walked up the road into Bai Xep to find a lunch spot. But boy, was this town bedraggled! There were some really downscale tourist establishments, but nothing that looked remotely pleasant to us. We made the 15-minute walk back to the hotel eager for another nice resort meal! We could have easily taken a taxi into Quy Nhon for lunch or dinner, but I could not find a single option that looked appealing there either.

So we spent 5 days cloistered at the comfortable resort, where the food was actually quite good. Unfortunately, the weather was not. At the beginning the forecast showed a couple cloudy days, followed by a couple partly sunny days. But every day the forecast shifted, and the clouds hardly ever lifted — until the morning we were leaving, when the sky was clear and the forecast finally showed sun all day. Oh well, that’s the way it is sometimes. Time to head further south and find the damn sun!

Every time the sun peeped out for just a second, we’d jump up and take a pic

The view across the lovely (if usually cloudy) bay

The restaurant at the resort had a gimmick of cooking the food on big slabs of salt, but it did all taste great

I had a beautiful seafood assortment on my salt slab

The view from the very uncrowded pool

Boats on the bay

Our room deal came with a free massage for each of us. Doesn’t Jim look relaxed leaving the spa?

The sun — capture it fast!

Hoi An explodes with color and character

Based on two previous visits, I consider Hoi An my favorite place in Vietnam. So we made Hoi An both the second and third stops on this year’s Vietnam itinerary. What the heck does that mean? In short, it means we booked stays at two different hotels — one at the beach 15 minutes from town, followed by a second stay right in town.

Just outside the town, on a beach along the South China Sea, is a very attractive Four Seasons resort. It’s considered one of the finest hotels in the country. I wanted to stay there for a few days and have a nice beach experience, but I didn’t want to compromise our stay in the town itself. So I booked four nights there, followed by another three nights at a place in town. It seemed kind of weird to book two hotels that are a 15-minute taxi ride apart, but what the heck.

It was a good call. After the urban chaos and excitement of Hanoi, we were ready to chill out on a beach already. So we caught a 90-minute flight to Danang in central Vietnam, followed by an easy 30-minute taxi ride to the Four Seasons. There we chilled out, never even going into town. We’d save that for a proper visit a few days later.

Soaking up some sun in a pool overlooking the beach

Our room came with bikes. I loved moving around by bike — from the room to breakfast, to the gym, to the pool — under a lovely canopy of frangipani trees.

My breakfast view

We often tire of food at fancy resorts and want to find something more down to earth. We were glad to discover such a lunch spot just down the beach.

The food at the resort was actually quite exceptional. Here Jim does a pho comparison — Hanoi-style side-by-side against Hoi An style. It’s a bitter rivalry.

As we prepared to move into town, we wondered if it would still hold its charm. Our blog post from Hoi An nine years ago was really loaded up with pictures and raves about how much we loved the town. Spoiler alert: Once again, there is a big pile of pictures below — because the town is so lovely, colorful, and bustling. And more so than ever this year because we arrived here for the height of Tet, the Lunar New Year, which is Vietnam’s biggest holiday.

The greatest thing about Hoi An is that it’s such a lively town, but it’s small enough that you can hop on a bike and within minutes be riding along lush gardens and peaceful rice fields. Our fondest memory from nine years ago involved biking out to a rustic little restaurant called Baby Mustard, which we then called “one of the best meals we’ve ever had.” We were delighted to return this time to find that it hadn’t changed a bit. They still go out into the garden after you order to pick lettuces and herbs for your meal. And the food was still excellent and crazy inexpensive.

But wonderful Baby Mustard got one-upped this time. Jim was out on a long walk outside of town and happened upon another charming restaurant called Field. He booked us a table, and we headed out on our bikes for lunch the next day. Field was a bit fancier than Baby Mustard, the kind of place with nice napkins, a wine list, and even after dinner espressos. And the setting among rice fields was so spectacular that you want to enjoy all that and linger as long as possible. Heaven!

At Baby Mustard Jim ordered thee same mackerel wrapped in banana leaf that he had nine years ago. Still as delicious!

Jim snapped this rice field scene out on a walk outside town

The next day Jim led the way by bike to Field

Blissful dining at Field

It really doesn’t get better than this

Biking back after lunch

We had to stop a lot for pictures

And here’s a selfie while we’re at it

A little shrine along the road

Hoi An was loaded up with flowers and decorations for the New Year celebration

Seems like every storefront had Tet flower arrangements

A dinner in town

Beautiful Hoi An

People celebrating everywhere

Our last dinner in Hoi An at a wonderful place called Morning Glory Signature

My view from Morning Glory of the celebration along the Thu Bon River

More riverside celebration

And a bit of commerce everywhere

Happy New Year!