A taste of Vietnam

The spectacular Mekong River.
'This is Vietnam's equivalent of Starbucks,' laughed Linh, our tour guide. It was 6.30am on the brown soupy waters of the Hau River in the Mekong Delta, and we were sailing past a tiny wooden boat from which a woman was selling warm cups of coffee.

Her boat is part of the bustle of Cai Rang floating market. Instead of shop signs, each boat has samples of the goods on sale strung up on a flagpole - watermelons, pineapples and the occasional potato. Some sellers sail their produce many miles to the market, living on board until they have sold out. One boat, decked in purple, was selling noodles. 'You can even buy lottery tickets,' Linh explained.

We picked up coconuts, with straws for drinking their sweet water, and sailed past makeshift homes in the city of Can Tho to our hotel. We were staying at Azerai Can Tho, which is nestled on a small islet surrounded by the rivers and canals. The rooms are set in gardens with banyan trees, and are simply designed from rattan and wood, with remote controlled blinds. The attention to detail made us feel we were being enveloped in a hug, from the jars of candied coconut shavings in our bedroom to the gifts left on our pillows each night.

The food is French and Vietnamese. Chef Nguyen Xuan Nhut, who learned his craft in Saigon, Australia, the Philippines and Singapore, sources many organic ingredients locally. Breakfasts are a mixture of Vietnamese food including pho - rice noodle soup served in beef broth - and French-influenced Western delights, from croissants to smoked salmon and eggs.

Dinners include fresh summer rolls filled with mint leaves, basil and pickled vegetables; sweet sea bass cooked in a pot, and banana blossom salad with crunchy peanuts. My favourite French dishes on the menu included beef pastrami with parmesan crisps, and salmon carpaccio with seaweed salad on avocado. A salty-sweet sesame mousse served with red dragon fruit was one of the most delicious desserts I have ever eaten.

It almost felt like we were on safari. At night, as I floated off to sleep, I could hear frogs croaking, geckos squeaking and crickets chirping. In the distance there were occasional sounds of river traffic: the Mekong never completely sleeps.

On a trip to the Vinh Trang Buddhist temple, we sailed along backwaters in a long wooden boat known as a sampan. At the temple, among giant gold Buddhas, we listened to orange-robed monks playing music on a two-headed barrel drum and a xylophone. Inside the ornate building, decorated with paintings telling the story of Buddha's life, we had an audience with the head monk. He blessed our family, chanting his wishes for good health and happiness, flicking water at us. It was surprisingly moving, and I found myself with a tear in my eye, utterly appreciative for all the love in my life.

An Idyllic beach in Binh Thuan province
On Vietnam's south-east coast, among the dragon fruit farms and salt flats overlooking the South China Sea, is the Azerai Ke Ga Bay hotel, one of the most relaxing places I've ever stayed.

There is something especially magical about mornings here, where farmers take their cattle for a daily walk along the beach, overlooked by the famous lighthouse. Offshore, a fleet of wooden fishing boats were moored in front of Hon Ba island. The waves are good for surfing, and our children enjoyed flying kites on the beach.

Everyone who works at the resort seemed to delight in making us feel as welcome as possible with thoughtful details, from fresh water by the pool to buckets and spades on the sand.

The resort is laid out around shallow pools, leading to a square archway that frames the breathtaking, rugged sea. Our minimalist room was thoughtfully designed, with a plunge pool outside, freestanding bath inside and deliciously comfortable bed.

One of the hotel's chefs, Tien, gave me an incredible cooking lesson, where I learned to marinade chicken and stew fish in a mouthwatering mix of lemongrass, chilli, shallots, garlic, fish sauce and sugar. Our whole family tried rolling spring rolls, dampening the rice paper before filling it with pork, prawns, egg, carrot, cucumber and mint.

The hotel serves both Vietnamese and western food, and the most delicious fresh seafood. We tried sweet barbecued prawns; clam soup with lemongrass and chilli - which gave it a refreshingly warm kick - and scallops with green onion and pork fat that were rich and charred to perfection.

Binh Thuan province is the home of dragon fruit. They look completely alien with their red and green prickles, and grow on cacti that look like mops of green hair. We visited a farm that exports the fruit, trying all the varieties.

Then it was on to the salt flats. Here, sea water is concentrated into brine, then evaporated off in shallow fields to leave pure salt crystals. Around the edges of the flats, which perfectly reflect the clouds above, we clasped handfuls of sea salt.

An hour along the coast is Centara Mirage, a collection of hundreds of apartments, each with a private pool. This hotel, which has a splash pool complete with pirate ship, water slides, and a fairground carousel, is designed for families.

Some of the bedrooms have their own swings and climbing wall, much to my children's delight. The infinity pool looks out to sea and nearby beaches, where there's a growing Vietnamese surf scene. You can hire a board or buy lessons.

The pagoda at Hu Quoc temple
It's worth picking your beach wisely on Phu Quoc, an island where you can find pristine sand and clear waters. On Khem beach, in the south of the island, the feel of the soft white sand on my feet and the lapping sound of inviting warm, gentle waves was magical.

The island is 45 minutes by plane from Ho Chi Minh City, and is closer to Cambodia than Vietnam's mainland. It has a reputation for some of the best snorkelling and diving in Vietnam, but the choppy sea meant we had to abandon our snorkelling trip. I can't wait to have another go when I make a return visit.

Pepper is one of the main crops on the island, where banana and coconut trees also abound. As we explored, we were told that the occasional huge mansions we passed - which looked like Barbie Dreamhouses brought to life - are the homes of local business barons. There is also the wonderful Ho Quoc temple, with its impressice pagoda and statues.

We stayed in large resorts that felt almost like holiday villages. First was New World resort, which has the largest infinity pool on the island, overlooking Khem beach, an excellent spa and restaurant. Our villa had separate bedrooms coming off an open grey slate courtyard with its own plunge pool.

There are 375 villas in the complex, so there's no 'boutique' feel, but excellent customer service stops it feeling anonymous. The hotel has a vast breakfast buffet: we tried everything from pho noodle soup to dim sum dumplings, American-style pancakes and Indian chai.

Next, we moved ten minutes south to Premier Village, set on a peninsula at the southern tip of the island. This resort has 215 villas set in tropical jungle in the hills, and among palm trees the beach. Buggies shuttle guests to and from the dining areas. There is a farm with hungry goats eager to be fed; a huge spa with yoga studios; a children's club, and a swimming pool that is designed to feel like rock pools dropping towards the sea.

My children sat on craggy rocks and cast their wooden fishing rods into the dark turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand. In the warmth of the Vietnamese sun, I don't think any of us minded that the fish weren't biting.

Ho Chi Minh City's skyline
'Come, look, look!' vendors at Saigon's famous Ben Thanh Market entreated us, gesturing to their goods. We weaved between the 1,500 stalls selling tins of coffee, packets of noodles, nuts, spices and sweets in foil wrappers. The spicy, sweet smells coming from stalls dishing out bowls of noodles and savoury bread buns filled the air.

We found a fruit stall, and identified dragon fruit, lychees, mangos, papaya and cheesy-smelling durian. Many of the others were a mystery, shapes we hadn't seen before. People have been selling their produce in this spot since the 1850s, though the market itself was last renovated in the 1980s.

No trip to southern Vietnam would be complete without a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, which is home to about nine million people. It has some of the world's coolest restaurants and bars, just streets away from rows of frontless shops that each specialise in one item, such as engines or saws. Street food is everywhere: noodles, baguettes with spicy meat, and Vietnamese coffee.

The city is full of reminders of Vietnam's past. France ruled the country from the late 19th century until 1954, which is evident in the architecture of the City Hall and Notre Dame Basilica. Then there is the Reunification Convention Hall, where the brutal Vietnam War finally came to an end when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates in 1975.

We stayed at Landmark 81, Vietnam's tallest building at 1,513 feet, on the west bank of the Saigon river. The hotel takes up 25 floors of the skyscraper, and we were so high up that my ears popped as we headed up to reception, halfway up on floor 48. The restaurant is on floor 66, while the outdoor infinity pool is in the clouds too.

The bedrooms have huge windows - this is a place for gazing. The view is ever changing: by day I watched traffic on the river, and after sunset the night lights of the city below stretched as far as my eyes could see.

The food at Landmark is outstanding. Its giant bowls of wagyu beef pho, with a light savoury broth to which diners add fermented bean and chilli sauce to their taste, are famous throughout the country.

The breakfast buffet includes pho, Japanese sashimi and sushi, smoked salmon, baskets of bread and croissants, sweet patisseries and cooked food, from rice porridge - congee - to a full English.

Come dinner time, the lavish buffet at the Oriental Pearl restaurant includes lobster, prawns, oysters, sushi, sea bass and roast pork.

We left the city with souvenirs from the market: lacquered spoons, fans and wooden puzzles. The smile on the vendor's face suggested to me that I hadn't haggled nearly as hard as she expected.

Azerai Can Tho: from £195 per night, including breakfast
Floating market trip: £150 for two adults, £18 for children aged six to 11
Azerai Ke Ga Bay: from £170 per night, including breakfast
Cooking class: £85
Centara Mirage Mui Ne: from £80 per night, including breakfast
New World Phu Quoc: from £320 per night, including breakfast
Cooking class: £26
Premier Village Phu Quoc: from £190 per night, including breakfast
Landmark 81 hotel, Marriott Autograph Collection, Ho Chi Minh City: from £346 per night
Pictures: Adobe Stock
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