With two of Asia's most fascinating cities (Saigon and Hanoi), magnificent scenery and monuments, and superb food and shopping, Vietnam has become a chic destination for sophisticated travelers. Now is the perfect time to come, since the infrastructure has been significantly improved and the masses have yet to arrive. Since guidebooks to Vietnam are invariably out of date and cater to backpackers (the exception—an excellent new guide from NEOS, Michelin's travel imprint—is available only in French), the best way to see the country is by hiring local guides. And, of course, seeking out advice from a reliable source who's just returned.
There's a good reason to abide by the classic south-to-north barbell tour of Vietnam, starting in Saigon and ending in Hanoi: Hanoi has the country's best shopping. In addition to the 36 pho phuong, or streets, of the Old Quarter—each specializing in a specific product, from the tempting (lacquerware and dried herbs) to the best avoided (coffins and live worms)—top-quality boutiques and galleries showing extraordinary works by Vietnamese artists have sprung up. Collectors from Hong Kong and Tokyo have driven up prices at venues like the well-established Apricot Gallery (40B Hang Bong St.; 84-4-828-8965), but they're still quite reasonable compared with what works of similar quality would fetch in New York or Los Angeles. The scene changes constantly, so your best advisor on new galleries is the concierge at the Metropole, the palmy French colonial grande dame of a hotel that's the only place to stay in Hanoi.
The Metropole offers excellent half-day Vietnamese cooking classes created by its charming head chef, Didier Corlou (a Frenchman who's lived here for ten years and learned the art from his wife's grandmother, a Hanoi native), and led by his sous chef, Tran Thi Tuyet Mai. The classes (in English) begin with a visit to one of the nearby markets—colorful scenes bursting with items most Americans have never seen before, from huge knobby orange turmeric roots to smoked catfish—to learn about the basic ingredients. Then it's back to the hotel kitchen for demonstrations of classics like banana-flower salad, deep-fried spring rolls, and skewered chicken with lemon leaves. Students participate as they choose, then have their lessons for lunch. Courses Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; $45. At 15 Ngo Quyen St.; 84-4-826-6919; fax 84-4-826-6920.
The shop not to miss is Song, founded by expat Australian Val Gregori McKenzie, who designs all of the clothing and home furnishings sold here. What makes this place so special is the East-meets-West fusion of superb local craftsmanship and materials and McKenzie's extremely good taste. Stunning hand-embroidered silk pillow covers and white cotton pajamas with mother-of-pearl buttons are priced at about $20. At 5/7 Nha Tho; 84-4-828-6965.
Other noteworthy shops are Tan My (66 Hang Gai; 84-4-825-1579), for Vietnamese home furnishings like table linens embroidered with traditional motifs, silk pajamas and bathrobes, and heavenly pure- silk sleeping-bag liners; and Minh Tam (2 Hang Bong; 84-4-828-9907), for elegant lacquerware trays, boxes, and other objects, some in a delicate eggshell-lacquer finish (crushed eggshells are applied to wooden objects in flat sheets, then covered with usually gray- or amber-tinted transparent lacquer), others in rich colors like black, forest green, and bordeaux.
The Temple Club, Saigon's hot new restaurant and bar set in a former guesthouse for pilgrims visiting the adjacent Hindu temple, draws a stylish crowd of expatriates and well-heeled locals. Its Indochine atmosphere and delicious, delicately prepared food recalls the most refined home cooking. Try the pho, rice noodles in broth with sliced chicken or beef and fresh herbs,or the bun bo xao with cha gio, rice noodles and beef sautéed with lemon grass, fresh herbs, lettuce, and soy sprouts, served with spring rolls and fish sauce. With its antiques, soft lighting, and exposed-brick walls adorned with colonial posters, photographs, and paintings, the bar is one of the few places in town where you'll easily meet English-speaking Vietnamese. Dinner, $14. At 31 Ton That Thiep St.; 84-8-829-9244; fax 84-8-827-4973.
Perhaps the best advice of all is to edit the classic Vietnam itinerary: Saigon-Nha Trang-Hue-Hanoi (with a boat trip around Halong Bay). Jettison Nha Trang, a rather charmless resort that's popular with Australian backpackers and is on an increasingly polluted bay. The best hotel there, the Ana Mandara, is not only directly under the airport's flight path but has bad plumbing, ill-fitting doors and windows, and a serious mosquito problem. Instead, linger a few days in Hoi An.
Twenty miles south of Danang, this fascinating city, once a major international port, has remarkably well-preserved traditional architecture that reflects its cosmopolitan past. In the 17th through 19th centuries Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and eventually American ships anchored here to purchase high-quality silk, porcelain, paper, tea, beeswax, and other rarities; then the Thu Bon River silted up. The pleasure of visiting this proud, cultured little city comes from its friendly sophistication and unique ambience: Fountains trickle in the gardens of incense-scented temples, and in the evening streets softly glow from the light of cloth-and-bamboo lanterns.
The best restaurant in town is the newest: Brother's Café Hoian, with authentic, beautifully prepared food and a romantic location, in a handsomely renovated French colonial building by the river. Highly recommended dishes from the menu are those characteristic of Hoi An cuisine, like shrimp-stuffed deep-fried wontons and cao lau—thick rice noodles mixed with bean sprouts, fried shallots, herbs, and barbecued pork—as well as sautéed pea tendrils and vines, and tangy lemon chicken. Dinner, $15. At 27 Phan Boi Chau; 84-510-914-150; fax 84-510-923-012.
The perfect place to stay is five minutes outside town on a beautiful, clean white-sand beach overlooking the South China Sea. The luxurious new Victoria Hoi An resort offers air conditioning and all the modern comforts, as well as a great swimming pool and tennis courts. Rooms are quietly elegant, in pale shades of ivory, yellow, and celadon, with beautiful caramel-colored teak parquet floors. The best are the so-called Victoria Royal Suites, beachfront villa suites that include cathedral-ceilinged living rooms, private ocean-view balconies, spacious baths, Jacuzzis, and direct access to the beach. Royal Suites, $220. Cam An Beach, Hoi An; 84-510-927-040, fax 84-510-927-041; www.victoriahotels-asia.com.