I Traveled to Vietnam As Soon As It Reopened to Tourists — Here's What It Was Like

·7 min read
Sunset at Ninh Van Bay
Sunset at Ninh Van Bay

Kathryn Romeyn

As COVID slowly continues to retreat in the rearview, many places — and properties — around the world are swarming with tourists. It doesn't exactly scream peaceful holiday. But there are breathtaking destinations that are not currently overrun, beckoning travelers of all ages, including little ones. Throughout Vietnam, as I experienced firsthand this June, a sense of solitude, serenity, and sweetness is still pervasive.

By no means are acclaimed luxury hotels and resorts ghost towns; the Vietnamese did a wonderful job of exploring their own country during the pandemic. And now, since reopening to international travelers in March, and also dropping pre-arrival COVID testing protocols, Westerners are slowly trickling back into the place known for its flavorful, veggie- and herb-laden cuisine, ancient towns, dynamic cities, heavenly beaches, and special culture. As I traveled with my husband and our 15-month-old daughter, I felt a sense of spaciousness as well as intimacy that fostered connection in a multitude of ways.

Early morning exercise in Hanoi
Early morning exercise in Hanoi

Kathryn Romeyn

Progressively, we worked our way north to south, falling deeper in love with Vietnam and its people every day. One might imagine the capital city of a country with more than 97 million people to be hectic, but it's the opposite in Hanoi, which, to me, was like the set of a romantic period film with its patinaed colonial architecture shaded by lush canopies of towering trees.

My jaw dropped as we pulled up to Capella Hanoi following an orange sunset; we were whisked back a century to a theatrical, opera-inspired world that's a trip in and of itself. The 47-room boutique hotel, which debuted in April 2021 only to close during the city's lockdown that summer and hold its official grand opening in April 2022, is the pinnacle of visual decadence, as designed by Bill Bensley.

Baby in the suite at Capella Hanoi
Baby in the suite at Capella Hanoi

Kathryn Romeyn

It would be easy to spend entire days engaging with the Capella Curates experiences like making traditional lacquerware, on-site programming and performative rituals, extravagant Auriga Spa, and glitzy pool. There's much to devour, beginning with a breakfast of delectable pho at Backstage while learning about Vietnam's coffee legacy, and later Japanese-inspired, zero-waste cocktails. We were also wowed by the edible performance art of Koki — The House of Senses. There, gold leaf-flecked bites and exceptional Yaeyama Kyori wagyu prepared hibachi-style by two joyful chefs nearly brought my husband to tears.

Yaeyama Kyori beef signature crispy grill at Capella Hanoi’s Hibana
Yaeyama Kyori beef signature crispy grill at Capella Hanoi’s Hibana

Kathryn Romeyn

But above all, Capella's GM recommended rising early for a morning walk. It turns out, 7 a.m. in Hanoi is its own kind of spectacle, humming with calm energy as locals meditate around a square, play badminton on marked sidewalks, dance with fans in high heels by Hoàn Kiếm Lake, do calisthenics, and pray at pagodas — all outside, before heading to work. These healthy spirit, healthy body pursuits have become even more popular these days, and observing them put me in a positive headspace.

I would have loved more days to explore Hanoi, since my thrilling tour on a sputtering vintage Vespa and a family bún chả lunch at Dong Xuan market only scratched the surface of the city's history, vibrant beauty, and culinary intrigue. I found that to be a common theme. At our next stop, Hoi An, I also craved more time. There, airy, tiered villas — minded by private butlers — were like invitations to slow down at Four Seasons Resort Hoi An (The Nam Hai). The ocean-view accommodations offered supreme privacy alongside connection, especially to self and nature via wellness programming. Crystal singing bowls, cocooning meditations, and silken Vietnamese massages helped tune my body to Earth's vibrations.

Lunch of bun cha at the Dong Xuan Market in Hanoi
Lunch of bun cha at the Dong Xuan Market in Hanoi

Kathryn Romeyn

Thanks to the resort's charismatic chef, we gained knowledge of the country's culinary techniques and essential ingredients at the Cooking Academy, making several dishes and drool-worthy sauces I can't wait to recreate at home. We savored bright, plant-based Vietnamese dishes from Glow With Food — a response to guests' increasingly mindful priorities — and the Ethical Cup sustainable coffee and tea presentations elevated caffeination to a scrumptious art. Beyond the pure luxury of having a butler, Hiep, who surprised us with pool toys for our toddler and chilled cut fruit, I most appreciated the window he gave us into his own life, even adorably introducing our daughter to his young son via video call, during which she blew him kisses.

Meditation cocoons, tacos and the adult pool at Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai
Meditation cocoons, tacos and the adult pool at Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai

Kathryn Romeyn

Hoi An itself is an enchanted ancient town and UNESCO World Heritage site with charming pedestrian-only streets wondrously strung with handcrafted silk lanterns. I was told it was eerily quiet during the height of COVID, but we found it buzzing with life during a Sunday evening full moon festival that tested my comfort with throngs of excitable Vietnamese crowds. Once I got over the shock of so many people, the sight of hundreds of rainbow lantern-lit boats gliding along the river felt special, just like the pagodas and temples that glowed under the navy sky.

The Thu Bon River in Hoi An during a full moon festival
The Thu Bon River in Hoi An during a full moon festival

Kathryn Romeyn

From there, we flew, were driven, and hopped a boat to Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, where all-wood villas, hammocks, timber tubs, and bamboo furniture felt like a Robinson Crusoe-worthy island escape — if he was an environmentalist with luxurious taste. On a remote peninsula, the resort, seemingly piled atop granite boulders, is an immersion into some of Mother Nature's best work. I was invigorated by an early morning hike to the mirrored reservoir and soothed by buoyant dips in the still turquoise sea. We indulged on locally caught pomfret during a private dinner inside a candlelit cave, and slow-motion massaged into a near trance.

We rode bicycles, played in the spectacularly sustainable Vooc Village kids' club, and learned about the resort's recent discovery of a new turmeric and conservation of a rare, blue-faced primate species. In a full-circle moment, we were dazzled by privileged sightings of those very critically endangered black-shanked douc langurs — only found in three places on the planet — leaping from boulders to tree branches as we cruised on a vibrant fishing boat into the sunset, lovely layers of purple and blue mountains in the distance.

Throughout our trip, people from every walk shared pieces of their lives and culture while inquiring about ours in that beautiful exchange that travel makes possible. If you're so motivated, apply for the $25 Vietnamese e-visa first. The minimum turnaround time is three working days, but give yourself some padding: We missed our original flight because I waited too late, completed my application incorrectly, and my husband's came back with a mistake, causing a chain reaction of problems.

The Rock Retreat pool at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay
The Rock Retreat pool at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay

Kathryn Romeyn

Getting around the country, however, is simple. Masks are still required in airports and on flights; the opposite is true of social distancing, so don't expect much personal space when queueing to check in, board, or deplane. For the most part we were amid a handful of Westerners, and our toddler amused all the Vietnamese families who wanted to take selfies and hold her hand.

Flights are still coming back online, especially nonstops from Singapore and Seoul to smaller cities such as Cam Ranh, where we flew for Six Senses. That said, if you like things to run like clockwork, don't go budget — the Vietnamese airline we flew domestically lived up to its apparent reputation for delays and schedule changes.

The most frustrating encounter came at the very end of our trip, dampening my spirits as our arrival into Ho Chi Minh City was delayed seven hours with little explanation, stealing time we hoped to spend wandering Vietnam's largest city. But things turned around in the blink of an eye at the gracious and glamorous Park Hyatt Saigon. Friendly, efficient staff accommodated our late arrival with new bookings, and a heavenly 8 p.m. facial at Xuan Spa instantly reversed my mood — and new frown lines. Dinner at Square One, which so beautifully balances elegance with tradition in textured design and food, was a perfect grand finale.

By chance or kismet, the dishes we selected represented the major regions' dominant flavors: salty north, spicy central, sweet south, and simple Mekong Delta. In a way, that felt so genuine, the staff delighted in sharing stories of Vietnam's food culture. Over wok-fried thien ly flowers, confit pork belly, and delectably crispy duck we wrapped in the verdant herbs and veggies I'd come to expect with every meal, 10 days of dear moments with dozens of warm people flooded into my heart. As the world continues to open up, I'm finding travel to be all about reconnection: to other people, cultures, food, and self, and I certainly found it all in Vietnam.