Vietnam was growing on me. The cute bartender at the imposing new Park Hyatt Saigon shot over a coy smile evidently timed to coincide with my last ounce of Tiger Beer. "Where to now?" he asked, almost winking. I told him I'd already been to the gay-popular bar and dance club Apocalypse Now (irony is alive and well in Vietnam), where I met a local student who called himself Josh. Riding on the back of Josh's cyclo (motorbike), I had zoomed through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City to another bar, Allez Boo (gay-friendly, but a little more expat backpacker than gay). I explained all of this to the crisply uniformed bartender. "Go to Samsar-r-ra," he purred, winking to full (almost forced) effect before setting his flirty gaze on three thirsty German women. Going on nothing more than a wink and a smile (and some rough directions) I entered the balmy night to find Samsara--and promptly became lost. (When you step into the swirling streets of HCMC, march boldly across the street without hesitation. Like the Red Sea parting, the oncoming swarm of cyclos will move around you.) Remarkably, the 13-year-old girl who tried so urgently to sell me a pack of postcards the night before knew exactly where this queer bar was and led me to the front door (only three blocks from the hotel). I broke down and bought some postcards.
Inside the club it was more humid than outside. Youngish boys were dancing to late-'90s circuit music as oldish Westerners circled deliriously. I couldn't get that damn "The Heat Is On in Saigon" song from the musical Miss Saigon out of my head. Then I saw him--the bartender from the Park Hyatt--out of uniform and gyrating on a table. True to form, he winked again, but this time his smile was almost brazen. Welcome to Vietnam.
Since it's not a gay mecca like Thailand, part of the thrill in traveling here is searching for signs of gay life as you crisscross the country by air and land--a feat both easy (shaped like an elongated s, the country is roughly 80% the size of California) and relatively inexpensive (I upgraded to first class on a short internal flight for just $15). But don't go to Vietnam expecting heavy doses of gay culture and nightlife (if you must get your fix, spend the proverbial "one night in Bangkok" before heading to 'Nam), but HCMC in the south and Hanoi in the north both have healthy gay scenes, and since there are no official laws on same-sex relationships in Vietnam, gays and lesbians are generally quite safe, despite lingering cultural taboos against homosexuality. Grudges stemming from the "American War" (as the Vietnamese call it) have faded with the emergence of an optimistic generation of market-savvy young professionals. Against a dichotomous backdrop of kitschy communist billboards, serene temples, timeless emerald-green rice paddies, and an economy surging forward in a frantic embrace of capitalism, one constant is that the people are genuinely friendly, courteous, and engaged in the moment. You'll feel welcome.
"Ten years ago, people said your first trip to Vietnam was your last. No one's saying that anymore," says James Greenway, an Australian banker who recently bought property in Hanoi. Even gay cruise companies are considering Vietnamese ports on future itineraries, and a few gay tour companies already offer specialized trips (see Essentials listings at OutTraveler.com).
General tourism has grown steadily since the United States officially set up diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995. The country is expecting as many as 4 million tourists for 2006, and luxury hotel properties--many reasonably priced, thanks to the strong U.S. dollar--are multiplying rapidly to keep up with demand. In a country where things don't always go as planned (on the perilous mountain drive from HCMC to Dalat, a sudden monsoon nearly washed our SUV off the road), staying in a proper oasis with attentive service, cushy pillows, and a well-stocked wine cellar is crucial.
Often referred to as "Le Petit Paris" (complete with its own mini Eiffel Tower), Dalat is built around one such hotel, the Sofitel Dalat Palace, located atop a green hill in a lakeside mountain setting that feels more like Switzerland than Southeast Asia.
After dining on deep-fried soft-shell crab and grilled prawns in lemongrass at one of the hotel's restaurants, I wandered late at night near Dalat's crowded central market (famed for strawberry jam and locally grown garden vegetables). The overpowering scent of nuoc mam (the fermented fish sauce that flavors a wide variety of Vietnamese dishes) filled the air.
"Tiger beer boom-boom happy girl?"
The odd question came from a nearby cyclo driver. I answered with one of the only Vietnamese words I knew, Kom (no). Although the thought of an apparently satisfying round of drunken sex wasn't too appalling, I would have rather gone for a ride with one of Dalat's ubiquitous leather-clad Easy Riders, English-speaking locals who take clients on the backs of vintage Russian motorcycles for regional day trips around the surrounding highlands for as little as $10 a day.
I fantasized about riding all the way up to Hanoi with one of these guys (they've been known to agree to longer trips if the price is right), but I ended up back in the trusty SUV, which zipped me from a tangle of forest-green mountains to the calm turquoise South China Sea off Nha Trang--the beachside party capital of Vietnam--in less than five hours.
One could spend at least a week in Nha Trang doing nothing but eating dragon fruit, indulging in twice-daily massages, and soaking up the surrounding paradise, as the lesbian couple I met at the Ana Mandara Resort did. That's part of Vietnam's strength as a destination--it offers something for every type of traveler. Fashion freaks with a yen for buying up bespoke men's suits can head north to the compact Old Town of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the infamous China Beach.
And those who never want to leave can settle in cultured Hanoi, home of yet another gay-popular bar called Apocalypse Now. This is where I met James, the Aussie expat. "Quite nice here, eh?" he asked. I nodded in contentment.
Booking a combination of airplanes and automobiles will allow you to craft a two- or three-week itinerary that includes the chaotic bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, the cool mountain splendor of Dalat, the luxe beach-town atmosphere of Nha Trang, the 17th-century architectural charm of Hoi An, the cosmopolitan vibe of French colonial Hanoi, and the awesome majesty of Halong Bay, where limestone cliffs jut from the Gulf of Tonkin as far as the horizon. Foreigners can't drive cars in Vietnam, so all car rental options include drivers (trust us, it's for the best). Saigon Tourist [http://www.saigon-tourist.com] provides affordable car rentals with tour guides and interpreters as well as air ticketing for Vietnam Airlines and Pacific Airlines. Drivers stay overnight in their own lodgings and are available at your request. The best way to tackle the above itinerary is to book a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat, then drive to Nha Trang. Fly from Nha Trang to Da Nang, where you can drive to nearby Hoi An. Finally, fly out of Da Nang to Hanoi, where you can book another driver for a day trip to Halong Bay.
Traveling in Vietnam is an adventure to say the least. At the end of a long day of shuttling to and fro, haggling at the local market, and simply taking in layer upon layer of cultural stimuli, it's essential to have an oasis of calm and comfort in which to rest and rejuvenate. The following top-recommended hotels provide just that--and they do it quite well. HCMC: Situated in the heart of the city next to the elegant Opera House, the Park Hyatt Saigon (2 Lam Son Square, HCMC, 011-84-8-824-1234), opened in January 2006, combines the feel of the city's French colonial history with 21st-century technology and comfort. The hotel features 252 guest rooms, including 21 suites designed to feel like an authentic Vietnamese residence. The menu at the hotel's Square One restaurant combines Vietnamese seafood with Western-style steaks. Dalat: Inaugurated in 1932 by the French Administration of Indochina, the grandiose Sofitel Dalat Palace (12 Tran Phu St., Dalat, 011-84-63-825-444) is set on a landscaped hillside overlooking Xuan Huong Lake in the heart of this charming mountain village. The hotel's gourmet restaurant, Le Rabelais, specializes in French cuisine, but we recommend the Y Nhu Y restaurant for Vietnamese delicacies like deep-friend soft-shell crab and grilled prawns in lemongrass. Nha Trang: Built to resemble an old Vietnamese village, the Ana Mandara Resort (Beachside Tran Phu Blvd., Nha Trang, 011-84-58-522-222) features 74 rooms located in 17 villas. All rooms have their own veranda, with views of either the lush tropical garden or the sea. Getting to the Ana Mandara's sister resort, the Evason Hideaway (Ninh Van Bay, Ninh Hoa, Khanh Hoa, 011-84-58-524 705), requires a 30-minute speedboat ride over to the remote side of Ninh Van Bay. Here, if you don't leave your secluded villa with private plunge pool (and why would you want to?), the only other human being you're likely to see is your personal butler. The Hideaway combines simple modern amenities with a commitment to the environment. Da Nang: Situated on the infamous China Beach, the Furama (68 Ho Xuan Huong St., Da Nang, 011- 84-511-847-888) feels a bit more corporate than the other hotels we've mentioned, but the service and facilities are still top-notch (and we found many of the waitstaff to be extremely gay-friendly if not downright flirtatious). Hoi An: Built just a few steps from the enchanting historic wooden buildings of this riverside village, the Life Resort (1 Pham Hong Thai St., Hoi An, 011-84-510-914-555) offers a honeymoon package that includes a sundown river cruise, neck and shoulder massages, and a candlelit dinner at the Senses restaurant. Hanoi: Established in 1901, the 232-room Sofitel Metropole (15 Ngo Quyen, Hanoi, 011-84-4-826-6919) has hosted everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Jane Fonda. The white French colonial facade features original wrought iron detailing, immaculate wood paneling, and bright green shutters. The services and amenities are just as finely crafted: the Metropole offers the only cooking class in town that takes its participants on an ingredient shopping tour at a local market before hitting the hotel's kitchen. Halong Bay:The Emeraude (c/o Press Club, 59A Ly Thai To St., Hanoi, 011-84-4-934-0888) is a replica steamer with 39 cabins designed to evoke the charm of colonial Indochina. Rooms feature polished wooden floors and brass fixtures. An overnight package includes a welcome cocktail, entrance fee to Halong Bay, and intercontinental Asian buffet lunch and dinner.
HCMC: When I asked photographer Douglas Friedman to tell me the most surprising thing about his trip to Vietnam, he answered without hesitation: "The gay boys in Saigon carry Dior bags in the crook of their arms, sport skull scarves around their necks, and wear oversize sunglasses." It's true: Gay ground zero in HCMC is the brand-new Park Hyatt Saigon, located across the street from the colonial-era Opera House. From here you can easily plug in to the city's surprisingly active gay scene. Apocalypse Now (2C Thi Sach St., 011-84-8-825-6124) pulls in a mostly straight backpacker crowd but also draws a sizable smattering of gay men (and a few lesbians). Most people end up on the dance floor or the club's hopping outdoor patio, where you can order fresh spring rolls with your Tiger beer as the DJ spins a frenetic mix of artists (Jon Bon Jovi morphs into Los Lobos, which blends into Madonna). Post-Apocalypse (the bar closes at midnight) everyone goes for a nightcap at Q Bar (D1 Lam Son Square, 011-84-8-823-3480), a stylish watering hole in the basement of the Opera House. On Friday and Saturday nights, head to Samsara (131 Dong Khoi St., 011-84-8-823-2630), a thumping, relatively new dance bar primarily for gay men. I met the holy trifecta of gay friends here (the nerd, the jock, and the queen). They quickly assumed the Charlie's Angels pose. "I'm Lucy Liu," said the queeny one, "before plastic surgery." Dalat: This small "honeymoon capital of Vietnam" isn't known for its nightlife, but the discotheque in the Golf 3 Hotel (4 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Dalat, 84-63-8260-4249 is the place to catch bands performing classic Vietnamese, French, and English ditties to support the town's strangely burgeoning ballroom dance craze. "Seeing two boys dancing tango isn't shocking here," says Antoine Sirot, general manager of the Sofitel Dalat Palace. "Two girls dancing is also quite common." The disco at Chez Moi (located near Xuan Huong Lake) attracts a younger, techno crowd. The regular mixed crowd morphs into a decidedly gay swarm on Saturday nights. Hanoi: Gay-owned Cay Xoai (on Truc Bach Lake) is a low-key bar attracting a mix of locals, backpackers, and sundry lost Western souls. Have a beer and move on to Sparks (Lo Duc Street), a pleasant bar doling out pop ditties and stiff shots. But if you really want to paint this communist town red (is that redundant?), hit Vietnam's other Apocalypse Now (Superbowl Center, Pham Ngoc Thach, 011-84-4-971-2783). This (mostly straight) club's end-of-the-world decadence didn't wane after it relocated from Han Kiem Lake to the Dong Da district. The enormous New Century Club (10 Pho Trang Thi St., 011-84-4-928-5285), located within walking distance of Hoan Kiem lake, is the city's truest dance den. Don't forget to wear long pants (I was turned away at the door for wearing cargo shorts). Though it's not a gay club in the strictest sense, a critical mass of queer patrons is attracted to the club's oversize dance floor. Mosaique Livingroom (23 Ngo Van So St., Hanoi, 844-822-6458) is an intimate (and refreshingly hip) members-only club offering film screenings, fashion shows, special events, and an international DJ lineup. Ask your hotel concierge to get you on the list.
Alyson Adventures (800-825-9766) offers a 10-day cycling trip through the beautiful countryside of Northern Vietnam. The biannual trip includes stops in Hanoi, the hill station of Sapa, and Halong Bay, where you can extend your stay with two nights on a junk. Coda Tours (888-677-2632) offers a 15-day trip that includes stops in Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay, Da Nang, Hue, and HCMC) and Cambodia (the Angkor Wat ruins in Siem Reap). Toto Tours (800-565-1241) also combines Vietnam with Cambodia in a 13-day tour that includes "a splash of Bangkok." Out Adventures (866-360-115) offers six different Vietnam Gay and Lesbian and Family adventures.