I’m in prison on the Vietnamese island of Pho Quoc and guards are torturing their captives, hanging them upside down, pulling their teeth out, and administering electric shocks. Fortunately this is not real, but lurid depictions of scenes when the island was a prison camp for 40,000 prisoners back in the 1970s. It’s a strange tourist attraction, a hangover from the days when Vietnam wanted to present itself as a tough communist state. These days, although it’s still communist, the government
VIETNAM Airlines (vietnamairlines.com) offers the UK’s only nonstop route flying from London to Hanoi or Saigon. Return fares cost from around £500 in March.
Experience Travel Group (www. experiencetravelgroup.com) can tailor-make seven night holidays to Southern Vietnam from £2,101 per adult, staying at the Park Hyatt Saigon (saigon.park.hyatt. com), the Victoria Can Tho (www. victoriahotels.asia) and La Veranda, Phu Quoc (www.laverandaresorts. com)including flights and transfers. is keen to present a more friendly face and is doing its best to attract tourists. The island has long stretches of palm-fringed golden sandy beaches, untouched jungle and abundant marine life around the tiny islands off the coast.
New hotels are going up all over the place and the area has high hopes of becoming the Vietnamese equivalent of Phuket.
I start my Vietnam trip in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s still known to the locals; Vietnam Airlines flies direct from London. At the moment you don’t even need a visa and I sail through immigration into the early morning traffic. Most people don’t own cars, but the streets are clogged with thousands of scooters, some containing entire families.
At first sight the legendary charm of Saigon seems to have been replaced by a bustling modern city, dogged by construction work and new high rises.
However, as I settle in and explore on foot, I begin to get a sense of its colonial past. The Continental Hotel, where Graham Greene set The Quiet American still exists, although the few forlorn tables on the terrace are a sad reminder of what it used to be.
Other locations from the novel have been demolished but still going strong is the rooftop bar at the Majestic Hotel