Insider Journeys’ Product Managers and Asia Specialists regularly travel to Asia. I was invited to join them on one of these research trips, and this is a short blog post from my time spent on Insider Journeys’ popular Highlights of Vietnam tour.
Travelling from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the south to Halong Bay and Hanoi in the north I joined a 10 day tour of one of Asia’s most fascinating destinations alongside 14 other Insider Journeys passengers, our expert local guides and our Western tour leader Matt.
Mekong Delta from Ben Tre
Day 1 – 3: Saigon and the Mekong Delta
Firstly, it should be noted that I missed the first day of this tour due to a last minute decision to see some of the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia (article to follow soon). The day previously our group had a full tours of Saigon and a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels – an iconic site legacy of the American/Vietnam war and all reports were that they had a great time.
My first day of touring took our group to the Mekong Delta. Following a two hour drive we arrived at a little used port called Ben Tre. Using a more isolated port meant that we could cruise the river in almost total seclusion and visit a traditional brick kiln (a touch more exciting than it sounds), family coconut processing house and a chance to experience authentic Mekong Delta lunch. Following our traditional Mekong lunch – a course of local curries, freshly caught fish and made to order spring rolls – we took a relaxing cruise in small boats down one of the Mekong’s tributaries. Each member of the group split off into threes and our Captain’s listlessly piloted us down stream thick with silt, past waving children, overhanging gum trees and a small traditional river-side huts. Our captain could not stifle her laughter when seeing me – a rather lanky Brit – wearing a Vietnamese hat traditionally worm by compact Vietnamese women or agricultural workers.
Arriving into Hue after a 1hr flight and short bus tour we headed for lunch at a small restaurant. After enjoying a lunch of savoury pancakes (a local delicacy) we took a short drive to the Perfume river – so called due to a mythical Gingery sent carried down stream – and enjoyed an incredible view of southern Hue, the perfume river and mountain vistas from a hill-top monastery.
Accompanied by our charming and ever illuminating Insider Journeys local guide Loi, we also travelled to the city’s famous citadel, now one of Vietnam’s (many) UNESCO world Heritage Sites.
Loi detailed how the Citadel experienced some of the American/Vietnamese war’s most bloody fighting, its time as a complex for the exclusive use of members of the royal elite, their mandarins and concubines. Watching kids fish with improvised rods, schools taking kite-flying lessons and feeling the general ambiance it is hard to imagine the city had such a turbulent past.
Our Group in Hoi An
One of the most famous scenes – popularised in may parts of the world by the motoring show Top Gear – is the Hi Van pass. Although a tunnel exists through the mountains, the winding scenic drive offers breathtaking views of Vietnam’s coastline. After our driver deftly navigated the winding mountain roads we stopped at the mountains peak and took in the view whilst sampling some Vietnamese coffee – a rich brew that is often served with condensed milk. Divine!
Arriving into Hoi An we enjoyed a relaxing tour of the city led by Loi, always equipped with a well-rehearsed joke and fascinating facts accompanied enthusiastic gesticulations. He ran us through the city’s origin as an ancient port town which infused the local architecture with Japanese, Chinese and French nuances and is one significant reason behind the city earning UNESCO World Heritage status.
Travelling in May and June (traditionally off-peak months) allowed us to soak up the atmosphere with only a handful of other tourists. Locals peddling their bikes down the ancient streets, watching the bedraggled fishermen return to port, watching the sunset from a roof-top restaurant and receiving an even more attentive service form some of the towns renowned tailors.
A culinary highlight of Hoi an was Mango Mango. Run by a unique and charming character Duc who recruits local children as apprentices in his restaurant. Using a fusion of Vietnamese and Western ingredients and cooking styles Duc has created an unforgettable menu. This author opted for a cocktail, sautéed pork and deep friend Aubergine and Mango starter – an incredible gastronomic encounter. Our following day was spent visiting the towns many tailor’s, restaurants and coffee shops all rounded off with a traditional cooking class.
Days 8 to 10 – Hanoi and Halong Bay:
After arriving into Hanoi we took a 3 hour drive to Halong Bay. Arriving into Halong town we were treated to an incredible view of the bay. The sun had a late afternoon glow and the view across the bay produced a breathtaking view of the bays calm waters and mountains that dotted the horizon.
As next morning arrived we boarded the boats that would sail us into and around the World Heritage site. Leaving port with a flotilla of other traditional Vietnamese ‘junk’ boats, our captain soon carved out a secluded path through the limestone cliffs that are dotted with vegetation and show little or no sign of human civilization. Before returning to port the captain dumbed down the engine allowing us to take in the atmosphere and tranquillity of the bay, as well as the tropical temperatures which were climbing by the minute!.
After arriving into Hanoi the previous evening we spent the day taking in Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum which houses Vietnam’s, now embalmed, but still most beloved and cherished leader Ho Chi Minh. This was swiftly followed by two contrasting sights – the Hanoi Hilton (US Senator John McCain spent time as a prisoner of war here) and the Temple of Literature which, amongst other things, is frequented by students looking for spiritual help in gaining higher grades. Our guide Huan did his best to waft away inquisitive students and delivery his professional lines regarding the temples history. Our group spent much of the next hour discussing failed exams and quizzing Huan about his experience of Vietnam’s education system (only 40% ever finish school).
That evening we took an evening walk along the banks of the Hoan Kiem lake and explored the stunning ‘red bridge’. We then took in the streets of Hanoi that are, as with most of Vietnam, frenetic, colourful and relentless! Hanoi’s historic Old Quarter is not to be missed. It’s old French colonial streets, dotted with trees and lined with colonial style building that have been weathered by Vietnam’s elements are a truly beautiful sight.
That evening many of the group left to take in the city’s Water Puppets – having seen them previously, and their soporific effects – I opted for a beer with a few other members of our group and our tour leader Matt.
Soon after meeting our fellow passengers – and hearing their mixed reviews of Hanoi’s famous Water Puppet show – the heavens opened and Vietnam treated us to our first tropical downpour. Huge water droplets hammered Hanoi’s streets, the vendors dropped their t-shirts and lighters in favour of the highly prized commodities in the umbrella and poncho. As the lights from the surprisingly cautious Vietnamese driver bounced off the soaked roads our tour leader Matt escorted us across Hanoi’s to a yet another fantastic local restaurant.