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In March 2010 I was provided with the opportunity to travel to Vietnam with Trails of Indochina.
Trails of Indochina specializes in unique journeys through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Bali. Their local expertise can customize any trip to suit any clients needs or wants.
We travelled from Calgary to Hanoi VIA Seattle and Seoul with Korean Airlines. It is a long journey, so be prepared for the jet leg when you arrive and also when you return.
Hanoi was my favourite of the three cities we visited. It is very much a step behind the other modern fast paced cities in Asia. There are very few sky scrapers, many bicycles still on the road and also many local people who still believe in North and South Vietnam.
While in Hanoi we visited Uncle Ho himself at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum followed by a tour of the grounds which included the Presidential Palace (where Ho Chi Minh refused to live as he believed it smelled like the French), the House on Stilts (where he lived instead) and the beautiful One Pillar Pagoda.
We went to the Temple of Literature, one of the oldest buildings in the city, The Hilton Hanoi Museum, a former prison used by the Vietnamese to house American prisoners of war including John McCain and saw the beautiful Lake of the Restored Sword.
The most memorable and fulfilling part of our time in Hanoi was our cyclo tour through the Old Quarter. If winding between hundreds of motor cycles isn’t enough to get your adrenaline going, you get a front row seat to the true culture of Vietnam. People burning their garbage, doing their welding, washing their dishes, all along the bustling streets of the Old Quarter. This is a wonderful place to shop as well as each street specializes in something... shoes, bags, silver, paper, etc..
There are many nice hotels and accommodations to stay in Hanoi, but my top recommendation would be the historical Sofitel Metropole. Built in 1901 this property is one of Indochina’s treasures and site of many historical events including being the long term residence of state and embassy officials. It is beautiful inside and out and offers the ideal location in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
From Hanoi we travelled approx 3.5 hours to Halong Bay. This destination is breathtaking and worth at least one nights stay on one of the many junk boats available. We stayed onboard the Halong Jasmine, owed by Trails of Indochina. This beautiful boat has a capacity of 48 passengers and features beautiful dining room ,sundeck, lounge and very comfortable cabins, some with private balconies. Trails of Indochina also owns the Halong Ginger with a capacity of 20 and the new Halong Violet with a capacity of only 12 guests, ideal for families and charters.
During our voyage on the Halong Jasmine we made three amazing stops. First we went to the Sung Sot Caves which is 10,200 square meters large with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, 25 meters above sea level. Incredible.
Second, a visit to Tip Tip Island where we hiked 450 steps to the top of the island to view the breathtaking views of the Bay .
Last we visited a local fishing village, Cua Van. This was my most memorable experience in Vietnam. We toured through the village by bamboo boat, rowed by one of the local girls. Population of approx 300, all living on boats or huts over the water. It was a very humbling experience. They do have a school and boat vendors , but the most entertaining was the hut that had the karaoke bar, and a number of men enjoying each other inside.
I don’t think a trip to Vietnam is complete without a stay in Halong Bay. It is a welcoming change from the busy cities. The boats owed by Trails of Indochina provide top notch service (even have their own private dock), delicious food and very comfortable accommodations.
From Halong Bay we travelled by air to the city of Hue in central Vietnam.
Hue was devastated by the bombing during the Tet Offensive in 1968, but was once the Imperial Capital of Vietnam. It very much reminded me of China, as we visited the Imperial Citadel, very similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing. We also saw the Thien My pagoda, Emperor Tu Duuc’s Tomb and an excellent Martial arts Performance put on by some local children.
Hue is famous for its culinary specialties, and we were thrilled to participate in a Royal banquet at the famous Ancient Hue restaurant.
In Hue we stayed at the Pilgrimage Resort and Spa. This lush, landscaped property is a real oasis, and worth a day or two on its own, especially the spa.
From Hue we travelled by air to Ho Chi Minh City, or as locals still refer to it, Saigon.
Saigon is much more cosmopolitan than Hanoi and far more advanced. Rush hour never ends here and the traffic and roads are very busy.
We toured the Reunification Palace, former headquarters of the South Vietnamese government, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office, designed by Gustav Eiffel.
We spent some time at the Ben Tanh , the largest market in Saigon, ideal for souvenirs, knock off bags and clothes and lots of local treasures as well. It was a fun experience but very hot inside.
In the evening Trails of Indochina took us to the former home of the first US Ambassador to South Vietnam. The home is now owed by Trails of Indochina and used for exclusive dinner events and even cooking classes. It was a very special night with dinner by candlelight to participate in the global Earth Hour, that was happening the same evening. And once again, the food was delicious!
The next day we took a two hour drive North West of Saigon, to visit the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnel complex was dug in 1948 for the guerrillas to hide from the French, and was later used to transport the Viet Cong during the American/Vietnam War. The tunnels run approx 200km underground, with food and weapon caches as well as basic schools and living quarters.
We were honoured to visit these underground tunnels with a Viet Cong veteran who used to live inside them. It was a moving experience and crawling through the tunnels myself was very eerie but opened my eyes to the reality these people faced every day.
After the visit to the CuChi tunnels we made our way by car to the South China Sea, and a small fishing village Phan Thiet. This beautiful beach destination was again a nice change from the crowded Saigon.
We stayed at the luxury Princess D’Annam resort featuring private villas for all guests, three relaxing pool areas and a beautiful sandy beach. The resort and it’s staff were so welcoming and the food was excellent. This is a resort property so spa, watersports, daily activities are all available for you.
During our time here we took a traditional basket boat then fishing boat ride to the nearby lighthouse. Seven stories above ground, on the rusted circle staircase, this was an adventure, but while worth the climb when we reached the top and were privileged with the amazing views.
On our very last day in Vietnam we woke up at 4am to travel to the area’s sand dunes to watch the sunrise. After watching the sunrise we joined some local children to toboggan down the sand dunes on crazy carpets! Such a great time! It was the perfect end to a fascinating journey.
My overall impression of Vietnam is wonderful. The people are very warm and welcoming. There is a large selection of accommodations to suit every travellers needs and budget, and the food is some of the best I have tasted around the world.
I would recommend at least 10 days to visit this country, however 14 or more would be ideal as there is so much to offer.
Vietnam is a great destination for adventure, history, beach and sun and most of all culture.
For more information on Vietnam and Trails of Indochina, please do not hesitate to contact me!
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