Thirteen days - Hanoi to Siagon
I am happy to admit that I am not exactly an intrepid explorer. I love my home comforts, a comfortable bed, animal free public transport, great food, the odd glass of wine, clean hair and air con! So when I booked a two week adventure to Vietnam back in October 2015 with GAdventures, it was never going to involve me roughing it!
Now in my mid-thirties this was going to my first experience of Asia. The furthest I'd been up to that point was New York, so being rather green to long haul destinations I decided to have all the hard work done for me by Trailfinders in Dublin. I dealt with a fantastic guy called Peter who convinced me in about an nano second that Vietnam would be the best destination for me. I'd heard really positive reports about it from friends and colleagues who had been over the years. Plus, as a solo traveller I was reassured that Vietnam's safety record for single, female travellers was excellent. I also decided to focus on Vietnam so I could see as much of it as possible over two weeks.
With regards to my Visa I decided to get a pre-approved and stamped Visa instead of Visa on Arrival (VOA). This ended up a more expensive option but one of my brothers, who travelled a lot in his early 20s, advised me that after a 24 hour journey the last thing I'd want to be doing is to have to que up and manage a visa process. I have to admit he was right!
I flew with Ethiad and Vietnam Airlines. The first flight from Dublin to Abu Dhabi was great - no complaints! On the second flight to Bangkok I managed to get allocated the corner seat right in front of the toilets and was stuck beside a man who liked to almost squat while he sat! In other words he felt more comfortable with his knees to his face and his feet against the chair in front of him. I couldn't get my headphones in quick enough and my eye mask on! That flight was with an Ethiad partner airline and it was definitely not as comfortable. The wait at Bangkok airport felt like a lifetime then and if anyone has been to that airport its not exactly the most entertaining place to spend a few hours layover. Take my advice and don't take three flights to Vietnam. It saved me some money but I was exhausted at the end.
Touch down Hanoi. Visa process simple and luggage not lost. I finally find my holiday rep who organised my transfer to my hotel. Whilst waiting for the driver I took a seat beside a local woman who had a baby on her knee. She then prompted to change its nappy (diaper) and shook a packet of baby wipes at me to help her...quite an introduction to Vietnam!!! :D The next challenge was to cross the road with my large suitcase when my driver dropped me off. Hanoi is famous for its crazy traffic. I'd even read guides on how to cross the road before I left so I knew what to do! I'm not going to lie, I actually paniced! I've never seen traffic like it and the noise was deafening! It must of been so blatantly obvious that I was up shit creek as a bell boy from the hotel came across the road and helped me. Mortifying but amusing.
My first hotel was The Golden Silk Boutique which is slap bang in the middle of the old town. A brilliant location in a truly unique city. I took advantage of their spa on the first night and had a full body massage, a nice treat after a long haul journey. Their roof top bar gave great views over the old town and a nice place to chill out before heading out in to the craziness of the Hanoi nights. I had a full day to myself before I met with the rest of the tour group so I spent it hanging around Hô Hoàn Kiém Lake and getting to grips with ordering food and crossing roads.
The standard of the hotels I stayed in in Vietnam were absolutely amazing. All hotels, bar one, were all four star. This is what I was paying for...comfort. I have auto-immune arthritis and I've been on several holidays where unfortunately I have had flare ups and when you are in so much pain all you crave is comfort. Being in a hot, pokey room sick isn't fun.
That night I then met with the rest of the group I would be spending the next thirteen days with - I would be referring to these 15 strangers as 'my family' within a very short space of time. We met our guide Phong - who turned out to be the biggest legend I've met - and he made us all introduce ourselves to everyone. Turns out myself and my room mate Kirsten were the only single people on the tour, the rest were all coupled up. I soon found out that this didn't matter one iota as everyone was so friendly and open and I never felt like being on my own was an issue.
I really liked Hanoi. The street food, the sounds, the pokey streets, smells and crowds. I had read a lot about bag theft before I came over and I can see how it can happen in such crowded places but thankfully I never had any trouble. Our guide gave us plenty of tips but you just have to be street wise and use some common sense. After a while the craziness of Hanoi seemed so normal or as Phong put it 'organised chaos'. We also visited Ho Chin Minh's resting place (which was closed for renovations when we were there), the palace gardens and his own Thai inspired home. We had the first of our many 'family' meals in a really great family ran restaurant that Phong took us to. My mantra coming to Vietnam was 'try everything at least once' so anything that was put in front of me to eat I always gave it a go. Turns out all the food was AMAZING so I just stuffed my face the entire time I was there. We all got to know each a little more that night. There were Canadians, Americans, British, French, German and Australians and me, the only token Irish Paddy! I had a good feeling about this bunch early on and knew we'd all get along pretty well. We came back to Hanoi for another day and night between two other locations (Mai Châu and Ha Long Bay). We took a cyclo tour of the old town and sampled Hanoi's famous egg coffee and Pho. Actually, I had Pho everyday I was there and always for breakfast. A brilliant way to start the day with!
Destination number two was one of two locations I was extremely excited to visit. The first of these was the Mai Châu Valley in north west Vietnam. Mai Châu is not as far north as the Sapa Valley so is within an easy distance of the capital Hanoi. The road there was long, steep and dotted with holes. It was also the place we got to sample the infamous Vietnamese Coffee for the first time. A very sweet and thick mixture of strong black coffee and condensed milk. A deadly concoction!
Accommodation in Na Phon village comes in the form of 'Home Stays' and hotels. And we got to stay at the top resort in the Valley. The Mai Châu Ecolodge is the most beautiful place I have ever stayed in. The contrast between here and Hanoi was like day and night. The stillness of this place was deafening and I fell in love with it from the minute I stepped off the bus. Na Phon village was the first village in Vietnam to offer home stay options and it's a fantastic idea for back packers and those on a tight budget. The fact that we didn't stay in a Home Stay didn't matter as we still got to visit families in their homes, see their farms, watch them explain how they plant rice, and have a meal with them. This is where our guide Phong excelled. He comes from a rice farming background so was very much at home here and his enthusiasm for Vietnam's main farming crop came to the fore. The majority of the people that live in this area come from a Thai minority background so have very distinctive homes and way of life so it was real privilege to spend some time with them. We got to meet a little old lady who was in her early 80s and still out working in the rice paddies. She was a great character! The Home Stay meal we had wasn't a meal, it was a banquet! We all ate like kings and queens and even finished it off with a deep fried grasshopper! There are a variety of walks available for visitors in the area for all levels but we took a guided walk with Phong around a relatively easy route of the valley. Bikes were also available free at the hotel so I also took advantage of this. The food in the hotel was quite expensive by Vietnam standards which is to be expected in such a place but it was again all amazing and worth it.
You could definitely spend a few more days in this area and explore it more, especially if you are in to hill walking and biking. Its vast and offers something for all levels. I was genuinely sad leaving Mai Châu behind. A real treasure!
Halong Bay has been a World Hertiage Site since 1994 and is one of North Vietnam's top tourist attractions. To be honest, the drive in to the harbour is less than impressive. Lots of ugly high rises and a sprawling island of hotels which the majority of are still under construction. Our guide Phong told us one man owns the land and is building all these hotels as there are rumours that overnight boat stays may be phased out. Watch this space! Almost 300 boats are licensed to sail amongst the limestone pillars which is an extraordinary amount but Phong said this has been capped. We were staying on board our own private boat for the day and night which was great as I was not at all interested in being onboard one of the many 'party' boats.
The weather for the cruise was quite gloomy to start with but thankfully as we neared our port the clouds parted and the sun came out to show us the bay in all its glory. We had the option to go swimming but when cruising along there was a lot of rubbish in the water and it didn't look at all inviting so I passed on the option. We had hoped we would of been able to kayak around the islands but our itinerary didn't allow for this. I was really disappointed about this as I'd been looking forward to that part of the tour. Instead we just ate, ate some more and ate again. Our feedback to Phong at the end of the tour was that maybe less focus on food and more activity in this section of the tour. The accommodation was to be what you'd expect from a boat. The boat was old, and the rooms were small but very clean and adequate for one night. A port hole in the bathroom threw up a few surprises, namely boat women coming to try and sell you goods while you brushed your teeth! We had a slap up meal that night and a few of us just chilled out on the top deck with some whisky Chris had bought! Being out there at night though was a treat. It was very calm and all the lights from the boats were beautiful. To say I had a little sore head the next day was an understatement and we also woke up to a mini typhoon! We were very lucky as Phong told us all boat tours for that day were cancelled due to the weather.
We travelled to Huê via an internal flight from Hanoi. We also just about made the flight thanks to the typhoon leaving Halong Bay which slowed the traffic in to the capital for miles. Once in the air we were at our next destination in no time. We were only going to be in Huê for one full day so once we got to our hotel we'd enough time to have a quick change, go for our family dinner, drop off our washing and take a walk around the buzzing town centre. I really loved Huê and it turned out to be the real surprise of my holiday.
Phong arranged for us all to have a moped tour of the area the following morning. We started at 9am and didn't return to the hotel until near 6pm! We got to see all the highlights of the ancient city and its surrounding countryside from the back of a moped. It was such an amazing day and we all raved about it at the end of the tour. You are in the safe hands of an experienced driver and team who know the area really well. It was just so much fun and a really unique way to spend the day and see the sights. It also meant we could go down through all the narrow alleys between the local homes. Lunch was spent in a Buddhist monastery and all the food that was served was vegetarian...a lovely break from all the meat I'd been consuming so far! As part of our tour we also visited pagoda temples, took a boat down the Perfume River, visited Bunker Hill and stopped off to watch conical hats being made.
The second night in Huê a few of us decided to go in search of some local and authentic a.k.a cheap but tasty food. We were told of this particular place on the other side of the river which served up the local dish of baby clams and rice noodles. Twelve of us made the journey and it was really worth it. For $3 we had our fill of food and beer. The ladies who ran the cafe were fantastic and really accommodating and it was a privilege to eat there and to meet them. It was all so basic and simple but really wholesome and filling. Also happy to report there were no upset tummies after it!
You could spend a couple of days in Huê easily and really explore the 19th century citadel and imperial city as well as the surrounding countryside.
Next stop the beautiful town of Hôi An.
Hôi An is only a few hours south of Huê so we took our couch along the coast road which then took us high up in to the mountains giving us an amazing view of the surrounding countryside. Whilst here you get to walk around some of the Vietnam/American War bunkers and look out posts. There's also a handy pit stop but beware...crazy busy with loads of people trying to sell you stuff and not so nice toilets!
Once we make it to Hôi An we are based in the beautiful Essence Hoi An Hotel for the next three nights which is situated about 1km outside of the old town. Another fabulous hotel which came along at the right time. It was a little oasis of calm and after over a week of non stop activity and I was really looking forward to chilling out for a few days and taking advantage of a pool!!!
Hôi An is a coastal town which is well know for its well-preserved ancient town, its bright yellow french inspired buildings, the Japanese covered bridge and its thriving tailoring trade. At certain times of the day it's also moped free so you can only get around it on foot or by bike so has the feeling of stepping back in time. This was the second destination that I was super excited to visit as I knew it would be a photographers dream! And it didn't disappoint. Some of my favourite photos were taken here. I took full advantage of the excellent tailoring services they have in the town as well and got fitted for two dresses and a pair of nerdy brogues which will be excellent in the Irish winter. Barbara took excellent care of me and she was cute enough to know about the Irish climate and sorts of fabrics that would work best in colder weather. I went to Yaly Couture but there are loads of options available in the town.
Over the few days I was here I also did a lantern making class and took trips around the fish and food markets soaking up the atmosphere and variety of food on offer. I also found a great coffee/juice shop and used to just sit and watch the world go by. It's hard not to be relaxed in Hôi An and you could easily spend a week here alone.
One day I decided to take time out from 'my family' and just chilled out at the pool and then went in to the told town on my bike and spent the evening taking photos. I also had dinner by the river in a local spot...a real sign I was at ease with the food and ordering what I needed. Hôi An at night is a sight to behold. The whole town comes alight with red lanterns and the river becomes covered in floating candles from a variety of groups on boats - young lovers getting photos taking before their wedding, families, tourists and locals looking to join in.
Speaking of food whilst here I also took part in a cooking class where we prepared a ridiculous amount of food from scratch. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot about Vietnamese cooking. While it all looks and sounds so simple the amount of time and effort that goes in to each dish is mind blowing. Out last day involved a bike tour of the area with the main highlight being a trip to the local beach and finally getting a dip in the ocean!
Leaving Hôi An was bitter sweet. You suddenly realise you are on the home straight and the holiday is coming to and end but that we were all moving on again - this time to Ho Chi Minh City/Siagon. I absolutely loved Hôi An and would recommend it to anyone visiting Vietnam and if you can afford to spend a few extra days here do. Its a great place to stop off and recharge your batteries.
Ho Chi Minh City / Siagon / Mekong Delta
Another city and another plane! This time from Hôi An's airport to Ho Chi Minh City. I won't lie, I wasn't that excited about this stop. I absolutely loved the rural Vietnamese life and to go back in to a busy, crowded city was tough. Our hotel for the next two nights was the very famous Hotel Continental Siagon. Thankfully we did manage to get out of the city and do the two main visitor attractions in the area; the Chu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.
The Chu Chi Tunnels were actually really good, more so than I thought it would be. It really opened my eyes to the types of warfare that were used by the Vietnamese and the techniques they used to overcome the Americans. How they lived under ground for as long as they did is a mystery to me as we got to go in to some section of the tunnels. It was dark, hot and cramped. I'm 5ft 4in and a size 8 so I'm not huge but even at this I felt like a giant in those spaces. It was also interesting to hear from some of the American's on the tour how they encountered some hostility from certain people back in the States when they said they were going to Vietnam on a holiday. You still have to remind yourself that it only ended in the mid 1970s.
Thanks to an avid craft beer fan Fed we got to visit a real gem of a bar whilst in Ho Chi Minh. Pasteur Street Brewing Company is tucked away at the end of a staircase at the end of a dodgy alley way! A bit of a home from home as it is owned by Americans but all the beer is influenced by local flavours. The Jasmine and Passionfruit beers were my favs!
Day two here and we set off very early to travel to the Mekong Delta for our last full day in Vietnam. It was great to be back in the countryside again and we took a boat out to some of the fruit growing islands and got to sample the vast variety of fruit they grow there. We also visited a honey farm, listen to traditional music, hold a python - well I chickened out - take a traditional boat through the delta's rivers under the canopy of palm trees and finish it all off with another massive lunch in the sun! A really good day trip if you find the city too much to take.
Our last 'sticky rice' family meal was really emotional. We spent a while before dinner recalling our favourite moments from the trip and it was wonderful to hear everyone's perspective. For me, the greatest part of this holiday was the people I spent it with. They made it so much more enjoyable. I can't say enough great things about them all to the people I talk about my trip too. I don't know if I just got lucky but I felt like I made some really good friends and some of which I am still in touch with. My bottom lipped started to wobble when I started to say good bye to people. It amazed me how you can become so attached to people within such a short space of time.
This trip took me out of MY comfort zone. For some it might seem too gilded and not 'rough' enough but for me just coming this far on my own was a huge achievement. I used to be such a home bird and the thought of travel - especially on my own - scared me. But this tour really opened my eyes to what's out there and how there is so much to explore and do and also so many amazing people to meet.
I loved Vietnam. I loved its people, its culture and its food. I loved the varied climate and epic scenery and the simple way of life so many of the people live. I hope they don't forget that in the pursuit of progress. Having a Burger King on every corner isn't progress!
Another major bonus from this holiday was how calm and relaxed I came back to Ireland in. I had very little trouble with my arthritis which was helped by the warm climate, the wonderful fresh and clean food and the laughter I had through those two weeks.
For the exact tour prices, details and itinerary please visit National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures
Some more photos below which I took with my Fuji-Film XT1 and 35mm f1.4mm lens. Click on the images below for full screen versions. All images are copyright of Mari McCallion.