Vietnam – something for everyone!
Vietnam was recently named the third fastest-growing tourism destination in the world by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, after recording a 29% increase in visitors year-over-year. After my recent visit there, I am not surprised.
Vietnam has lots for the traveller: friendly people, spectacular sights and scenery, great adventures, lush resorts, delicious food and coffee, excellent accommodation and value-for money shopping.
I went as a guest of Wide Eyed Tours, a Vietnam company owned by two Aussies. They wanted to show what they could do, and I have to say I was impressed.
SYD > SGN > HAN
I departed Sydney on a Vietnam Airlines Dreamliner. The flight takes 8.5 hours.
The service was good, and the only complaint I had was that the entertainment system in Economy has the controls set into the arm rest right where my elbow would rest. This meant I was constantly changing channels or turning the movie off without meaning to. Lots of people seemed to have problems with it, including my neighbours.
The instruction sheet issued by Wide Eyed Travel about transferring from International to Domestic in SGN (Ho Chi Minh City) were gold! It would have been very hard to work it out otherwise.
My flight to Hanoi was VN0266 – another Dreamliner flight. It took just over 2 hours, and dinner was served.
In Hanoi we stayed at the Tirant Hotel (www.tiranthotel.com). It’s about 3.5 stars. It had a bath, safe, luggage rack and air conditioning, and was quite comfortable. My room was very large. My room faced the street, and despite double-glazing, there was noise from the street below, especially from the hawkers with loudspeakers on their bikes who started about 6am.
As I was to discover, most of the gyms in hotels in Vietnam are a bit of a joke. They are there because it’s expected, but the equipment choice is poor and the apparatus is not serviced properly and in some cases downright dangerous. So I didn’t get much training done.
As there were only 3 of the group there for the first night, we met for breakfast in the Skyline Lounge on Level 11 at the top of the hotel. It had district views. We met Don, the manager and he introduced me to Vietnamese coffee. It’s a good, strong espresso coffee with condensed milk added to it. The first sip was Heaven! It was like drinking hot Tia Maria for breakfast!
After breakfast we walked around Goan Kiam Lake. We saw a temple on the lake, the famous Metropole Hotel and many sights, sounds and smells of Hanoi.
We found a delightful coffee shop called T-Coffee. It was in a rustic shop that had been renovated in a modern de-constructed way and designer-fitted with a great decor and light shades. The chairs were all of classic designs ranging from Bauhaus-inspired pieces to Phillipe Stark Ghost chairs. The smoothies we had were all sensational.
I ate a very late lunch at 96 Restaurant next to the hotel. I had a dish of three different types of spring rolls and a G&T (Cost: VND211,000 – about AU$13). That night we met up with the other arrivals at the rooftop bar and then Tracey from Wide Eyed Tours took us to dinner at one of her favourite restaurants.
After breakfast at the hotel we were picked up by our incredibly cheery motorbike riders.
First stop was the Opera House. We missed Uncle Ho’s (the affectionate name they give Ho Chi Minh) mausoleum because there was some big event happening there.
We saw the lake that John McCain’s plane hit when it was shot down during what they call the American War. We saw the remains of an American B52 bomber sitting in another pond in a little town square. It had been left there as a reminder.
Next was Train Street, similar in look to the one in India that went viral on YouTube. Like the one in India the houses are built right up to either side of the single train track and the track is the thouroughfare. Unlike the Indian one, there are no awnings and produce that have to be moved out of the way when a train comes through. No trains came through while we were there, although there are several each day. Nevertheless, it was interesting and photo-worthy.
Next came my favourite part of the day. We rode the motorbikes to the city farms and rode through acres and acres of citrus trees, crops and banana palms. My guide was in the lead and hadn’t realised the others had stopped until we were a couple of kilometres past where the others were. We eventually found them, but I got to see a lot more of the farms than anyone else. The rest of the group had stopped at a small farm shack with a dirt floor, and the lady who lived there gave us a feed of fresh organic oranges and bananas straight from the surrounding trees. They tasted amazing. Just like real, fresh fruit should.
When we left the farms we stopped at a coffee shop that made amazing egg coffees. You could choose iced or hot, but both were topped with a delicious whipped egg froth and the whole smooth and creamy mix made for a very tasty refreshment.
Next stop was the Long Bien Bridge over the Red River. Only trains and bikes can use this bridge – no cars. We stopped halfway across and a train came past while we were there.
We visited a local market and finished at a restaurant for lunch.
After lunch we did an inspection of the brand-new and impressive 5-star Jade Oriental Hotel and the May De Ville Hotel. The Mayflower was opposite the Tirant and was about 10 years old. It was about a 4-star.
In the afternoon I went for a swim in the rooftop pool and that night we met up and went for dinner at Little Hanoi, where I ate crickets for the first time in my life. Quite tasty, but I suspect that was mainly because of the delicious sauce and herbs in which they were cooked. The catfish spring rolls were the favourite of many at the table.
Afterwards we moved on to Toni’s Bar and we finished at The Local where we smoked shisha. Both of the latter venues were on Ta Hien Street. I bumped into a friend of mine who was touring from Sydney.
HANOI TO LAN HA BAY
We took a coach for the two-hour drive to Hai Phong, from where we boarded a tender to take us out to our luxury ship for the night, the Perla Dawn. It was a kind of large three-decked junk. After a staged but warm greeting by the staff as we boarded, we sailed over to Lan Ha Bay to spend the night. Tracey had recommended we do that rather than Ha Long Bay, which is very crowded by ships and other tourists. By contrast, Lan Ha Bay is almost deserted. The scenery is equally spectacular and was everything we had hoped for. A great tip from Tracey!
In the afternoon the tender boat brought us to the little dock in the Tra Bau area from where we took the bamboo boats into the Light Cave. I tried my hand at rowing the bamboo boat gondola-style – standing, but using two oars.
Later we dived and swam from the tender boat. Then we had cocktails while we watched the sunset. It was spectacular and reminded me of the best Mediterranean sunsets.
At night we went to the dock from where we had taken the bamboo boats. We ate dinner at tables on the dock while a staff member dressed in a traditional costume played three different old instruments. One was a kind of flute, one was stringed and he plucked it like a banjo, and another was upright and stringed and he played it with a bow.
When we arrived back at the ship we tried our hand at squid fishing off the back of the boat. As it was a full moon our light failed to attract many takers, as the moon was very bright.
It was a very silent night for sleeping in my beautiful cabin. It had a huge bathroom by ship standards. The ship itself is pretty much 5-star.
LAN HA BAY TO HUE
I arose at 5:30am to see the sunrise, then did a Tai Chi class at 6am.
After breakfast we went back to the wharf in Tra Bau to start kayaking. My kayak partner was Tracey, and we made a good team. We went as far as we were allowed before we made our way back.
The wharf, so we discovered, doubled as a fish farm. Underneath the boards where our tables had been the night before were pens containing many species of fish including large catfish.
Back on board the ship we had a class in making fresh spring rolls. We made and ate some then had lunch while we made our way back to the port of Hai Phong.
From there we drove the two-hour trip back to Hanoi with a stop at a busy motorway service centre half-way along the route.
After picking up our bags we headed to the airport and flew the 571km to Hue on Vietnam Airlines flight VN1549 using an A321, which is about 7m longer than an A320. Overnight was at a very ritzy room at the Eldora Hotel (www.eldorahotel.com).
Today we went on a tour of Hue, on the narrowest part of the country. It is close to both the Cambodian border and the coast, and has a resort feel about it. We were on the back of motorbikes again. The traffic wasn’t as busy as in Hanoi. We toured the rambling ancient citadel, bombed heavily by the Americans but gradually being restored. We saw many backroads and some wealthy areas of Hue. We saw some great scenery over the hills and the Perfume River. We toured a men’s monastery and stopped for lunch at a women’s monastery.
We inspected the very impressive Pilgrimage Village – a 5-star resort and spa (www.pilgrimagevillage.com) with lots of private villas over many hectares of thick greenery.
At night we had a big celebration dinner at a restaurant and bar called DMZ, whose specialty was pizzas (go figure!). While we were there an electrical transformer blew up about 100 metres up the street. It caused the lights to go out in the restaurant, but that was fine because we had the candles and lots of ambient light. Later when power was restored we retired to the Karaoke room upstairs.
Overnight was at the Romantic Hotel (www.romancehotel.com.vn). The name refers to the romance of Vietnam.
HUE TO HOI AN
Today we left by coach to do the 160km trip over the mountains to Hoi An on the coast. We travelled through Lang Co, a fishing town, and then drove up and over the Hai Van Pass. At the top (496m) we stopped and checked out the spectacular views down to Da Nang.
Once in Da Nang we looked over Fusion Maia, a 5-star all-inclusive resort and spa, with beautiful grounds full of lush vegetation, fabulous pools and luxurious rooms and suites.
Our accommodation in Hoi An, just south of Da Nang, was spectacular. We stayed at Palm Garden Resort (www.palmgardenresort.com.vn), a sprawling complex right on the beach. The gardens were beautiful, the rooms were great, and the surf was clean and fresh. It is on the beach to the east of the old Hoi An town. Plus, it had a fairly decent gym.
At night some of us went into the old part of the town of Hoi An and walked the length of Nguyen Thai Hoc, which was decorated with beautiful and colourful lanterns. I stopped at Yaly Couture and ordered 3 business shirts. I chose the fabrics to be tailored. The total cost was AU$129. Afterwards some of us ate at a great little restaurant next door to Yaly Couture called Lantern Town. Later we walked along the river to Hoi An Markets.
Today, as the weather was so hot, the bicycle tour we were going to do was cancelled and we went by coach instead. We drove to An Bang beach and inspected some properties including An Bang Beach Houses, owned by Travis, one of the owners of Wide Eyed Tours. We had a drink across the road at Soul Kitchen. We saw a brand new villa being readied for the arrival of Andy Lee, one half of Hamish and Andy. We inspected Tracey’s town house as well.
We checked out Hoi An Silk Marina, a nice resort and spa set in lush grounds, but not as open and quiet as Palm Garden. And it only fronts the river, not the sea.
In the afternoon I went into Hoi An town again to shop and have my fitting for the shirts they had made. I bumped into my friend from Sydney again!
At night we had a dinner to farewell most of the group at Salt, a pub also owned by Travis.
HOI AN TO HO CHI MINH CITY
After a final gym session and a swim in the surf, we checked out and headed up to Sun World in Ba Na Hills. It’s best described as a huge amusement park, and is about a two hour drive from Hoi An. When we arrived at the Sun World entrance at the bottom of the hills we took the first of three cable cars. This 15 minute trip took us to the top of the highest hill. As we climbed higher the scenery became more spectacular until it was almost breathtaking. We had our first glimpse of the Golden Bridge. As we exited the cable car we could see the bridge clearly and it looked as spectacular as the photos promised. We walked its length and then toured the rest of that part of the mountain. The French gardens (Le Jardin d’Amour) were incredible, and took the style of a classic French palace garden. There was a lot to look at including a tall pagoda and even a maze and a wine cellar in which to get lost.
We then took another cable car across the valley to the main part of Sun World. This was built in the style of a French provincial town. It was like a whole medieval town from the French Alps had been picked up and dropped on the top of this mountain, and it looked quite spectacular. There were buskers, street performances, restaurants, rides and a huge three-storey fun arcade to explore. I didn’t get to ride the luge down the hill but I would have liked to if we’d had time.
We took another cable car back down to the visitor centre. That was a 25-minute ride. We headed to Da Nang airport and flew the 1.5 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We flew flight VN0131.
At night the final three of us were picked up and taken on the back of motorbikes on a food tour of Ho Chi Minh City. The guides spoke excellent English, the restaurant choices in various districts of Ho Chi Minh City were excellent and they were ready for our arrival. We’d heard good things about this tour and now we could see why everyone liked it. We met a guy from Birmingham, UK.
Overnight at the Saigon Prince Hotel.
HO CHI MINH CITY
Today the three of us were picked up at the hotel for a trip to the Mekong Delta. It’s about a two hour drive. For the first part of the tour we were thinking it probably wasn’t one we needed to go on, but it got better as the day moved along. In the end we were glad we did it. We transferred to a small boat and explored the Ben Tre River – a tributary of the Mekong River. We stopped at a brickworks and a coconut processing workshop in the jungle on the banks. We transferred to a tuk-tuk kind of overgrown motorbike and visited a mat-making workshop and then ate lunch at a village restaurant in the jungle. We bumped into the guy from Birmingham again. Finally we transferred to a large row-boat and were taken back to the wharf from where we started.
After shopping for some shoes (half the price of Sydney for the genuine article) I had a quiet night in my room. I needed it!
HO CHI MINH CITY
Today we travelled the two hours to Cu Chi. We were shown around the Cu Chi Tunnels – 250km of tunnels used by communist guerillas during the War, sometimes passing directly under US bases. A fascinating insight into their ingenuity and daring, and their complete lack of claustrophobia! Some of the traps in the ground they had devised to ensnare any nosey Americans were gruesome, to say the least!
HO CHI MINH CITY TO SYDNEY
Today I slept in, had breakfast, had a gym session and a swim, went shopping for some gifts and had lunch.
I made my way to the top of Bitexco Tower for some spectacular 360 degree views over Ho Chi Minh City and the river (Cost: VND200,000 – about AU$12).
Later my driver arrived to take me to the airport.
I flew back to Sydney on Vietnam Airlines flight VN0773 using a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
All in all, a great, informative trip. I think I may have already convinced a few people to make it their next holiday. The one thing that I didn’t do was the day trip from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, which features majestic limestone mountains and rivers and was recommended to me. Next time!
If you’re thinking of a trip to Vietnam, get in touch and we can arrange it all for you!
96 Restaurant Bar Cafe
34 Gia Ngu
Hoan Kiem Dist
T: +84 439 352 396
Pilgrimage Village Resort and Spa
T: +84 968 558811 (Le Thi Da Lam, General Manager)
Hoi An Silk Marina
74 August 18th St
Hoi An City
T: +84 235 393 8888
60 Le Loi
Thua Thien Hue
T: +84 234 3993 456
Palm Garden Resort
Lac Long Quan St
Cua Dai Beach
Hoi An City
T: +84 235 392 7927
47 Nguyen Thai Hoc
T: +84 235 221 2474
Lac Viet (high quality jeweller in Hoi An – recommended by Tracey.
Silver, gold, diamonds, gemstones made to order within 24 hours.
23 Hoang Dieu St
Hoi An City
T: +84 235 391 4135
Sun World Ba Na Hills
Nui Ba Na
Thank Pho Da Nang
T: +84 905 766 777