Our group of 8 people, still jet-lagged, attempt to cross the road in Vietnam for the first time.
I’ve spent a bit of time in Malaysia and Thailand but I never made it to Vietnam. It’s been on my wish-list for a while, so when Insider Journeys invited me to join them on a trip I jumped at the opportunity.
I found over the course of my 11 days in Vietnam that crossing the road acted as a barometer to how well you’ve acclimatised. On day 1 it’s a terrifying experience, but by about day 8 you’re happy to wonder across the road in front of a car, a truck and 3 mopeds without even glancing up. You can’t wait for a gap – there is no gap.
There is so much to see in Vietnam that it’s hard to know where to start. From the stunning islands and luxurious junk boats of Halong Bay, to meandering through the traffic-free streets of the ancient town of Hoi An; from waving at the locals who live along the banks of the Mekong, to watching families out together along Pedestrian Street in the buzzing city of Saigon.
Vietnam was a real eye-opener. This so-called “Communist” country where you could buy a McDonalds or a brand-new Rolls-Royce was not the Vietnam I was expecting to see. But on the other hand I saw farmers out working their paddy fields and street sellers wearing their traditional Vietnamese conical hats (or “leaf hat”). I saw whole families on one motorbike and tasted incredible street-food (and not so incredible snake wine!). I tasted fruits I’d never seen before, and discovered real floating markets that were utilised by the locals rather than being some kind of tourist spectacle. These were the things that I had imagined seeing and it didn’t disappoint one bit.
This trip was at the more comfortable (but not luxury) end of travel – staying in 3 star hotels, opting for internal flights over overnight train journeys, and enjoying one of the most beautiful Vietnamese Junk boats on the incredible Halong Bay. But there was still room for genuine experience. In Hoi An we spent a day learning local fishing techniques. Our cookery class gave us the opportunity to take a look around local markets. And an “Insider” experience isn’t necessarily just about experiencing the different day to day life of the Vietnamese people, but also about where to get the best view of the city or where to get the best “Pho” (noodle soup). I feel cheated when I spend time looking through various restaurant menus in a city, only to be disappointed with the eventual choice made – in Vietnam, with the aid and experience of our Western tour leader, every meal was a real treat.
Our local guides were fantastic too. In fact our guide in the North was so comfortable with us that at one point she accidentally swore when talking about government propaganda. Whilst she was clearly embarrassed by this slip of the tongue I felt privileged that she’d been able to open up whole-heartedly rather than putting on a tour guide show. She spoke very openly about her parent’s expectations of her and of how she found it hard to conform to Vietnam’s rather traditional views of the roles of men and women. Of course, she was an exceptionally knowledgeable tour guide too, as were all 3 of the local guides we had in different parts of the country. But this insight into life in Vietnam was where I really felt we were getting into something beyond being a “tourist”.
Vietnam still conjures up images of the Vietnam War and that was certainly a feature of our trip. The War Remnants Museum in Saigon features some incredible photography of the period. The Cu Chi Tunnels where the Viet Cong built a whole underground network to escape the American soldiers was mind-blowing in its scale and ingenuity.
Though significant, learning more about the “American War” was just a small part of our incredible trip. Vietnam’s landscape is diverse – from breath-taking coastline to jagged limestone mountains to the beautiful Mekong River. I could have stayed in Hoi An for a week exploring the small boutiques and cafes of the ancient town on foot or bicycle or relaxing at a beautiful beachside hotel. I could easily live in Saigon and enjoy its cosmopolitan atmosphere, rooftop cocktail bars and great restaurants. I could have continued our journey along the Mekong, exploring local villages, all the way in to Cambodia.
Vietnam works as a holiday whether you want a slow relaxed pace, or you’re an adventure-seeker looking for an active holiday. It’s a perfect holiday for families (and we saw lots of Australian families there) as well as being a perfect alternative honeymoon destination. It’s a great introduction to Asia too, and our trip confirmed that it can easily be done in comfort or even absolute luxury.
My time in Vietnam was incredible. Many thanks to Insider Journeys for hosting me; the guides were exceptional, tour planning was faultless and their choice of hotels, advice on where to eat, and insider experiences made all the difference.
Insider Journeys are one of a number of tour operators I use as an independent travel agent. Can I help you plan your perfect holiday? I’d love to help – give me a call or email me today.
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