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Matts most recent trip to Vietnam – an overview

by Matt Brazier

For those not in the know about Vietnam, or have no idea about the different places to visit, or what’s on offer, then read below and this gives a very general overview of my recent 2-week trip, and an idea of what to expect from all the ‘must see’s of Vietnam’. I journeyed north to south so that I could finish in the warm weather of the south, but just personal preference – I love a bit of sun (and humidity!)

Sampling Pho in Sapa market

A hectic buzzing, horn beeping, confusing warren of streets and a serious introduction to the Vietnamese life. Having been here before, it’s not so much of a shock, but my advice is to be brave, head out to the streets and really experience local life. Get lost in the old quarter, and shop to your heart’s content. Although I didn’t get to stay at the Sofitel Legend Metropole, I did go for afternoon tea, this is definitely something I would recommend to any client, and follow with a walk around the more modern, moneyed French quarter. My favourite hotel in the Maison D’hanoi – with its great location, and beautifully designed rooms, it definitely falls into the boutique category, and the service is top notch.

This was my first visit up to the stunning SAPA, and with 2 overnight train journeys to contend with, it’s for the more avid traveller who doesn’t mind roughing it and going with the flow, i.e. 5 am arrival into Lao Cai the gateway to the region. The train carriages range from more backpacker to ‘luxury’, but you’ll be in for a noisy, bumpy journey whichever part of the train. The journey is worth it because the region is beautiful and it’s such a contrast to the rest of Vietnam. The ethnic minority tribes populate this area, and with a few different tribes in the sapa region alone, you’ll get to see a great difference, in culture, the way they dress and the type of villages they live in. I visited Cat Cat villages and Lao Chai, both a short drive from Sapa town, and admittedly they are quite busy with tourists, but there is a reason, the vistas are incredible – if you have an image of mountainous plains, padi rice fields and wooden villages; you’re going to see it all here.

Cruising around Halong Bay on a traditional Junk

Halong Bay

Having been to Halong Bay a few times now, you’d think the novelty would wear off, but this place really is unique, and it’s too easy to just be in awe of the stunning limestone karsts which tower out of the sea and give the whole place a really mystical feel. This time around I went on the Dragon Pearl, which is run by Indochina Junks. They are quite a savvy outfit and have decided to escape the main trail and now have a permit which allows only boats in their company to visit certain areas, you’ll actually cruise around Bai Tu Long bay, not ‘Halong Bay’ – it’s so fantastic to be off the beaten track and escape the hoards of crowds which follow the main tourist route. Having done both routes, I do prefer what Indochina Junks offer, but there is a fantastic viewpoint when going to Halong Bay, which you won’t get to see, but this is the only trade-off I feel.

Hoi An and Hue
A trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without visiting at least one of these places, but preferably both, to take in the differences between these two fascinating cities. I started in Hoi An, and couldn’t wait to go back, it’s the mix of scenery, architecture, people, friendless, food, and of course shopping which makes Hoi An an all round amazing destination. I had 2 days of 28 degrees, so I even got some downtime at the beautiful pool and beach of the Nam Hai – probably the best hotel in Vietnam. I did the half day countryside tour, which basically entails hopping on a bike from Hoi An town and cycling around the local villages, I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I didn’t feel intrusive at all. Hoi An is famous for it’s tailoring and my top tip, if you’re going to get anything made, is make sure you have at least 2 fittings, the first time you try on the garments they will near enough always need adjustments, so if you only have one fitting, it’s most likely they’ll be a little out, which defeats the object I feel.

Beautiful sunny day in Hoi An

A 3-hour drive or train from Hoi An, across the mountains, and the famous Cloudy pass of around 460 m brings you to the small quirky town of Hue. Although Vietnam is developing at a rapid rate, this place has somewhat avoided the boom and is very laid back, and although not as charming as Hoi An, it’s got the impressive perfume river and citadel to keep you busy. If you want a retreat and a couple of days off from touring, then Pilgrimage village is perfect, which is 5 km outside of Hue centre. It’s got an Olympic (or thereabouts!) sized swimming pool and beautiful villas nestled around tropical gardens. It’s one of my favourite boutique hotels in Vietnam.

With about 7 million motorbikes and 9 million people, I’m sure you can imagine how busy the capital is, on a pretty much 24/7 basis. It’s developing quickly and many new skyscrapers are populating the centre. I stayed in the Caravelle hotel which is an extremely central 5* hotel, overlooking the beautiful opera house. For many, if you’ve been to any big Asian cities before, you’ll find it pretty much the same, so you may just want pass by, but it really has got a great vibe and if you like to have a good night out on your holidays, this is definitely the place to do it. If you at all interested in the history of the country, and especially the most recent war, a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels is a must. Saigon is also the gateway to the Mekong Delta, which is where I went next…

Bassac Cruise
Many tourists won’t know about the Bassac cruise (thankfully!) as it’s a small operation, started by a French couple a few years back. They do totally unique cruises on the beautiful Mekong Delta and you won’t find anything else like it in Vietnam. I was on Bassac II which has 12 cabins, but it wasn’t full. It’s a stunning wooden boat, based on an old-fashioned rice barge. The service and food are top notch, and the whole experience is ‘luxury’, but it’s not pretentious by any means, and you’ll feel at home as soon as you board. For more ideas about Vietnam cruises, click here.

Off to explore the local villages leaving the Bassac boat behind

We cruised up the Mekong from Can Tho, to a small tributary, where we explored the local villages and saw the migration of Storks (100’000’s) at sunset, sounds random but absolutely spectacular. The next morning we visited the floating market of Cai Rang, If you genuinely want to go off the beaten track in Vietnam, and go somewhere without many tourists, you must do a Bassac cruise – it has to be my favourite new things I’ve done in Vietnam for a long time!

Although the above is just a general overview of each place in Vietnam, it hopefully gives a good idea of what to expect from each area. I followed a definite ‘classic’ route across the country, but there is so much scope for different options, and escaping the tourist hubs, but I must say that all the places I went, most go to for a reason! We have loads more information on our website, and all the hotels I have mentioned above.

Hao (local Hoi An guide) about to show me around the local village

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