July 1st marked the end of our time in New Zealand and the beginning of our short time in Asia, where we left the cold weather behind and were thrown into the heat of summer. We scheduled 10 days in Vietnam. Having never been there before, and not really knowing what to expect, we had our Virtuoso Onsite Exo assist us in planning our itinerary and scheduling transfers and guides as we explored the country.
Due to flight schedules, we needed to spend a night in Singapore en route to Vietnam, so we took full advantage of the layover and spent our first night in Asia at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore. Because we would also fly back through Singapore on our return trip, we loaded one of our suitcases with our cold weather clothing and left it in the hotel’s long term storage. It was quite nice to have one less suitcase as we toured Vietnam.
Our Vietnam adventure began in the busy city of Hanoi. Upon arrival, Exo arranged for us to have the “Fast Track” Service through customs. For $20 or so dollars a person, we were greeted in the arrivals hall and ushered customs by an airport representative. Having the fast track saved us at least an hour of waiting in lines and greatly reduced the stress of trying to figure out where to go and which line to stand in.
Once clearing customs and collecting our baggage, we met up with Tony, who would be our guide for the duration of our time in the North. Tony was fabulous, spoke English very well, did a great job keeping the kids engaged while explaining the culture of the people, and offered his suggestions on things we could do each day that he thought we’d enjoy the most. With Tony we learned how to cross the busy streets by just walking slowly through the oncoming traffic. It reminded me of how the grandmother crosses the road in the Disney movie Mulan, just go slow and everyone finds there way around you.
After collecting us from the airport, Tony and our driver, Zung delivered us to our hotel so we could freshen up before experiencing our first bit of Vietnamese culture – a Water Puppet Show. The puppeteers are actually in the water with the puppets. The regional music and show were a nice, “Welcome to Vietnam”.
The following morning, we began our day with a walking tour through old Hanoi. We wandered through the winding streets exploring several neighborhoods, visited the Temple of Literature as well as a few Pagodas. Each stop along the way, Tony shared the history and the customs behind the sites we were seeing. We enjoyed lunch in a restaurant that teaches disadvantaged youth the skills needed to work in the hospitality industry. After lunch, we began a three or four- hour drive away from the city towards the town of Mai Chau. Hanoi is an impressive, busy city with a population of about 9 million people, and according to Tony, about one motorbike or scooter per every two residents. As much as we enjoyed exploring busy Hanoi with Tony, we were all excited to move along and get into the more rural areas of the country.
A three and a half hour drive through the countryside brought us to the town of Mai Chau. On the way we stopped at a roadside market and sampled a few snacks. Those who work the market live in the valley below, and hike up to the market each day before sunrise, in order to sell their wares or snacks. The families take turns resting and operating the stand before returning back to their homes in the valley at the end of the day.
On our first night in Mai Chau, we enjoyed dinner in our hotel while watching the hotel’s nightly cultural performance. Angela VI in her normal adventurous spirit, joined in the dance and got put her feet to the bamboo stick dance test.
Our day of touring the Mai Chau area began with a bike ride through the village and surrounding rice paddies. Towards the end of the ride, we pulled off to the side while Tony chatted with one of the farmers. Next thing we knew, Angela and Emily were both out in the rice paddy, working along side the farmer, preparing the land for the next planting.
Tony arranged for us to have lunch and dinner on our first day with local families. As tourism is growing in Vietnam, many locals offer “home stays” in which you can either rent a room in their house, or for a set price per person, enjoy a home cooked meal. We really enjoyed all of the meals we had with the locals, and were very grateful that Tony knew which families were the best ones to contact and arrange for us. Dinner with “Happy Water” (homemade rice wine) was usually about $13 US per person, kids half price, and included more food and courses than we could finish.
In addition to our bike ride,while in the Mai Chau region, we also toured a mountain village occupied by Mong people, explored a tea plantation and stopped at a local home for afternoon tea (with a few shots of moonshine). Mai Chau was a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the city.
After a couple of nights in Mai Chau exploring the surrounding area and learning about life in the mountains, our adventure continued with a stop in Ninh Binh on our way to Halong Bay.
The first activity we experienced in Ninh Binh was a sampan boat through Tam Coc, “Halong on Land”. Ladies guided us up a small river where we could observe giant limestone karsts jutting up from the rice fields as we ducked in and out of caves. It was impressive to watch the ladies row the oars of the boats with their feet. We learned that the ladies guide on the boats in their spare time for extra money. The husbands often work several hours away in the cities while the wives are home taking care of the families. Boat rides and small market stalls are some of the ways the wives earn additional income for their families. After our paddle, we climbed up to view a Pagoda built into the side of a mountain, and then explored a giant limestone cave that had over time been used as a hospital as well as a hiding place for the military over the years. It was quite an experience to be the only ones in a cave. Many caves we’ve visited, we end up on a guided tour where we walk with a group in single file and stop to hear about the formations. While we were accompanied by a staff person of the hotel who manages the cave access, once inside, we were really free to roam anywhere we wanted. The girls really enjoyed climbing up and down ladders and crawling over boulders while exploring into the depths of the cave.
After one night in Ninh Binh, it was time to transfer over to Halong Bay and board our Junk boat. We enjoyed our two nights and three days soaking in the scenery while cruising the bay. While on board, we observed many other Junk Boats along with small fishing boats, floating homes, and small floating markets pass by. We really enjoyed the experience, and were glad we were on a three-day, two-night cruise. We were a little surprised how much traffic there was out in the bay with other boats. Even though we were in some of the “more remote” areas, where fewer boats go, fewer boats is a relative term. With as popular as the “junk boat” experience has become,there are many out on the water.
The end of our Halong Bay cruise marked the end of our time in Northern Vietnam. Tony greeted us at the dock as we got off the boat and took us back to Hanoi where we boarded our flight South, where we’d spend the remainder of our time in Vietnam.
When we got to Vietnam, we met a guy named Tony and he took us to a water puppet show. I really liked the interesting musical instruments. The next day, after breakfast, Tony took us on a walk around old town Hanoi. We walked around the train tracks and saw a bunch of restaurants. We then took a three hour drive and got to our villa in Mai Chau. It was so hot, mommy took us straight to the pool. I loved it.
We met a couple kids who were in Maichau because they were at summer camp.. At dinner there was terdichonut dance that Angela tried, but I didn’t’ because I was scared to get hit with bamboo.
The next day, Tony and Zung took us to a Mong village. When I had to go to the bathroom, Tony took us to someone’s house, and they had a toilet that you had to squat over instead of sit on. Later that afternoon, we took a bike ride. I sat on the back of Daddy’s bike and we got to help in the rice field.
After Mai Chau, we went to a Junk boat that had nothing to do with junk. When we first got there, they were dropping rose petals as we boarded the boat for the first time. The food and rooms were both great – nothing to do with junk. Twice we swam off the back of the boat. We went fishing for squid at night, learned how to make spring rolls, and saw floating houses. I loved our three days on the boat and didn’t want to say good-bye to Tony when it was time for him to take us back to the airport.
We loved our amazing guide, Tony. Our first night, he brought us to a water puppet show where we saw dragons breathe fire and a lot of other cool things. The next day, Tony led us on a tour through the train tracks of old town to see how people worked and lived.
We then drove to Mai Chau and swam in the pool with a bunch of camp kids. During dinner, we watched a show and I even danced the bamboo dance.
The following day we took a walk through a cute Mong village and we went into a local’s house for tea. The kids were all piled in a bed, playing on their cell phones the entire time we were there. We then went to a cave that had served as a hiding place and hospital for soldiers.
The next morning, we took a bike ride through the rice paddies and we even learned how to farm rice. That night, Tony took us out to an amazing dinner we got to eat in a local’s house.
In Ninh Binh, we got on a boat and that ladies paddled with their feet. We went through caves and at the end we got to feed fish with the bags of Funions Tony bought for us.
We spent the next few days on a junk boat in Halong Bay where we got to swim off the back of the boat. We also took a long bike rode and kayaked. I really liked our room and getting the rose petals thrown on us when we got on the ship.
We’ve arranged for most of our family touring in Vietnam with Exo Travel. We like exploring new destinations by all methods of travel – cruising, touring, or on our own. The thing we like best about private custom tours is that we can collaborate with and design our experience exactly the way we want, under the expert guidance of a trusted local operator.
Southern World has contacts all over both islands of New Zealand. Under their knowlegable guidance we’ve coordinated several day tours as well as chosen cities to serve as our home base while we explore the amazing country.
River Cruises are a very popular way to experience Vietnam as they offer an opportunity to visit many sites without having to unpack every other day. On a river cruise, you can enjoy the luxury of exploring the interior waterways of the country with a small group of like minded travelers and experience guided excursions at each stop along the way. At the end of each day, return to the luxurious accommodations on your ship to rest in comfort and observe the scenery floating by.
There are several options for cruising around the perimeter of Vietnam- Large ship, small ship, expedition. The cruises are a great way to see the sections of the country you may like to return to at a later date. Some itineraries include a port or two in Vietnam while visiting several countries in Asia, others are based solely in Vietnam. We recommend anyone visiting the country spend a few days pre- or post-cruise to explore a bit of the interior of the country in addition to the coast.
Taking a tour with a small group provides the opportunity to experience the sites of New Zealand with other like-minded travelers on popular pre-designed itineraries.