I will try to keep this fairly brief. As I said in an earlier post, we recently (20 to 28 November 2011) participated in a small group tour of Vietnam.
The tour was called "Highlights of Vietnam" for those interested. It started in Saigon and ended in Hanoi. We then did a three day private tour to Sapa (29 November to 2 December), also organized by Travel Indochina and called "Sapa in Style".
Please note that I have no reason to talk this company up - I'm not involved with it in any way - this is just an account of our experience which I hope may be helpful to anyone else considering a small group tour with one of the various companies offering them.
We started our tour in Saigon on the Sunday after arriving fairly late the previous night. In retrospect, it would have been better to have arrived a day earlier and have had a quiet day to look around before the tour started.
This morning we went to look at the Cu Chi tunnels. The trip there in the bus was fascinating, just looking out the window at everyday life going on - motor bikes with huge loads on the back , the masses of electricity wires, whole families riding four to a bike, the houses and shops along the way etc.
Our local guide talked to us most of the way about everyday life in Vietnam from his perspective.He had been a teacher for many years but became a guide as the pay was much better.
The tunnel area was more interesting to look at than I'd expected, but it was very hot there, so I was glad to get back on the air-conditioned bus.
After we returned to Saigon we had lunch at Pho 2000, then went to have a look at the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. I didn't find the palace that interesting, and the museum was pretty gruesome.
Our final stop before finishing the day was the Cathedral and Post Office. Those who wanted to walked back to the hotel with the local guide, while others like me with tired legs chose to go back by bus.
That night we had dinner at a barbeque restaurant but I can't remember the name of it.
Today we set off for a day in the Mekong Delta and stopped at a very colourful Cao Dai pagoda on the way.Here we had our first experience of persistent souvenir sellers. I was astounded at how extremely aggressive the women were about trying to sell their hats and fans. Even after we were back on the bus, they kept frantically tapping on the windows and demanding we buy their things.
At Ben Tre we boarded a small boat with a guide from the area and set off down the Mekong. We stopped to look at a brick factory which reminded me of something that would have been around in the 19th century in the West. The bricks were made and fired by hand and it was all pretty primitive.
We continued on the river and then branched off into one of the small canals where we stopped off to see a coconut processing factory. Once again it looked like hot, very physically demanding work for the poor guy husking the coconuts by hand.
We continued on to a little town where we disembarked and were then picked up by men on motorbikes pulling small trailers. We were deposited at a pathway where we then walked for ages through the mangroves until we finally came to where we were to have lunch at someone's house.The lunch of fish, prawns, salad etc was nice, and it was good to sit down and rest. It was really hot and muggy and a couple of cold beers went down well.
After a lot more walking to where some more boats were moored, we went back up the Mekong through lush, coconut palm-fringed canals to Ben Tre where we boarded the bus and drove back to Saigon .For dinner we went to Lemongrass where the food was ok but a bit expensive.
At this point a rest day would have been nice, and this is a drawback of tours like this, I guess. We were due to fly to Hue, so we were up early again and off to the airport for our flight. We were met at Hue Airport by our next bus and local guide, and taken into town for lunch at Banana Mango. After lunch we were driven to the Thien Mu Pagoda and then to the Citadel. These were very interesting to walk around, but after a couple of hours of walking I was relieved to finally get to our hotel for a rest.That night we went to a restaurant whose name I can't remember.It served wine by the glass which was good after finding a lot of restaurants in Vietnam don't.
Today we set off for Hoi An via Emperor Tu Duc's Tomb. Just as we left the bus to look at the tomb it started to rain, and it basically kept raining off and on for the rest of our time in central Vietnam. We were meant to go over the Hai Van Pass, but as it was pouring with rain by the time we got near it, it was decided that it would be too dangerous and we'd see nothing anyway, so we went through the tunnel. This was a disappointment as the view is supposed to be so good, but it couldn't be helped. We made a brief stop at China Beach as compensation, by which time it had stopped raining.
We had lunch at the Cargo Club soon after arriving in Hoi An , then went to see an old merchant house and a Chinese assembly hall .By this time I just wanted to finish the day, but there was a long way to go yet. We were taken to our hotel for a short rest, then it was off to do the Streets Restaurant market tour. We had also signed up to do a cooking class but it wasn't on until about 7.30pm, so we filled in our time at the White Marble Wine Bar until then. By the time we got back to the hotel at about 9pm I was exhausted and really looking forward to our free day tomorrow.
Yay, a free day! We slept in and lazed about for the morning, then took a taxi into town for lunch and a walk around Hoi An. We ate at Streets and it was delicious. The shop keepers annoyed me as it was impossible to just browse without being constantly hassled to buy.We got tired of being harassed and took another taxi back to our hotel for a rest before going back into town in the evening for dinner. We thought about trying somewhere different but ended up at the White Marble Bar and then Streets again and once again it didn't disappoint.
Today we left Hoi An for Danang Airport for our flight to Hanoi. At Hanoi Airport we were met by our new bus and local guide and drove to Halong Bay. The trip is long and the scenery not that interesting except for the immaculate looking market gardens. The town covered in black coal dust looked like a depressing place to live. We finally reached Halong Bay in the late afternoon and ate in the hotel as there didn't seem to be anywhere good nearby to walk to for dinner.
This morning we drove to the dock to board our boat for a morning sail and lunch in Halong Bay.Once we were further out in the bay, away from all the other boats and big ships it was very peaceful and nice to laze in a deck chair up on top of the boat. It wasn't a sunny day, but at least it wasn't raining. The seafood lunch was delicious and then it was back to the bus and we were driving to Hanoi.
We were first taken on a cyclo ride of the Old Quarter. This was a great way to see the area up close without having to use our legs.
After this we were dropped at our hotel, then met again later to walk to a 5pm session of the Water Puppets. It was interesting to watch but I found the seats very uncomfortable. There's hardly any room for your legs and I have a knee replacement which hurt a lot when squeezed behind the seat in front at an awkward angle. If you're very tall I don't know how you'd fit in these seats.
We left the theatre and stopped at the Little Hanoi on the way back to the hotel for dinner.
Today was our last day of the group tour. We started with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I didn't enjoy lining up for ages waiting to get in to see a preserved dead man. The guards were very rude, pulling us by the arms if they thought we weren't exactly in line in pairs as they demanded we be.It was a relief to get out into the fresh air. Next we walked around the park and then went into the Ho Chi Minh Museum, all about his life, and not really very interesting, I thought.
We had lunch at Koto, then drove to the Temple of Literature and finally the " Hanoi Hilton "which was pretty grim. That night we had a goodbye dinner for the whole group at Wild Lotus.
This was a day to ourselves before leaving on the train for Sapa in the evening. We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter and got hassled to buy stuff, which I continued to find really annoying. That evening we had a nice meal at Hanoi Garden nearby , then went back to the hotel to get our bags and to be taken to the train by a private car with a guide.
We were booked into a two berth cabin on the Victoria carriage. I was glad it had all been arranged through Travel Indochina as the station looked very confusing. We sat and waited where we'd been told to and eventually a Victoria porter came and took us to our carriage.
The carriage was clean and obviously looked after well with clean rest rooms and clean bedding etc, but it was a rough and shaky trip and we didn't get much sleep.
We were met by a private car with a guide at Lau Cai station and driven up to the Victoria Hotel in Sapa. It was drizzling lightly and cold compared to Hanoi. After breakfast, our guide came back to take us out for a drive and a walk. Luckily, it stopped raining while we walked to Lao Chai and Tavan, but it was very muddy and slippery, and not much fun.
We were taken back to the hotel and were able to check in early and have a much needed shower before going out for lunch at the Red Dao House.We were tired from the train ride so went back to the hotel to sleep in the afternoon. We were also not feeling so well by now with slightly upset stomachs and colds, so just stayed in the hotel and had drinks and snacks in the bar by the fire for dinner.
The rain had increased overnight and as we weren't feeling too well we decided that we'd just get the guide to drive us to our next walk and do a very short walk to Supan. He said this was a good idea as the track was very steep and slippery in parts.We were happy to only walk about 2 kms instead of the 5kms we were meant to.We were taken inside one of the village houses to meet the owner and taste his homemade rice wine that was cooking over a fire. The house had a dirt floor which shocked me.
We were driven back to the hotel and walked to Baguette & Chocolat for lunch. I didn't think much of my food which was an almost cold pizza which had obviously never been in an oven - just under a griller. My hot chocolate took about 20 minutes to arrive as for some reason it had to be made in the kitchen rather than at the coffee bar.It all seemed a bit chaotic.
After lunch we walked around the town and were followed and harassed by some of the local ladies. Men on motorbikes kept offering us lifts - I thought that really strange.I didn't like Sapa town much - I thought it a bit depressing and grotty. I guess the weather didn't help.
We went back to the hotel to rest then pack. We sat in the lovely bar area and had cocktails and snacks again, and then our guide arrived to say goodbye and put us into the car for the ride down to Lau Cai Station and the train back to Hanoi.
After another night of little sleep on the train we checked into our hotel. We'd paid for another night in order to be able to do this at 6am, and were glad we had as we were tired and needed a shower and a sleep after breakfast.
Later we went out to walk around the Old Quarter again and to have lunch and buy some souvenirs. It was raining so not so nice to be outside. I got so tired of the women hassling me to buy things when all I wanted to do was look before I decided what to buy. We bought a few things at greatly inflated prices - we saw t-shirts that we'd paid $5 for at the airport the next day for $3, so we were ripped off even though we'd bargained them down from $10.
We went to the Hanoi Garden again for dinner. A Western man was sitting smoking inside - it's quite a shock to see that when we're so used to no smoking in restaurants at home.
Today we were driven to the airport to go home. The tour was good, and Vietnam was very interesting to see, but I was glad to be going home away from the noise, smog and aggressive salespeople.