A Postcard from Our Traveler: An Unforgettable Adventure
Howard and Miriam S. recount their experience with a custom Vietnam luxury travel package from Asia Transpacific Journeys:
We were very satisfied with the itinerary that you helped us develop for our twelve days in the country. Our days were very full. Most nights we fell asleep before 9 o’clock P.M., tired, satisfied and still a little jet lagged. I suppose we would have enjoyed the luxury of having a couple of half days with nothing scheduled so we could rest and catch our breath. Nevertheless the full days allowed us to see and experience many incredible things.
Our three guides, Lan, Hung and Vu, were excellent. Each man met us at the airport and took us where we needed to be without any problems. They were always on time. They were friendly, knowledgeable and spoke freely with us about all kinds of issues, including government corruption, the War, religion, family structure, etc. We definitely learned more from our guides on our custom trip than had we been part of a large group tour (of Vietnam).
Sometimes we enjoyed going off script with our guide. In Hanoi, we told Lan that we wanted to more closely experience life in the city. Lan took us on a meandering walking tour of the flower district near central Hanoi. That was a great detour for us. Then, at our request, Lan took us to a gritty local restaurant he knew well, that served some of the best pho’ in Hanoi.
We thoroughly enjoyed our brief stay at the Sofitel Hotel in Hanoi. The room was luxurious and the service was superior. We enjoyed waking up to the sumptuous breakfast buffet every morning.
While waiting for Lan to pick us up one rainy morning, we saw a taxi back up into a woman speeding along on a scooter. She appeared to be hurt but help came right away. Otherwise, we were amazed how motorists were able to maneuver around each other without regard to traffic rules, without running into each other. This is one of our lasting impressions of our Vietnam experience.
In our one full day in Hanoi, we saw Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, the One Pillar Pagoda, Ho’s home, the Museum of Ethnology, Hoa Lo Prison, and capped off the day with a wild cyclo ride in the French Quarter. The day was rainy and hazy which only added to the experience.
The next day we drove 3 1/2 hours through numerous small towns to Ha Long Bay. Our time spent at Ha Long may have been the highlight of the trip. We received a warm welcome from the Paradise Cruise people. We were escorted to our ship, the “Paradise Luxury,” which lived up to its name. The accommodations were luxurious, the food was wonderful. We thoroughly enjoyed a rowboat tour of a fishing village and the next morning enjoyed a hike through a large cave on one of the islands. The air was misty, just like every photograph of Ha Long that we have ever seen. We probably would have enjoyed spending one more night and day cruising around the islands of Ha Long Bay.
We flew to Da Nang and were met at the airport by our new guide, Hung. From that point we were with Hung for nearly five days. We enjoyed every moment with him. He exhibited a deep understanding of Vietnamese history and culture. He is an amateur photographer with a wonderful eye for beauty.
We were very satisfied with our accommodations in Hoi An at the Life Heritage Resort. We liked how we could take a few steps from the calm of the resort and find ourselves surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Hoi An’s marketplace. We found a nice Vietnamese lady who washed all of our clothes, same day service, for $5, whose business was three steps away from the hotel.
We have many, many exquisite memories of our time with Hung in Hoi An and Hue. The morning of our first whole day in Hoi An, Hung led us through a 16-mile bicycle loop past lovely neighborhoods, new beach front hotel developments, shrimp farms, pig farms, a spice village and finally, the center of Hoi An. Hung met us that morning, promptly, with excellent quality mountain bikes and helmets for everyone.
Along the way, we were fortunate to call on Rod Sims, an American Vietnam War veteran from Georgia who has returned to the Hoi An area to live out his days. Apparently Rod has lived with extreme feelings of remorse and guilt over his involvement in the Vietnam War. He expressed to us that he is now devoting his life to doing good deeds for the Vietnam people, including raising money for children with birth defects. We felt honored and inspired to spend 30 minutes with Rod in his home.
We spent a long day driving over 400 km to see some rather notorious historical sites associated with the Vietnam War. Hung noted that it was rare for Americans to ask to be taken to such out-of-the-way places. For many years I have wanted to visit My Lai. We drove a long way to get there. When we arrived, we viewed a short documentary of the massacre and toured the small museum, which did not shy away from presenting every horror that happened that day. We saw foundations of the homes that were burned to the ground which had signs listing the names, sex and age of every occupant who was killed. We are both so glad that we visited My Lai. We went inside the Vinh Moc tunnels (these are the ones where a person can almost stand up). We stopped at fire support base Camp Carroll and later visited the marine base at Khe Sanh. These were meaningful stops. We were able to appreciate the densely forested mountains that surround these places, which helped us appreciate where and how the War was fought. We crossed the rebuilt bridge spanning Hien Long River at Dong Ha, in the DMZ. It was incredible to stand where so much history has been made.
Hung took us to My Son to wander among the Hindu Temples. Apparently, the original 70 temples have been reduced in number to a mere 20. We arrived at My Son on a drizzly late afternoon after all of the tourists had left. I think we both felt a little like Indiana Jones. We both felt the magic that I have felt a few times in my life when standing in a sacred place.
We decided to drive over the mountain pass rather than through the tunnel on our drive from Hoi An to Hue. Glad we did. The views of the coastline were spectacular. We took a full afternoon to explore what’s left of the Forbidden City in Hue. While much of the site was destroyed and badly damaged at the Tet Offensive, what’s left still left us in awe. We wandered from building to building, through lovely ornate gates bearing images of dragons and the phoenix. We were able to sense the grandeur of the Imperial Court as it existed in the 19th Century.
A word about the Pilgrimage Resort where we stayed while we were in Hue: The resort itself is reason enough to visit Hue. The bungalow-style suite, eco-friendly landscaping and pool were beautiful beyond words. We would have been very happy to stay there for a few extra nights.
We felt particularly close to Hung, liked him a great deal and had a bit of an emotional farewell at the airport in Hue. We were met by our third guide, Vu, when we arrived at HCM City. We had a busy day shopping in the frenetic market place, stopping for lunch at Pho’ 2000 (where Bill Clinton also stopped for lunch), touring the Reunification Palace and visiting the War Remnants Museum. At this point, I think my wife, Miriam, had had enough of unexploded bombs, photos of human tragedies caused by the War, etc.. Still, these displays were informative (notwithstanding the propaganda) and deserve to be seen.
Our accommodations at the Caravelle Hotel were very satisfactory. We enjoyed the central location which allowed us to wonder away from the hotel for dinner and to explore the historic neighboring hotels, City Hall and a somewhat incongruous upscale mall.
We took a long drive west toward the Cambodian border with Vu to visit the fascinating Cao Dai Pagoda. We saw a religious ceremony in progress. We then visited the Cou Chi Tunnels. We could not resist the temptation of disappearing in the tunnels ourselves to experience real claustrophobia. As much as anything, experiencing the tunnels impressed upon us the strength of the Vietnamese people, their love of country and their will to survive.
We left HCM City for Phuket, Thailand, where we rested and relaxed for eight days. Our trip was a perfect combination of intense activity, followed by a chance to replenish ourselves.
As you know, I had had some prior experience visiting Southeast Asia in my trip to Burma in 1999. For Miriam, however, this was baptism by fire, because she had never before been to Asia. This was an unforgettable adventure for both of us. We felt as though we really saw and experienced a great deal, although Hung was quick to point out that we had merely “scratched the surface”. Still, we had a very rich experience indeed. We saw first hand, an ancient culture rooted in tradition which finally has a chance, in peace, to develop fully into a modern nation. Life in Vietnam seems to play out right on the street. Lots of contradictions, but a place that we would relish the chance to return to.
Perhaps we’ll talk in a year or two about planning an adventure to Laos and Cambodia. Our thanks to you, Lesa and your staff for orchestrating such a memorable and smooth adventure for us.
Howard & Miriam S.