18 days Tour
Day 1: Hanoi
Your trip starts today with your arrival in Hanoi. No activities are planned until your evening group meeting, so you may arrive at any time. Please check the noticeboard in the hotel lobby, located on the ground floor, for a notice containing details of your tour. This will advise you of your tour guide’s name, telephone number and the time and location of your group meeting. Normally this meeting takes place around 6pm. Until your meeting we encourage you to get out and discover the delights that Vietnam has to offer. Make sure that you take a hotel business card so that you will be able to find your way back to the hotel.
Day 2: Halong Bay
Meals included: 3
'Ha Long' means ‘descending dragon’ and legend has it that a giant dragon plunged into the ocean at this point, cutting the bay from the rocks as it thrashed its way into the depths. We prefer Mother Nature’s version and awe-inspiring Halong Bay, with its 3000 limestone karsts thrusting skyward out of the sea, is one of her finest pieces of work. Our Halong Bay excursion begins with a 3½-hour drive through the fertile Red River Delta to the bayside town of Bai Chay. We board our chartered boat shortly before midday and enjoy a full afternoon lazing on deck as we cruise through this most amazing seascape. A seafood lunch is served on board and we have the opportunity to go for a swim before going ashore on one of the islands to explore colourful limestone caves. With any luck we may witness a fabulous sunset over Halong Bay before enjoying dinner prepared by our crew. Accommodation tonight is on board our boat in simply-furnished twin-share cabins with en suite facilities, but if the weather is fine, there is the option of sleeping on the top deck under the stars. Be aware that the showers are sometimes hot, but sometimes there is only cold water!
Day 3-4: Hanoi
Meals included: 1
Following breakfast we make our way back to port then on to Hanoi arriving around lunchtime in time for a city tour. Although there has been a settlement here since the 3rd century AD, the city of Hanoi can trace its origins back to 1010 when Emperor Le Thai To moved his capital from Hoa Lu to this site. From the 1880s to World War II, Hanoi was developed as the French colonial capital of French Indochina and many of the old structures in Hanoi were razed to make way for new French buildings. Today the people of Hanoi take a lot of pride in their grand old colonial buildings and these together with the wide spacious boulevards and tree-lined lakes help make Hanoi one of the most graceful and charming cities in South East Asia. In Hanoi, we will enjoy a half-day tour that will showcase some of the city’s most interesting attractions. We’ll begin with a visit to the One Pillar Pagoda situated near the Soviet-inspired Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Unfortunately the mausoleum itself is only opened for limited hours in the mornings, so you may need to come back and visit it in your own time if it not open when you are there on tour. The One Pillar Pagoda was first constructed in 1049 and as such it was Hanoi’s oldest structure. If it doesn’t look that old to you, it’s because the French blew it up in 1954 as a parting gesture and the current building is a replica. From here we’ll continue on to the ‘Temple of Literature’, a wonderful name for a wonderful place. Founded in 1070, it was Vietnam’s first educational institute and a place where candidates for the position of Mandarin were examined. Finally we’ll visit the Hoa Lo Prison, probably better known to most of us as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. Hanoi’s tallest building now occupies most of the original site, and no, it doesn’t belong to the Hilton Hotel chain, but the eastern wall and a small section of the prison behind have been retained and today serve as a museum. It mostly serves as a reminder of the Vietnamese who were incarcerated here by their French masters. The remainder of your time in Hanoi is free to wander around town and check out the lifestyles of Hanoi’s people. One of the best places to do this is the city’s Old Quarter, situated to the north of the Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a great (and easy) place to get lost in for a couple of hours. However, it’s not too difficult to find your bearings if you remember that its boundaries are the railway line to the west and the north, the Red River to the east and Hoan Kiem Lake to the south. Wednesday is a free day until the evening when we board our overnight sleeper train and head south to Hue. (N.B: This is a local train and conditions on board are generally quite basic. Also, breakfast tomorrow may not always available on the train so it is recommended that you purchase some breakfast supplies before boarding in Hanoi.)
Day 5: Hue
Under the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors, Hue served as Vietnam’s capital from 1801 to 1945. Dripping with history, and often with rain, Hue has a certain serene and classic character that sets it apart from all other provincial centres. Your time is your own this afternoon and it’s recommended that you spend a couple of hours exploring Hue’s massive walled citadel and the Forbidden Purple Palace, enclosed within. The Citadel’s splendid ‘Ngo Mon’ gate gives little hint of the wholesale destruction that has taken place inside at the hands of various occupying forces. The bloody Battle of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive all but finished it off. The Vietnamese, with the help of UNESCO and other non-government organisations are hard at work restoring and rebuilding what remains. Sadly, it may never be returned to its former glory but it’s still a fascinating insight into Imperial Vietnam. Tickets to enter the Citadel are available at the main gate opposite the flag tower and cost approximately US$4 per person. We’ve got a lot to see on Saturday morning so we’ll mount our local ‘shopping’ bikes, as they’re known here, and cycle down to the riverside. Here, we’ll place the bikes on board our ‘Dragon Boat’, and enjoy a leisurely cruise up the timeless Perfume River to one of Hue’s most beautiful landmarks, the Thien Mu Pagoda - with its symbolic tiered tower. After visiting the Pagoda, we’ll re-join our Dragon Boat and continue to the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc (1847-1883), the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Constructed between 1864 and 1867, it was more of a pleasure garden than a tomb, and the Emperor Tu Duc used it as his second residence. The interesting thing is that it is not known if Tu Duc is actually buried here. No-one has yet discovered his burial site and the treasures that must lie within. Not as extensively damaged during the Vietnam War as Hue’s Citadel, Tu Duc's Tomb remains a significant reminder of the opulent lifestyles enjoyed by the Nguyen Dynasty emperors. After visiting the tomb you have the option of either cycling back through the magnificent countryside to Hue or returning by Dragon Boat.
Day 6-8: Hoi An
Meals included: 1
We jump onto the local bus for a four-hour drive to Hoi An, travelling through a region of Vietnam that is blessed with magnificent coastal and rural scenery. After Lang Co Beach, Highway 1 begins its winding ascent through the Hai Van Pass or ‘Pass of the Ocean Clouds’. On the other side of the pass we descent to the city of Danang, before continuing on to Hoi An. This ancient and historic town was for three centuries one of the most important sea ports in Central Vietnam, visited by sailing ships from all over the world seeking trade in silk, ceramics, spice etc. In the late 19th Century, the Tu Bon River, linking the port to the open sea, began to silt up and became unnavigable to large vessels. Trade moved up the coast to Tourane, now modern-day Danang, and Hoi An went back to being a sleepy little fishing and rice farming community. Today, however, Hoi An’s fortunes are once again riding on the crest of a wave as Vietnam’s number one tourist destination. This is largely due to the fact that the old town’s narrow streets are packed with a brilliant blend of Chinese /Portuguese /Japanese style of architecture that has changed little from its heyday as a major port of trade. There are no organised activities while we’re here in Hoi An because there’s such a broad choice of things to see and do and they are all easily discovered. You may wish to rent a bicycle and set off to explore the surrounding countryside, take a boat trip on the river, relax on the nearby beach, enjoy the wonderful cuisine on offer at some of the town’s numerous cheap cafes, or have some clothes made. Hoi An has nearly 100 silk shops offering same-day service for tailor-made clothes at unbelievably low prices. If you’d like to venture further a-field, it’s only a short trip up the road to Vietnam’s world famous ‘China Beach’ and the adjacent Marble Mountains. If you’d like to learn more about the Kingdom of Champa, the ancient ruins at My Son can be visited inside half a day. Here you can see more than 70 historic monuments spread over a large area.
Day 9-11: Nha Trang - Island Cruise
Meals included: 2
We catch a day train and head southwards to Nha Trang. With fabulous sunny weather for most of the year, clear blue water surrounding a string of offshore islands, and a beach that spans the whole length of the city, its little wonder that this place has become Vietnam’s premier beach resort. Although the town itself is a bit ‘light-on’ for tourist attractions, a steady increase in tourism has brought with it a much needed boost in facilities and the city’s diverse range of restaurants, particularly seafood, are as good as anywhere in Vietnam. We’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the sun during our time in Nha Trang and on one day we’ll head out onto the water for a cruise around the islands. Bring your towel and swimmers because there is the opportunity for swimming and snorkelling. For lunch we will enjoy some freshly caught seafood (and other delights for non-seafood eaters).
Day 12-13: Dalat
Meals included: 1
This morning we join a local bus for the day-long drive to Dalat. On board the bus you will have the chance to mix with locals and other travellers. The former French colonial hill station town of Dalat was founded over 100 years ago by a French scientist, Dr Alexandre Yersin. Although there was already a small settlement of ‘Lat’ people living alongside the river, Dr Yersin and his compatriots thought it would be a very nice idea to establish a resort town in the mountains to escape the sweltering humidity of the coast. The French are long gone, of course, but as a result of the old ‘French Indochina’ days there are still a large number of magnificent old villas in and around the town. Sunday is a full free day so you will have the chance to explore some of the more interesting sights in Dalat, including the old railway station that once connected Dalat to the coast, the summer palace of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, and Hang Nga Guesthouse, known as the ‘Crazy House’ to locals because of its bizarre architecture. You may also wish to pay a visit to one of Dalat’s most notable residents, Buddhist monk/artist, Vien Thuc. You can purchase his rather distinctive black ink on paper paintings and calligraphy for approximately US$5 a piece. A good place to try lunch is the upstairs ‘mezzanine’ floor of the fruit and vegetable pavilion in Dalat’s central market. It’s cheap, clean and the food is generally fresh. Another sightseeing option is to take a trip out to ‘Lat Village’ – a local ethnic hill tribe community located just outside Dalat. If you would to do this, your tour guide can assist you to obtain the permits and arrange transport.
Day 14-15: Saigon - Cu Chi Tunnels
Meals included: 1
This morning we join another local bus for the day-long drive to Saigon. Our journey will take us past tea and coffee plantations to Bao Loc, before descending the jungle-clad pass. On Sunday, you may wish to take a spare shirt with you this morning because we’re literally going to ‘get down and get dirty’. Our excursion to the north of Saigon would have been considered risky business indeed 30 odd years ago but today the peaceful farming communities around the former Viet Cong stronghold of Cu Chi Tunnels belie the horrors of the Vietnam War. Begun by the Viet Minh and later expanded by the Viet Cong, Cu Chi’s tunnels were constructed to conduct covert operations and then quickly hide from the enemy. There are reputed to be around 200 kilometres of underground tunnels within the area and in some places they even managed to penetrate the perimeters of nearby US military bases. We’ll actually be given the opportunity of crawling through a section of the tunnels while we’re here, and to learn how the brave men and women of Cu Chi built underground hospitals, kitchens and meeting rooms during their struggle for a unified Vietnam. Early afternoon we return to Saigon where you are free to spend your remaining time exploring some of the city’s attractions, such as the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum and Ben Thanh Market, all within walking distance of your hotel. However, to make the most of your time, you might like to consider hiring a ‘cyclo’ (bicycle rickshaw) for the afternoon. The going rate is approximately 80,000 VND per hour but make sure you negotiate a price before setting out.
Day 16-17: Mekong Delta
Meals included: 2
Lying to the west of Saigon, the Mekong Delta is one of the most fertile regions on earth and home to some 20 million people. The best way to see the Delta is, of course, by boat and we join ours at the small market town of Cai Be. As we cruise the canals, rivers and backwaters we’ll discover how the local people lead their lives here and go about their daily business. We’ll cruise past a congested flotilla of boats selling all manner of fruit and vegetables at Cai Be’s floating market. We’ll visit some family-run industries, which include a rice paper, popcorn and popped rice factory. In this region many households specialise in a different industry where we’ll learn the process involved in making some of the products for which the Mekong Delta is famous – including fish sauce, soy sauce, tofu and clay floor tiles. Continuing our waterborne journey we arrive at our simple home-stay situated on an island in the middle of the Mekong River. Dinner tonight will include the Mekong Delta’s famous “Elephant Ear Fish” as well as a number of other Mekong specialties. The following morning begins with a walk along the island’s trails and a sampan ride through some of its small creeks and canals. Our riverboat carries us back to Cai Be and we take the bus from here returning to Saigon in the afternoon.
Day 18: Saigon
Meals included: 1
Your journey through Vietnam finishes after breakfast on Day 18.