Author: John Rybczyk
Date of Trip: May 2012
We are travelers. We started traveling right after we retired, retired in 2000. Never been to Vietnam so we decided we would go on a independent tour. We contact Vietnam Royal Tourism in Hanoi and emailed them what we wanted to see, where we wanted to go. They came back with a fantastic package and a fantastic price. We made some minor changes the biggest being that we did not want any 1 night stays if we could avoid them. We changed all 1s to 2 night stays. There were a few things that were different from the usual trips we have made. We were to have breakfast every day, and we were to have 16 lunches on our 19 day tour, and 2 dinners. I thought abut changing some of the lunches to dinners, but last minute we decided to keep the lunches. Later we would find out that it was a great decision. We also were to have a different driver and guide for each town we visited.
We left Orlando, Florida on the 7th of May and arrived on the 9th of May, in Ho Chi Minh, City. arrival was at 1 am in the morning. There was our tour guide “Viet” waiting for us with a sign. A great site after being on the airplane for – who knows how long we were on the place. I can see why Viet was the lead off guide, he was terrific. Of the 5 guides we had Viet was one of the best. They were all good, but some of them just went that little bit extra and Viet was one of them.
Day 1 started at 1 in the morning and there was nothing planned other than breakfast. Most of the day was sleeping and just walking around. Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is —–, there is no word for the traffic in HCM City. We have traveled to Turkey, China, Thailand, Puerto Rico, all had bad traffic but Ho Chi Minh City, traffic is just unbelievable. The hotel was centrally located so it gave us an opportunity to walk around the area. The guide mentioned where we may want to walk around and recommended some places where there a number of restaurants. Getting there was more of a problem than we anticipated. But we made it. Day 2 was tours, Independent Palace, War Crime Museum Thien Hau Pagoda and China town. We were scheduled for another museum but we said NO, we were still a little tired from the trip. Another advantage with an independent tour, don’t want to go someplace, don’t go. The first lunch, Co Ngo Sai Gon Restaurant. The best ever lunch we had. An 8 course meal, the restaurant was really nice, the staff was great and the food was outstanding.
Vietnam Royal Tourism started out with a terrific guide and a fantastic restaurant. All during lunch I kept thinking – I almost cancelled these lunches. Late in the afternoon, we visited The Cu Chi Tunnels. What can you say, you have to see them to believe it.
I should mention here that I take a Polaroid camera with me and take pictures of waiters, waitresses, shop owners, hotel staff, and others. They love it. I took 11 packages of film with me (10 to a package and used 10 packages). They love getting there picture and always have a friend that you need to take a picture of.
Day 3 we left for DaLat. We stopped to see the Pongour waterfall and had another great lunch. We also visited the Chicken Village and met some of the people who lived there. You can’t miss Chicken Village, there is a huge Chicken on top of a building. It looked like lunches were going to be large, so a lite dinner that night at the V Cafe in DaLat. Day 4 started with a visit to the Bao Dai Palace, Lam Lake, and the Truc Lam Pagoda. No dinner tonight, the lunch was huge.
Day 5 on our way to the airport to fly to DaNang we visited a number of Flower markets. There are a large of flower farms in the DaLat area. Also as a side note DaLat has a wine. The red was really good.
We also visited “The Crazy House”, hard to explain, but worth a stop, a women designed this house and lots of nooks and crannies and shop and even places to stay overnight. We arrived in Da Nang and drove to Hoian. Because we arrived in Hoian late we just went to the hotel. On Day 6 we visited a number of places in Hoian, Chinese Assembly Hall and Temples, some old houses, Covered Bridge and also did a cruise on the Thu Bon River. Hoian is a really neat place and we were sorry we only had 1 day to see it. Next trip, more time in Hoian.
Day 7 we drove to Hue, we visited the Cham museum and had lunch in Lang Co Beach and then in the afternoon we visited the Imperial Citadel of Hue and a number of other places. On day 8 in Hue, we visited King Minh Mang tomb and King Tu Duc’s tomb and went to the Dong Ba Market and topped it off with a boat trip along the Perfume river.
Day 9 we flew to Hanoi and only stayed one night in the Hanoi Boutique Hotel. We stayed only 1 night because of the scheduling to get to Sunday market in Sapa. We were also scheduled to return to this hotel for our last 3 nights in Vietnam. Day 10 we visited a number of places in Hanoi to include the Ethnology Museum were you could see pictures showing 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. We also visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Presentatial Palace. Both were amazing places. That night the train to Sapa. We opted for a 2 sleeper cabin on the train. You can get a 4 sleeper at a cheaper price. This was an overnight trip to Sapa you leave at 9 at night. The cabin was ok, there was plenty of room for 2, not sure how 4 could have fit in there. The bathroom is down the end of your train. The drawback, the A/C is controlled by the “train people”. Cold is not really a true description, freezing would be better. Finally about 2 in the morning they shut the A/C off.
Day 11, we arrived early in Sapa and was met by Quyen, our new tour guide. Quyen was one of the best guides, she really new Sapa and the area and a lot about the local ethnic groups. Sapa is a very nice town, with lots of different ethnic people in the area. There are a number of very nice restaurants in the town, there is also a daily local market. That morning, we did what they call a “soft walk” to visit Laochai and Tavan Villages, a 2-3 hours on flat footpath. Don’t you believe it. It may be 2-3 hours on flat footpath, but there is another hour or so on rough footpath. But we made it and if I could do it (I’m 75 and my wife is 73) anybody could do it. The scenery is spectacular. Lots of rice farms. We stopped and visited with a family and met some of their children. We stayed at the Bamboo Sapa Hotel for 2 nights. A very nice hotel, clean, very helpful staff and breakfast was very good. We went to Church that night at the local Catholic Church and they had the services outside and many visitors from Hanoi. Day 12, the trip to Bac Ha, the huge Sunday market. Everybody comes to this market and they are all dressed in their native outfits. The markets sells everything. Besides crafts, they sell animals; horses, water buffalo, chickens, ducks, etc. There also is a large tent area where you can get food and drinks. There are 10 different mountain people who live in this area and they all come to the market on Sunday. This was the reason we stayed only 1 night in Hanoi, we wanted to be in Sapa for the market.. We had lunch in the town and then returned to Sapa.
Day 13 was a walking trip to another village, the black Hmong (CatCat Village). This was another long walk, down, so remember what goes down comes up. The good part in that coming back up you can get on the back of a motorbike and ride back up, for a small price. That night the train back to Hanoi. This was really going to be a short stop in Hanoi. We were going on the Victory Star cruising for 2 nights on Halong Bay. Last minute change by Vietnam Royal Tourism. Day 14, They would pick us up at the train station in the early morning and rather than take us to the staging area for the cruise, they took us to a hotel, where we could shower and change and have breakfast and then go to the Victory Star. Fantastic. A great last minute change and at no additional cost. After the overnight train from Sapa to Hanoi a shower was really welcomed and so was breakfast. After breakfast, it was off to the Victory Star. I know this was only a 2 day cruise, but we have never been on a cruise. Although we travel extensively, we have never been on a cruise.
Day 14, and 15. The 3 nights 2 day cruise on the Victory Star was fantastic. Ha Long Bay is something you have to see. Truly amazing. We could not have asked for a better crew, better staff, better food. The rooms were large enough and we had a balcony. Now let me mention here, when they picked us up at the hotel for the cruise, they told us that we would be in cabin 206. When we arrived the Assistant Manager asked if we would trade rooms, somebody did not want to be on the first deck, they wanted to be on the second. Well since I never had been on a ship before, what difference could it make. We moved to 107, it was ok and we had a balcony. That night, the Assistant Manger, told us that people were getting off in the morning and that he wanted to change us to the second deck. I said no, we were ok, the room was ok and we were unpacked. He insisted. We just left it at that. The next morning we were going on a Day boat trip to the fishing village. Just before we left the Assistant manager came and said “Pack up – I will take care of your luggage and move you”. Ok we did, we packed and left. We returned around 2 in the afternoon after a trip to a cave and a beach area, and he was no where in site, we went to the desk where all the keys were and there was a key with a note to us saying ‘hope you have a nice night in the Presidential Suite”. The Presidential Suite, ok, that certainly was an upgrade. That night at dinner he came around and asked if everything was ok. It was a great trip, Ha Long Bay is definitely something you want to see. The Victory Star is definitely the boat you want to take. The food, was over the top.
Day 16, another trip to a another cave. Had a buffet on the VS and left by bus to Hanoi and back to the same hotel we had in Hanoi before. Day 17 a new tour guide Duong, another young girl who was terrific. We went to the Tam Coc River for a boat cruise. The unusual thing about this cruise is that you are in a small boat, and its usually a women who is rowing the boat. When she is tired rowing using her hands, she rows the boat with her feet. You have to see it to believe it. Another great lunch – they all were great lunches. That night we found a little restaurant in Hanoi called Gecko. There are several of them in Hanoi, its a small place, very clean, the staff was really nice, the food was reasonable, but the drink prices were unbelievably low. It was ‘happy hour all day, every day. Day 18, was on our own, we walked around the lake area, went to the French Quarters and went to church that night (it was Saturday) For our last night in Hanoi, you guessed it back to Gecko for drinks and something to eat. We also saw the Water Puppet Show while we were in Hanoi.
Day 19, May 27 leaving Hanoi for Ho Chi Minh City to catch our plane back to Orlando, Florida.
The trip could not have been better. Vietnam Royal Tourism did an outstanding job setting this up. I would highly recommend them. The price was excellent and the travel agent Ms Dzung, did a fantastic job. The hotels were excellent, the lunches were over the top, the tours were more than we expected. The cruise on the Victory Star was outstanding. John and Barbara Rybczyk