Vietnam! Where do I start? It’s an amazing destination for all ages to explore. I was lucky enough to visit it recently on a World Journeys tour from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi, with a stop in Hoi An and a trip to Halong Bay along the way.
The World Journeys tour really spoiled us with leisurely afternoons, morning excursions and amazing hotels. Saigon, which is still what the locals call their city, is a place where walking is overrated: here it’s all about zooming scooters and tooting horns, following the crowd and flowing through the traffic as the scooters swarm past you while you’re crossing the road! It’s not as scary on the second or third crossing, I promise.
On one of our days in Saigon we went out to the Cu Chi Tunnels 35km northwest of the city, which are fascinating from both a historical and tourist perspective. These hot, humid, dark oxygen-deficient tunnels are a terrifying glimpse into what soldiers on both sides of the war went through. The tunnels have been widened to accommodate tourists so even as cramped as we were, it was hard to imagine bellycrawling along these underground labyrinths for months on end.
That evening we explored the city by way of a Vespa Adventure Food Tour, which provided some lightheartedness after the sights of the morning. I cannot recommend this tour more: Ai, our host, was hilarious as were our drivers – please note we were on the back of the Vespas because while we might be brave enough to cross the road we weren’t sufficiently so to drive amongst it all! You really do see all sorts, from giant pet lizards being carried on scooters to the whole family piled onto one machine and venturing out for a social meal.
Having an allergy to seafood wasn’t a problem here, nor was being gluten-free like a fellow group member: Vietnam has difficulty growing wheat so everything is made with rice. For me the tour guides brought out delicious meals of beef or chicken and checked carefully that the sauce was fish-free. We enjoyed street-side local cuisine and later ate ice cream in a tea house while listening to locals sing modern and classical songs in English and Vietnamese.
At night, if you get the chance, head to the iconic Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar at the Caravelle Hotel, once home to journalists and politicians during the Vietnam War. The bar serves up classic cocktails, live music and a brilliant outdoor view over the lit-up city. From modern skyscrapers to historic buildings, it really is a feast for the eyes.
From Saigon we flew 90 minutes north to Da Nang on the South China Sea and from there drove 45 minutes to explore Hoi An, a quaint historic town with canals, bright colours and architecture that is a meltingpot of Vietnamese, French-Colonial, Chinese and Japanese influences.
If you venture to the outskirts of the town amongst the rice fields, you’ll find water buffalo and locals fishing the river and beach. In town there are brilliant tailors (go to Yaly Couture) and cobblers (go to Linh Shoe Shop) amongst many others, as well as art galleries with fascinating artworks to view or purchase.
And I can’t forget the lanterns! At night the town comes to life with music, cheeky children and of course other travellers. It can be extremely busy but it is such a different vibe compared to the day that it is well worth exploring the streets and taking many, many photos.
After shopping till we dropped and relaxing poolside, it was time to head 90 minutes further north to Hanoi and Halong Bay, where we joined Jasmine, a 23-cabin boutique ship of the Heritage Line for a luxurious journey out to the bay. Sadly, due to an incoming storm we couldn’t spend the full night out so we stopped for a swim and took many photos of this UNESCO World Heritage area before turning back. Did you know that Halong Bay means “Bay of Descending Dragons”?
Hanoi! This truly beautiful city with a mix of traditional and modern is one that I would love to go back and explore more. We took a rickshaw tour from the hotel and let our eyes roam from the stalls on theside of the road at street level to the families on their balconies and windows above as well as the many, many power lines.
One of my favourite Vietnam highlights is the complimentary tour that The Sofitel Metropole offers guests: the hotel has embraced its history and gives a tour of a hidden bunker dating from the War. The stories of how the hotel helped both guests and staff during this time are really refreshing to hear about. You can also walk the halls and read about the many famous celebrities who have stayed here, including Jane Fonda. I can’t wait to go back and explore more.