Vietnam is constantly surprising. The landscapes of vibrant green rice paddies, limestone sea cliffs and great rivers provide a backdrop to a culture that is as tenacious as it is fascinating.
Much of life in Vietnam is lived out in the streets, and in the great cities of Saigon and Hanoi we are able to feel part of this endless spectacle of daily life. But we also have time in places where the pace is slower, such as magnificently scenic Halong Bay. In and around Saigon we come across reminders of Vietnam’s most recent history whilst Hoi An preserves remnants of a rich heritage spanning the centuries. Finally in Cambodia we visit one of the world’s great surviving archaeological wonders, the temple complex of Angkor.
Tourism in Vietnam is a significant component of the modern Vietnamese economy. In 2012, Vietnam received more than 6.8 million international arrivals, up from 2.1 million in the year 2000. Tourism is increasingly important in Vietnam. For backpackers, culture and nature lovers, beach-lovers and veterans touring the country for a long time, Vietnam has emerged itself as a new tourist destination in Southeast Asia and on is now on lists in magazines worldwide.
Hanoi the capital of Vietnam, and also its second largest city, is a fascinating blend of East and West, combining traditional Sino-Vietnamese motifs with French flair. It is largely unscathed from the decades of war, and is now going through a building boom, making it a rapidly developing city in Southeast Asia Hanoi. Hanoi has been inhabited since at least 3000 BC. One of the first known permanent settlements is the Cổ Loa Citadel founded around 200 BC.
Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.
The day is free to recover from the flight or stroll amongst the broad tree-lined avenues dating from the French period. There is a faded colonial charm where baguettes and good coffee are sold from doorways of grand old buildings.
Half day city tour including Old Quarter, Ho Chi Minh Museum and Temple of Literature; afternoon free
This morning we enjoy a sightseeing tour of Hanoi. This will include visits to the Temple of Literature, the site of the oldest university in Vietnam with over 2000 graduates; Hoa Lo Prison and the Old Quarter of the city with its ’36 Streets’ where each street is home to shops selling particular products – e.g. ‘silk street’, ‘gold street’, ‘paper street’ and ‘naff souvenir’ street. We have the afternoon free in Hanoi to wander around the Hoan Kiem lake and perhaps enjoy the view from a lakeside cafe.
We make an early start for the approximately 4-hour journey to Halong Bay. This is one of the most stunningly beautiful sights in South East Asia with some 3000 limestone peaks rising directly from the clear emerald sea. We cruise amongst this amazing karst scenery, stopping to swim and kayak, allowing us to get to places inaccessible by boat (weather permitting), and enjoy a seafood lunch on board.
We continue to cruise around Halong Bay this morning before returning to port. We then drive back to Hanoi where the evening is free to explore or relax. There is the option of seeing a performance of the famous Water Puppets, which your leader can arrange if you have not already seen them and wish to do so.
In Danang, we climb Marble Mountain where we explore the large caves which were used by the Viet Cong as a hospital base during the war. From the mountain peak there are fantastic views over China beach and the surrounding countryside which leads on to Hoi An, our final destination.
Walking tour of ancient Hoi An including Japanese Bridge, Chinese Assembly Halls and old houses; free afternoon
This morning will include a walking tour of Hoi An, the original European trading port in Vietnam, dating back to the mid-sixteenth century. It is now a living museum, with attractive wooden merchant’s houses and pagoda-style temples with Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European architectural influences. It is also a marvellous place to wander around and enjoy the thriving riverside market and great silk/clothes shopping. If you have anything in mind you want making up, you should consider taking a picture of it along with you. The afternoon is free to enjoy a town that has become a favourite for so many travellers to Vietnam. Options include a trip to My Son, the Cham civilisation’s spiritual home, where Cham kings were buried as long ago as the fourth century. Although wartime bombing has destroyed much of the site, there’s a number of interesting stone towers and sanctuaries.
Take a short cruise on Thu Bon River to Red Bridge Restaurant where we enjoy a cooking class; afternoon free
We spend the morning at the wonderful Red Bridge restaurant, located on the bank of the Thu Bon River. Visiting the colourful local market first, we shop for ingredients before taking a boat ride to the restaurant. Here we learn the intricacies of Vietnamese cooking. Under the supervision of an English-speaking Vietnamese chef you have the opportunity to create your own dishes. You don’t need to be a proficient cook to enjoy this activity but be warned, you get to eat your creations at the end of the morning! You may choose to stay on and enjoy the idyllic garden at the restaurant or make your way back into Hoi An town for an afternoon at leisure, or jump on a bike (optional) for a ride through the countryside, passing markets, schools and villages before continuing on to Cua Dai beach (5 km).
Fly to Saigon; afternoon city tour including Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum
This morning we transfer to Danang Airport for the flight to Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City. This is an exciting and absorbing city where scooters pack the streets and temples stand defiantly alongside modern developments. Devastated by the Vietnam War, it is now a bustling free market city where anything goes. Our hotel is in the heart of this incredible city. The Saigon River and Ben Thanh market, are within easy walking distance and are highly recommended. This afternoon a city tour will include a visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The Museum has an interesting photographic record of the Vietnam/American War. Please be aware that some images at the museum are very graphic.
Morning visit to Cu Chi Tunnels; free afternoon
Today we leave the city behind us and head north to visit the infamous Cu Chi tunnels. Used by the Viet Cong during the war, the network covers 3 levels and incorporates around 240km of tunnels. Traditionally these were very narrow but some areas have been widened to allow tourists to explore the system. Claustrophobes may prefer to stay outside in the sunshine! In the afternoon we return to Saigon and the rest of the day is free for individual exploration.
To Mekong Delta; cruise through waterways and visit local craft industries
In the morning we drive to Cai Be in the Mekong Delta (approx 2½ hours), known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam. This region produces most of Vietnam’s fruit, sugar cane and coconuts. We take a boat trip on the mighty Mekong River, passing many orchards and friendly locals also travelling by boat. We stop to see some small cottage industries such as rice paper and coconut candy, getting a chance to sample the produce along the way before enjoying the local speciality, ‘Elephant Ear Fish’, for lunch. After lunch, we continue by boat to Vinh Long where our bus is waiting to take us to Can Tho.
Visit floating market; return to Saigon
This morning we take a boat trip to visit Cai Rang floating market, the biggest and most lively floating market in the Delta, with great photo opportunities. It is a maze of hundreds of boats packed with fruits, vegetables and plants, where samples are hung from the tops of long poles so that buyers can see from a distance what is for sale. Later we drive back to Saigon where the remainder of the day is free.
Fly to Siem Reap; afternoon exploration of Angkor
This morning we transfer to Saigon Airport for the flight to Siem Reap. On arrival at Siem Reap, we will be met by our Cambodian tour leader. One evening we will make our way to the temple complex and watch the sunset over this magnificent scene.
Full day to explore the complex of Angkor, including the Bayon, Ta Phrom, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat
A full day spent exploring the Angkor complex. We will visit the incredible Angkor Wat and the many temples inside the Royal City of Angkor Thom, including the magnificent Bayon, which comprises of 54 intricately carved towers in one single temple. The Bayon certainly left an impression on an early traveller in 1925 who stated ‘we stand before it stunned. It is like nothing else in the land.’ We will also see other less-visited outlying temples. Particularly impressive are Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm, which is still covered in jungle as it was first found. Re-discovered in the 1870s and famously described as being ‘grander than anything of Greece or Rome’ by the French explorer Henri Mouchot, this World Heritage Site stands alongside Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu as one of the world’s most spectacular archaeological sites. A truly magical experience and a photographer’s paradise.
End Siem Reap.