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Trip Report Bill and Patty back from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia

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Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia---with thanks to all the fodorite experts who helped me transform our journey from a brief trip to Vietnam to include all three countries at a good pace. We learned some things, made some good decisions, and lucked out a lot--almost as if we had some providential help! Some parts of the trip, though, were a bit more adventuresome than I had imagined.

Note: We used the anti-jet lag diet plan which has worked like a charm for us for over 25 years--arriving without a trace of jet lag. However, we didn't follow it very well on the way back and have been a bit tired this week.

We left LAX Thursday afternoon, flying Asiana through Seoul to Hanoi. Only a one hour layover, but it worked. Economy class--leg room was adequate and my husband is over 6'1". Two carryon suitcases and my camera bag and we were good to go.

Arrived Hanoi about 10 PM, picked up by a prearranged driver (I know, we could have found a taxi ourselves, but we both kind of like being picked up with no worries. That was one luxury we chose at each location and had no regrets about that.) Drove straight to the Hotel Elegance Diamond (thanks to your trip reports). We were greeted with watermelon juice in a goblet with a curvy straw. In our room, orchid petals were sprinkled on our white comforter. The bathrooms were great, pebbled floor, granite counter tops. Service was lovely. Breakfast on the 12th floor was delightful, with fabulous coffee, pho, dragon fruit, melons, and other fruits, croissants, cheese, etc.

Our schedule may seem hectic to some, but it worked for us. Day one in Hanoi started with a walk around the Old Quarter for two hours. The traffic was wild, but only about 10% as intense as traffic in Mumbai. Thao, a guide arranged ahead of time through Tonkin Travel (we used them for most of our arrangements), met us at noon and took us first to Tonkin's office to pay the remainder of the cost. Huong at Tonkin Travel was lovely. The arrangements she had made after several consultations by email worked extremely well for us. When two flights were changed later on, she quickly called us and FAXed us the revised tickets at the hotel.

We visited the Temple of LIterature, the Jade Temple--the usual--and had a one hour cyclo ride in separate cyclos around the Old Quarter. A bit of shopping at some very nice stores followed and then had dinner at a prearranged (by Tonkin) restaurant. The soup that night was to die for -- with a topping of small fried sticky rice balls, that melted in your mouth. Traditional music was played as we ate. A great calm intro to Vietnam, since the rest to follow was not always calm.

Since I wanted to go to the Bac Ha Market, we had to leave that night for the overnight train. I'm afraid I read too many horror stories about that train and was quite anxious about the whole event. My cousin had also travelled on it and told me that the bathrooms were disgusting, so I was having nightmares about how the trip would go. The worst actually had to do with how you get on the train! Our guide took our vouchers up to the counter and had to wait on tickets. Then we sat for quite awhile until a lady started checking tickets. Hanoi train station is busy and I don't think we could ever have found that train on our own. Crossed several tracks, walked a long distance, found our car and waited again. We booked a two-person cabin, which worked great for us and was definitely worth the price. Sapaly. Our room was tiny but clean and neat. The silky satin bedsheet-sleeping bag type thing we had brought never left its package. The sheets and pillowcase were freshly washed and there was water and snacks on the small table for us. We slept in our clothes, so we could get up during the night without worry. Well, I didn't really sleep, but I rested. The train was rickety and rolling like everyone says, but that added some charm. The bathroom turned out to be clean and was sprayed with water periodically, which I think some people had mistaken for something else. I did, however, sleep on the return trip. I talked to an Australian family of three who had shared a cabin with a German stranger and they said it worked out fine.

AT 5:15, we could hear people talking loudly so we hopped up and got ready for the day. There was an outlet (FYI) in the cabin so I was able to charge my iphone overnight. The cloud cover broke and we arrived at 7 AM and the bathroom was still pretty clean. Worries in vain. T______ was our prearranged guide (last one arranged by Tonkin for the trip) and walked us across the street to a friend's restaurant for pho for breakfast before our drive to Bac Ha.

Of course, we saw many hill tribes people, but the sun was already bright--not the best conditions for photography. Wandered for over two hours. Wish I had done more talking to people. We had lunch on the third floor of a restaurant nearby that seemed to serve every tourist here. Not great, but it was definitely time for a break.

After that, we drove around, to a Tay village, walked through it and took a ride there. Stopped to photograph a long cascade of terraces. On to the hotel in Sapa.

Sapa Boutique Hotel. Huong suggested it and we loved it. The owner was a lovely lady--actually Vietnamese although she dressed as Red Dzao. We had a room on the third floor (no elevator) right on the patio with tables and chairs. Since we wouldn't be seeing our guide again, he wrote us notes as to how to connect up with the return train (although he did later find us and instructed us which way to go). We weren't very hungry, so went down to the restaurant--after showering and changing--for Happy Hour drinks and snacks. Tried a taste of their apple wine (30% alcohol) and had delicious fresh spring rolls with a beer. Still hungry, we split a pizza. The following morning, the breakfast was excellent, a very good pho, fruits, including a crisp pear, watermelon, passion fruit, pineapple...with a large mug of Vietnamese coffee.

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