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Trip Report Brief trip report on recent trip to Luang Prabang, Vietnam and Siem Reap

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We returned recently from a 3 week trip to Luang Prabang (Laos), several cities in Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon) and Siem Reap (Cambodia). I wanted to share a few recommendations for others planning a similar trip. I’m not going to comment on places like museums and other historical sights because everyone should/will do some of those things.

Based on recommendations on this Forum, we worked with Tonkin Travel, a Hanoi-based travel agency, to plan the trip. They were excellent in every way – reasonably priced, responsive, able to adjust as necessary. I would highly recommend. In fact, we had planned and priced a nearly identical trip through a US-based company before I read through the Forum recommendations, and were quoted a MUCH higher price for a nearly identical trip. I know that many on the Forum indicate that an agency isn’t needed for travel in this area and they are probably correct, but we really liked having the full service in each place with transportation and local guides already arranged. Our guide in Luang Prabang was particularly wonderful – I’ll find and post his name separately. Our favorite hotels were the Hanoi La Siesta Hotel and Spa, their sister hotel in Hoi An called the Essence Hoi An Hotel and Spa and La Maison D’Angkor in Siem Reap. All three are lovely smaller hotels with fantastic service. In Hanoi, the hotel arranged a walking food tour around the Old Quarter that was just fantastic – our guide was a chef with his own restaurant outside the city - we ate extremely well in places we would never had the courage to try (and we’re pretty adventurous when it comes to eating) and it was just great fun following him all over the Old Quarter and hearing about his life and family.

In fact, the food was a real highlight of our trip. We took cooking classes in Luang Prabang at the Tamarind Garden – which is located a bit outside of town in a lovely grotto setting with the full cooking school outside under a covered roof. We also took cooking classes in Hue at the y Thao restaurant (a lucky last minute substitution due to a rained out biking schedule) and in Hoi An at the Green Bamboo cooking school. All the classes were completely different, focused on regional specialties and great fun as well as really instructional. I would recommend even for non-cooks because the markets and cuisine are essential to understanding the culture of these places. Probably the most fun we had on our trip was the XO Motorbike Food tour in Saigon. We were picked up at our hotel by lovely young women with motorcycles who drove us all over Saigon visiting true “local” restaurants, ordering the particular specialties at each place and explaining about the food, the neighborhood and the general scene. In between restaurants we visited some uniquely Saigon locales that aren’t in any guidebooks. After having watched the CRAZY motorbike traffic all over Vietnam from the vantage point of vans, taxis and tuk-tuks, it was a complete hoot to be in the middle of it ourselves. Really, really fun. Apparently XO Tours also does motorbike shopping tours as well, which I would have down in a heartbeat if we had known.

We found Luang Prabang nice but very touristy but enjoyed our hikes and trips outside of town; we would have been content with a day trip to Halong Bay and to continue south instead of the overnight on the junk – the Bay is beautiful but the ride from and back to Hanoi is excruciatingly long and boring; and we didn’t care for the city of Siem Reap at all. But we had a great time on our trip and would gladly visit again.

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