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New Updated Itinerary to Vietnam- Need HELP!!!

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With a lot of feedback from many of you on Fodor's I now have a new proposed itinerary. Since my husband and I will be traveling in early November it was recommended we cut out Central Vietnam due to the rainy season. So here is the new and improved itinerary that I would love feedback on. It is being proposed by Audley. Has anyone used them and have feedback on them?

Arrive in Hanoi- Stay at Sofitel Metropole for 2 nites
Take Sea Plane to Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay on the Violet for 2 nites- They recommended the 2 night cruise since I mentioned the overcrowding as per feedback from many of you. The 2 night supposedly goes to more remote places??
Disembark and drive back to Hanoi- Sofitel Metropole for 1 nite
Drive for 4 hours to Mai Chau- Stay at Mai Chau Ecolodge for 2 nites Not sure there is much to do here??
Drive back to Hanoi and then fly to Saigon-Stay at Sofitel Saigon Plaza for 2 nites or upgrade to Park Hyatt?
Flt to Siem Reap- Stay at Shinta Mani Resort for 3 nites or upgade to Phum Baitaing Bungalows
Fly to Bangkok from Siem Reap- Stay at The Peninsula for 3 nites.

Before I ask about sightseeing and restaurants I wanted to get the itinerary down. Any must see/do's would be appreciated.

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    Audley has a good reputation as a travel agency, but they will be vastly more expensive than using a local agency. They seem to be advising lots of stops for very little time, which gives them more profit, but gives you little time to get a feel for the places on your itinerary.

    Make sure the two night cruise you are taking is actually a two-night cruise, not two back-to-back one night cruises. This takes a fair chunk of your short time in SE Asia, so make sure you feel this is a priority.

    Crellston can tell you more about Mai Chau. I haven't been there. Can you drive to Mau Chau from Halong? Right now you have two days, back to back, one with a 5 hour drive, the other with a four hour drive. I prefer not to schedule myself that way. The one night in Hanoi is kind of worthless, it doesn't really give you more time to explore Hanoi. Basically, you have one full day in Hanoi - not nearly enough time. If it was me - and it isn't - I'd cut either Mai Chau or Halong Bay to get a minimum amount of time in Hanoi. Then you drive back to Hanoi - lots of driving here, not a lot of time to see/do/experience.

    What happened to your time on the Mekong Delta? You have two nights in HCMC, so just one day.

    Three nights in Siem Reap gives you just two days. Even if you just want to see the major temples, this isn't enough time. Get a copy of Dawn Rooney's book, Angkor: A Guide to Cambodia's Wondrous Temples as this will help you decide how much time to spend in Siem Reap.

    Unfortunately, your itinerary means you will be spending at least a third of your time in transit. That is way too much for me. Pause and think about what are the most important things for you to do/see/experience on this trip. Then build your itinerary around these things. Right now, I fear you will cover a lot of ground, but will be exhausted by the trip rather than thrilled by it.

    This could be a really wonderful trip - or a really awful one. Your planning at this stage will determine which it is.

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    If I call the two night Halong Bay cruise one hotel, then I have counted seven hotels over a period of fifteen nights, is that correct? That's too much moving around, especially when you are visiting three different countries. I would cut the hotel stays down from seven to five.

    Many of us here are ardent self-planners, but I understand that many people don't want to take the time to do so, and don't mind the extra expense of using a travel agent. However, you will get the best experience if you start being proactive. From your previous post, I get the impression that the travel agent is swaying you in certain directions, but a few hours of research on your part, along with some introspection can make this a great trip.

    For example, do you like nature walks, or visiting ethnic minorities? Do you prefer big cities? I would look on the website Travel Fish, to see what interests you. If you have a bookstore near you, then spend an hour or two looking at books on SEA, particularly the ones with pictures. If this travel agent is too bossy, then find another.

    I am confident that you can streamline this trip.

    And just to give you my two cents, I thought the Halong Bay cruise was a bust, and I am big on nature and scenery. I just went for the day, but it was enough. Did you know that the boats are "third world"? You may not like the cabins at all.

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    In Hanoi, you can book a free tour to travel around Hanoi and should stay in Old Quarter where you will travel easier to get other famous places than others. Further, Halong is a good place for romantic activities like night cruise in Lan Ha Bay and explore Halong caves by cruise

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    A few thoughts:

    Cruise: a one night cruise in the Bay suffices, imho. I don't see on its website that Violet goes to Bai Tu Long Bay--in fact, i believe only Indochina Junk Company's ships can go there, though this might no longer be correct.

    My ship and experience differed from California Lady's. The small ship I was on (Dragon Legend) had large room /cabin, big bathroom with spa tub and separate shower, luxurious if a bot o.t.t decor. Nothing "third world" about it, the meals, or the public areas on the boat.

    Where does the seaplane fly from?

    Mai Chau: A beautiful area! Hills and valleys, rice paddies. The Mai Chau Ecolodge is beautiful. When are you going? The hotel is in the middle of rice paddies and fields, surrounded y mountains.Depending on time of year, the paddies may be emerald green. Lots of bike /walkibng paths from the hotel, from which you will walk by villages, people tending to the fields, etc. Kathy mentioned Crellston, who spent longer in the area than did i, but (if i recall correctly) in quite rustic homestays a trek away from the town. Two days there is good, IF you want some r and r time. OR you might want to do one day there, and add a day to hanoi (I would). You asked about what to do there. You can take walks, or just sit from your terrace and enjoy the stunning view, or swim in the hotel pool. There's a market both in the town, and on a mountain road nearby (a small, very local, fantastic one!) but i think they are weekends only .

    Hanoi: I'd say that when returning, you should stay in a different hotel, perhaps one of the many excellent ones in the Old Quarter, such as one of the Essence or Elegance chain. Different experience, although not far , from the French Quarter where Metropole is located. I think i said this on a previous post--do not miss the bunker tour at the Metropole!!!!!

    As Kathie noted, it is likely you'll get better prices with a local agency rather than with Audley. Do compare the same itinerary, and come back and let us know. Maybe price difference will be insignificant, but In my research (for India--out of curiosity!) Audley was much higher than local companies, and the only difference I could detect was that they give clients a book version of the itinerary. I used Custom Vietnam Travel; others on Fodors have happily used Aurora/Viet Stay and others. Also, is not necessarily true that using an agency will cost you more than booking yourself.(There have been many other discussions of this so I won't go into reasons /experiences here.)

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    Audley were good when we used them 15 plus years ago. Effectively what they do is to engage a local operator to do most of the work. In our case it was Topas. In retrospect, it would who've been way cheaper to go direct with Topas and cut out the middleman.

    In dealing with local operators, I would be inclined to pay by cc as it will provide valuable protection on what will be an expensive trip. Many will ask to you to wire money - just don't !

    Kathie is spot on regarding checking on Halong Bay cruises - 2 day or back to back 1 day. We got caught with that scam and completely wasted a day. Specifically interested in Bai Tu Long, we got maybe 15 mins sailing past the entrance to the bay! Ok , we got a refund but it was still a waste of our time.

    I think several companies now go to Bai Tu Long bay but most will offer a night on one of the islands in addition to, or in place of staying on the boat.

    As you may have gathered some of us are less than impressed with Halong. Some people love it, if it is high on your personal wish list then go for it but do make sure you get them to specify EXACTLY what you are paying for.

    Mai Chau is all about the wonderful scenery and minority people's villages. It is a beautiful part of Asia. Mai Chau Ecolodge is in great location away from the town which is now way over touristed. Enough to do there? Depends on what you like doing. I spent hours just walking from village to village the first time we visted. The Ecolodge website should have details of activities they run.

    In terms of your overall itinerary, I too feel you are still trying to pack in too much. Each time you move location you can write off half a day minimum taking into account, packing, unpacking and waiting around in addition to the actual transport time. It would be worth asking Audley to include actual timings for those transfers to see exactly what is involve. Travel in Asia always takes longer than expected IME.

    For what it's worth, if you like cities, I feel Hanoi warrants 4 nts and 3 full days and Bangkok about the same, to really appreciate all they have to offer. That would leave 6 nights for elsewhere. Where to spend those remaining days very much depends on your interests. Siem Reap and Halong is a possibity. Ninh Binh and Mai Chau is another. As would be Saigon and the Mekong Delta. To further complicate matters, with some jiggling around, you could even consider a lux cruise from HCMC to Phnom Penh and then on to Siem Reap.

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    We've got 9 nights in Hanoi next February, split into 5 + 4, with 5 nights in Quy Nhon in between.

    I've booked our accommodation in the Old Quarter. The hotel, like nearly all hotels in Hanoi, work with a travel company. They organise loads of different tours to suit all pockets, and will easily put together a bespoke itinerary if necessary.

    We have some ideas on what we want to do, but we'll wait until we arrive before going firm. The weather forecast will be a factor. We'll save an absolute fortune by cutting out the middlemen.

    What we won't be doing is rushing around just ticking boxes.

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    CaliNurse- After all this back and forth and wonderful suggestions/recommendations from everyone I am not using Audley and will be using Custom Vietnam Travel. You indicated you used them. Did you like them? I am dealing with Susan. Are there any suggestions you have that I should be sure to deal with them on so that I am completely covered, like the timing of everything that you pointed out. I will be back to everyone after I finalize with them. Thanks again to everyone for your tremendous help.

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    No matter what agency you use, you will need to be proactive in order to get what you want. Design your own itinerary, tell them how many days in each place, and tell them what kind of hotels you want (or if you have a specific one you want, tell them that).

    So if you want to visit Bai Tu Long, you will need to tell them that. And from Crellston's experience, even then you may get 15 minutes there.

    I can offer you a couple of my "rules" for booking a trip. Make up your own rules - we all travel differently.

    - I don't stay anywhere less than three nights (which is still only 2 full days), unless it is just a transit stop. In general, I like 4 or 5 nights minimum in a place to get a real flavor for it.

    - Consolidate your time in a city into one longer stay rather than a a day here and a couple of days there.

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    I concur with the others about Halong bay. We spent two nights there and the second day was a waste. While the scenery was nice and the accommodations good (clean a/c room), the common areas were hot. The ride to and from Halong is endless and boring. If I were to do it again, I'd omit Halong bay and visit the Mai chau area instead. Hanoi definitely requires at minimum 3 days (4 nights). I highly recommend the elegance chain hotel in the old quarters for their fabulous service, food and atmosphere. You could plan this trip on your own for considerably less money...it is fairly easy to do with a bit of planning. The suggestion to go to a local library or book store is a good one. You really need to prioritize what you like best. Your choices are varied and all good - either fly to Saigon and spend a few days there combined with the Mekong delta, fly to Cambodia, or fly to Bangkok. There is plenty to do in each area. By being more selective and spending more time at each destination, you will see more rather than spending too much time traveling between places.

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    rjbriskin, I'm glad you have changed travel agencies. I remember reading about CaliNurse's posts while she was planning, and it looked like a fascinating trip. In fact, I was waiting to be invited along. I also agree with dgunbug about possibly planning on your own, but, what the heck, if it makes you feel more reassured to have help, then that's fine by me.

    I use a modified version of Kathie's three night rule. I try to AVERAGE three nights in a place. I throw in some four nighters, and some two nighters. It's just a matter of being efficient. I try to take either the first flight into a city or the last one, so I don't waste a day. If I have a driver transporting me from City A to City B, then I torture him by asking for a 7 AM pick up.

    To further confuse you, Battambang, Cambodia pairs nicely with Siem Reap. The countryside is beautiful, and full of history, both ancient, and recent, from the Pol Pot era. I had a driver pick me up at the Siem Reap airport, and drive me to Battambang. The same driver picked me up two days later, and dropped me off at my Siem Reap hotel.

    Ever the bossy sole, I suggest the following:

    Hanoi

    One more stop in Vietnam (Mai Chau or Saigon)

    Battambang

    Siem Reap

    Bangkok


    For the second Vietnam stop, you have to look inside yourself for your interests. I enjoy talking to people at local villages. I could sit and talk to some of the local ladies for hours. However, some people find that boring. If you like big cites and fun food, then you may prefer Saigon, with maybe a day trip into the Mekong.

    Keep us posted, and don't despair. We all get headaches while planning. I'm headed to Poland and Romania in three weeks, and I've been working on the trip on and off for a year, but it looks dazzling.

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    RJ, I loved working with Susan (Hien) from Custom Vietnam Travel. She's a lovely young woman, from a village in the Red River Delta. You likely will meet in person when you come to Hanoi. I lost count of how many questions I asked over several months of planning. She was always very fast, and very patient, with detailed replies and explanations. i admired not just her travel knowledge, but her pride and love of her country. Those suggestions she made which i did not follow, I wished later I had. With a nod to California Lady, who also recommended it... Susan thought I'd enjoy Sapa, but I decided against it after reading a few negatives. Wish I'd have listened. In one of several other examples, she saved me from a bad decision made --against her advice--about a particular homestay in Hanoi. She got my money back in full (despite cancellation policy-- doing it myself would have been more difficult, if not impossible) then got great rates (better than my own online searches) for the Sofitel Metrople. The point is...she'll respect what you want to do, but also will gently contribute her advice if you ask. For Mai Chau, she knew being there on a Saturday meant numerous Hanoi families doing weekend trips would be there too, so when booking,she requested a room in a quiet wing, away from the pool. Those little things are what for me make a good travel agent.

    If you tell her, as i did, that you want to see a less crowded area of Halong Bay -- she'll likely recommend an Indochina Junk Company ship, e.g. Dragon Pearl or Dragon Legend, which sail to Bai Tu Long Bay. Once we sailed out of Halong Bay's harbor, we saw only one other vessel besides the Legend's tender...a fishing boat!! No 15 minute quickie visit as Crellston experienced --you are in Bai Tu Long most of the time. As you read in my reply to your July 6 post, I enjoyed Dragon Legend--accommodation, staff, food, great fellow passenger variety in nationality, age, kinds of groups. Although hot outside, the public areas are covered with a canvas tarp, which, along with the bay breezes, kept us comfortable. Still, one night was enough for me, and since you have only 2 weeks, I'd suggest again, as have others, that you stick to one night.

    California Lady, I love your law of averages, and idea for torturing drivers!!!!

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    - Avoid hotels that accommodate tour groups, that includes 'posh' hotels.

    - For your main out-of-town sight-seeing trips try and avoid weekends, as these places get mobbed with coach loads of weekending locals.

    - Use weekends for exploring the main town that you're staying in.

    - In Hanoi, have a look at the Hanoi Kids website.

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    It's exciting that you are on the right track. I used an agent for my trip to Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos, but researched endlessly and planned non-stop for a long time at least for me -- about 8-9 months out. Based on my own research and suggestions from Fodorites, I changed my itinerary numerous times. So what??!! I was crafting the perfect itinerary for me and my children and I was paying for it! Don't be afraid to ask endless questions and change and swap and craft until you are completely satisfied. I chose the agent I did because I was very happy with the basic itinerary they set to me, the price and their customer service. Then I went to work! Many of the fun activities and cultural experiences I personally found added to our overall trip, but they contacted the outfitters and ensured that my ideas fit seamlessly into the overall itinerary, telling me if something would be tight or if I needed to cancel something else out to accommodate an idea I had. So like Kathie said, once you have chosen your operator, be proactive in telling them exactly what YOU want!

    Two more things. The best advice I got from Fodors, which I listened to is the number of days/nights in each city and when to cut something out. It was really good advice and made my trip so much more satisfying. Simple yet effective and made my time in Hanoi, Luang Prabang and Siem Reap so much more rich and helped the overall pace of the trip. I cut a whole city (which was several days) plus days off of Saigon (which I loved!) and Hoi An to add more days to the aforementioned. It was worth it!

    Lastly, I loved Ha Long Bay -- long drive and all. It's simply stunning. Having traveled and worked extensively in the third world, these junks ain't it. The worst junk on the bay is not the third world! Anyone living on a dollar a day would love to get on board! Conversely, if you are booked on the right fleet, they are gorgeous crafts that have comfortable rooms with full private baths and fantastic food. I did not find the common areas hot at all and I burned up all the way through Vietnam! The boat had nice breezes and fans and the rooms were air conditioned. With that said, I did believe one night was enough. I think some of the two night cruises allow for a candlelight dinner in a cave. See what extras are offered and make sure you stay on the same junk with a continuing itinerary if you do two nights, otherwise one night is satisfying. Try to schedule you next stop as soon as you disembark unless you want to spend more days in lovely Hanoi. We disembarked, had a car pick us up instead of going back on the bus and went straight to the airport to fly to Hoi An. The operator had the car stop at our hotel in Hanoi first to get our luggage beforehand because we traveled to Halong Bay with carry on bags. This worked out very nice.

    Good luck and happy planning. Don't get stressed as it's the fun part!

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