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options on 2 potential itineraries

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For my second trip to Vietnam these are 2 potential itineraries I have worked out. For the of you who have been recently, which do you think makes more sense? Arrival and departure is from hanoi and that cannot be changed. This will be from Feb. 22 to March 8, 2017

1.North to South
Feb. 21 arrive late ON Hanoi
Feb. 22 Hanoi touring ON Hanoi
Feb. 23-27 drive tour Ninh Binh, Mai Chau, etc
Feb 28 return to Hanoi ON Hanoi
March 1 fly Hanoi-Dong Hoi in am, drive to Phong Nha, afternoon cave tour, ON Phong Nha
March 2 all day Paradise cave tour ON Phong Nha
March 3 drive Phong Nha-Hue ON Hue
March 4 drive to Hoi An ON Hoi An
March 5-6 Hoi An
March 7 late afternoon flight Danang-Hanoi to connect with midnight flight home, stay at airport during connection

2. South to North
Feb. 21 arrive late ON Hanoi
Feb. 22 fly Hanoi-Danang am, drive to Hoi An ON Hoi An
Feb. 23-24 Hoi An
Feb 25 drive Hoi An-Hue ON Hue
Feb. 26 drive Hue-Phong Nha, afternoon cave tour, ON Phong Nha
Feb. 27 all day Paradise Cave tour ON Phong Nha
Feb. 28 morning flight Dong Hoi-Hanoi, drive to Nihn Binh ON
March 1-5 drive tour area Ninh Binh, Mai Chau, etc.
March 6 return to Hanoi ON Hanoi
March 7 tour in Hanoi, after dinner transfer to airport for midnight flight

Concerns: how much time to allow for a connection @HAN from domestic to int'l? What to do with luggage all day if last day is spent in Hanoi before going to airport for midnight flight?

Thanks for the input, Susie

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    I havent been to central or south VN, so can't help with those places, or the travel logistics, but can say "well done" to your 4 days/5 night trip to Mai Chau and Ninh Binh!!! Both very interesting and beautiful areas! I had only total 4 days and would have been glad to add another,as you have.

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    For the Ninh Binh and Mai Chau driving tour I'm in touch with 2 agents who have suggested trips, Ethnic Tours and Griswalds Vietnamese Vacations. I haven't settled on either one yet or an exact plan.

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    "Option 1" would make me nervous--I think I remember that you have award tickets in and out of Hanoi, right? Well, then, Susie, you are not protected for that same-day flight from Danang to Hanoi. I remember, when I was planning my trip to Vietnam, reading trip reports of FLOODING at Danang airport. For "Option 2", you arrive in Hanoi the day before.

    Regarding luggage storage, any hotel will keep you luggage on the day you depart Hanoi at a late hour, for "Option 2". In fact, my hotel kept my luggage and let me use their shower. It may even be worth paying extra for a very late check out, which in Vietnam, couldn't amount to much money at all.

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    Yes, I have award tickets for this trip.We leave VN on a JL flight to Narita then on to the US. Because we are in business class we will have use of a lounge at HAN for a shower before the flight, if the JL lounge has one. Or the late check out from a Hanoi hotel would work. For option 1 I could stay only one night in Hanoi after arrival before taking off on the driving tour and then return to Hanoi one day earlier to spend one more night there. Or shorten the time in Hoi An, which we have been to.

    Would anyone know the driving time from Phong Nha to Hoi An without the overnight in Hue? Is it too far for one day? I'd fly it but there are no flights between Dong Hoi and Danang. The only way to go by air is VDH- SGN-DAD as bel0w::
    5:00 pm – 6:35 pm
    Dong Hoi (VDH) – Ho Chi Minh City (SGN)
    VietJet Air 261 · Airbus A320
    1h 35m

    Layover in Ho Chi Minh City SGN1h 00m

    7:35 pm – 8:50 pm
    Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) – Da Nang (DAD)
    VietJet Air 652 · Airbus A320
    1h 15m

    or this
    1:20 pm – 2:55 pm
    Dong Hoi (VDH) – Ho Chi Minh City (SGN)
    VietJet Air 263 ·
    1h 35m
    Layover in Ho Chi Minh City SGN1h 25m

    4:20 pm – 5:35 pm
    Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) – Da Nang (DAD)
    VietJet Air 634 ·
    1h 15m
    I guess this takes less time than driving and spending a night at Hue which I also have already visited. I'm not too concerned about the cost of flights more about maximizing time.

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    Susiesan, for Mai Chau and Ninh Binh--in fact, all of my trip to North VN--I worked with Susan Hien Nguyen at Custom Vietnam Travels. Great help,super-patient, great advice (which I wish I'd have listened to more of!). Had two different excellent drivers, and one fantastic guide. Check out their website for itinerary ideas--there are Mai Chau and Ninh BInh trips listed-- all of which of course are totally flexible. No doubt the other two you mentioned are excellent--Crellston highly recommends Ethnic--but i like to get three to compare, if i'm using agent on trips.

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    Calinurse, I am currently working with 3 agents, Ethnic Travels, Griswalds Viet Vacations, and Indochina Odyssey. IO has the highest prices as I'm not sure they actually have their own drivers and guides. I may use different companies for different parts of the trip. Maybe Ethnic for Ninh Binh/Mai Chau, as the north is their specialty. And some one else for central area. I don't need a company for Phong Nha; the homestay/guesthouses can help book the cave tours. I may need some help with having a local agency get the domestic VN plane tickets for me.
    I will need to find a driver for Hoi An to Hue to Phong Nha.

    I am still undecided as to whether to go north to south and return to hanoi same day of flight, option 1 or start south to north option 2. Advice on TA is to not risk a same day int'l connection due to frequent delays and cancellations of VT airlines.

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    My trip to the North (including to very remote areas...which i personally would not recommend for assorted reasons--purely my experience) was with a fantastic guide who taught me so much and was able to communicate with the local people...and the same company plans trips all over VN I think using different companies for different segments seems kind of confusing,and time consuming, but again, that's just me.
    There are many companies with great reputations in VN---Ethnic, the one I used, the ones you mention, numerous kudos for there companies on this and other travel sites. One company should be able to address all your needs, other than what you want to book yourself (local tours, etc).

    I'm no expert on VN...only one two week trip to the north...but
    I'd take the advice of those who say not to risk same day connection from domestic onto international flight--not just in VN, but in India and no doubt
    other Asian countries I've not been to.

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    Calinurse:I contacted Custom Vietnam and am working with Liliana. She has already come up with an itinerary starting in Hoi An and going north, ending in Hanoi.The price is great, $600 less than IOT similar trip. I need to do some fine tuning and look at the hotel's they suggested. I may want to use different ones. Can I send you the itinerary to get your comments and opinion? What is your email?

    I will send this itinerary to Ethnic Travel and ask their price for their version to see who has the best deal. I don't mind paying d a bit more for better service and to be dealing with the agent who actually provides the drivers and guides. Trying to avoid the middleman. I may also make some of my own arrangements and pay for hotels or plane tickets separately.

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    Susiesan--maybe post your itinerary here too? ALL the hotels that CustomVietnamtravel recommended were GREAT.Smiley, the director, is a well -known tour guide in VN before starting the company. The hotels were all very reasonably priced! As I said earlier, I wish I had taken ALL the recommendations to heart, instead of insisting on some I wanted.

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    Susie, the reason I say post it here, rather than via email, is that I was ONLY in the north, and you are traveling throughout the country. So I would have limited feedback , and know nothing about the central or south areas.
    Ask for Mai Chau EcoLodge in Mai Chau--you'll love it and it is worth it!!

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    Here is the suggested itinerary:

    Feb. 21 arrive late ON Hanoi
    Upon your arrival at Noi Bai airport, you will be warmly welcome by Custom Vietnam Travel’s guide and driver. Then get transferred to downtown for check in your hotel. Overnight in Hanoi.
    Feb. 22: Hanoi tour [B, L]
    Have breakfast at your hotel. At 9:30am, our guide will be back and take you out to visit Hanoi city. The sites include of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, his house-on-stilts, One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature - Vietnam’s first university. In the afternoon, the tour continues with a visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Followed with the Hoan Kiem lake and Ngoc Son temple over the Red Bridge before your street food dinner. Together with the tour guide, you will start the walk through different narrow streets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Led by your local guide hear stories of the ingredients and history of Hanoi’s food culture and sample Northern Vietnamese cuisine. The menu will be chosen together between you and the guide and we will start with some light food such as crispy Hanoi “pillow” dumplings, varieties of sticky rice, yoghurt with fermented wild rice, fried sour spring rolls … and end the day at a nice coffee shop famous with the “egg coffee” in the Old Quarter. Overnight in Hanoi.
    Feb. 23: Hanoi – Flight to Danang for Hoi An [B]
    Take a morning flight from Hanoi to Danang. Get picked up from Danang airport and transfer to Hoi An town for check in hotel. Free for rest of the day.
    Feb. 24: Hoi An free [B]
    Today is free at leisure. Overnight at the same hotel in Hoi An.
    Feb 25: Hoi An free [B]
    Today is free at leisure. Overnight at the same hotel in Hoi An.
    Feb. 26: Hoi An – Hue [B, L]
    This morning, take a 2.5 hour drive to Hue via Hai Van pass with optional stops on the way for taking photo and sightseeing at Dragon Bridge, Cham museum, Non Nuoc Beach and Hai Van pass. Upon arrival in Hue, check in hotel and have lunch at a local restaurant. In the afternoon, you will be visiting the Royal Citadel where the Nguyen Dynasty ruled between 1802 and 1945. The Imperial City is located in the centre of the Citadel where established highest offices of Vietnam's feudalism and sanctums honouring the cult of decreased Emperors. Together with your personal guide, you will take a walk throughout the complex and enjoy the beautiful constructional works divided many sectors. Back to the hotel late in the afternoon. Overnight in Hue.
    Feb. 27: Hue tour – Dong Hoi [B, L]
    To start the day, you will embark a dragon boat at a little dock by the bank of the poetic Perfume River for a short cruise to Thien Mu Pagoda, constructed in 1601; the 21-meter stupa tower is the masterpiece of this charming pagoda. Thence getting back to your private vehicle and drive out of the city to visit Minh Mang King’s tomb. This imperial tomb is without doubt the best-combined natural landscape and architectural complex. It was designed on a symmetric axis. Visiting the tomb, you will be impressed by the majesty and symmetry of the architectural constructions. After that, you will enjoy a beautiful lunch at a nice garden restaurant. Thence take a drive to Dong Hoi with a stop to visit Hien Luong Bridge. Overnight in Dong Hoi.
    Feb. 28: Paradise Cave [B, L]
    After breakfast at your hotel, our guide and driver will pick you up for a drive to Paradise cave. Spend the day visiting this amazing cave. Paradise Cave is the longest dry cave in Asia. With naturally primitive features, Paradise Cave looks like a landscape painting, making it very attractive. Back to your hotel for overnight.
    March 1: Phong Nha Cave – Dark Cave [B, L]
    Today, you will have whole day explore the impressive Phong Nha cave and Dark Cave. Upon arrival, take 25 minute boat trip to Phong Nha cave and spend a couple hours to see the cave. This cave is called as water cave, is famous for its rock formation which has been given names such as the “Lion”, the “Fairy Caves”, the “Royal Court”, and the “Buddha”. Lunch at a local restaurant then continue to visit Dark Cave with optional activities such as kayaking, zip-lining, mud-bathing.
    March 2: Dong Hoi – Hanoi – Ninh Binh [B, L]
    Take early morning flight to Hanoi. Upon arrival, get picked up and take a drive straight to Ninh Binh. This afternoon, you will be taken to Thung Nang boat dock for a sampan boat ride. The ride takes about 1, 5 hours which is up and down a narrow river, rowed by a nearby villager. The boat ride is absolutely beautiful as we are moving in between the limestone cliffs, gentle and quiet! It also includes the row through two tunnel-like caves. Late in the afternoon, check in your hotel and rest. Dinner and overnight in Ninh Binh.
    March 3: Ngoa Long Mountain & Van Long Nature Reserve [B, L]
    After the breakfast in the hotel, we start our day with a short drive to Hang Mua where we will hike up Ngoa Long Mountain. The summit is the highest point in the region which offers you a great 360-degree view over the karst country. It is rather hard in the hot and humid day (Old folks are not recommended on the hot day as there are 500 steps to hike). This is followed by a flat-ground walk to a rice field, see domestic animal farms. Lunch is at a quiet restaurant which belongs to a kind of small retreat. After lunch, we move on our walk to the main road, get on our private transport and head for Van Long Nature Reserve. Upon arrival, we will hop on a sampan boat for another 1, 5-hour ride. This reedy wetland is calm and environmentally beautiful. It is worth boat riding through this island-like landscape of karst limestone mountains. Get back to your hotel and spend the second night in Ninh Binh.
    March 4: Ninh Binh – Mai Chau [B, L]
    A smooth drive will take you along beautiful rural scenery of green paddies, forested hills and karst formations. Stop for a visit to a village of Muong minority people located in an evergreen valley. Wandering around to learn about their typical lifestyle and tradition then have lunch served in a local house. Cruise on Hoa Binh lake and enjoy the picturesque scenery then take a short drive to get to Mai Chau. Check in home stay and dinner is served with local specialties and followed by a traditional music and dance performance (Optional). Overnight in the local traditional stilt-house.
    March 5: Mai Chau [B]
    After your breakfast at the homestay, go for a soft trek about 2, 5 hours to explore the surroundings and visit some villages, rice paddies and gardens. Or you can choose to discover the area by bicycles. This is the best time for you to learn the daily life of the country rustics, their agriculture and beautiful handicrafts. Afternoon is free at leisure. Today you will stay at Mai Chau Eco Lodge.
    March 6: Mai Chau - Hanoi free [B]
    This morning is free for relax and enjoy your lodge’s facilities or having more explorations to the area on your own. Check out at noon time when our staff comes and transfer you back to Hanoi. Overnight at the same hotel in Hanoi.
    March 7: Tour in Hanoi, after dinner transfer to airport for midnight flight [B, L]
    Today, if you can wake up early (5am), our guide will lead you to visit Quang Ba flower market and Long Bien market to witness hundreds types of flowers and thousands types of products brought from everywhere are for sale. Then back to your hotel and have breakfast. Free for the rest of the morning. In the afternoon, visit more places of interest inside Hanoi city such as Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Tran Quoc Pagoda and walk around West Lake. Dinner at your own account before get transferred to the airport for your flight off. End of service.

    ❖ Package price in USD: $1387 per person for private group of 2 people:

    City Hotel Name
    Hanoi Essence Hanoi Hotel, Deluxe
    Hoi An Essence Hoi An Hotel, Deluxe
    Hue Eldora Hotel, Deluxe City View
    Quang Binh Phong Nha Lake House Resort, Deluxe Lake View
    Ninh Binh Ninh Binh Legend Hotel, Superior
    Mai Chau Homestay
    Mai Chau Mai Chau Eco Lodge, Superior

    ROUTINE PRICE PER TICKET
    HANOI – DANANG $90
    DONG HOI - HANOI $85
    Total airfare $175 USD/per person

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    Essence Hanoi Hotel is excellent!! Sartoric, another post-er, stayed there recently too and recommends it! I'm sure any of the Essence Hotels --including Hoi An--would be fine. If you want smaller place in Hoi An, Susan Nguyen at CustomVietnam also suggested Betel Garden Homestay, where she'd been. Check it out as an alternative. Btw, i wish I HAD gone to Hoi An before deciding to stay focused on just the northern region.

    Booking Mai Chau Ecolodge to follow your stilt-house exoerience is a great idea. You'll be ready for some luxury after the homestay! IF you are at Mai Chau Ecolodge on a weekend, be prepared for Hanoi weekend-trip families with kids! if you want peace and quiet, have the agent specify a room AWAY from the pool. CVT requested a quiet corner room, so instead of pool view, I had gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains ad rice fields. (Pix are on my tripadvisor reviews, using same name as here.)

    I would change Ninh Binh Legend Hotel.The reason: if is the one I'm thinking of, it is a new and modern hotel , no doubt good value-for-money if that is what you want, but not a particularly "local" feel, or in an especially scenic area. There are soooo many lovely little inns and homes in the area surrounding the city. Check TA under "B and B'"AND "Specialty Lodging" for Ninh Binh. For example, i just saw a new, small one called "Garden Homestay that piqued my interest. I stayed at Nguyen Shacks but did not care for it (despite its rave reviews on TA)and wish i'd have gone with Limestone View Homestay instead--my first choice).

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    calinurse: I will be in country from from Feb. 21 to March 8. Weather should be perfect, not too hot in center, cool in north and not rainy season. This a few weeks after Tet and VNY so crowds should be down.

    This plan is an outline, a starting point. I have 9 months to tinker and fine tune it. I asked Ethnic for their price on the same thing and they came back with these hotels, price of $1095 pp:
    MK Hotel in Hanoi
    Hoi An Hotel in Hoi An
    Saigon Morin Hotel in Hue
    Quang Bnhh Phong Nha Lake House Resort
    Yen Mo Homestay Lodge in Ninh Binh
    Mai Chau Homestay Lodge in Mai Chau

    I asked CVT to make a modification and this past has changed, one more day in Ninh Binh area:
    Feb. 26: Hoi An – Hue [B, L]
    This morning, take a 2.5 hour drive to Hue via Hai Van pass with optional stops on the way for taking photo and sightseeing at Dragon Bridge, Cham museum, Non Nuoc Beach and Hai Van pass. Upon arrival in Hue, check in hotel and have lunch at a local restaurant. In the afternoon, you will be visiting the Royal Citadel where the Nguyen Dynasty ruled between 1802 and 1945. The Imperial City is located in the centre of the Citadel where established highest offices of Vietnam's feudalism and sanctums honouring the cult of decreased Emperors. Together with your personal guide, you will take a walk throughout the complex and enjoy the beautiful constructional works divided many sectors. Back to the hotel late in the afternoon. Overnight in Hue.
    Feb. 27: Hue tour – Dong Hoi [B, L]
    To start the day, you will take a 5 hour drive to Dong Hoi with stops on the way for taking photos, visit Hien Luong Bridge and have lunch at a local restaurant on the way. After lunch, back to your car and head to explore the impressive Phong Nha cave. Upon arrival, take 25 minute boat trip to Phong Nha cave and spend a couple hours to see the cave. This cave is called as water cave, is famous for its rock formation which has been given names such as the “Lion”, the “Fairy Caves”, the “Royal Court”, and the “Buddha”. Overnight in Dong Hoi.
    Feb. 28: Paradise Cave [B, L]
    After breakfast at your hotel, our guide and driver will pick you up for a drive to Paradise cave. Spend the day visiting this amazing cave. Paradise Cave is the longest dry cave in Asia. With naturally primitive features, Paradise Cave looks like a landscape painting, making it very attractive. Back to your hotel for overnight.
    March 1: Dong Hoi – Hanoi – Ninh Binh [B, L]
    Take early morning flight to Hanoi. Upon arrival, get picked up and take a drive straight to Ninh Binh. This afternoon, you will be taken to Thung Nang boat dock for a sampan boat ride. The ride takes about 1, 5 hours which is up and down a narrow river, rowed by a nearby villager. The boat ride is absolutely beautiful as we are moving in between the limestone cliffs, gentle and quiet! It also includes the row through two tunnel‐like caves. Late in the afternoon, check in your hotel and rest.
    Dinner and overnight in Ninh Binh.
    March 2: Ngoa Long Mountain & Van Long Nature Reserve [B, L]
    After the breakfast in the hotel, we start our day with a short drive to Hang Muawhere we will hike up Ngoa Long Mountain. The summit is the highest point in the region which offers you a great 360‐degree view over the karst country. It is rather hard in the hot and humid day (Old folks are not recommended on the hot day as there are 500 steps to hike). This is followed by a flat‐ground walk to a rice field, see domestic animal farms. Lunch is at a quiet restaurant which belongs to a kind of small retreat. After lunch, we move on our walk to the main road, get on our private
    transport and head for Van Long Nature Reserve. Upon arrival, we will hop on a sampan boat for another 1, 5‐hour ride. This reedy wetland is calm and environmentally beautiful. It is worth boat riding through this island‐like landscape ofkarst limestone mountains. Get back to your hotel and spend the second night in NinhBinh.
    March 3: Cuc Phuong National Park
    This morning, we take a drive to Cuc Phuong National Park. This forest reserve contains a wonderfully rich ecosystem. The rocky outcrops are covered by dense rainforest and make it ideal place for nature lovers to come and visit. At the park’s gate, after paying the entrance fee, we keep driving into the park’s center to embark on a loop trek on a small forest trail. The trek takes almost 3 hours. Your late lunch is served at the park’s restaurant. In the afternoon, before our return journey, we will pay a visit to the park’s primate rescue center where you will learn something about
    some of the special Langurs (Monkeys) and the park’s rescue program before releasing them back to the wild. Back to your hotel for overnight.
    March 4: Ninh Binh ‐ Mai Chau [B, L]
    A smooth drive will take you along beautiful rural scenery of green paddies, forested hills and karst formations. Stop for a visit to a village of Muong minority people located in an evergreen valley. Wandering around to learn about their typical lifestyle and tradition then have lunch served in a local house. Cruise on Hoa Binh lake and enjoy the picturesque scenery then take a short drive to get to Mai Chau. Check in home stay and dinner is served with local specialties and followed by a traditional music and dance performance (Optional). Overnight in the local traditional stilt‐
    house.
    March 5: Mai Chau [B]
    After your breakfast at the homestay, go for a soft trek about 2, 5 hours to explore the surroundings and visit some villages, rice paddies and gardens. Or you can choose to discover the area by bicycles. This is the best time for you to learn the daily life of the country rustics, their agriculture and beautiful handicrafts. Afternoon is free at leisure. Today you will stay at Mai Chau Eco Lodge.
    March 6: Mai Chau ‐ Hanoi free [B]
    This morning is free for relax and enjoy your lodge’s facilities or having more explorations to the area on your own. Check out at noon time when our staff comes and transfer you back to Hanoi. Overnight at the same hotel in Hanoi.

    The cost is now $1423 pp. I like how lunches are included. Do you remember if the restaurants you were taken to were acceptable?

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    All the meals were great. It's hard to have abad meal in VN!

    What i liked is that they took me to cry local places The guide knew the great places it seemed, in every little village!

    and the coffee places...wonderful! I went o a search for the best iced coffee to help me cool down.
    VERY smart to MNT go when weather his hot.
    I can't weight in on the other hotels--dont know any. i HOPE crellston or someone else who has used Ethnic can comment on the accommodations/prices.

    ASK CVT if they can exchange the hotel in Ninh Binh for a recommended homestay. This should lowe the price a bit. I asked about Limestone View Homestay, and Susan knew the village where it is, and would have booked me there had i not requested Nguyen Shacks, Wish i hadn't--but that is just me.

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    sorry for typos. meant it is had to haVe a bad meal in VN.they took me to local places, but remember, my route was quite different from yours. Still, i would trust them to know the good places. I was traveling alone and often the guide and driver ate with me but you will be with someone. You can still ask them to join you--it was fun.
    meant --very mart to NOT go when weather hot

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    So you had both a driver and guide? I figured the drivers did double duty. We love to eat at local places. Last trip we usually fed our guide because it was so cheap. Since I can't eat spicy food it was good to have him with us to help order and avoid chilis or spicy food.

    I have already asked to have CVT hotel in Phong Nha changed to a homestay, Phong Nha Mountain Home. I will research their hotel suggestions and may make some changes. The hotel in Hoi An is a big one and I'd prefer a villa or small b&b.

    I'm wondering if 2 full days is enough time for Hanoi? Since we have been before and seen the big tourist places maybe so. I did want to do a street food tour and they have one planned for the first night for dinner.

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    I spent 3 nights/4 days with Ethnic Travel earlier this year in April. We stayed at Yen Mo homestay, it was comfortable and welcoming. The rooms had an attached wet room style bathroom, there was wifi. Cold beers were available in the dining room/kitchen. They offered a cooking class for those who were interested, or you could watch.

    The earlier lodge we stayed in was much more basic, although eating on a cushion on the floor with the family and guides/ drivers was great. The views here are spectacular over rice paddies to mountain. That's a mitigant for dealing with tiny rooms, remote bathrooms and no wifi.

    Our guide and driver were great fun. The driver spoke little English, so the guide would translate and we'd all be enjoying friendly banter. We ate together every meal except one. The meals were delicious and different every time, except for rice, there was always rice. The guide will help you avoid spice.

    This was our second trip to Hanoi as well. We'd seen many of the popular sites, still saw some others that we'd missed first time. We easily filled three full days.

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    I had a driver and guide. Unlike in India, or many places in Africa , where the drivers are the guides and vice versa ll (narrating along the way) in VN according to my research, this is rare. The two drivers spoke little English, although that was fun, and as Sartoric said, the guide translated what was being said--not only by the driver, and the people we met, but by the local tribes people who seem to have their own dialect/language!

    Sartoric, Yen Mo homestay sounds positively luxurious!!! I was at two homestays--neither was like Yen Mo , to put it mildly. Love how you phrased it: the mitigant factor...so true! Or watching the lady of the house squatting in front of the fire as she cooked dinner, or seeing four generations of a family doing their thing.

    Susiesan, re Hanoi---I ended up there six nights total, at different times of the trip. Two of those days were two too many, although i suspect that had a lot to do with the horrid heat. It is, as you know, a great walking city, and the the heat affected the enjoyment of that. If i were returning, I'd book as you have--two full days, and in milder weather!

    As sad earlier for Hoi An, check CVT Ms Nguyen's recco of Betel Garden Homestay, which is far from rustic! The homestay term is loosely used (not just in VN!) and it seemed that some places describing themselves as such are more like small inns--not an actual home.

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    I've been looking at the hotel recommendations. I like the look of the Essence Hotels, both the hanoi and Hoi An locations. The Betel garden in Hoi An might be a better choice for a villa hotel stay since Hoi An is the place to do it. Hoi An Hotel recommended by Ethnic Looks very nice too.

    Ethnic Travel came back with their cost for the same itinerary with a change to the Ninh Binh part:
    Day 10: March 2: Dong Hoi / Fly to Hanoi / Ninh Binh / Van Long Nature Reserve / Yen Mo
    This morning we will take a short fly to Hanoi. Upon your arrival we will pick you up and journey to Ninh Binh. Upon our arrival at Van Long Nature Reserve. Here, we enjoy a boat trip along the beautiful reserve of Van Long, an unique area known for its magnificent limestone peaks.
    Next, we take a short transfer to Yen Mo, a village in Red River Delta is our home tonight.This area is home to Kinh people with their rich culture. They provide us the unique opportunity to experience the pace of village life in rural Vietnam. We we settle in with a family to make authentic Vietnamese food, such as succulent Spring Rolls, zesty dipping
    sauce, fresh rice noodles and sticky rice. We then enjoy the family‛s gracious hospitality as they share dinner with us. The night is spent in a lodge for the night. (Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included).
    Notes: Yen Mo Homestay Lodge.

    Day 11: March 3: Yen Mo / Thung Nang / Trang An / Hang Mua Cave / Ngoa Long Mountain
    / Yen Mo
    Today we explore Thung Nang and Trang An. This is an area which is famed for the beauty of its dramatic rock formations and its picturesque villages, offering some opportunities for boating and mingling with local people. Peaceful waterways, miles and miles of vivid green rice fields stretch along the shores of the Red river's tributaries and the intimacy
    of the countryside. Next, we will take a bicycle ride around several villages and witness the tight-knit community at work. We learn about agriculture, such as rice cultivation, and the growing of peanuts and assorted vegetables, a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Time
    permitting, we discover Hang Mua and take a hike up Ngoa Long Mountain. Following is that we return to our lodge for the night. (Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included).
    Notes: Yen Mo Homestay Lodge.

    Day 12: March 4: Ninh Binh / Mai Chau / Te Village
    We depart from Yen Mo to Mai Chau District. On arrival at a village of Mai Ha, we hike and cycle around the open rice fields, and idyllic villages in a particularly picturesque part of the area. We absorb the daily life and appreciate the warmth and friendliness of the local people we meet along the way. This is followed by our delicious lunch in a local family.
    Afternoon finds us a footpath surrounded by terraces and picturesque hills. We hike due to Te Village. The night is spent in one of the White Thai family. The Thai people are an ethnic minority group originally from southern China and ethnically linked to the Thai inThailand. We enjoy the warm hospitality over a dinner with the host and an overnight stay
    in a traditional stilt-house. (Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included).
    Notes: Mai Chau Homestay Lodge.

    Day 13: March 5: Te Village / Sam Khoe / Mai Ha / Te Village
    The day begins with a beautiful hike through the tiers of splendid rice terraces and past several idyllic villages. We return to our homestay lodge for the night. (Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included).
    Notes: Mai Chau Homestay Lodge.
    Day 14: March 6: Te Village / Black River / Hanoi
    This morning we take a short drive to Black River for a delightful boating ride along this river. Following lunch in a local restaurant, we drive back to Hanoi, arriving there at around 5pm. We will spend the night in a hotel. (Breakfast and lunch are included).
    Notes: MK Hotel .
    Day 15: March 7: Hanoi Sightseeing / Departure
    Today, if you can wake up early (5am) we will visit Quang Ba flower market and Long Bien market to witness hundreds types of flowers and thousands types of products brought from everywhere are for sale. Next, we return to our hotel for having breakfast. The rest of your time you can relax and wander around Hanoi Old Quarter. No trip to Hanoi is really
    complete without a performance of Hanoi's famous water puppets. Next, we will pick you up for a short transfer to Hanoi airport for boarding your preferred flight. (Breakfast is included).

    The facts…
    Transport: kayak, plane, boat, bicycle and a private car.
    Tour Guides: our experienced and friendly Tour Guides speak excellent English or French.They are extremely knowledgeable about local cultures, history and the environment.Accommodation: Clean and welcoming homestays with mosquito nets provided.
    Meals: We choose local ingredients, typical of the way people eat in the area, at local restaurants, homes or markets. We also cater for Vegetarians but please request this at time of booking.

    The trip cost: $1,245USD per person.
    The cost of the trip includes: all accommodation, transportation, meals listed on the itinerary, Tour Guides, flight tickets for both ways, all entrance fees and permits during guided excursions.

    Those of you who have toured in the Mai Chau/Ninh Binh areas whose version looks more interesting?

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    They both look interesting. I can really only comment on the Ethnic Travel itinerary as it is similar to what we did.

    As previously said, we stayed at a Yen Mo lodge and found it very comfortable. Day 12. - Mai Ha village is probably the same place where we had lunch. The food was great, and everyone was very welcoming.

    The trek to the lodge at Te village takes about 3 hours over fairly steep terrain. I bailed mainly due to the heat, but DH continued, at least it won't be so hot in November. The lodge was a traditional stilt house with a pleasant underneath area for sitting around and taking in the views. Be aware the rooms are small, the bathrooms are separate. The family was very welcoming and the food again was excellent.

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    Susiesan



    Hi Susie. I have. Already commented commented your itineraries by email but a word re homestays. As mentioned by both CaliNurse and Sartoric, the term "Homestay" means very different things in different places and is becoming almost as confusing and overused as "boutique". Such is the art of marketing tourism I guess.

    It pays to know what to expect. The homestays with our Ethnic Trip last year what we asked for, and got, were true/basic/original type homestays. These involved living, sleeping and eating with the family. We purchased the food for the trip ourselves at the market before setting off and helped cook it (when invited). Sleeping arrangements were basic i.e. A mattress on the floor of the family communal room once dinner was cleared away. Separated by the rest if the family by a curtain. Toilet facilities were usually away from the house. Cold water only.

    This type of homestay is really all about interacting with the family (at one I ended up looking after the baby whilst mum and my wife cooked dinner!).

    We have stayed at more comfortable homestays in the delta, great locations yes, but they did lack the interaction and, being purpose-built they were arguably better described as boutique guesthouses. Some of the bigger lodges around Mai Chau are supposed to be especially nice, but I haven't stayed in one so can't comment first hand. Just make sure that you are not in one of the 40-50 "homestays" in the main MC village especially at weekends when the crowds arrive from Hanoi. The Men Tho place Sartoric stayed in sound fantastic!

    The homestays we stayed in in the area you will be visiting were Xom Moi, Hang and Nua villages ( there was another but I failed to write it down! They were all great but of the basic variety described above.

    As I mentioned previously and I think CaliNurse commented on here, check accomodation in Ninh Binh. We stayed in a v. Boring Chinese type hotel. Modern concrete. A bit of a disappointment after the homestay - but the hot showers were VERY welcome!

    I noticed the Saigon Morin mentioned in Hue. We stayed there a few years ago and found it a bit dull. If you want to splash out ( and probably not much more) check out http://www.la-residence-hue.com where we also stayed. VERY stylish Art Deco hotel right on the river. I would say definitely the best place in town at that level. Probably best to book direct on the Accor website for best rates (join their loyalty programme first). A little further out of the centre but as you will be doing a tour that shouldn't make too much difference.

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    Clive: I wasn't going to have the type of trekking and homestay experience in Ninh Binh that you did. I don't mind one night in a basic home but that will be enough for me. Do you remember the name of the NB Chinese hotel?

    A we will be in Hue only one night, just passing through, La Residence looks very expensive close to $170. Eldora Hotel from CVT is in the $65 range. I have plenty of time to research hotels and ask for changes which could make the total cost go up or down, I know. I'm thinking the big difference in the price from Ethnic Travel and Custom Vietnam Tours is due to the hotels chosen. More basic, less expensive from Ethnic plus 4 nights of homestays.

    sartoric: I can find nothing on the Yen Mo lodge. Do you know where Ican see a description and photos? It is not on TA.

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    Susiesan,

    Ask Ethnic travel to send you photos, they did for me.
    It's a purpose built place with maybe 8 or nine rooms, they grow a lot of their food in the front yard. The kitchen/dining area is all in the same room (shoes off of course).

    The beds were comfy, came with a mossie net.

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    Another suggestion for Ninh Binh: NAM HOA HOTEL! Note that the actual city of Ninh Binh is crowded and without charm--it is the surroundings are what draws people.This place is outside the town, as are the other homestays mentioned above.
    Went with driver and guide in my daily search for perfect iced coffee, sat out on their sidewalk café (the Vietnamese equivalent of a French village café, perhaps!) and then I had lunch upstairs in dining roomon the 7th floor. Wow--Stupendous views of surrounding karsts.
    THe staff at both reception, café, and restaurant were soooo friendly , I asked to see a hotel room. Because this is as far from a boxy modern concrete hotel as you can get, I was expecting a "local" style, basic, un-"western" bathroom--the kind with the unenclosed shower spout spraying everywhere! Well,not only was the room lovely ,and clean ... bathroom had a proper enclosed shower. And oh the bliss of well-functioning air conditioning. Anyway,if you prefer a hotel to a true homestay... check it out! Price is very reasonable--maybe $25 USD per night? Location is great, right across the from the small park and entrance to one part Tam Coc caves. Lots of rowboats and people were there--the caves I went to, there were far fewer people.
    When I told Susan at CVT about this hotel "discovery" she said they had many clients stay and enjoy it. However, I expect that because it is more very inexpensive "local style", they don't automatically recommend it on their itineraries. Tnis would definitely be a budget level option.

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    As I requested, CVT has suggested Mua Cave Ecolodge for Ninh Binh. This lodge is #1 specialty lodging on TA. Double room $35. If you stay here you don't have to pay to go into the park and visit the cave.

    I also asked CVT about Betel Garden Homestay in Hoi An as an alternate for a big hotel. Changing these 2 hotels drops $57 pp off the total price.

    Nam Hoa Hotel looks very good too. Superior room is $36

    Which caves had less people? Travel books on this area say you don't need to go to both Tam Coc and Trang An (think those are the names of the 2 caves to go to on the small boats)

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    I went to Trang An. NO other boats were passed there or back. It was a weekday morning. Women row with their feet!
    Mua Cave Ecoladge...another I wish i'd listened to CVT about! it is actually only a few minutes walk from where I stayed, at Nguyen Shacks. NS is around the bend, so you can't see it, but when looking for it, we pulled to end of road where Mua Cave Ecolodge was. You can hike from right behind it.You are out in the countryside there for sure, surrounded by mountains.

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    I have decided to spend one less day in Ninh Binh/Mai Chau area and one more in Hanoi at the end of the trip. I will have a total of 4 nights in Hanoi and want to split it between 2 different areas and hotels.

    Suggestions given by CVT for first 2 nights are to stay at Oriental Central
    http://orientalcentralhotel.com

    Upon returning to Hanoi at the end they suggest Essence Hanoi for the last 2 nights
    http://essencehanoihotel.com/essence-hanoi-hotel-spa

    Both hotels appear to be in the same neighborhood, the Old Quarter. Does this plan make sense?

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    The hotels are indeed both in the same area of the Old Quarter, just north of the lake, and are only a few blocks apart. So you are really not staying in different areas, far from it.
    Based on the links, only I think I would prefer the essence. It is easy to get around from that area of the old quarter but it does get very, very busy. Stepping out of your hotel right into the hustle and bustle does have its advantages but personally, I prefer the area just to the east of the lake, around St Joesphs, quieter than the old quarter but still very much old Hanoi, yet within a 5 min walk of the old quarter and also within walking distance of the French quarter around the Metropole ( which does have a very different feel to it). The only area I wasn't that keen on was the west lake area.

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    Clive, can you suggest a hotel in the area east of the lake? If we have to walk 5 minutes into Old Quarter for dinner I don't mind. Other than the Sofitel Metropole which is way too expensive, I don't see many places on TA. I'm looking for something in a similar price range and star class of Essence Hanoi, $60 a night or so. CVT has suggested a hotel near the Metropole, La Siesta Hotel @$85 a night.

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    Lots of hotels called Essence in Hanoi! Must be a chain. The Metropole is a it further away in the French Quarter. Stayed there a couple of times a few years back and wasn't that impressed, way overpriced.

    Last year we stayed at the Sunline Hotel. Small but nice rooms and really friendly and helpful staff - I think around $50-60 depending upon room.

    Some friends stayed at the Hanoi Pearl, just down the same street from the Sunline, that too was very nice around $80 I think.

    A REALLY nice place was the Apricot Hotel. V. close to the top of the lake, not far from the previous two. It opened last year and looked really nice. We ate there but didn't stay. It was on a par with the Metropole but at half the price.

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    I've heard the Metropole has improved in last few yrs. That aside, Susiesan, I there's a hotel in your pve range, just across and one minute down the street from the "Opera" entrance of the Metropole. it is called The Conifer.
    I'm keeping it in mind if ever again in hanoi as it is in the French Quarter, which makes a nice change from the Old Quarter (which, after four nights, I was ready to get out of).
    I noticed the Apricot too, Crellston, and indeed it looked lovely from outside and in lobby and gets good reviews. SS--note that it is NOT in the French Qtr, if you specifically want that, but across the lake. My travel agent at CVT recommended the Apricot for a "change of pace" after the Essence Hotels on "Beer Corner" but i wanted to try the Metropole, partly for the bunker tour, which was fantastic and very moving.

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    What is the Bunker Tour? We will have one free day in Hanoi with nothing planned so I'll be looking for things to do on that day.

    I found a hotel on the edge of the Old Quarter that I asked CVT about, Hanoi La Selva. Small 20 room boutique hotel (which they all seem to call themselves).
    http://m.hanoilaselvahotel.com/ Currently #3 on TA, but that is a constantly changing number. $50-$60 a night depending on room. Apricot Hotel is $175 a night, over the budget.

    Clive, Sunline Hotel is on the west side of the lake that you said you didn't care for the area. Why was that? it is currently #97 on TA at $80.

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    Sorry for the confusion Susie, I meant that I like the west side of the lake NOT the east! For someone who travels more or less continually, my sense of direction is total cr** :-)

    The La Selva link you provided doesn't seem to say that much, but I know that area and prefer the street that Sunline and Hanoi Pearl are in. Quieter with much less traffic and close to some nice restaurants. My wife did set up a Google map of our fav. Restaurants in Hanoi. When I get a moment I will try and find it and email you the link.

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    There are a lot more hotels on the west side of the lake than the east side. That opens up a lot more options. Clive would you consider that part of Hanoi to be a different area/neighborhood than the Old Quarter? ARe thee a lot of restaurants near enough to walk to for dinner? Once I settle into a hotel at the end of a day of touring I prefer not to have to take a taxi to go to dinner. I like to walk to a place close to where I'm staying.

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    Susiesan,the bunker tour you asked about is at the Metropole. During excavations for the current poolside bar, it was discovered. The tours are given every day at 5:00 pm (and 6:00 pm --not sure that is always the case) for registered hotel guest only. It was very moving, as our guide shared her own memories of what, as an 8yr old child then, she recalled during the bombing raids.
    You can also get an interesting history by wandering around the lobby and hallways in the "Historic wing" lobby. There are photos/narratives that the history of the area, of the Metropole, and then take you into the actual concrete bunker rooms where people (including Joan Baez, who was in Hanoi at the time) stayed during the bombings.

    You mention tripadfvsor ratings, e.g. #97 . YO problaby know this, as It's a topic that has been discussed frequently. I will reiterate: ote that just because of a certain number on the hotels list, the place may not be good or bad. Tripadvisor uses a complex rating system which includes the number of user reviews. So a little known place that may be excellent, may be low on the list, because few know of it. Be sure to read the details of the reviews, photos by guest vs the hotel's web site, as well as the ranking of the writer (is it their only post or their 50th?)

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    I agree Calinurse, the algorithms TA a use are IMO both basic and flawed in the way they rank accomodation. For a start it is ridiculous to compare say the metropole to a basic homestay room. I do look at TA and use the same criteria as you to discount reviews. I also tend to ignore reviews from certain nationalities that have a tendency to whinge about everything!

    Booking.com has a ore transparent systems rating. Not perfect, but if, when reviewing a place, you play around with the scores, it is easy to see how it works. The reviews tend to be shorter and to the point as well I.e. GOOD - BAD points.

    I would describe they area west of the lake to be a different neighbourhood to the old quarter. Once you cross the main road that goes across the top of the lake it has a different vibe completely. Quieter, less traffic and far fewer of the backpackers that make up the majority of the tourist population in the area. Lots of very good restaurants. In fact I saw on the news that Barack Obama visited my favourite Banh Mi place a week or so ago!

    Three weeks in Hanoi and we only ever took a taxi once - to the airport! Distance wise, from that area to the old quarter is a 2-3 min walk - to the de facto centre of the old quarter i.e. Beer corner, 10-15 mins

    One thing I would suggest is with a few days there, nail down the restaurants you want to eat in and find out where they are in advance. There are just so many to choose from.

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    Clive, I have asked CVT to suggest a few hotels in the area west of the lake for the first 2 nights. Upon our return to Hanoi for the last 2 nights I will choose a place in the Old Quarter, at this point either Oriental Central or Hanoi Essence Hotel. I'm using a budget of $60-$70 a night. I try to stay away from hotels used by tour groups and backpackers. Sunline Hotel is pricing out at $68 for a very small room, $77-$84 for a bigger room. It's under consideration.

    Yes, I know TA's ratings can be a bit strange for places that are heavily reviewed. I read the lowest rated reviews, and if there are a lot put in recently it can indicate problems brewing. I too look at the nationality of the reviewers. Who do you think does the most whining?

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    Singaporean, Malaysian and Indian in that order!

    We walked into Sunline on the day and got a good deal on a decent sized room. Just looked back on our Trailwallet App and it was $50 inc breakfast.

    I have never tried it myself but other have commented ( notably Kathie, I think) that agents often seem to be able to ge a better deal on Vietnam hotels than are available on booking.com et al.

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    CVT asked me what was important in a hotel to me so they could make suggestions that would work for us. One qualifier was them getting upgrades for their customer due to the relationships they have with local hotels. I'm counting on my Vietnamese agent getting better rates and deals than I can.

    I see a lot of whining coming from Chinese reviewers on TA. They often mention getting crappy treatment because of being Chinese.

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