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Helpful Caveats for Trip Planning, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

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I decided to post this again under a different topic name so that more people can benefit from our experiences. (I posted it earlier under Quick and Dirty Trip Report but it really is quite different.) Hope it helps:

Just back after our three week trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Hit 8 locations despite advice to the contrary on this board. We ran ourselves ragged but at the same time, we were happy to cover all of the ground as we weren't sure we would be returning to the region.

This trip report will not be your typical report of how beautiful the food is, what restaurants we ate at (no offense to anyone), but more about some helpful hints or caveats we wish we knew in advance.

We booked our arrangements using two services -- Vietnamstay for hotels and flights, and Tonkin for touring, guides and drivers. We decided on these two companies after talking to several others. It was not a pleasant experience because we had difficulty with almost all of the operators we spoke with, for one reason or another. I began with Buffalo Tours which seemed to be highly recommended in the guidebooks, but the representative I worked with was very flighty and she kept leaving out several days on our itinerary. After going back and forth with her several times, I decided to scrap them because the trip was complicated enough and I didn't need the additional work of proof-reading the itinerary over and over again for very careless mistakes. (By the way, many have noted that Buffalo didn't respond to their emails -- I included my departure and return dates in my original email which seemed to prompt an immediate response.)

We then consulted with Tonkin after reading positive reports on Fodors. They were very responsive (except they seemed to have alot of problems with their email system -- or so they claimed), but after they continued to affirm that we could fly to Luang Prabang directly from Angkor on 12/27 when both Ann Tours and Travel Indochina said there were no direct flights that day and that we would need instead to connect through Bangkok, I was afraid to continue with them.

We then began working more formally with Ann Tours who my friend originally wanted to use. Her friend had traveled through them last year and was very satisfied. We started working with Tony but he seemed most interested in sending us the standard touring package even though we kept requesting more customization. For instance, several times, I noted that we weren't interested in doing the day trip to the Mekong Delta because of the long drive back and forth and the short stay, but he continued to forward itinerary after itinerary that included this. I continued to work with him anyway because of my earlier problems with Tonkin and Buffalo Tours, and continued to be very frustrated the whole way. As we finally neared the end of our plans with him, he quoted us extremely high figures . . . comparable with what we would have secured going directly through a US tour agency, where we could have completed the whole thing in much less time directly by phone. After making some final changes to the itinerary, Ann Tours' numbers were just not adding up -- I compared Tony's earlier figures to the numbers quoted after the changes and they just didn't make sense. I asked him to explain them, and his answers didn't make sense either. He lost credibility and I could not in good faith move forward with him because I believe he was looking for a certain amount of revenue, and he was going to charge that figure regardless of what services we used.

I then moved on to Vietnamstay after reading more about them on Fodors. At this point, we pretty much knew most of what we wanted and we were completely sick of planning of this trip. We worked with Mr. Pham there. Vietnamstay had pretty much the best rates we'd seen from anyone, particularly for the really deluxe hotels -- even Tonkin in most instances. For instance, he got us a rate of $145 at the Victoria HoiAn, where Ann Tours had quoted us $225. He also got us a rate of $215 at the Metropole which beat everone else's price. (The prices included breakfast, taxes and all service charges.) Mr. Pham was also a little flakey but in the end we had him make most of our hotel and flight arrangements because I couldn't bear the thought of going through the whole process again. I had to confirm and reconfirm several times to make sure the arrangements were right. Mr. Pham was very accommodating, however, and at every step of the way, he suggested that we book on our own if we could get a better rate.

We also asked Vietnamstay to price out the touring portion (private guide, driver, transfers, etc.) but they seemed very expensive on these items. (This was confirmed later on when during our trip we asked about a transfer from Hue to HoiAn and Vietnamstay quoted a price of $150. Instead, we ordered one directly from the hotel travel desk (Exotissimo, a very upscale agent) for $85!!!)

After getting really high quotes from Vietnamstay on private touring, we decided to go back to Tonkin. (They emailed me to see how my arrangements were coming along so I decided to give them another chance.) We figured we would have them arrange 10 days of touring because their prices were so cheap, and hope for the best. We figured if it didn't work out, we could cancel our arrangements with them and proceed on our own if necessary. For our awful experience with Tonkin, please see my earlier post from the road.

In retrospect, I don't know what I'd advise someone to do. In working with the various tour agencies, I spent an inordinate amount of my own time checking the itineraries, re-writing questions that never got answered (with the exception of Tonkin, and generally Vietnamstay) and really wasn't satisfied with anyone. I've planned many a trip and apart from Turkey, this was the most unpleasant and time consuming of all. Given that we were covering 8 locations in 3 weeks, it would have been impossible to do this trip without guides and drivers. As it was, we were so exhausted most of the time, and there was very little margin for error for getting lost, etc. Additionally, there is so much haggling in Vietnam, and so many people are looking to rip you off, I can't imagine dealing with this every single step of the way. Also, some tour operators are very cheap on some things, but then exorbitant on others -- (see my earlier example of the transfer to HoiAn by Vietnamstay) By the way, regarding transfers, I would have your tour operator schedule all of these. They generally charge about $25, and even though very often you can get a cab for $8 or $10, the drivers very often change the price once you arrive, saying they never agreed to such, etc. I am very adept at standing up for myself, but ultimately it just isn't worth the hassle.

In the end, my friend felt that she would have much rather paid the extra $2500 per person to go with a true up-scale operator and avoid all of our aggravation.

In the end, this was our itinerary, complete with costs and comments:

Saigon -- Caravelle, $135 per night. Great hotel right across from the Park Hyatt which is double the price. (My friend and I were getting separate rooms for the whole trip so we decided to do the less expensive option.) Even though I'm a deluxe hotel stayer all the way, I really loved this hotel. It is also 5 star. Although the Park Hyatt has that incredible deluxe charm, the Caravelle was much more of a bustling business hotel with many Vietnamese travelers. Their breakfast was better than anyone's on the whole trip (including the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi) and their service was impeccable. For instance, we left our bags there when we checked out for the Mekong Delta, and they already had our bags in our new rooms when we returned to check in again.

Mekong Delta -- Victoria Cantho, $135 per night. We loved this hotel. Beautiful setting and we were so exhausted from jet lag, it was a nice place to crash. Had a 60 minute foot massage for incredibly cheap.

Phnom Penh -- Intercontinental, $112 per night -- booked myself through the internet. This rate was a steal, as this is a full fledged 5 star, deluxe hotel. The location wasn't ideal, it was about 10 minutes from the river front. We looked at the Amanjaya which was better located, but I'm not sure I would have wanted to stay at this boutique hotel.

Angkor Wat -- We stayed at one of the huge, new hotels with fabulous grounds -- the Angkor Resort Palace and Spa for $150 per night. Didn't really love the service and everything was almost too manicured and perfect and felt fake. I suggest checking out the Hotel De La Paix which is gorgeous. We wish we had stayed there.

Luang Prabang -- The entire town was booked and the only available option was the Grand Hotel. We paid $135 through Vietnamstay even though Ann Tours would have only charged us $110. Many large tour groups stay at this hotel and it is very poorly run. Very few people at reception speak English and the property is about 10 or 15 minutes from town. I would highly recommend booking your hotel in this city way in advance as it appeared that everything was booked up when we tried to make reservations, including guides. We thought the nicest place was the Maison something or other. The Residence is also beautiful but is also a distance from town, and you really want to stay in town here.

Hanoi -- We stayed at the Sofitel Metropole for $215 per night, the best rate from any travel agent, including breakfast and all other charges. We stayed in the Opera Wing which is the newer section of the hotel but the rooms were still beautiful and for the most part, the service was great. The only problem we had here, which I was SHOCKED about, is the hotel told us they charge 3% to change traveler's checks. They swore the bank charged the same rate -- in fact, they said they had a Vietcombank representative in the hotel -- and of course, we found out later this was totally false. (I walked into a Vietcombank near the end of the trip and they told me they only charge .5%! Shame on me because I am very well-traveled, but I just couldn't believe that all of the hotels would lie like that! They all did -- everywhere we stayed.) My friend and I each cashed several thousand dollars here which was a big mistake. I actually can't believe a five star hotel would lie to such a degree -- just like the taxi drivers!

Hue -- We stayed at the Residence Hotel for one night for $145. I didn't think this hotel was that nice even though apparently it was the best in town. Go figure.

HoiAn -- We stayed at the Victoria HoiAn for $145 per night. Although this hotel was nice, my friend and I were very disappointed in HoiAn. We heard so many rave reviews from people who have visited here. We found it very touristy with the least amount of Vietnamese people in sight. Lots of tourists, and you can see the town in a few hours. Not a bad place for some R&R, but the food at hotel was subpar, and we felt like the resort could have been anywhere.

Lastly, regarding shopping, we found the best shopping to be in Hanoi. The are a few stores near the Cathedral in the old quarter that had some really nice things. We also found some nice bookmarks, calendars, and things in the post office in Saigon that were cheaper and as nice or nicer than anything we found elsewhere.

That's all for now. I hope this helps some of you and doesn't come across as too negative. We still had an amazing time on our trip!

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