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Trip Report Vietnam, Cambodia & Hong Kong - Fall 2017 Trip Report

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My wife and I are in our early 60’s and although we’ve done a lot of travel in Europe, we had shied away from Asia for a variety of reasons, primarily distance and language. Well, this past spring we decided it was time and began planning a trip there. We had friends who’d done tours to China but we wanted something a little more exotic and after a bit of research, we settled on Vietnam and Cambodia. Since we had to connect through Hong Kong we added a couple of days there at the end.

We had always traveled Europe independently, but we felt Southeast Asia was not going to be an “explore on your own” destination. So we had a Hanoi-based company, Tonkin Travel, arrange a 14-day tour through the essential parts of Vietnam and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. We figured this was the best way to navigate the unfamiliar language and culture, and to maximize our time in what would likely be a one- time ever destination. Tonkin set up everything: hotels, lunches, flights within Vietnam, transfers, tour guides, boat cruises, Vespa tours, etc. Afternoons and dinners were always on our own. (We set up the Hong Kong part of the trip ourselves.)

Tonkin also helped initiate the visa process -- we needed a permission letter from the Vietnamese government to enter the country and to secure a visa. Obtaining the letter is a simple matter but you won’t be able to get on the plane without it. When we arrived in Hanoi, we merely turned over our paperwork to the official-looking man behind the counter, paid the nominal fee, and were on our way. For Cambodia, everything is taken care of at the airport there when you arrive. You’ll need a passport photo for each country which they attach to your visa application. (There’s no such requirement for entering Hong Kong.)

Hanoi – 3 days
We arrived in Vietnam’s capital after about 18 hours in the air. Hanoi’s population of 7.5 million people own about 5 million motor scooters. The streets are an amazingly chaotic mess of honking scooters and many fewer cars, all paying scant attention to whatever traffic laws exist. Luckily the driver who picked us up at the airport told us the secret of crossing Hanoi’s crazy streets: step off the curb carefully and walk slowly to the other side -- don’t dart or rush. The faster you walk, the harder it is for the scooters to steer around you. It took a few crossings before we squelched that “RUN!” instinct, but it turned out to be the best advice of the trip.

That first day we were free to relax, and while we were wiped out, we dropped our bags at the hotel, got a street map and set out exploring. Most of our activity was confined to the Old Quarter. With its old colonial architecture, cafes and tree-lined streets, some parts gave us a feel of walking through the movie Casablanca. We spent a lot of our leisure time enjoying the café culture taking in the street scene, sipping the strong chocolatey Vietnamese coffee and trying their many flavors of fruit smoothies. In the evening, it was fun to stroll the Old Quarter and around Ho Hoan Kiem Lake -- the streets around the lake were closed to traffic at night and packed with happy people and friendly dogs.

Many of the shopping streets in the Old Quarter are loosely organized by the merchandise they sell, one street has jewelry, another home hardware, the next has offerings to Buddha (which seems to be a big business), etc. There is also a huge number of stores selling cheap clothing, many specializing in counterfeit North Face and Under Armour goods. Be prepared to heavily negotiate. I would suggest starting your bidding at less than 50% of the stated price and never going higher than 50%. There’re so many shops selling the identical goods, you’ll easily find what you’re looking for at the price you want. As an example, a “North Face” puffy vest can be purchased for around 500,000 Vietnamese Dong, which converts to about $20 to $25 US.

The sidewalks are so loaded with vendors preparing all kinds of food, it’ll make your head spin. We had of course read about the street food but the reality of it is truly amazing… it was everywhere. Both the cooking and dining are literally done right on the sidewalk: burners, pots, raw meats & fish, dishwashing, everything. Coming from our health department-regulated environment, we were blown away by what and where people were eating. We did try some street food with our guide and while it was tasty, we opted for regular restaurants when we were on our own. We mainly ate typical Vietnamese food like the noodle soup pho, grilled meats, sautéed vegetables and rice, rice and more rice. Food was very inexpensive and good but not memorable. We had one nice fine-dining meal at a place call Green Tangerine in the Old Quarter. The restaurant setting was right out of Casablanca and the Vietnamese/French cuisine was enjoyable.

The favorite parts of our trip were the scooter tours we took with Vespa Adventures. We did half day tours with them in 3 places: Hanoi, Hoi An and Saigon. I was on the back of one Vespa, my wife on another, and an English speaking guide was on a 3rd riding along with us. Each tour covered an incredible amount of ground and they were a great way to see both city and countryside. It was great fun.

Halong Bay – 2 days
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, about a 3 hour drive east from Hanoi. The bay is known for its 1,000+ rock formations (they call them islands) that rise out of the water. Tonkin had set up a one-night cruise on a “junk” with a company called Swan Cruises. Even though there were 30 other tour boats of varying sizes, the bay didn’t seem overly crowded. Our guide on the cruise was a young Vietnamese woman named Jenny with perfect English, lots of energy and a great sense of humor; she made the trip more enjoyable. The junk had a dining room, a bar and an upper deck with lounge chairs and about a dozen couples were on board with us. Our time was spent exploring the island caves, swimming, kayaking, and just relaxing. We were glad we opted to see Halong Bay but you’ll quickly realize as you travel through Southeast Asia that the air is incredibly polluted and hazy because of coal-fired power, unchecked manufacturing and/or vehicles, and visibility was limited in many areas

Hue – 2 days
We returned to Hanoi from Halong Bay and took the roughly 1 hour flight to Hue on Vietnam Airlines. Hue was the capital of Vietnam for nearly 150 years up until 1945 and was home to Nguyen Dynasty emperors. Our hotel was along the Perfume River and we enjoyed strolling around the old part of the city in the evenings. The most impressive sight in Hue is the Citadel which is part of what’s called the Forbidden City which is a gigantic palace and shrine. We spent the better part of one day with our guide in the surrounding countryside as there are several tombs and shrines of kings with impressive statuary and buildings.

Hoi An – 2 days
We took the 2 ½ hour drive between Hue and Hoi An with our guide, passing through the city of Danang which is undergoing an incredible amount of resort development along the coastline. Huge hotel casinos are being built and it looked as if they’re expecting to give Macau some competition in the future.

It was raining when we reached Hoi An, so we grabbed some umbrellas from our hotel and walked along the Thu Bon River into town. Hoi An’s old section is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and its attractive streets are decorated with beautiful lanterns. There’s an old Japanese bridge along with the Quan Cong and Fujian temples. The old area is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants and is pedestrian friendly with only a few scooters. There are quite a lot of locals on the streets & cafes trying to sell cards or other trinkets; generally a polite “no thank you” will suffice, but be prepared to say it often.

We took another enjoyable Vespa Adventures tour in the Hoi An countryside, making our way down dirt lanes, through rice paddies and remote villages, to see how the locals live & work. We visited a family who weaves colorful mats by hand and another who makes rice paper over a stove fueled by rice husks in a barn-like building. My wife was lousy at both. We also visited an old coffee roasting operation and enjoyed some wonderful fresh Vietnamese coffee. After lunch our driver dropped us off at the Danang airport and we took the roughly 1 hour flight to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. We were incredibly fortunate - a day after we left, Hoi An was hit by Typhoon Damrey. The town suffered record flooding and some 100 people died. We were very saddened to hear of the devastation in this beautiful city.

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City – 2 days
I’m using the former name of Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, not only because I like it but because most if not all the locals we encountered did too. In the central & southern part of the country – Hue, Hoi An and Saigon -- virtually none of the people called it Ho Chi Minh City. From our discussions with our guides, southerners still seemed to have a fair bit of animosity toward the north and the Hanoi government, of which Ho Chi Minh is a symbol. Many of them view the current government as vastly corrupt and ineffective.

Saigon is very large with about 8.5 million people and has a more modern feel in some ways than Hanoi. There are a number of skyscraper office towers alongside old elements of the city including long standing open air markets like the Ben Thanh Market which was across the street from our hotel. We explored the market and the bustling streets around it during our first evening. We were told the city has been clearing the sidewalk food vendors off the streets and moving them into a large space called the Street Food Market, which was around the corner from the main Ben Thanh Market. It’s a vibrant place with many vendors and seems a more hygienic way to sample “sidewalk” food.
The next day we took our 3rd Vespa Adventures tour out of the city and through the Mekong Delta, visiting a number of interesting villages and markets along the way. Later, with our regular guide we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels which are an extensive network of multi-story tunnels that played a role during the war. We then headed off to the airport for the roughly 1 hour flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Siem Reap & Tonle Sap Lake – 3 days
Siem Reap is the town nearest the historic 12th century temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. It’s a busy tourist town with many restaurants and hotels and everyone there is going to visit the temples. The temples are spread out over a large area and are the largest religious monuments in the world. Even if you’re not into that kind of thing, their sheer scale is impressive considering they were built over the span of about 30 years. The stone carvings are very impressive as well.
We also spent the better part of a day cruising on the gigantic Tonle Sap Lake and its tributaries which ultimately connect to the Mekong River in Vietnam. Dozens of floating, blue-painted homes, schools, businesses, and churches are organized into little communities across the lake and inhabited by the locals who make their living from fishing.

Hong Kong – 2 days
The metro system (the MTR) is very easy to use and we took the express train from the airport to central Hong Kong. The 25 minute trip costs about $11. During our stay we used the MTR to get a variety of places. The ticket machines display the route map in English and all you do is touch the stop where you want to go and the fare pops up. You insert your money and the ticket and your change comes out and you're off. You just scan your ticket at a turnstile and go onto the platform. The stations and trains are very clean and everything is well signed and mapped in both English and Chinese. Don't hesitate to give the MTR a try.

Going from Siem Reap to Hong Kong is a shock to the system. I suspect just about everyone knows Hong Kong is incredibly dense with development and high-rise buildings. Wealth is very conspicuous - the shopping areas are packed with all the high-end designers and the streets are full of luxury cars. The city is very hilly with lots of steps and around the SOHO area there’s even an up escalator that runs for several blocks. Unfortunately, the city is shrouded in a haze of air pollution. Despite that, we enjoyed our time there. We stayed in the central area but toured all over Hong Kong Island with our guide. We enjoyed some good food in SOHO and went over to Kowloon at night to see the city all lit up which was pretty amazing.

All in all it was one incredible trip that was very different than any place we’ve ever been. We’re glad to have had the experience.

If you've made it this far, thanks for reading and hopefully you gained some useful information!

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