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Vietnam Trip Report June/July 2008 -- Hanoi, HaLong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, HCMC

Vietnam Trip Report June/July 2008 -- Hanoi, HaLong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, HCMC

Old Jul 14th, 2008, 07:15 PM
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Vietnam Trip Report June/July 2008 -- Hanoi, HaLong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, HCMC

First, a big thank you to everyone who helped me plan this trip and patiently answered so many questions.
I am posting the Vietnam portion here and the Siem Reap portion on the Cambodia forum.
We are middle-aged, well-traveled American couple who visited Vietnam and Cambodia 6/24-7/10/08. I had been to Asia on 3 previous trips, but this was my boyfriend's first trip to Asia.

I am hoping this trip report will help those planning their itinerary as well as give info on some sights, hotels, etc. I did a lot of research on this board as well as Travelfish and Trip Advisor. I also used Lonely Planet and Frommer's guide books. I found that the advance research really paid off.

SUMMER TRAVEL: The big question -- is it worth it to go in the summer rainy season. We were very concerned about this and it turned out we must have been very lucky with the weather. It was not unbearably hot anywhere and we had very little rain. We also had the advantage of fewer tourists and lower hotel costs for non-peak travel.

OUR ITINERARY was decided after we got our award tickets on Singapore Airlines, so we made it as efficient as possible flying into Hanoi and out of HCMC. However, once we added Siem Reap this required a multi-entry visa that cost approximately $70 more per person. If we had known we were going to go to Angkor Wat, we may have been better off flying into Hanoi and back from BKK -- but it worked out just fine this way. I definitely recommend an open jaw if you can do it.

16 nights was a really good amount of time for this number of stops. We didn't feel rushed at all and we minimized the airplane flights and number of packings/unpackings.

Our itinerary:
3 nights Hanoi at Hanoi Elegance 2.
1 night HaLong Bay on Valentine junk.
After HaLong Bay,fly to Hue on 7:30 p.m. flight from Hanoi to Hue -- highly recommended so there isn't another check-in/out in Hanoi.
2 nights Hue at Saigon Morin, allowing for one full day. (this is the only place i felt we could have used another day, but it was fine.)
Car/driver to Hoi An, staying 4 nights at Victoria Beach Resort, allowing for 3 full days. (Loved this part and if time/money were not issues definitely would have liked another day there!)
Fly from Danang to Siem Reap on non-stop Silk Air flight that flies only twice a week. (that's what made this itinerary so efficient; if we had connected thru HCMC it would have taken most of the day.)
3 nights Siem Reap at Victoria Angkor (with almost 4 days there).
Flew to HCMC for 3 nights at May Hotel, with 2 full days there. We had one day for the city and one day for Mekong Delta. This didn't allow us time for Cu Chi Tunnels, although we could have done that, too, if we had rushed a bit. I debated more time in the Mekong Delta and am sure we would have enjoyed a longer visit there, but the day trip we took included much of what we wanted to see. (more details when i get to that part of our trip)

All the flights were great and Singapore Airlines lived up to its reputation for economy being close to business class on other airlines. Connecting at Changi was a pleasure, even with 4-hour layovers. Silk Air and Vietnam Airlines were also great and all the flights were on time

OUR BOOKINGS: We booked Hanoi Elegance 2 on our own. We booked our Siem Reap Hotel through our guide there. All the other hotels we booked thru Tonkin Travel. They were able to get the hotels at lower rates than I could directly by about 15%. In addition, Tonkin was able to get us a non-peak special of "pay 3, stay for 4 nights" at the Victoria Hoi An that was not available directly from the hotel. Tonkin booked our Vietnam Airlines flights.
Tonkin also booked the Valentine junk for slightly less than I could have booked directly.
I worked with Nhung at Tonkin who answered all my emails promptly. We paid once we got to Hanoi and a service charge of 3 % was added for paying by credit card. We could have brought USD in cash, but I didn't want to carry that much cash. In retrospect, could have easily put it in a money belt since it was our first stop and someone from Tonkin came to our hotel that afternoon to collect payment.

Everything worked out perfectly -- not a single hiccup with the bookings. I did confirm by email directly with the hotels and junk cruise company.

We booked our guides for Siem Reap (Ponheary and Dara) in advance as well as our guide for Mekong Delta (Jason Super Star).
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Old Jul 14th, 2008, 08:36 PM
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First stop - Hanoi.
We arrived around noon and Hanoi Elegance 2 had a car waiting for us. We had booked a junior suite for $75++ directly with the hotel. I followed up with email messages every month leading up to our booking and asking that they not move us to another hotel as I had read on TA that due to their popularity there were often over-bookings. We requested room 705, well-reviewed by several people on TA. It was great -- computer in room, nice view, good location, great customer service. Good breakfasts, especially the chocolate banana pancakes.

The first afternoon we oriented ourselves by taking a cyclo around the Old Quarter (approx $3). Loved the colorful street life. Short walk to Hoam Kiem Lake. Dinner at Cha Ca Van Long (I'm not checking all my spelling, so bear with me) -- the famous fish restaurant. They gave us a paper in English that explained that it was 90,000 dong and they only had one dish. That was fine with us, as it was better to limit our choices the first night. There was a mix of locals and tourists and it was a great meal. We learned quickly that we could bring our own bottles of water to restaurants without a problem. With beer, this meal was about USD$12 for the 2 of us. It is touristy, but we liked it.

Next morning woke up at 5 a.m. and watched the city come to life from our balcony. Breakfast of omelettes, croissants and pancakes. They have a tiny kitchen with 2-burner stove, so if they are busy the breakfast could take awhile.

Off to Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. We found it interesting, more for the "theatrics" and "logistics" than actually seeing his body. We also went to the museum on the grounds, which was sort of interesting for the propaganda. Fascinating to see the school children coming on field trips. The soldiers are really serious and will poke you if you laugh or do anything they don't consider fitting. No shorts, no sunglasses, cameras get checked in a very efficient manner. You can photograph the outside of the bldg and the grounds, just not inside the mausoleum.

It's a short walk to the Temple of Literature, but we took a cab to save time. It's an oasis in the middle of the city -- fairly interesting. But the Craft Link store is across the street and it is, as others suggest, the highest quality shopping and a good place for quality gifts or handicrafts rather than the souvenirs that are available most everywhere.

Then we got scammed by the taxi to the Museum of Ethnography. This is apparently common in Hanoi and we thought if there was a meter we would be okay, but it turns out the meters are rigged! We learned our lesson: only take metered cabs from your hotel (or another hotel) or take a cab back to your hotel and check with the bellman or reception on the fare before paying it. We got ripped off going from Temple of Literature to Museum of Ethnography (or is it Ethnology? I am doing this without notes) and again from the Museum back to our hotel, where the taxi driver purposely (we now realize) came to a one-way street and indicated he couldn't drop us in front of our hotel. We knew, intuitively, that the fares were too high, but when we complained the drivers pointed to the meter and mimed that it was the correct price. Total scam: About $20 and it was well worth learning the lesson on our first full day.

The Museum of Ethnology is very interesting. It takes 2-3 hours to see it all including the houses representing many of the minority peoples. Many wedding couples pose for pictures on the grounds and watching them is almost as interesting as the museum exhibits. You learn a lot about the ethnic make-up of Vietnam at this museum. However, if you have only one day in Hanoi you probably don't have time. With 2.5 days we could see a lot of the major sights.

The museum restaurant was Baguette and Chocolat and had a fantastic grilled ementhal cheese sandwich there. good baked goods, too.

Dinner that night at Quan An Gong (forgive my spelling errors), the restaurant where there is street food from all across Vietnam in a comfortable, and "hygienic" setting. Food was great...and cheap. Didn't need a reservation at the Hanoi branch, but did at the HCMC branch.

Up early the next morning to see Hoa Lua prison ("Hanoi Hilton") first used by the French for Vietnamese prisoners and then by the Vietnamese for American pilots. The presumptive nominee had been incarcerated there. Interesting to see and doesn't take a lot of time.

We were going to go to some other museums as Hanoi has many to see, but decided to look for propaganda posters in the Old Quarter near the Cathedral. There were a couple of shops with propaganda posters as well as a couple of streets with shops a step up from the Old Quarter souvenir shops.

Lunch was at the Stop Cafe next to Cafe des Arts, just north of the Lake. It is very western-oriented, and a little pricier than some places, but we also had the fish Cha Ca style there and it was even better than Cha Ca Van Long (sp). Really outstanding.

the hotel got us 3rd row seats for the water puppets that evening. It was worth going for the experience, but I did get bored after about 20 minutes. Fortunately, it's only 45 minutes long and $3. Worth seeing.

We wandered around the southern end of the lake near the Sofitel Metropole and ended up eating at Au Lac. It was fine; nothing memorable. However, ice cream at Fanny's was some of the best ice cream we had ever tasted in the world - and we have been to Italy many times. The Young Rice, peanut and cinammon flavors were beyond description. It's 11,000 to 14,000 per scoop, so I ended up getting 2 separate cones for the same price as a double scoop. LOVED it. Could have had a third cone!

Did a lot of wandering in the Old Quarter -- just loved seeing the streets and the wholesale market there.

We had hoped to meet up with "Hanoikids" and were sorry we never made it happen. I have heard from others that they offer a great perspective.

Next stop: HaLong Bay
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Old Jul 14th, 2008, 08:58 PM
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HaLong Bay:
We had booked the Valentine, part of the Indochina Sails fleet. It is one of the most expensive of the junks and supposedly the only one with a suite on board! We had a regular room and it was close to the quality of a 5-star hotel, particularly the bathroom complete with jacuzzi tub!

It was $387 for the two of us, plus $95 for private transfers to the boat and return to Hanoi. This was our splurge portion of the trip and we really wanted a high-end boat. The Valentine ended up about the same cost as the other high end junks because the kayaking is $15 per person and some of the others wanted $35 to $50 per person. We found that it was only the boats a full notch down in quality that included the kayaking. Also, the "lower end" junks included a lunch on the 2nd day and were 2 hours longer. Go figure...pay more, get less.

The Valentine lived up to expectations in terms of quality of the room, bathroom and public areas. The 8-course lunch was excellent, the dinner was good and the breakfast was okay. The departure area for all the Indochina Sails junks as well as the Ginger and Jasmine are from a private pier with a waiting room in an a/c building complete with bar and a computer for checking email. This made it very comfortable. The junk's a/c runs 24 hours a day (and should for that price!) while some of the lower-end junks don't have a/c during the day. The itineraries seem to be basically the same and we did enjoy the kayaking the first afternoon followed by a short visit to a beach. The next morning was the cave visit, also very nice and worth doing. We didn't avail ourselves of the massages or any other services on the boat. The Valentine is 5 cabins and only three were booked, so it was very private. Meal seating is at separate tables, rather than communal as it is on some junks. It was a served meal, not a buffet. Service was excellent and very attentive. Drinks, water and wine were quite expensive. They provide 2 small bottles of water for free, so i was glad we brought our own water. There is a tip box so that the whole crew can be tipped at once. The scenery was beautiful and we had a picture window from our stateroom looking right out on the world.

Was it worth it to go the luxury route for the junk? For us it was....we would not have wanted the tiny bathroom with the shower drain in the middle. But for younger people, those traveling with families, or those who don't mind roughing it a bit, the mid-range junks would be fine. We took the Valentine over the Ginger, Bhaya or Jasmine because it was small at only 5 cabins.

As far as whether to go to HaLong Bay or not, as many ask on this forum.....I would say in most cases, yes. I have seen karsts in the Guilin area of China, so it wasn't just the scenery. I would say it's a nice 24-hour interlude and a nice change of pace while running around Vietnam. The 3 hour car rides each way went very quickly. Again, we didn't economize on this portion and took private transfers (not much more when it's two people as the shuttles charge per person) and it was very nice to have the car to ourselves. There was an obligatory rest/bathroom stop each way at a "sheltered workshop" selling handicrafts, but the bathrooms were clean and the driver apparently gets a free lunch. The prices are double what they are in the city, but I didn't mind overpaying for a souvenir for a good cause....and the clean bathroom.

Many people ask about HaLong Bay vs. Sapa. We made the decision that given our limited time, the packing and unpacking for an overnight train, one night hotel, and another overnight train didn't make sense for us to go to Sapa. But I'm sure Sapa would have been a more "interesting" experience, whereas HaLong Bay was restful and fun.
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Old Jul 14th, 2008, 09:14 PM
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Nice report Alison. I too like the Ca Cha La Vong dish very much and I've managed to cook it at home!
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Old Jul 14th, 2008, 09:45 PM
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OUR FINAL AFTERNOON IN HANOI:
We returned to Hanoi from HaLong Bay about 2 p.m., so we had 3.5 hours until our 5;30 departure for the airport for 7:30 flight to Hue. We had planned to spend it in the comfort of a/c at the Sofitel Metropole, but we arrived back to a cool, overcast drizzly day in Hanoi! Once we weren't going to get all hot and sweaty before our flight, we decided to eat lunch and wander some more. Sorry i don't have the name of the little local restaurant where we got the vegetarian set menu for lunch that included the best grilled eggplant ever. Then we went to find the coffee house that's just north of the lake that I had heard about from other travelers. It's around the corner from KFC (the exact address is in Lonely Planet) and you enter through the Feeling art gallery, order your drinks on the first floor, and walk up 4 flights of steps to a patio overlooking the Lake. It was just a lovely view and a wonderful way to spend some time watching the lake, the street and the drizzle....and marvel at the cool temperature.

I bought a few more gifts before we headed back to HE 2 to get our luggage and car to the airport.

Shopping in Hanoi: I got a lot of those little silk jewelry bags that can also be used for lingerie. They were about $3-4 each. Turns out they, and most generic souvenirs, are available just about anywhere. I would suggest saving most of the "generic" shopping for your last stop of the trip so you're not lugging it around. On the flip side, those silk bags don't take up much room -- or weigh much -- so it didn't really matter. However, a gift like the purse made by the Hmong people that we bought at Craft Link in Hanoi was not easily found in other places. Grab anything "unique" when you see it.
Other good, cheap souvenirs were chopsticks with the little rests, hand-painted bookmarks and silk scarves or pashminas in Hoi An. I also bought silk purses in Siem Reap.

The ride to the Hanoi airport was uneventful as was the flight to Hue. The HE 2 had been great storing our luggage, and having it downstairs and ready for us when we came to pick it up. They really do emphasize customer service and I highly recommend it as long as you realize it is a great 3-star boutique hotel, not a 5-star property.

HUE:
In Hue we purchased a prepaid taxi voucher for 120,000 dong to the Saigon Morin. I highly recommend this historic hotel. Through Tonkin we paid $98 for a deluxe room with a river view and a great breakfast. The hotel and the grounds are lovely, as is the pool, and the location is perfect.

We went straight to Mandarin Cafe when we arrived at 9:30 p.m. so we could eat and find out our options for the next day. We couldn't find Cafe on Thu Wheels, so we went ahead and booked motorbikes for the next morning through Mandarin Cafe. It had been recommended to us that with limited time we go by motor bike rather than the all day boat ride to see the tombs and pagodas. We were really glad we did as this was a highlight and only $7 each. The motor bike guys spoke very limited English, but really aimed to please and it was wonderful zipping around this way, especially when we went down some country lanes through the rice paddies with the cows and the chickens.

It was warm, so we only visited the Tombs of Tu Duc and Mingh Mang and the main pagoda. I was not "tombed out" and could have added Gai Din (again, I apologize for the spelling errors of place names, but if you have a guidebook you will know what i'm talking about. We threw away all our information as we went along, so I don't have the exact spellings with me.) I thought the tombs were beautiful. Bring with you any guide book descriptions and there are also markings at the tombs.

They also brought us to an area with bunkers (used by US soldiers) left over from the American war that look over the most serene view of the Perfume River and farmland. It was so hard to imagine the terrible fighting there and the horrendous conditions under which the soldiers fought, nevertheless all the destruction. As an American, all the war sites were very difficult to see.

Be sure to try the sugar cane juice sold at the Tomb of Tu Duc. Delicious, although it was 15,000 dong here and we paid 5,000 dong at a less touristy place.

Hue is the place to buy the conical hat -- you can see a picture woven through it. I actually wore mine --it was great!

We also bought water or coconut juice at each of the places the motorbike guys stopped -- they obviuosly got food or a tip for bringing us there and all the people were very friendly and gracious.

This is as good a time as any to talk about tipping. This was a constant struggle -- how much to tip. We learned that drivers get 10% of what's paid for the car, so on a $95 drive like ours to HaLong Bay and back the driver got $9.50. And he spent the night to bring us back the next day! We ended up tipping him almost what he made. The same thing with the motorbikes. We don't know how much of the $7 they got to keep, but it can't have been much and they spent 1/2 day with us. So we gave them $4 each.

Hint: I had been told to bring USD$2 bills. They were very appreciated as tips and were also good for bargaining. They are rare and considered lucky. Bring a bunch of them.

After our great morning we headed for the citadel area. The cyclo drivers are very aggressive and we decided to walk across the bridge and eat, and then get a cyclo for about $3 to see the Citadel area. We went to Lac Thien (sp) for lunch, written up in all the guidebooks. The owner is deaf mute and communicates better than most hearing people! There are 3 restaurants in a row all with similar names claiming to be the "real one" recommended in Lonely Planet and Frommer's, so look up the address or look for the deaf mute proprietor (unless there are those pretending to be deaf mute....anything is possible). We had a nice lunch and then took the cyclo for an hour around this fascinating area, much of which was destroyed in the Tet offensive.

It must have been some sort of festival we never quite understood, but nearly every house had a table outside set with offerings -- food and paper money. It may have had something to do with the 40th anniversay year since the Tet offensive.

The "forbidden city" part of the citadel wasn't as interesting and we walked through quickly. If we'd had a guide I'm sure the explanations would have been interesting.

The Hue market, near the Citadel, is quite large and colorful and definitely worth walking around to see the fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and household items. This is definitely not there for the tourists!

We could have walked back across the bridge to our hotel, or taken a cyclo or ferry, but I spied a sanpan just below the market and figured the family would like to row us across the river. They were thrilled and we had a lovely $2 ride along with the young daughter who wanted to pose for our camera and then look at herself in the digital pictures!

Dinner was at Y Thao Garden that had been highly recommended. It was a fixed menu for $10, and while the setting was nice the food was nothing special.

And that ended our very full, and very fun, day in Hue. While I would have liked more time there, it wasn't really needed to see the highlights. The DMZ tour is a full day and not sure I would have wanted to devote that much time to it as I've heard mixed reactions from those who have spent a full day there, although i would have liked to see the Vinh Moch (sp) tunnels there.

If we had two days in Hue, we would have spent more time seeing tombs and perhaps taken a longer motorbike ride in the countryside...and taken advantage of the beautiful pool at the Saigon Morin.

I'm sure one could spend even more time in this lovely city, but this worked for us.

On to Hoi An.....but the next segment will have to wait until tomorrow.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 03:01 AM
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Thanks for posting. We are just getting started on planning for our trip to northern Vietnam next April. I'll have to take a look at the Valentine - sounds like a nice option for Halong Bay.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 08:23 AM
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we too are planning a vietnam/cambodia trip for next year (late feb.) but we only have 14 days with travel time.

your trip report is definately going to be helpful in trying to decide what to see. glad to hear you liked elegance 2 -- we were looking at that hotel.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 08:47 AM
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Such a great report. Every time I read one of these I relive my 2 trips to Hanoi. Like you I never got to Sapa,but did do the Halong Bay part. I spent the night on land,but not the luxury accomodations you describe. I think the ride out is so interesting,although it can get tiresome.
There is an interesting Women's Museum in Hanoi that I found interesting that no one mentions.
Also no one ever mentions Dalat which I visited.
Another really interesting experience was going to the Du Moc Caves where the people lived during the war. It is very far in the North of Vietnam. To visit one of the cemeteries where the Northern soldiers are buried is very sobering as you realize they lost so much also.

I enjoyed Hue more than Hoi An, although I had some lovely clothes made in Hoi An. I had wondered if they had restored more of the Citadel since I was there 5 years ago.

Thanks again for sharing.
Will look forward to the rest of your trips as those are places I have also done.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 11:36 AM
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ared2879, if you only have 14 days including travel time I would seriously consider cutting down the number of stops. We had 16 nights not counting travel time. Of course February is the coolest weather month, which will help not only with fatigue and logistics, but you may not need the beach/pool time.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 04:49 PM
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Just realized I left something out about our final afternoon in Hanoi -- the time we had after returning from HaLong Bay and before our flight to Hue. A previous poster (thank you to Capetownfolk, whose trip report for SEA is excellent) had suggested going to the chocolate buffet at the Sofitel Metropole during this time. That is exactly what we planned, and had checked it out. It's every day from 3-5 p.m. for $15 per person and is probably delicious. However, when it turned out to be drizzly, rather than hot, we decided to wander some more rather than just be inside in the air-conditioning. But it's a good option to know about! As a matter of fact, I'd like to be grazing at a chocolate buffet right now....
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 05:37 PM
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Nice report Alison.
We're hoping to go to Vietnam next year too so I am reading with interest.
I'm very interested to hear if you liked the Victoria Angkor since I know you agonized over your hotel choice there.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 07:25 PM
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Kristina, yes, we really liked the Victoria Angkor and were very happy we selected that hotel. I will go into greater detail in my Siem Reap report.

Hanuman, would you mind posting the recipe for Cha Ca fish? I would love to make it! Living in Los Angeles I should be able to get Vietnamese spices as well.

ON TO HOI AN:
There seems to be a divide between those who love Hoi An and those who find it too touristy. We definitely fall in the former group. We absolutely loved it and had a great time.

We were going to arrange a car/driver through Mandarin Cafe for $55 to take us from Hue to Hoi An. However, through an acquaintance we were put in touch with a young man whose parents just immigrated to Orange County and since we were to meet with him anyway, decided to let him arrange our transortation. Turned out to be $80, but we also had the company of this lovely English-speaking university student.

Because it was a beautiful day we decided to go the long route over the Hai Van (cloudy) pass. Coming from California this was not spectacular scenery, although the view at the top was very nice. We probably could have saved an hour and taken the new tunnel route. We stopped at the Cham Museum in Danang that really is worth a short stop -- lovely little place. Then had lunch in Danang City before heading for Marble Mountain. We stopped very briefly at a carving store and realized that most of these are giant carvings for hotel entrances, although it was interesting to watch the guys doing the actual carving. I was intrigued by the idea of visiting the pagodas in the mountain cave, but we decided to forego this and get going to Hoi An. So, without stopping to go inside the cave and including leisurely stops along the way it took about 5 hours.

I had obsessed about where to stay in Hoi An because my first choice -- Life Resort -- would be closed for renovations. I usually like the idea of staying "in town" rather than a distance away as I like to be able to walk everywhere. There were other hotels in town, but none that also had resort amenities we wanted since this was the "chill" portion of our trip.

It turns out I'm glad we stayed at the beach and the Victoria Resort was really great. We had purposely economized in places where we would not be using the facilities since we'd be out sightseeing (Hanoi and HCMC) and splurged a bit where we'd really use the pool and actually spend time in the room. Because there was a stay 3, 4th night free for the off-season at the Victoria Hoi An we went all out and had a beachfront room. ($187 per night, 4th night free.) There were some concerns as it was reported on Trip Advisor that some of the beachfront units were being renovated, but I was assured by the hotel that they were doing one section at a time and we would not be disturbed. We didn't hear a thing.

Our little "villa" faced the beach --what a view of white sand, sea and palm trees. And there's a great infinity pool. There's windsurfing available, but we didn't do it. We did use the pool and sit on the private beach under the little thatched coverings so we were in the shade. There was a breeze at the beach and it was really nice. Breakfasts were also very, very good with great pastries and lots of variety as well as wonderful pancakes and omelette station. The pool/bar menu was quite expensive so we never ate there. There was free internet.

Our room was lovely, but that seems to be the luck of the draw -- until they have refurbished the rooms. Others complained of mold and peeling paint. We were extremely satisfied.

First order of business was laundry and i certainly wasn't going to pay the hotel prices. I walked 5 minutes down the road, away from town, and found a kiosk with a welcome sign, "Here Laundry." I did get over-charged as it was $13, but I think the kiosk lady gets a cut as well as the person who picks up the laundry and takes it to whoever actually does the laundry. There are actual "laundry ladies" on the road to town that would have been cheaper -- but I was happy to have a week's worth of dirty laundry returned the next day clean and folded.

The hotel offers a shuttle to town several times a day and it's a $3 to $4 taxi ride. We managed to take the shuttle at least one way each time we went to town.

We had 3 full days and decided that two of them would be devoted to reading, relaxation, swimming, etc. and that we would wander the town in the late afternoon/evenings. I had read on TA about a 1/2 day tour with a local guy to a fishing village and ceramic village, including lunch at his home. That sounded like a great activity for our middle day so we could see a bit of the countryside. We called Mr. Trung and arranged this and really didn't know what to expect. It turned out to be just delightful. He is a former English teacher who is now a waiter. I think he uses his restaurant job to recruit tourists for his village visit. He charged us $30 for two including a wonderful lunch at his house, usually prepared by his wife but on this occasion made by his mother in law.
He showed up promptly at 9:30 a.m. with two motorbikes and they drove us to the Tranh An fishing village where we walked around and saw homes of fishermen repairing nets and then fished on our own with bamboo rods in the river. It was very scenic. There is an adjacent pottery village by the same name and he took us to what they call "factories" but they are really home businesses. The people were so welcoming and let us take turns on the pottery wheel. We saw how they mix the clay, make the pots and figurines and bake in the kiln. All very low-tech. We of course bought some souvenirs. It was really nice walking around both areas of the village.

Then back on the motorbikes to his house where we ate a wonderful fresh fish lunch with fried spring rolls and fresh fruit. It was a peaceful, but insightful, excursion and I would recommend it if you have enough time in Hoi An. Mr. Trung can be reached every evening 7-9 p.m. at Hong Phuc Restaurant, 86 Bach Dang St, or by email [email protected] or mobile 0935512007.

Of course our big activity was having clothes made. My boyfriend wanted a tuxedo and that's how we started. I had done a lot of research on tailors and we first checked out B'lan who had gotten many positive reviews, but they didn't impress or motivate us. Then we went to one of the many Yaly branches, but weren't excited by them and the prices were higher than we wanted to spend. We happened to walk by another tailor right near the shuttle stop that an acquaintance had recommended and really hit it off with the proprietor and ended up having tons of clothes made. It's Ha Phuong, 347 Nguyen Duy Hieu St and the proprietor is Mrs. Ha. The shop girls are also very nice. We have no idea how their quality or prices compare with others, but they really tried to please and were very nice. As others have reported, it is much better to have something copied. For example, i gave them a pair of inexpensive capris and an inexpensive Gap skirt -- not because I was trying to save money but because i couldn't necessarily find these again in the US and they fit perfectly. Once we figured out the right material these came out great, but only slightly cheaper than on sale at home. My bf had a favorite Banana Republic polo shirt they stopped making and he was able to get it copied in 4 different colors for $8 each. Then i got brave and took some of the clothes they had as samples and had them modify it for 3 different outfits. They came out fairly well and the advantage was being able to have a belt/sash made with two complementary materials that will go with two of the outfits as well as jackets to match. The tuxedo turned out perfectly ($90), but the lined, wool suit may not be high enough quality material ($70) for my bf to wear to work. Basically, for the price of a tuxedo at home we had made 2 pairs of lined wool dress pants, 2 pairs casual pants, 4 polo shirts, tuxedo and suit for him....and 2 skirt/top outfits with jackets (one silk), one dress, one skirt, 2 pair capris for me. They "threw in" 2 pillow covers custom made for my foam travel pillow and a tie for him.

I must warn you, though, that all this took 4 fittings (including my bf going on the back of Mrs. Ha's motorbike to visit the men's tailor) -- one each day we were there. The ladies were such fun that it turned out to be enjoyable (and we were so lucky it wasn't too hot), but it did take a good deal of time. We are mostly happy with the results and they will be constant memories for both of us. Now I wish I'd had 6 pair capris made they are so light and comfortable! Just pick the fabrics very carefully, have them try making one first, and ask them to wash the fabric before sewing it. We didn't bargain as we felt the prices were fair.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 08:02 PM
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EATING IN HOI AN:
We loved the food here. It's always nice to follow a recommendation the first night in a new place so that it's not so overhwhelming. Capetownfolk and others had liked Tam Tam Cafe and we ended up eating there 2 of the 4 nights. I can't say enough about their food -- the fried spring rolls and fresh fish were sublime. They had the best dipping sauces, too.

We ate one dinner at Cargo Club and also had pastries for dessert there several nights. The dinners were not as good as Tam Tam, but still good. The Mermaid had great salads and also good fresh fish as well as great dessert crepes.

I highly recommend "Restaurant at the End of the World" for lunch. There is no way you will ever find this on your own. It is very easy to get to if you are staying at the beach. We could have walked from our hotel if we could have figured it out. It's a short taxi ride and then down a lane to....the end of the world. It would be a great area to wander! The "street" is lined with houses and ends at a pier with fishing boats and "Jack" and his family who run Hoi An Eco-Tours also run this restaurant. The fish and seafood couldn't be fresher, the family is lovely and the prices are low -- even by Hoi An standards (where most terrific dinners were $10-12 for two). You may want to look into their well-regarded eco-tours. They are more expensive than our village visit, but they do stuff on fishing boats.

We didn't do a cooking class in Hoi An, but would have if we had been there one more day. The Red Bridge school, that everyone raves about, is from 8:15 to 1 but nearly every restaurant offers a 2-hour class.

We wandered Hoi An a lot and be sure to go to the area past the Japanese bridge where there are fewer tourists. Hoi An is the place to buy silk scarves (wide enough to be shawls) and pashminas -- mostly $4-$5 each.

Hoi An makes a wonderful stop in the middle of a busy trip, as we did it, or toward the end.

There is a lot of debate about staying in town vs. the beach. I would suggest this: If you are there in hot weather AND you are there more than two nights AND you want some R&R at the pool/beach, then stay at the beach. If not, then you probably would enjoy being closer to town and take a quick excursion out to the beach.

I was told that TEN resorts are being built as we "speak".....

From Hoi An we took a taxi to Danang (can't remember how much, but it wasn't too expensive - maybe $20) Airport and flew Silk Air to Siem Reap. I will post the Siem Reap portion on the Cambodia forum.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 08:26 PM
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HCMC/Saigon:
After Siem Reap we flew to Saigon. We were so glad we didn't listen to those who said to skip it because it was "just another big city." We really liked it. It's beautiful at night with all the monuments lit up and I swear -- if you squint -- it feels like Paris! Loved the wide boulevards and all the cafes, but you still have all the street life that makes travel in Asia so colorful and fun.

We used the prepaid taxi from the airport (piece of cake) for $9 to get to District 1. We had decided to economize on the HCMC hotel as the 4-star hotels were quite expensive and we knew we would spend very little time in the room and no time using any hotel facilties. We were not particularly happy with the May Hotel. It has a great location, just a block behind the Park Hyatt, and is a new boutique hotel with marble floors. The "deluxe" room was fine, the a/c worked and the shower was okay -- all for $75 a night, which is a good deal in HCMC. We even had a really nice view and double-paned glass that kept most of the honking out. But there was something about the hotel that gave us the creeps and the reception staff wasn't particularly helpful; they are more of a business hotel and not really set up to assist Western tourists. Also, the breakfast was almost inedible. For our last morning we bought pastry at a local bakery and I just ate some of the fruit. But there weren't a lot of decent hotels at this price in this location, so not sure we had too many other choices. And a 4-star hotel would have cost us at least another $50 or more a night, so it was a reasonable cost savings.

However, we really enjoyed our short time in Saigon. We knew we would be very busy trying to see the city in one day and the Mekong Delta the other day. We had even thought of skipping it all together, but I'm glad we experienced it once we were seeing so many other parts of Vietnam.

Our first dinner was at the HCMC branch of Quan An Gong (sp), even busier and nicer than the Hanoi branch. The hotel booked a reservation and we took a taxi just so we wouldn't get lost. We had so little time, we ended up taking taxis a lot. All the meters worked and the cab rides were usually under $2. AFter dinner we found the HCMC Fanny's ice cream and loved it just as much here as in Hanoi. We went there two nights!

By this point of our trip we didn't want to rush around so much, so we took a full day to see just a few major sights. If we had been willing to rush we could have also fit in a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, but we preferred to take it easier. I won't go into a lot of details as the sights are well documented in any guidebook, but we visited the War Remnants Museum (the first exhibit on the journalists killed in the war was particularly moving), the Reunification Palace (very interesting), HCMC Museum (notable for more brides and grooms posing for wedding photos), Jade Emperor Pagoda (very strange, and worth a look if you have the time), Ben Tranh Market (great for last-minute shopping) and popped into Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office. The Post Office is really a must-see -- arguably the most beautiful post office in the world!

Our last night we ate at the temporary restaurants set up by the market after it closes -- I guess you would call them stalls. If we had been there our first night we might have eaten there every night. We found one with a BBQ going and had grilled Red Snapper that may have been the best fresh fish of the trip, although there was so much great fresh fish it's hard to rank them. Our other night we ate at Xu, an upscale (and quite expensive) Asian fusion restaurant because it was raining and we wanted to be comfy inside. I'd stick with the Ben Tranh stalls. The night market around the stalls also has plenty of shopping choices.

We really only had the one full day in HCMC and 3 evenings.
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Old Jul 15th, 2008, 08:50 PM
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MEKONG DELTA:
This was another aspect of the trip about which I obsessed. I was fascinated to see this part of Vietnam, but since we were trying to avoid a lot of packing and unpacking and checking in and out of hotels, we decided to make it a day trip instead of 2 or 3 days. We had also considered (and rejected) going to Cambodia through the Mekong Delta and taking a boat to PP -- too long to get to SR and we didn't have time to really visit PP (although would have liked to).

I researched it a lot and finally settled on a day trip with Jason who is reviewed all over TA as "Jason Super Star." He is very prompt replying to emails and willing to give all sorts of advice. What I didn't want to do was the regular one-day trip to My Tho that most packages do as it's the closest area to HCMC. Since we couldn't go much deeper into the Delta in one day, the compromise was his day trip to Cai Be that includes lunch at the boat driver's house. This was also sort of a smidgen of a taste of a homestay, which i would have really liked to do. Since it was the end of our trip we weren't even sure we were up for this all-day excursion, but it turned out to be relaxing, fun and interesting and a great way to spend our last day.

We stopped briefly at one of the smaller Cao Dai Temples since it was right on the way and it was very interesting. It's a religion that mixes mysticism, Buddhism, Christianity and so many other elements. The main temple is often included with day trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

It was about 2.5 hours to Cai Be where we got on a boat to see the floating market (not spectacular by this time of day). But the boat ride was great and we went on these little canals and then got off the boat to walk through a village (Than Long village, perhaps? I should have written it down!) where there were absolutely no other tourists and we could really see village life, peering into people's houses, the fruit trees growing, the "Mekong Toilets" (you don't want to know), waving at the children. Just a wonderful little "slice of life" walk. We also took a small sanpan on another waterway, visited the local market (really no tourists!) where we saw ducks that would soon be dinner, etc., and where i had the best 6 cent banana fritter in the world!

We also visited "factories" that are really colorful home businesses where they make rice paper, a version of "rice krispie crunch" (super yummy) and coconut candy (brought some back for the office) and we sampled everything. This part was touristy, but actually very interesting.

More waterways and seeing Delta life and then we "docked" by a country lane where the boat driver lived with her husband, in-laws and children. Lunch at her house was another culinary treat. She made the local specialty, elephant ear fish, that was really good, more great spring rolls and fresh-picked watermelon, dragonfruit and jackfruit for dessert with Vietnamese tea. We were invited to rest in their "living room" and while away the afternoon, but we were ready to move on and said goodbye to this gracious family and made it back to HCMC by 4 p.m.

If you are going to do a one-day trip to the Mekong Delta, i would highly recommend this one. It is more expensive than the group tours,but probably the same as other private tours. We paid $125 but Jason says it's now $135 due to gas price increases. It's a long drive and he pays for the car, driver, boat rides and lunch out of this. It's not much more if you have more people and his very comfortable van seats 10. We did tip the boat drivers as well as the guide and driver.

Jason is a real entrepreneur, with very good English, who is building his business almost exclusively from Trip Advisor. He really aims to please, especially if you'll give him a good reveiw like I am doing. You can reach him at: [email protected] and see reviews of him all over the Vietnam forum at TA.

If I was to do a 2 or 3 day Mekong Delta tour I would suggest looking into something personalized like a homestay or Jason offers a trip that includes meals at his parents' home village deep in the Delta. I'm not sure the generic, packaged 2-day trips are much better than what we were able to do in one day.

And that ends our Vietnam journey. The taxi to the airport and trip home were uneventful and we landed safe and sound at LAX at almost the same time we left Singapore.

Parting thoughts: Vietnam was a great destination, particularly if you have already visited other parts of Asia. For Americans, it may provoke some extra feelings as it did for us. We felt this trip was a great mix of city, countryside, museums, nature, being very busy and taking time to relax. Highlights for me were going to people's homes and seeing how they live in the villages. I think for my boyfriend, who had never been to Asia, just being some place so "different" was fascinating.

I am happy to answer any questions and will check back on this forum in case anyone has questions or wants more information. I will also post hotel reviews and some other information on Trip Advisor.

Happy and safe travels to all....
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Old Jul 16th, 2008, 04:55 AM
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Thanks again as I wish I had your report before I made my trips there. I did have the experience of being overnight in the Mekong Delta where our guide took us to his Mother's home for lunch. Beautiful walk back in the country down a dirt road. He showed us his Father's grave(a S. Vietnamese soldier) on the property as he could not be buried in the Country's graveyards. Also took us by a small canoe to a solder's home who served with our American army. So neat. He had to climb his banana tree to give us bananas, show us his snake, and I was his sister by the time we left.
Firgive me for getting into your report,but I am so sorry I never wrote my trip on Fodors. I so identify with your trip.
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Old Sep 7th, 2008, 11:23 AM
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Alison, Thank you for the wonderful & detail trip report. I will be going a 8 days trip to Hanoi & Saigon early next year. Can you email me for I do have several questions on some of the hotel you stay and the Mekong Delta tour. Please email me [email protected].

ps I also live in Los Angeles area, need info on visa and internal flight booking info.

Thanks
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Old Sep 18th, 2008, 04:02 PM
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Alison, I have been working with Tonkin Travel. They have been very responsive. I posted some questions for you on the Asia board. Please help!
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