Vietnam | Land of the Nine Dragons
Vietnam is where we started way back in 1993 and our headquarters remains in Hanoi. During our two decades, Vietnam has become a destination on everyone's short list of places to visit, as we knew it would become. Why? Vietnam is one of the most vibrant and exciting countries in the world. Every turn brings a new thrill, fascinating sights, and the unexpected. But without exception, the thing our past travelers marvel at more than anything else is the Vietnamese. One and all unfailingly friendly and gregarious—indeed they are the most social of Asians as you soon discover shortly after arrival.
Where to go? Our 20 years of organizing custom trips in Vietnam ensures you'll visit the places we know will be perfect for you and doing the things you are interested in. In fact, no two of our travelers experience the same trip, as we fine tune even the smallest of details such as where to lunch.
What to know? Vietnam remains, for the most part, two separate countries with marked differences between the north and south not only culturally, but geographically. Indeed, travel between Vietnam's many provinces can often seem like passing between countries.
Where you should go and do should at least in part be dependent on the purpose or focus of your trip and perhaps your style of travel (luxury hotels are few), such as interests in outdoors exploration, cuisine, architecture, or markets. Aside from these interests, we do typically recommend you consider visiting all four of Vietnam's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all worthy of that designation.
If your trip is short, you should not miss the north, where most cultural, historical, and geographic highlights are centered. The north is intriguing because it is full of unknowns; it is less commercial than the south, and the people have an entirely different mentality. The north feels like a foreign place; central Vietnam seems nebulous; and in the south, everything may seem a little too familiar such as the modern traffic, billboards, and sprouting up of high rises all over Saigon.
Also keep in mind some places, such as Sapa, should be visited only during certain times of the year due to weather. But most importantly for your travel plans — toss the guidebooks... Vietnam is exceptional for it's people, and certainly not for it's museums, historical sites, or other attractions that initially draw tourists to a place. Geography and cuisine notwithstanding, almost every one of our travelers over the past sixteen years has been stuck by the Vietnamese themselves. The warmth, easy demeanor, and gregarious nature are unsurpassed and you'll find a welcome smile almost anywhere you venture in the country.
We will help facilitate these many unforgettable, personal encounters, such as home and school visits, but also make sure your trip exposes you to the best of Vietnam's cuisine and other attractions. Below are details on destinations to help plan your time with us in this remarkable country. Also peruse our unique, annual trips, such as our photography and arts trips. Let us plan your perfect Vietnam tour.
N O R T H V I E T N A M
Vietnam's greatest natural experiences lie in the untapped north. The mountainous terrain, and the war, have isolated the area from travel since the 1940s. Now you can discover secrets like Sapa, a former French resort town up by the Chinese border, or Mai Chau, set in a beautiful valley near the Lao border. The north is intriguing because it is full of unknowns; it is less commercial than the south, and the people have an entirely different mentality. The north feels like a foreign place; central Vietnam seems nebulous; and in the south, everything looks a little too familiar.
The north has spectacular karst scenery-hills, deep gorges, and the kind of sugar loaf peaks found on islands in southern Thailand, in China's Yunnan province, and on Palawan in the Philip pines. At Halong Bay, bizarre limestone formations sprinkle the coastline, creating a dreamlike landscape that inspires Vietnamese painters. Hundreds of grottoes are embedded in the karst islets. Karst formations also make for spectacular boat trips on rivers to the Perfume Pagoda and Tam Coc Caves to the southwest of Hanoi. Ideal points for trekking include Mai Chau in the southwest, and Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau, Phong Tho, and Sapa in the northwest. Many minority groups live in villages local in the northwestern mountains, especially toward the Chinese and Lao borders on the Son La to Sapa route. The French word for minorities montagnard, meaning mountain people. You often notice minorities at markets, which a more animated on weekends, especially Sundays.
The 1,000 Year-Old City
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
If you can only visit one city in Vietnam, it should be Hanoi. To visit Hanoi is to steep yourself in history, tradition, and legend in a capital that has been inhabited continuously for a millennium. Hanoi's present architecture is mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries, and the stately French-built section of town is largely intact. Hanoi is cleaner, leafier, and quieter than other big cities in Vietnam — in a word, it's "cooler."
There's cooler weather, more drizzle, less traffic, less hype; the streets seem quieter, with few large billboards. There's a cooler mentality here, too-prouder, more prudish. Hanoi is a magnet for intellectuals and artists, while Saigon seems to attract entrepreneurs and hustlers. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city boasts the country's only world-class museums and artists prefer the city, their galleries and studios have recently enjoyed global attention. [More on our Hanoi Page]
The spectacular geographic highlight of Vietnam does not disappoint, but enthralls. Halong Bay has over 3,000 limestone and dolomite islets sprinkled over an area of 1,500 square kilometers, offering a wonderland of karst topography. In recognition of this, in 1994 Halong was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Legend has it that when the Vietnamese were under attack long ago, a dragon came to their aid, splitting mountains to impede the progress of the enemy. The limestone topography was created by the lash of the dragon's tail as it thundered down from the mountains to the sea; consequently, "Vinh Halong" — Halong Bay-means "Bay of the Descending Dragon." In geological terms, the mythical monster at work here is wind and water, weathering the porous limestone over a few million years. This process created the bizarre limestone cathedrals, colonized by stunted and twisted vegetation. The misty romantic setting of rugged island peaks and bays dotted with sailing junks has inspired a whole genre of Vietnamese painting. Halong Bay is featured in our 2008 Photography Series. For celluloid viewing, watch Indochine with Catherine Deneuve.
Red-shanked Duoc Langur
Cuc Phuong (and Ninh Binh)
Cuc Phuong is most important area of biodiversity, designated a national park by president Ho Chi Minh in 1962. The park, roughly six miles wide and fifteen miles long, was created in 1962-the first area in Vietnam set aside as a national park. It covers an area of 25,000 hectares, but for the moment is primarily a national park in name only. There are six Muong villages in the park: villagers farm and raise cattle on park lands and hunt. Deforestation in the surrounding area steadily encroaches on parkland, and large amounts of brushwood disappear from the park daily. The park supports a wide variety of flora species and patches of primeval forest, including 50-meter-tall Cinamomum, Parashorea, and Sandicorum trees. You can find ancient trees with thick clusters of roots, and parasitic plants and ligneous creepers. Some tree species have been introduced from Myanmar (Burma), India, and Borneo. Clusters of orchids grow near cave entrances, where the moisture conditions and light are ideal. Varieties include coral, vanilla, snow-white, and butterfly orchids. [READ MORE ABOUT CUC PHUONG]
Sapa has changed dramatically since the first visitors began arriving in the early 90s. The small town has been transformed by tourism and the weekend market is teeming with tourists who the hilltribes now market goods to, rather than each other. Still, the high-mountain setting is picturesque and offers extensive trekking for both light and extended trips when the weather permits. Unfortunately, the weather in Sapa is most adverse during the December and January high season when temperatures can dip to the 30s with heavy fog and drizzle. Mai Chau offers a warmer (and closer) option for trekking and cycling during these months. [More on Sapa]
C E N T R A L V I E T N A M
The ancient Imperial Capital, Hue, and nearby Hoi An, an ancient port of trade, are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites that should be included in any itinerary.
While the south has changed dramatically, today the sleepy imperial capital city remains a quiet town of 350,000. While Saigon and Hanoi grow by leaps and bounds, places like Hue crawl along. Few joint ventures are allowed, and there are few private hotels but deliberate blocks placed by the central government insist joint ventures in Hue be "branches" of those in Hanoi or Saigon. Hue is renowned for its university, producing such leaders as Ho Chi Minh.
The real attraction of Hue, aside from the tranquil environment, are the imperial tombs are scattered in the countryside four to eight miles south of Hue. Sightseeing along the Perfume River also offers the historic citadel and Purple, or forbidden city. Thien Mu Pagoda is located overlooking the river and is Vietnam's most important Buddhist site. [More on our Hue page].
Hoi An's Riverfront
About 80 miles south of Hue, just inland from the white sands of Cua Dai Beach lies Hoi An, an ancient port of trade that is typically everyone's favorite stop in Vietnam. This quaint town features well-preserved traditional wooden architecture, a flourishing cohort of established cafes and restaurants, and a picturesque setting on the Thu Bon River.
Hoi An is a wonderful place for cooking classes, "flash fashion" custom tailoring, and our unique, leisurely cycling tour that travels by sampan and bicycle to neighboring villages. No visit to Vietnam should miss this special UNESCO World Heritage Site. [More on our Hoi An page].
S O U T H V I E T N A M
Saigon's City Hall
After 1945, Saigon was the biggest and the most developed city in Asia. Today, it is again a boomtown and one of Asia's most-rapidly-changing cities. As rural Vietnamese immigrate in search of jobs, foreign corporations move in, and as Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese move back to their home country, the city has been transformed.
There are few historic sites left from either the colonial and American periods, but Saigon possesses fantastic cuisine, the best in the country, and the buzz and energy on the streets is unique for not only Vietnam, but much of Asia. There are few more interesting spectacles than sitting at night in a central quarter cafe watching thousands and thousands of Vietnamese cruise by on their motor scooters. [More on our Saigon Web Page].
In the Mekong Delta the mighty Mekong River ends its run from the Himalayas, splitting into multiple branches before emptying sights and experiences for those who care to explore. If you make the effort you'll be amply rewarded. The delta is a region of extraordinary energy and market commerce, with burgeoning markets, the last floating markets in Asia, exotic fruit orchards, and more coconuts than you'd want to contemplate.
The delta is a relaxing place, with good food (seafood!), pleasant river trips, cheap boats, and friendly people. You're never far from water in the delta, and boats in some districts are the main mode of transportation. Intriguing in the backwaters are the floating markets, which have disappeared in other parts of Asia. If you've the, we can organize Mekong Delta trip that travels through the heart of the delta, then by boat along the Mekong to Cambodia's sleepy capital, Phnom Penh. From Phnom Penh, the temples of Angkor are a short 50-minute flight to the north. [More on the Mekong Delta]
Phu Quoc Island Paradise
Phu Quoc Island, located 25 miles (4o km) off the Cau Mau Peninsula's western coast in the Gulf of Thailand, is the largest island in its archipelago. Lowland evergreen forest, the predominant vegetation on Phu Quoc, still covers much of the island. Little is known about the fauna of Phu Quoc Island. A Dugong population of unknown size has been identified from these waters, though it is clearly under great hunting pressure; at least six individuals were killed in 2002 alone. Leatherback Turtles, Loggerheads, Green Turtles, and Hawksbills have all been seen in this area. Green Turtles were formerly common, but populations are in decline owing to destruction of nest sites, collection of eggs, and over harvesting for food and shells.
Phu Quoc is also known for nuoc mam, a pungent fermented fish sauce. Nearly half the island' s population is dependent on its production. Coral reefs abound off the island, good places for diving and snorkeling, offer a chance to see beautiful tropical fish and other marine life. For nearly a decade, Phu Quoc has been of significant interest to resort developers and the government is beginning to take initial steps for formal development agreements, including the completion of a new airport. The island has the potential to rival popular destinations in the region such as Phuket and Krabi. If you're looking for sunshine, Phu Quoc often has clear skies while the rest of the country may not. Check the weather for Phu Quoc on our Vietnam Weather Page. [More on Phu Quoc]
Read on to plan your Vietnam tour? Contact us by clicking below or calling us in San Francisco at (415) 731-4377.
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