It’s inspiring to know that someone as well travelled as our humble CEO is still passionate about discovering new destinations. This January he and some trusty companions embarked on a sojourn to South East Asia, taking in Vietnam and Cambodia. Unsure of what to expect, they soon found themselves on a fascinating journey filled with head-spinning scenery, heart-warming humanity and eye-opening cultural truths that were all destined to leave a lasting impression.
We’re lucky enough to have the first-hand diary account of their adventures, and we join their story in Vietnam’s Hanoi before picking up the action in Siem Riep, Cambodia.
Our arrival in Hanoi was soundtracked by hundreds of honking mopeds moving in all directions. Crossing the road was a challenge at first! Our luxury hotel, the Silk Path, was very comfortable and its central location provided an ideal base from which to explore the many sights and historic monuments of Hanoi.
First of these was the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. To actually see the body of this great Vietnamese leader was a moving experience, as was viewing the houses he occupied during the war. Next up was the 12th century ‘One Pillar Pagoda’, followed by a look at the Temple of Literature. Built in the 14th century, this was the country’s first university and today houses beautiful statues of Chinese philosopher Confucius and his disciples. In the afternoon we visited the Lake of the Restored Sword, noticing an old island pagoda reflecting in the tranquil waters. We then paid a visit to the ancient temple Ngoc Son where Buddhists still worship to this day. Enjoying a traditional water puppet show brought a relaxing end to the day’s activities.
The following morning we visited the American POW camp – now a museum known affectionately as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. It was fascinating to learn of its 19th century origins as a French jail for Vietnamese political prisoners. Numerous torture rooms, and even a guillotine, were on display. Hanoi was a thoroughly enjoyable first port-of call on our amazing Indochina itinerary. Communicating with locals might sometimes have been difficult, but, what was lost in translation was more than made up for in smiles!
We left the hotel in Hanoi and drove to Ha Long where we were warmly welcomed by the Indochina Junk staff. We were taken by motorboat to our ‘Junk’ – the boat on which we were to spend the next day and night. It was spectacular. The lounge was exotically decorated with polished wood settees and the dining area was spotless. The cabins were large and stylish with luxurious en-suite shower rooms. After settling in we sat down to lunch from a set menu which we all agreed was delicious. Afternoon activities consisted of enjoying the view of the beautiful Halong Bay from the junk’s sundeck. There were sun loungers with cushions and blankets so even if it got a little chilly we wouldn’t miss any of the fabulous sights. Later we were rowed by one of the locals to view a ‘floating village’, one of many in the bay that house self-sufficient communities. That evening we had pre-dinner entertainment in the form of a cookery decoration demonstration and then made the most of happy hour cocktails. Dinner was a sumptuous buffet after which playing cards and board games were provided.
We began the day at 6am with Tai Chi on the sun deck, followed by a visit to a small island called Titop (named by Ho Chi Minh after the Russian astronaut Titop accompanied him there). A vigorous 400-step climb afforded stunning views of the bay, dotted with dozens of junks all moored with their sails up for show. We then had time to relax on the little beach before returning to our junk for a full breakfast. We disembarked late morning after a memorable 24 hours full of stunning views and great food in comfortable, luxurious surroundings.
Arrived in the evening to La Residence Superior Hotel which is beautiful, tastefully furnished and decorated in a colonial style. There was a vast choice of breakfast accompanied by vistas of the Perfume River.
We started the day with a Dragon Boat ride on the Perfume River travelling upstream to the Thien Mu pagoda – the oldest in Hue. From here we took a bus through the jungle villages to the Imperial tomb of King Tu Duc which was in a gorgeous setting comprised of a lake and traditional teahouse. Many of the buildings were in the process of being beautifully restored. For us the highlight of the day was the stunning Mausoleum of King Khai Dinh, which is elaborately decorated in ceramic mosaics. We enjoyed lunch in a nice and very popular restaurant before spending the afternoon at our leisure.
We left the hotel in Hue and drove to the Cham museum where we saw the Hindu influence on Mid-Vietnamese history. Numerous well-preserved sculptures made it very interesting for a short visit. On the way our guide suggested we stop and walk around a local food market. This was fascinating, stimulating our senses with live fish and seafood and an array of colourful exotic fruits and vegetables. After this we went to Marble Mountain, stopping by a marble-sculpting workshop to see the talented sculptors in action. There were hundreds of amazing sculptures on sale that could be shipped back to the UK if you wished to purchase one. Marble Mountain is known for its network of small caves containing Buddah statues.
These visits all broke up the transfer drive to Hoi An where we were taken to our splendid hotel, The Boutique Hoi An. The hotel is set in beautifully landscaped gardens that lead down to a long sandy beach where you can observe the local fishermen in their round boats, mending their nets. The hotel is about 5km from the town centre but there is a free shuttle bus for your convenience. The rooms are spacious and nicely furnished with very cosy beds.
We were collected by our guide and driven into town for a walking tour of charming Hoi An. We all loved Hoi An with its bustling streets lined with souvenir shops. The area really came to life at night thanks to hundreds of brightly coloured lanterns illuminating the streets and reflecting on the river. During the walking tour we discovered the old town and visited some small temples and a traditional Hoi An wooden house before posing for photos on the famous Hoi An bridge.
At our request our guide then took us to ‘Sun Tailors’. Hoi An is famous for its high quality tailoring and Sun didn’t disappoint. We were measured for suits, dresses, blouses, shirts – you name it – all made to exemplary standards at a very reasonable price within 24 hours AND delivered directly to our hotel. Who could ask for more? On Sunday evening we went to a well know restaurant, ‘The Morning Glory,’ to sample Mid-Vietnamese cuisine. The food was delicious but the restaurant’s popularity means pre booking is recommended.
Monday was a free day so a Vietnamese cookery class at the Anantara Hotel was arranged on Kenwood Travel’s recommendation. We were greeted by smiley staff who happily helped us create a delicious Vietnamese-style lunch of spring rolls and aromatic chicken curry. This was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and is highly recommended. (Thanks Kenwood!) The rest of the day was spent relaxing on the beach or enjoying the great value massages at the hotel spa.
Reluctant to leave Hoi An we were transferred to the airport for our one-hour flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Our guide, Tang, collected us and took us directly on a tour of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The Old Post office just across the road is a beautiful historic building that now serves as a small souvenir market. We then took in the Presidential Palace with its impressive staterooms before checking into the Renaissance Riverside Hotel. The foyer, bar area and restaurant here were all lovely.
We drove 1-½ hours from Saigon to the Cu Chi tunnels – famous for being used by the Viet Cong guerrillas to escape US troops. They would plan and stage surprise attacks and take cover from the bombing raids above. None of us expected this to be such a moving experience, however we can look back at this as one of the highlights of our trip. Visiting the War Remnants Museum at our guides’ recommendation gave us an even better insight into the impact of the war on the Vietnamese people and how they are still dealing with the after effects of the Agent Orange chemical attacks. The photographs and depictions were very poignant and, though distressing to see, left us feeling glad we went.
On this day we went to the Mekong Delta where we took a trip on the Mekong River. We saw the Cai Be floating market where the locals barter and trade their wares. We were warmly greeted by a fruit vendor who welcomed us onto her boat to sample the delicious Jackfruit and drink coconut milk straight from the shell. The rest of the day involved a nice lunch in an old traditional Mekong island house, and a visit to family-run business making rice paper and popping rice. There were local crafts on sale including delicious fudge-like sweets derived from coconut milk.
Friday 30th – Cambodia
Arrived in Siem Reap and transferred to Tara Angkor Hotel, a very pleasant hotel with clean and comfortable rooms conveniently situated around two kilometres from the city centre. You can get a tuk tuk to the night markets and back for approximately $2.00.
We visited Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat – two amazing archaeological Unesco World Heritage Sites. Angkor Thom, including South Gate, comprises the incredible ruins of the Bayon, a spectacular temple with the distinctive feature of imposing stone faces on its many towers. The elephant terrace was also a visit to remember. Angkor Wat, though smaller in stature, is very beautiful and boasts splendid architecture. One of the most photographed facets reflects beautifully in the water.
Next day we visited the temple of Shiva, with its unique carvings, and the Prohm Temple. Its picturesque jungle setting was made famous by its appearance in the Tomb Raider movie. A spectacular sight here was the abundance of mature tetramelis trees ascending temple walls. In the afternoon we visited the ‘Killing Fields’ of Siem Reap. This rather touching monument is dedicated to the many atrocities performed by the Khmer Rogue during the last war there. We also visited the crocodile farm in Siem Reap as well as the adjacent crocodile leather shop where you can pick up crocodile or snakeskin bags at bargain prices.
Currency – In Vietnam it is best to take Sterling and exchange locally for Vietnamese Dong. The rate is set by the government so varies very little. This currency cannot be taken out of the country so ensure you spend it before you leave. In Cambodia everyone deals in US dollars.
Good to know – The banks (and therefore everyone else) will not accept ANY notes that are even slightly damaged or defaced, so please ensure you take new dollars with you minus tears or writing.
Plug adaptors – Flat two-pin adaptors are used in both Vietnam and Cambodia.
Weather – We visited during January and found the weather varied from North to South Vietnam, with the North being cooler and less humid. The further South you get, the warmer it becomes and by the time we reached Saigon the temperature had reached the thirties. This remained the same in Siem Reap, Cambodia. So take a sun hat, sunglasses and sun cream.
We enjoyed an absolutely fabulous and memorable trip. Kenwood Travel organised everything from the UK along with their affiliates in Vietnam. Everything from the international flights to the domestic ones, the transfers and the internal transport were impeccably organised and all went off without a hitch. Our guides all spoke very good English, were friendly, warm, extremely knowledgeable and thought nothing of bending over backwards to ensure we had the best possible time. We were also very impressed with all of the hotels.