Thursday, February 18, 2016

A NORWEGIAN FAMILY JOURNEY IN VIETNAM

When Select Collection travel adviser Ada returned from Vietnam she was alive with enthusiasm and persuaded a Norwegian family to do a trip including an overnight train, junk cruise, paradise hotel and more. The family of five rate the journey absolutely top notch...

Here is a diary of their experiences with snapshots...

From Sunday, 28/12/15 to Sunday, 01/10/16
  

  Day 1, Sunday 28 Dec - Departure

  Flight Oslo Gardermoen - Frankfurt; Frankfurt - Hanoi with Vietnam Air.

  Vietnam airlines used a new aircraft - very good, on par with SAS plus. The service was decent and the food good. Entertainment a bit antiquated; a pity the Vietnamese films were not subtitled.
  

  Day 2, Monday 29 Dec - Hanoi

  It went smoothly getting through passport control, suitcases took about 1 hour, but it was early morning and we were not in a hurry.
  
  Our guide AHa was there to meet us after getting past all controls. She showed us an ATM. There is only one here and there was a relatively long queue, as only 2,000,000 V dong could be taken out at a time.

  A small minibus with drivers and AHa took us to our hotel.  A slightly overcast morning with drizzle, and all appeared at a little grey, but it was interesting to follow the morning rush hour, countless scooters, a traffic pattern we previously had never seen before.

This is indeed traffic
  Arriving at Metropol - a lovely hotel - we were offered  a room to change, shower etc as our rooms were not ready. After a quick change of clothes AHa directed us to bicycle taxis and we were driven to a Pho restaurant to enjoy breakfast.  It was as rustic and tasty as we could want.

An adventure on bike taxis
  Then out into traffic again, we were driven around to the various sights, as stated in the program. We really got to feel the pulse of Hanoi. 


Memorial
A bit of a tangle - Hanoi


We also wanted to visit Hoa Lo prison, the so-called Hanoi Hilton, although it was not in the programme; it was no problem, just had to pay.

  After all the visits we were very tired and very happy to get home to the hotel.
  
  Here my first but only frustration of the entire trip popped up; tips. How to tip these bicycle taxis, hotel, guides, restaurants etc.  I think we ended up tipping 100,000 V.dong to each of the cyclists and
  about 400 000 to guide and driver.
  
  We were given rooms in the new wing, very good.  We had  dinner at the Vietnamese restaurant in the hotel, all very tasty.

  Days 3 and 4, Tuesday 29 Dec  - Wednesday 30 Dec - Hanoi 

We were on our own.  Much hiking, exploring the "old town", markets, museums, street stalls and galleries. We received invaluable help from the receptionist, Swedish Erik. He helped us find places to eat, booking etc.

Colourful local dining
Ingenuity in Hanoi
  
Old and beautiful


  We took a buffet dinner at a restaurant Sen in the neighboring building. This gave us the opportunity to really know the Vietnamese cuisine. The food was good and there were only Vietnamese people there; a bit loud.
  
  We also went on Water Puppet Theatre which was a fun experience.

  Last dinner we ate at another Vietnamese restaurant; Quan an Ngon which is about 15 min walking distance from the hotel. Lively, with  delicious food.

  

  Day 5, 6 and 7, Thursday 31 Dec - Saturday 2 Jan - Halong Bay

  I got a call from the agency Trails of Indochina day before who confirmed that we would be collected at. 0730 at the hotel.
  Became flustered that morning when no one showed up at the agreed time. Got help from the hotel to call the second reception (which was in the old section). After about 30 min  guide Lilly emerged. She had been at the other reception  It is worth noting that there are 2 receptions!

  Fun bus trip to Halong Bay

  Arriving in Halong Bay, we were placed in a kind of waiting room, and the guide and bus left us. We were eventually taken care of by Lai, taking us in a small boat to a small junk. This was somewhat smaller than I had imagined, but it turned out to be incredibly charming. It was just us 5 and a young American couple who were guests. There were 4 cabins and Lai arranged it so we got 3 cabins. It would probably have been difficult to place a 3 bed room in these staterooms.
  
  Those days were absolutely gorgeous. Very glad that we went for a 3 day cruise and not just 2.


Junks for cosy cruising

Small craft below tall cliffs

Floating homes

Canoeing into a cave

Local life

Exquisite Halong Bay

Peace and relaxation

  There were visits to a Pearl Farm, kayaking, cycling, cave visit, tai chi in the morning. We also visited a small beach where we got to swim a bit - we were lucky the weather was getting better and better. The food on board was absolutely superb, and we were taken care of by the book. We also got a lesson in how to make spring rolls. New Year's Eve the whole crew was singing and had arranged a birthday cake at my daughter's request. This was a different kind of 60 Celebration for me. 

Later they took us over to 2 large boats which were in the same company. There  we had light refreshments and some music. Okay, but we most liked being in our boat.
  

  Day 7, Saturday 2 Jan - Halong Bay - Hanoi, the night train to Hue

 Guide Nelly and bus met us in Halong Bay, and we drove back to Hanoi. We arrived fairly early so they added a visit to a workshop / service outlet for lacquer work.

 We took an early dinner at the restaurant; Madam Hien. This can be recommended. 

 We were driven to the train station an hour before the train's departure. Here we were handed over to a colleague of our guide. We were happy about that, as our tickets were not completely in order. We never knew what it was, but we were eventually guided onto a carriage, where I think all foreigners were placed.

  The train ride was a special experience. We had 2 compartments, with 8 beds, surely the best commonly available. A somewhat hard experience, but a fantastic journey through jungles and rice paddies, we were up with the daylight, when the day started. My husband was so excited that he at one point wanted to continue with the train to Ho Chi Minh, but was really pleased when we arrived at Hue.


Relaxing on the train to Saigon

Morning dawns over the rice paddies

  

Day 8, Sunday 3 Jan - Hue - Hoi An


Arriving in Hue somewhat battered and some of us a bit tired, we were greeted by Luck (a new guide), jeeps and an accompanying vehicle.

We were first driven to a restaurant Ca phe Vy Sa Xua, where we had breakfast, Pho and delicious coffee. A nice place.
Delicious dining
Then it was time for fun sightseeing, Imperial Palace and pagoda.




Sights in Hue



Then nestled in jeeps we headed towards Hoi An. The trip went on small roads, through villages and exciting landscapes. Lunch was taken at a lake with various shells for starters and fish/shellfish soup as main dish, It was the restaurant's pride but unfortunately the only dish during our stay that was not to my taste, But still it was a fun place.  



Jeep adventure


Otherwise the jeep trip was one of the big highlights of the journey. My children were very excited.

We arrived at Hoi An and the Nam Hai after dark in light drizzle but pleasantly warm temperatures.

  

  Day 9-12, Monday 4 Jan - Thursday 7 Jan -  Hoi An 


 The Nam Hai was an exceptionally beautiful place, a little paradise on earth.



The whole family poolside in tropical paradise


 Everything, absolutely everything was absolutely wonderful, everyone's s wants and desires were fulfilled, even those we did not know we had. A beautiful and aesthetic experience, and one of my best ever hotel stays. Our butler Quinha was helpfulness itself, and assisted us in every way.

  Thea attempted meditation class, and Ted + Fredrik tried out the the tennis court.
  
  Besides a dinner in Hoi An, we visited the tailor Bao Khanh Silk, where the whole family was dressed up from head to toe, and we had a day of cooking lessons. We spent most of the time in our little villa and took our dinners at respectively the Vietnamese and the Western restaurant. All meals were absolutely exquisite.
    
  Cooking lessons. The day was a popular event. The local market, nice bike ride through rice fields and a festive experience at home with the chef himself, Mr. Victor and his Kumquat. I don't think tourists could get closer to the soul of a Vietnamese family than this. And the food we made was 
absolutely super.





The French left this heritage  
Market stalls 


Market scenes

Canine passenger in Hoi An

  Day 12, Thursday 7 Jan - Hoi An - Ho Chi Minh 

We were picked up by a new guide and bus. (This could perhaps have been cut out as that hotel also had a bus at guests' disposal. And it was part of the package as complementary.)  Check in and travel went absolutely fine.
  
  In Ho Chi Minh we were met by Bee and transported to the hotel.
  
  Here I experienced for the first time in my "travelers' life" that a hotel could have an insurance policy, a copy of my credit card and PIN code on a "blank check" memo, in  the event I should destroy  the rooms. I refused, and they then advised  that it was only up to 10 million V. Dong.  I still refused to sign this memo. It did not help that the receptionist spoke a hard to understand English - unfortunately an unpleasant experience. Sorry that we could not stay at the Hyatt  - it was full.
  
  Apart from this the hotel was centrally located, had decent rooms and a wonderful breakfast buffet.

  

  Day 13, Friday 8 Jan - Ho Chi Minh

  Bee and bus driver picked us up to the big sightseeing day. We saw the post office, the Presidential Palace, the War Museum. Then there was the drive out to the Cu Chi tunnels. On the way we took a lovely lunch in idyllic surroundings. Cu Chi was an interesting museum, a necessary witness of a time which is not that far back.

Grand Cathedral in Saigon

A grand tropical avenue

Relics of the Vietnam war


   We returned late in the evening after an eventful day.
  

  Day 14, Saturday 9 Jan - Ho Chi Minh

Atmospheric eating


  New guide, the sweet My, took us to a local market. We were introduced to different cool drinks,  visited various "street-cafes", ate wonderful food. Also visited a flower market. Safe and well with little My.







  



 We were back at the hotel a little later in the morning. We walked a bit on our own around the hotel and was glad that we had "late-check out" from the hotel.
  
  Bee guide and driver were in place for departure and Bee had brought Saigon's best Banh Mi to us. Very thoughtful, and they came in handy when we had a delay by plane from Ho Chi Minh, since this airport has to be one of the world's most expensive places to eat.
  
  Slightly disappointing that we got a relatively old aircraft on the way home. Not the best comfort, though that it was normal eco class, but apparently little more leg-room.
  

  Day 15, Sunday 10 Jan, Ho Chi Minh - Oslo

  
  Despite the fact that we had a fantastic trip, home is the very, very best. So a bad night's sleep is fast forgotten. Due to delayed departure our luggage was not transferred to the plane Paris - Oslo, but it didn't matter. It was delivered home Monday night.
  
  The journey was in every way superior, and all arrangements were perfectly matched. I / we could not have wanted it differently.
  
  The guides were all sweet and knowledgeable.Though we could ascertain that they were easier to understand the further south we got. In both Hanoi and Halong Bay there were linguistic misunderstandings, never anything serious, but it created some comical situations.
  
  Gratuities / tips as I mentioned is something problematic.
  
  Please note Hotel Metropol 2 entrances / 2 receptions.
  
  Nam Hai had a complimentary airport transfer.
  
  InterContinental Hotels in Ho Chi Minh; it is standard procedure to print a blanco nota as insurance.
  

CONCLUSION

I hope more people can experience this, - I would imagine that even the most sceptical and the most blase will be raving about it

 This was top notch.
  
  - Cecilie Wikborg


NOTE
Ada Størmer Papatheocharis is a senior travel adviser at Select Collection in Oslo. 

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