Taking in the Best of Vietnam with a side of Beijing
The countdown was on, while I sat in the Calgary airport waiting for my flight to Vancouver for my onward flight to Beijing before I started my “Best of Vietnam” tour with G Adventures. I was sitting on uncomfortable airport seats in the terminal with my Starbucks coffee contemplating my imminent trip. The first stop was Beijing where I would be undertaking a 56 hour whirlwind tour of the former host of the 2008 summer Olympics. I used the tour company “On the Go” as they had a fantastic Beijing 72 Visa free package. Yes, you read that right, you can now visit Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, and Dalian in China for up to 72 hours in transit, which makes for a nice break on a long haul flight or a nice addition to the collection of stamps in your passport.
I arrived in Beijing two hours later than hoped for due to the plane being late arriving into Vancouver. Thankfully there was a contact number for On the Go for such circumstances and there with a sign that had my name on it being held by my guide whose name I found out was Sabrina right when I got out of arrivals. Sabrina pulled out her phone, did a quick call and my own private car pulled up that would be used during my duration in Beijing. Turns out Sabrina knew everything about Beijing as she went on about what roundabout road we were on (there is six by the way), when each government building was built and what went on in those buildings, as well as everything in between while being stuck in the Beijing rush hour. The unfortunate part was, I was lacking some serious sleep and was having a hard time following what she said for the two hours from the airport to the hotel (it is usually only an hour drive Sabrina assured me). I was a little apprehensive about the famous Beijing pollution, but I was in luck and I got a rare day where I could see a blue sky with only a slight haze which stayed constant for the whole time I was there.
I stayed at the Rainbow Hotel which was a comfortable 3-star hotel with a buffet breakfast that had a little bit of everything which was fun to try every morning. The next morning at promptly 8:30 a.m., the private car along with Sabrina picked me up and we were off to an early start to the fourth largest city square in the world, Tiananmen Square. This is the square where Chairman Mao’s tomb lies and various monuments are located. The square was full of big groups of tourists which were mostly Chinese from other parts of China visiting the capital. They were travelling in herds behind their guide holding some sort of stuffed animal or coloured flag high on a stick as a form of group identification in case they couldn’t find the rest of the group, that were all coincidentally wearing the same hats. I was grateful for my private guide as I learned how to make my way around the crowds that would turn out to be consistent on my journey through the other sites that I would see while I was in China. The Forbidden City was the center of power for five centuries, the seat of the emperors and it now dominates the city center. The Forbidden City itself really is breathtaking with a stunning array of ancient treasures and buildings highlighted in fantastic gold, reds, blues and greens filled with ancient porcelain, jade, gardens, plazas, historic sites, and 9,999 rooms. One really needs more than a few hours to take everything in.
It’s funny how in other countries, the lines on roads are just a suggestion and weaving between cars to get that inch further is a norm and Beijing was no exception. I was finally able to let my breath out when the car pulled into the jade factory where a traditional Chinese lunch would be served. During my time at the Jade factory, I learned one way to find out if that so called jade bracelet is real jade and you just bust out that handy Swiss Army blade and inconspicuously scratch the jade; since jade is harder than metal so it should not scratch. The Badaling section of the Great Wall was next on the agenda and even with the wall looking like it was multicolored due to the amount of people walking along it; it was still spectacular in all its grandeur.
Before my departure from Beijing on the third day, I arranged at extra cost with Sabrina and my driver to stop at the Summer Place and the Temple of Heaven before being dropped off the at the airport, which turned out to be worth every penny. There are so many interesting and historical sights to see in Beijing and I knew I just scratched the surface as the plane flew over the metropolis on my way to Vietnam.
My 15 day Vietnam experience with G-Adventures started in Hanoi navigating the old town maze of narrow roads while trying to stay out of the way of the scooters driving in all directions and constantly honking their horns, either to let the scooters, car or pedestrians know they are passing or to get out of the way. I arrived late and missed the welcome meeting along with the meet and great dinner with the rest of the group but I met with my G Adventures CEO named “Dee” later that night. Dee is energetic, hilarious, and the most fantastic CEO I could have ever asked for. Dee is originally from Hue in central Vietnam and as it turned out he can also sprout out dates and history like a walking encyclopedia. He really made the trip great and worked well with all the different personalities in the group. He added his own little touches throughout the trip such as “Dee tours” which was a great personal touch. Dee tours was his own little introduction to each town and city to show us the “real” essence of each place while giving us street advice, history, explaining why the locals are the way they are and pointing out notable sites.
The first thing Dee taught us was how to walk across a Vietnam city street as the scooters and the few cars will not stop for you to cross. It’s a little nerve racking but you say a little prayer and start walking slowly across the street making sure you keep the pace and they will just go around with honking horns. Once street crossing is mastered, there are many notable sites in and around Hanoi such as the Temple of Literature, National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and Hai Ba Trung Temple to just name a few. For a really nice walk before breakfast, head down to Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi’s Old Town where every morning around 6:00 a.m. the locals are on the banks practicing traditional T’ai Chi, dancing, or just moving around for exercise. You can walk around the lake or plop yourself at one of the many coffee shops to observe your surroundings. A couple things not to be missed is the famous egg coffee at Café Giang and the Hanoi water puppet show which showcases traditional Vietnamese music and folklore.
From Hanoi we took an overnight train to the remote mountains of northwest Vietnam to the frontier town of Sapa, the main market town which is famous for both its gorgeous rugged scenery and its rich cultural diversity; many ethnic minorities live in and around Sapa, there are about eight different groups. The highlight was hiking to our homestay through the rice terraces that were cut into the mountains like stairs which seemed to be glowing just from the vibrancy of the green. The ladies of the ethnic groups would try and strike up a conversation with you everywhere you went and their English was phenomenal. Learning about the women and their families was very rewarding but they will try and get you to purchase one of their many handmade items such as jewelry and little bags.
Another overnight train brought us back to Hanoi where we caught our private bus to Halong Bay where we would be spending the night on a boat surrounded by spectacular lime stone islands that are topped with thick jungle vegetation. A kayak trip around the stone formations was incredible and then we feasted like kings on local seafood.
The last overnight train brought us to the central part of Vietnam to Hue where we spent one night. That night we ended up taking a scooter tour, riding on the back all through Hue and ended at Dee’s Aunt’s house where we had the most delicious traditional Vietnamese dinner. Early the next morning we took in the Imperial citadel and the tombs of the Emperors before heading down to Hoi An, the former major trading port for the following three nights. To enjoy Old Town Hoi An, a ticket must be purchased which will allow access to five of the many attractions that include museums, old houses, handicraft workshops, a traditional theater and many more. At night, Old Town is lit up with lanterns and colourful lights, during the day it’s bustling with tourists looking to get clothes and shoes tailored with the hundreds of tailors that line the streets. Another must-do is to head down to the beautiful beaches, here is where I got to lay back and drink a mojito watching the wave’s crash onto the beach where I perfected my Canadian sun burn.
Next up was the hustle and bustle of former Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City where the first thing we did was take a Dee tour and then hop on a rickshaw (a passenger carrier pushed by a bike from behind) to experience the beautiful chaos of Saigon’s rush hour which I highly recommend. It was also the hottest destination of the entire trip reaching 47 degrees celsius with humidity! Around the city you can visit the war museum, the museum of art, markets for that last minute shopping, pagodas and so much more; the city is full of attractions.
One of my favorite parts of the whole trip was cruising down the Mekong River on long boats with a stop at Unicorn Island to listen to traditional Mekong music. There I tasted some fresh honey and then headed back onto the boat before heading to another Island where they made fresh coconut candies, yummy! The journey didn’t stop there as we took one last cruise to land and unloaded onto Tuk Tuks that took us on these paths with palm trees overhanging and we got to play a game of duck to avoid getting leaves in the face. The final destination was a homestay where they fed us until our sides creaked, we got to sleep in the great outdoors on a cot with mosquito nets and then had the most amazing traditional canoe ride out the next morning. It was all just fantastic.
On our way back to Ho Chi Minh City on our last day, our group decided to add in the Cu-Chi Tunnels that are secret network of deep underground tunnels designed for urgent escape during the Vietnam wars. It was fascinating learning about the tunnels and how resourceful the Vietnamese were during the war. I even got to crawl through a part of the tunnels! This was my first group tour I have experienced and I had no Idea I could see so much in two weeks. I have backpacked through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia on a single trip and I cannot believe I missed Vietnam but now that I have been, it has just increased the love I have for South East Asia and I can’t wait to go back and explore deeper into the country.
June 10, 2014