Planning and travel arrangements
It was our first trip to Vietnam. We opted for a private tour as we were due to travel in less than a month. We approached a few travel agents who were well-rated on TripAdvisor. They responded with a detailed itinerary including internal flights, transfers, hotels, private tours and guides. After some deliberation and negotiation, we booked our tour with Custom Vietnam Travel.
The benefit of a custom private tour is peace of mind and flexibility however this comes at a cost. In hindsight, booking a tour, either private or with a group, is probably a good idea especially if you are travelling with children.
We travelled in March and the weather was pleasant – cloudy and cool with light rain in the northern part of Vietnam, and plenty of sunshine in the central and southern region. Towards the end of the month, the humidity levels increased considerably and then it became somewhat unpleasant.
South Africans require a tourist visa for Vietnam which can be arranged on arrival at the airport. Carry the necessary documents and the required visa fee in cash. The process takes 30-45 minutes.
Our flight from South Africa to Vietnam was with Kenya Airways. Unfortunately the service didn’t leave much to be desired but it was an affordable flight.
Vietnam is situated in South East Asia and its neighbouring countries are China, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. So we thought it would be opportune to spend a few nights in Cambodia as well.
We arrived in Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, and welcomed by our tour guide who transferred us to our hotel. With just over 90 million people, Vietnam is one of the most highly populated countries in the world. Motorbikes are a common mode of transport due to the lack of infrastructure and affordability. The traffic is chaotic to say the least and it’s no wonder that the high accident rate is a cause for concern.
The Hanoi Pearl Hotel is situated in a quiet street close to the Hoan Kiem Lake and in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We stayed here for 2 nights. The room was comfortable and the staff are very friendly and helpful. The official language is Vietnamese however hotel staff and tour guides speak English.
You can look forward to the Temple of Literature, as referred to by the Vietnamese, which was built in 1070 and houses Vietnam’s first national university. A cyclo ride through the Old Quarter offers a window to another world. Here you will be introduced to authentic Vietnamese culture.
If you are a coffee lover, you’re in for a treat. The coffee is fantastic and we used every opportunity to have a cuppa, and even took some back home with us. There is an abundance of delicious fruit in Vietnam so give it a try.
If you enjoy a bit of shopping, the night market in Hanoi is huge and goes on forever. Here you can find reasonably priced curios and gifts. One can exchange cash for Vietnamese Dong at the airport, hotel and money exchange.
After a few days of trying Vietnamese cuisine, you may pick up a stomach illness. I suggest you carry medicine from home.
And so we went in search of a good Indian restaurant in Hanoi. The food and service at Tandoor Restaurant was excellent and I highly recommend it.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an absolute must-see in Vietnam. Being surrounded by a thousand islands on a junk boat in the middle of nowhere provides such a calm and relaxing atmosphere.
The journey from Hanoi is approximately 4 hours by motor vehicle. Although it’s a fairly straight road, it is very bumpy and can be considered somewhat unsafe due to driving conditions. You may want to carry some food and refreshments however the driver does make a stop along the way.
I would recommend at least a night’s stay, as it is a long way from Hanoi. We did a one night stay with Pelican Cruises and couldn’t have asked for more. We had a room with a private balcony overlooking the bay, which was such a treat. Food options are plentiful and staff were cognisant of our dietary requirements. Drinks are charged in US dollars and you settle the bill on checkout.
The cruise program is full and includes kayaking, a tour to the Surprise Cave, and an early morning Tai Chi class to name a few. I’d recommend them all although you can opt out and relax on the boat.
Halong Bay is magical. It is an unforgettable experience and definitely a highlight of our trip.
In my upcoming post, I will be sharing insights and tips from our journey to central and south Vietnam.