Vibrant Vietnam

Vibrant Vietnam

We set off on the first leg of our Vietnam adventure bound for the French inspired streets of Hanoi. Once influenced by the communist regimes of Russia and China this exotic and exciting cosmopolitan city has grown into a vibrant place that begs to be explored. As for our new travelling family of 12 lovely ladies, well we couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into and be swept up into everything it had to hold.

If anything, Hanoi lacks nothing in abundance from the millions of motor cycles attacking its streets, to cafes, markets and tiny little chairs and tables where you can sip coffee or beer and take it all in. Even the most ardent of savers couldn’t help but open their wallets to the variety of items on offer. Exquisite cuisine and mouth-watering dishes kept us wanting more in this fabulously enticing city.

We had arrived in the evening and are met by Thoun who will be our guide during our stay in Hanoi. “All the lovely ladies “are then taken to our quaint boutique hotel located in the undeniable charm of the old quarter surrounded by its own natural history and architecture. A place where soup is served for breakfast, handbags seem to breed like rabbits and Chinese medicines can cure any sign of a rumbling stomach.

Not to miss out, we arise early to partake in observing the locals in their morning exercise routine of Tai Chi around Lake Koan Ho. At this stage the girls were happy to take in the different styles of Tai Chi on offer. Variations seem to depend on your level of flexibility with no shortage of incredible feats of physical stamina. There were the paddlers without a board, groovers and shakers without music and pensioners that would come together and stretch.

After all that exercising with our eyes the girls knew to don their sunglasses and to get ready to sweat out the day ahead. The challenge of weaving and dodging the scooters, tasting the myriad of street food with our very own lady chef from the Sofitel, massages, temples, cyclo tours, water puppet shows, a snake restaurant lunch before sweating some more in the mayhem of the markets. Ah, Hanoi better than we could have imagined. By the afternoon we’re settling back for rooftop cocktails, we all knew we had done the yards.

There’s something romantic and thrilling about an overnight train ride in Vietnam, it’s called the unexpected. After consuming our last Hanoi meal at the well-known Kyoto Restaurant before heading to the train station, we were as full as a Vietnamese bicycle rack. Needless to say their was a stash of red wine brought on-board for a laugh and reflection before all were overcome with the soothing rattle of the train which was to carry us overnight to Sapa.

Our 12 hour train journey seemed to go all too quickly as we arrive in Lao Cai, 350km Northwest of Hanoi the following morning. This quiet Vietnamese town is close to the China border and consists mainly of minority ethnic groups.

Here we are met by our local guide for the next three days May, who with her gentle manner is about to impart her knowledge of this region on us all. As we are led through the landscape and occasional landslide, we all knew this was going to be no ordinary stopover. Challenging it was. Time to grab some water, an all-weather jacket and don the walking shoes as we are led through buffalo paddies along a winding path taking in small remote villages and colourfully dressed women and children as we head to our homestay in the valley below.

At the end of our trek this seemingly timeless valley and its people have already left an indelible mark. Our homestay was basic but sufficiently adequate to our needs and definitely a stay we will not forget.

After settling into our new environment and a local massage to boot, we sat down to a sumptuous buffet of local food our family hosts had prepared. Later we visited the local bar next door for a warm Sangria to digest this great day.

The simple life of these colourfully adorned people and their smiling happy nature was such a pleasant surprise. For those wishing to purchase a gift, one can choose from the many hand crafted stitched bags, pursers these ladies make by hand – a beautiful momento of our time up here.

Sapa town is not only a fairy tale land, but also one stooped in history. From its cobblestone steps and historic buildings to its dining scene and small stalls there is something for everyone here to enjoy. The best thing is that you can see everything by foot.

The warmth of the Hmong people, the cultural vibe and the unique beauty of the scenery gave us all a pleasant reminder of a past that can still be enjoyed today.

The girls I feel were a little sad to leave this incredible place and the warmth shown by our hosts and guide and all those they came in contact with. But like in any good Toy Story moment …”from infinity and beyond”. So off we go to our next stop …Halong Bay.

After another overnight train ride to Hanoi followed by a bus trip we found ourselves at the famous emerald waters of Halong Bay. This spectacular bay consisting of thousands of little atolls too steep to climb and to small to inhabit is simply gobsmackingly stunning.

This magical place is what puts backsides on seats, bodies in Junk Boats and can drag anyone from any humdrum existence. A world heritage listed destination which means literally, where the dragon descends into the sea.

As we board our luxurious junk boat, with Sapa a distant fond memory, we tuck into a seafood buffet fit for a king but in our case a bunch of queens. We are ready to take in the breathtaking scenery and indulge ourselves.

Our cabins are well appointed with large windows so that we can take in the scenery while being horizontal. By mid-afternoon we visit the Tien Ong Cave adorned with stalactites and mites before continuing on to the Cua Van Fishing Village. Later on we turn our culinary skills into practice with an onboard cooking class and enjoy sunset on the top deck before dinner.

To their credit the girls somehow turned up for the 6am call of Tie Chi on deck all resplendently dressed in their white dressing gowns like a flock of floating butterflies. They would later explore Cat Ba Island and later cruise to Ho Ba Ham where our kayaking skills came to the fore. The girls loved the challenge of negotiating the narrow gaps whilst exploring the caves and inlets. A swim later in these emerald green waters a refreshing way to end the day.

Another early start of Tai Chi and the girls were well and truly in the swing of things. A short stop to a small secluded beach on the island of Ti Top and a beautiful breakfast mid-morning saw out our final moments in Halong Bay.

Our final destination is the World Heritage Listed ancient town of Hoi An. This melting pot of history boasts well preserved buildings of both Chinese houses and temples to colourful French colonial buildings and ornate Vietnamese residences.

Yes good old Hoi An is more chic than Paris itself. Great restaurants, relaxed nightlife, colourful lanterns lighting the way and a shopper’s paradise for custom made anything. Our girls couldn’t wait to hit the cobblestone streets and start sweating, and shopping.

We take on painting classes and lantern making to hone our artistic skills at the Lifestart Foundation which aids the Vietnamese disadvantaged to become self-sufficient. Another cooking class just to make sure we have it down pat coupled with a scenic bike ride through the back streets and lanes before detouring out into the rice fields and fish farms before arriving at a vegetable farm. Great ride to work off the excess from every other day and to prepare for more.

The remaining time the girls could be found on trail to the many tailor shops, leather shops, shoe shops, dress shops in fact any shop that made anything. It was a frenzy of activity with the girls showing you don’t need wads of Vietnamese Dong to fill a wardrobe and all ready to collect the next day.

What a great end to a great journey. One full of surprises and wonder, of laughs and more laughs, great food, great scenery, more food and delightful people. Of trekking and cruising and bike riding and kayaking. A trip filled with the unexpected and the unforeseen. A place of isolation and contemplation, of beauty and quiet. Isn’t that what it is all about?

Vietnam, a travellers dream.

Natalie Miller
Based in Belmont, NSW
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