Vietnam is a place of solitude and contemplation, of beautiful scenery and people: it truly is a traveller’s dream. And personal travel manager Natalie Miller escorts a ladies only tour to Vietnam each year.
On these tours Natalie’s guests are taken to the best places to shop, experience a mud bath, an overnight Mekong Cruise and enjoy traditional street food by scooter. These are just a few of the highlights. Read on to find out what the group got up to on Natalie’s 2016 tour and what future travellers can expect from her ladies tours of Vietnam.
“We set off on the first leg of our adventure bound for the French inspired streets of Hanoi. This exotic and exciting cosmopolitan city has grown into a vibrant place that begs to be explored, and our travelling family of 12 couldn’t wait to sink their teeth into everything it has to hold.
When we arrived Thoun, our guide during our stay in Hanoi took us (“All the lovely ladies”) to our quaint boutique hotel, located amid the undeniable charm of the historic old quarter.
Hanoi does nothing by halves: from the millions of motor cycles whizzing through its streets, to the cafes and markets with their 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 be tempted by the variety of items on offer. Exquisite cuisine and mouth-watering dishes kept us wanting more in this fabulously enticing city.
We were out and about early to watch the locals in their morning exercise routine of Tai Chi around Lake Koan Ho, variations of which seem to depend on your level of flexibility with no shortage of incredible feats of physical stamina. There were paddlers without a board, groovers and shakers without music and pensioners that would come together and stretch.
After all that exercise with our eyes, we donned our sunglasses and dived into the day: tasting street food with our very own lady chef from the Sofitel, being massaged, visiting temples, taking a cyclo tour, and dining at a snake restaurant before taking on the vibrancy of the markets.
By the afternoon we’d settled back for rooftop cocktails, content that we had well and truly earned them.
There’s something romantic and thrilling about an overnight train ride in Vietnam. After enjoying 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, a supply of red wine was brought on-board to accompany a laugh and a reflection on our trip thus far, before all were overcome by 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 province, 350 kilometres northwest of Hanoi the following morning. This quiet Vietnamese town is close to the Chinese border and is home to mainly minority ethnic groups.
Here we were met by our local guide for the next three days: May, who with her gentle manner shared her knowledge of this region with us all. As we were led through the landscape, we all knew this was going to be no ordinary stopover. Donning an all-weather jacket and the walking shoes, we were led through buffalo-tended rice paddies along a winding path, taking in small remote villages and colourfully dressed women and children as we headed to our homestay in the valley below.
At the end of our trek this seemingly timeless valley and its people had already left an indelible mark. Our homestay was basic but sufficiently adequate to our needs and was definitely a stay we will not forget.
After settling into our new environment with a well-earned massage, we sat down to a sumptuous buffet of local food that our host families had prepared. Later we visited the local bar next door for a warm Sangria to reflect on this great day.
The simple life of these colourfully adorned people and their smiling, happy nature was such a treat to experience. For those wishing to purchase a gift, we could choose from the many hand-crafted, stitched bags and purses –beautiful mementoes of our time up here.
Sapa town is one of the main market towns in the Lao Cai province and is not only a fairy tale land, but also one steeped in history. From its cobblestone steps and historic buildings to its dining scene and small stalls, there is something to please every eye and for everyone to enjoy – and you can see it all on foot.
The warmth shown by our hosts, guide and the Hmong people, along with the unique beauty of the scenery, all combined to give us a wonderful experience and we all were a little sad when it was time to leave.
However, after another overnight train to Hanoi followed by a bus trip we found ourselves staring agape at the famous emerald waters of Halong Bay. This magical place is a UNESCO World Heritage listed destination, consisting of a spectacular bay littered with thousands of limestone islets that are too steep to climb and too small to inhabit, and it is gobsmackingly stunning. Its name literally means “where the dragon descends into the sea”, and the islets are supposedly magical jewels and jade that were spat into the sea by a protective family of dragons to form a wall against invaders.
From our position on the deck of a luxurious junk, with a seafood buffet worthy of royalty spread before us, we were content to take in the breathtaking scenery as we indulged ourselves.
Our cabins aboard the junk are well appointed, with large windows so that we could take in the scenery from a horizontal position. Mid-afternoon we were roused from our languor to view the Tien Ong Cave, which is adorned with stalactites and stalagmites, before continuing on to the Cua Van Fishing Village. In the evening we put our culinary skills into practice with an on-board cooking class and enjoyed sunset on the top deck before dinner.
After a restful night on the water, we were ready for the 6am call of Tai Chi on deck, all resplendently dressed in our white dressing gowns like a flock of floating butterflies. Later we explored Cat Ba Island before cruising 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, before finishing the day with a refreshing swim in the emerald green waters.
Our final day afloat began with more Tai Chi followed by a short stop at a small secluded beach on the island of Ti Top, then a beautiful breakfast mid-morning to end our time in Halong Bay.
Our final destination was the World Heritage listed ancient town of Hoi An. This melting pot of history boasts well preserved examples of both Chinese and French colonial building, as well as ornate Vietnamese residences.
Hoi An has its own chic, with great restaurants, relaxed nightlife, colourful lanterns lighting the way, and it’s a shopper’s paradise for custom-made anything. We couldn’t wait to hit the cobblestone streets and start shopping, but we also tried our hands at painting classes and lantern making at the Lifestart Foundation, which aids Vietnamese disadvantaged people to become self-sufficient.
This was followed by another cooking class and a scenic bike ride through the back streets and lanes, before detouring out into the rice fields and fish farms to a vegetable farm. It was a great ride to work off the excess from every other day.
We happily filled our remaining time in Hoi An visiting 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 proving that you don’t need wads of Vietnamese Dong to fill a wardrobe, and all of it was ready to collect the next day.
What a great end to a great journey that had been full of surprises and wonder, of laughs and more laughs, great food, great scenery, more food and delightful people.