By Chris Mackay, Crooked Trails Co-founder
Vietnam is so much more than just another gorgeous place to visit in Indochina. It has it all! The people, food, sites, adventure and culture are all outstanding. Planning a trip to Vietnam involves an initial big choice: do you go to the North (with hill tribe trekking and homestays in Sapa, Hanoi and Halong Bay), or the Central area (with Mai Chau, caves, trekking and biking), or the South (with the Mekong Delta beaches and Saigon). If you have the time, try to fit in at least two of these areas. If you have to choose, well… good luck.
Consider flying into the northern city of Hanoi, with it’s beautiful French Colonial architecture. The city is very large, with 7 million people – all of them cruising around on scooters. Many travelers stay in the French and Old Quarters, where there is much to see and do, such as the street markets and the famous puppet museum. Be sure to take a rickshaw ride around to get yourself oriented, then consider arranging a free guide from E-buddies, a group of Vietnamese students offering their services so that they can practice English with you. It’s a win-win, and you get the local perspective fresh from a student.
Don’t miss Halong Bay, which earns its recognition as a World Heritage site. There are thousands of limestone karst formations jutting out into the warm, blue water. It’s magical. You can do it on a 2-day 1-night fast track cruise if you have to, but if you can, take at least 2 nights and 3 days. Better yet, if you are traveling with a group, charter your own boat and get completely off the path. You can wander aimlessly around the incredible islands, relaxing, kayaking and swimming in the calm waters. The cooks on the boats are top notch and like everywhere in Vietnam, you will be eating your way through each day. Don’t worry about weight gain; the food is light, healthy, low fat, and dessert is always fruit.
Speaking of fruit, be sure to go to a local market and start sampling the fruit, no matter how bizarre looking. Some of the least interesting to look at, such as dragon eyes, are the most addicting. Others, such as rambuttan, taste as good as they look.
Looking for a homestay experience? Head to Mai Chau, a beautiful valley 4 hours’ drive from Hanoi. Crooked Trails has partnered up with a wonderful family there who has a very comfortable large framed house – the upper deck is open air, with clean comfortable mats on the wooden floors with privacy curtains and bug nets. It’s beautiful and breezy – perfect for families and groups. Ming and Din lend bikes for free, so you can ride around the valley on a nice, easy ride that takes about 1.5 hours. It’s great for all ages. The food is spectacular and the people are so kind.
If you are drawn to the Mekong Delta and its floating markets, then be sure to head into Ho Chi Minh City first and then head south to Can Tho. Crooked Trails has some fun biking and homestay experiences with floating market visits that get you in touch with the local scene. You can do things such as learn all about how rice noodles are made; it’s fascinating to learn the step-by-step process.
The floating markets are lively and still an important way of business – they are not just for tourists. The main market in Can Tho does see tourists, but most are Chinese and it still feels very local. To determine which boat is selling what fruit or vegetable, just look at the top of the upright bamboo poles to see what is attached on it. I saw pumpkins, pineapples, potatoes and more swaying from their perches for all to easily see. If you wish to get far off the beaten trail and visit a local floating market (my guide described it as “no touristy”), we can take you there. It involves another day’s travel further into the Mekong, but so worth it. It’s at the confluence of five waterways and the market is colorful and completely unvisited.
The south is a great place for families to explore by bike, as the land is flat as a pancake threaded by numerous waterways both large and small. You can mix it up with boat rides, walks and biking.
When is the best time to visit Vietnam? Most travelers opt go during our North American winter, December – January. The locals recommend you come in April. I went in July during the height of monsoon, and although it was hot and rained (not nearly as much as I expected), I thought it was great. Going during the summer also means that there is a much greater variety of fruit available. And of course the hotels are cheaper and there are less tourists around. In truth, Vietnam can be done anytime of the year and enjoyed. Whether you choose, North, Central or South, you can’t go wrong.
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