By Travel Expert Zoe Franklin
Days 1- 4 : Cambodia and Saigon
Angkor to the Bay, Wendy Wu.
Prices from £2,790 (prices correct 16/04/2015). Plus extra savings when booked with Travel Club Elite! For more information about this tour, please call Zoe directly on 0121 213 0012 ex. 204. Or send an enquiry.
The trip started with fantastic flights courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air to Siem Reap. Both airlines provided great service, decent leg room and entertainment.
On arrival we were met by the wonderful Mr Jackie, who was our guide for the days in Cambodia. The airport was only a 20 minute journey to hotel, but the roads can be a little ‘manic’, with droves of mopeds dashing in and out of cars.
We arrive at the lovely 4* Angkor Paradise Hotel, which is located perfectly for those wanting to be close to Pub Street. Pub Street is where all Cambodia‘s nightlife is, with beers on offer at just 50c.
We decided to get up early the following day, so we could experience sunrise at the famous Angkor Wat – This is arguably the best way to view one of the most iconic pieces of history on the planet, the moment the temple comes to life as the sun rises is breath-taking. The 12th century temple is the world’s largest religious monument, and is the regarded as the spiritual heart of Cambodia.
After a quick breakfast we continued our sightseeing at the fortified city of Angkor Thom – affectionately known as Uncle Tom. We saw beautifully crafted towers and stone figures including Baphoun and the 350 m long Elephant Terrace – This forms part of the walled city of Angkor Thom.
We had our lunch at the highly recommended ‘Nest’, which offers gorgeous traditional Cambodian cuisine in a relaxed setting . The most fabulous part of the day was the visit to Ta Prohm – otherwise known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ Temple – this is the ruin that has been swallowed by the jungle with tree roots growing through the walls, and was used for scenes in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider film.
This wonderful day was topped off by a visit to a local restaurant that provided traditional dance throughout the meal – a great way of learning about local culture and history.
The next day we flew to Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) and witnessed a bustling cosmopolitan city full of history, obtained from colonial France and ancient China. It was here we were met by our next guide a man called Mr. Tuan Tran Dinh – I must say he really made the trip, and his knowledge and expertise were very impressive.
The roads here are a law unto themselves, with over two million scooters teeming through the streets of Saigon, they are an attraction in their own right. Some of the moped sights included pigs/cattle strapped to the backs, babies sitting in between their parents and horns continuously beeping.
Crossing the road can be a little daunting, but here’s a tip I picked up. The technique is to literally step off the pavement and cross at a slow, steady pace until you reach the other side – be brave, they will go round you!
We were taken to a beautiful Mandarin restaurant called Oriental Saigon, for an amazing lunch of exquisite Vietnamese food and exceptional service – Check it out, it’s highly recommended.
From here we had a sightseeing tour of the city that included the Reunification Palace – this is where the final stages of the American war in Vietnam took place. We also viewed the stunning French-style ‘Central Post Office’ and the ‘Notre Dame Cathedral’ that was built between 1886 and 1890.
Our hotel in Saigon was the Lan Lan, a 3* hotel, offering great service, and fantastic location that’s close to all the cities’ sights and amenities.
This evening we ate at a place called KOTO (Know One Teach One), which is an amazing place that helps children from the street to rebuild their lives, and gain the experience of work.
In the evening group of us went out experienced the nightlife of the city – wow! We started off at a place called Chill SkyBar, which is 26 storeys high, and overlooks the expanse of Saigon. This is definitely an experience not to be missed, a place for the young and privileged of the city.
This was followed by a few hours at a street bar, drinking with the locals and having a sing-along to string-less guitar, that was played by our group leader Mr. Diogo Castanheira – another experience not to be missed.
The next day has to be one of the highlights of my life so far – a trip to the Mekong Delta and a big tick off my bucket list. We travelled around 2 hours to Ben Tre, a southern province in the Mekong Delta passing through lush rice fields en-route.
We walked through coconut gardens, seeing local houses before reaching a rest-stop, where we had a traditional folk song performance and fresh fruit with honey tea. We then continued on a sampan, which is a boat paddled by a personalised rower through the palm lined canals – an extremely relaxing and thought provoking ride.
We met a local family who ran their own business making coconut candy directly in front of the pier – and obviously we sampled the candy before buying up almost all their stock. Another fantastic feature of the tour was a photo opportunity with the pet python – A very interesting addition to the day.
We then embarked on a motorised journey along the Mekong to a place called Turtle Island, where we experienced the most sumptuous feast of local delicacies. We concluded this wonderful day with a meal at the lovely An Vien Restaurant, where yet again the food and hospitality were faultless.
Days 5 – 7 Hoi An
We bade farewell to Saigon and flew up to Da Nang to start our journey to Hoi An.
Hoi An was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and blends culture, cuisine, religion and architecture. We experienced a walking tour of the narrow streets and visited one of Hoi An’s oldest homes built over 200 years ago. We also experienced the Hoi An market, The Quan Cong Chinese temple and the Japanese Covered Bridge.
Hoi An is a comfortable retreat, that allows people to chill out between the hustle and bustle of the larger cities. The Thu Bon River runs through the town and is crossed by ornate and decorative bridges.
We stayed at the beautiful 4* Green Heaven Hotel, which is located perfectly for access into the town. The hotel boasted an on-site tailor service, which made quality outfits in an extremely short space of time.
The hotel spa offered an array of treatments at a fraction of the cost you’d pay back home in the UK. The service was first class and certainly made us feel more relaxed than when we arrived.
Day 8 – 10 Hanoi and Halong Bay
Hanoi is a charming city of public parks, lakes and a population of around 4 million. Hanoi has more cars than Saigon but the streets are as manic as each other – it’s worth mentioning that the hustle and bustle of the traffic only adds to the Hanoi’s charm.
We were met on arrival by our guide ‘Kien’, who was a very talkative chap who loved to tell us everything about anywhere we visited – great knowledge from the guide, a continuing theme for the trips duration.
We checked into the gorgeous Church Boutique Hotel, and then visited the serene Temple of Literature. This is Hanoi’s first University dating back to 1070 and is dedicated to Confucius.
The evening took us to see a performance of the famous Water Puppets in central Hanoi. These were invented thousands of years ago by farmers in the Red River Delta near to Hanoi, as a means of entertainment when the rains flooded the paddy fields. A an absolute for must for anyone visiting Hanoi.
We were all up bright and early for the 4 hour journey to Ha long Bay, which is a straight run from Hanoi, and broken up by a rest stop selling numerous collectables and ‘happy Buddha’s’.
On arriving into Halong Bay (The Jewel in the Crown of Vietnam), nothing can distract you from the sheer beauty of the place. The marina is home to a myriad of boats, including day trip vessels, and more traditional style cruise junk boats (for overnight stays).
We were on board the ‘Bhaya Classic’, and the boats staff ensured we have a truly memorable stay. No sooner had we boarded the ‘Bhaya Classic boat’, we were sailing through the bay towards our anchor point.
Amazing rock sculptures just appear dramatically out of the sea offering a picturesque setting. We had lunch on board before stopping to explore the local floating village, and enjoying a paddle boat ride around the bay. The scenery is absolutely breath-taking and calming, the lack of motorized boats meant you could hear a pin drop – another tick off my ever decreasing bucket list.
On board the boat we were lucky enough to have a cookery demonstration from the chef, who made deep fried spring rolls and carrot roses – the best part was sampling these culinary delights.
An afternoon swim in the bays fresh waters set us up for our more tasty evening treats – which was cooked to perfection. Drinks were flowing, the music captivated in the night air, and dark blackness of the bay surrounded us all. This was an emotional experience that I will treasure forever.
The next day we visited the ‘Sung Sot Cave’ (Surprise Grotto), and after walking up many steps we were rewarded with the sight of arguably, the best limestone formations in the world today. Mood lighting illuminates the caves further enhancing the experience – what a great way to finish off a life enhancing stay in Halong Bay.
We departed the boat and headed back to Hanoi, where during the afternoon we visited the Ho Chi Minh Complex and saw the changing of the guard. We also saw the One Pillar Pagoda, which is a Buddhist temple built in the style of a lotus flower. This temple was built by Emperor Lý Thái Tông in gratitude for his wife bearing him a son, after dreaming that he’d met the ‘Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara’ (translates to “the Lord who looks down”).
The great thing about this trip is that I got to share it with a group that bonded so well, and had pleasure of sharing a once in a lifetime trip together. Our passions were clear throughout the trip, and it was a pleasure to share it with like-minded people.
The tour of Cambodia and Vietnam with Wendy Wu is definitely an experience I will never forget. From flying on a propeller plane for the first time, to the emotion of travelling down the Mekong River, Halong Bay’s serenity and the madness of Hanoi‘s and Saigon – all truly inspirational!
Thank you Cambodia and Vietnam, and thank you Wendy Wu!
Angkor to the Bay, Wendy Wu.
Prices from £2,790 (prices correct 9/01/2015). Plus extra savings when booked with Travel Club Elite! For more information about this tour, please call Zoe directly on 0121 213 0012 ex. 204. Or send an enquiry.