Normally, when our family travels, we make our own arrangements for everything; hotel, airport transfers, tours, dining reservations, etc. I consider ourselves seasoned travelers and look forward to researching every step of our journey on TripAdvisor and Pinterest. But when a friend offered to make an introduction to a travel company based in Hanoi for our upcoming trip, I decided to try something new. First of all I felt the guidance would be very helpful, and secondly, I like to work with local providers whenever possible
I was introduced to Son at Viet Dreamland Travel, a Vietnamese owned tour company based in Hanoi. I asked Son and his staff to handle all the arrangements for us from Hanoi to Halong Bay. This included booking the hotel, airport transfers, private tours for two days, and finally a cruise to Halong Bay. My appreciation for this company began with a smiling driver waiting for us at the airport at 1 a.m. in the morning. Throughout the course of the next few days my respect and gratitude for Viet Dreamland Travel would only grow.
The first day of the tour began with the highlights of Hanoi--Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and former homes, Museum of Ethnology, the Temple of Literature and a sampling of local food in the Old Quarter. We could have managed to get to each of these places on our own, but the convenience of having a local driver and tour guide was invaluable. Tickets were purchased for us at each location and we were immediately led to the entrance. Whenever we were done, the driver was waiting for us.
But what really made this day memorable was our tour guide, Tuk. On this particular trip we traveled with our two grown children. Once they became comfortable with Tuk they began to ask all kinds of questions about Vietnam. While stuck in traffic my son asked him, “What’s the minimum wage in Vietnam?” which led to an interesting conversation about economics and the social safety net in both Vietnam and the U.S. My son could have read all of this information in a book for his college political science class and would likely have described it as ‘boring’, but a conversation initiated by him in Vietnam held his interest for quite a while.
Exploring more of Asia? Here's 40 Things You Need To Know Before Traveling Asia.
Ninh Binh Tour
Our Ninh Binh tour began the next day, again with Tuk's assistance. This region is about 60 miles south of Hanoi. Our goal was to see the Bai Dinh Pagoda and Trang An Grottoes. The pagoda was lovely, and due to the size, gave us ample opportunity for exercise. We were surprised to learn that this was not an ancient site, but instead construction had recently been completed in 2010. This large Buddhist Temple was virtually empty when we visited, but we were told that during special holidays can be packed with thousands of worshipers.
Here's a great list of Fun Things To Do In Vietnam.
For me, Trang An Grottoes was the highlight of the second day. We spent almost two hours on a bamboo boat paddled by a petite Vietnamese woman. Sometimes she used her hands to operate the paddles, and sometimes she used her feet! We floated along the peaceful Sao Khe river through long, low caves, many of which are lit. Surrounding the river are karst formations, bright green rice paddies, and a few small temples.
When we began the trip we all wondered if the two hour trip would be dull, but it wasn’t. Instead, we enjoyed the time together as family-- wondering how we would make it through the low caves and diving for cover when hit with an unexpected rainstorm. Trang An is also a popular place for engagement photos for young Vietnamese and we had the pleasure of watching several couples pose in one boat while their photographer balanced precariously in another. At the time we were visiting this site had few other tourists which added to the peaceful scene.
Halong Bay Cruise
Our final two days in Vietnam were dedicated to a Halong Bay cruise. Bus transport to the bay takes about 4 hours from Hanoi, we cruised for one night, and then returned to the city the next day. Unfortunately, this was not a highlight of our trip (for more details click here).
The scenery here could be spectacular if it were not for the overcrowding of cruise ships, the overpowering smell of diesel fumes, and large amounts of trash floating in the water. Considering this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, I was very disappointed at the lack of efforts to protect this natural treasure.
Since returning I have read that longer cruises (more than one night) allow the boats to get out of the most congested area of the bay. I have colleagues at Dream Big, Travel Far that have researched many options for Halong Bay cruises and offer some great advice. If you are considering a cruise then look at options that will give you a better experience, or consider other sites to see in the North.
While our trip to Vietnam was not perfect, we still had a great time and are eager to return in the near future. We had to squeeze in this trip while our kids had a week off from college. This four day itinerary from Hanoi to Halong Bay doesn't do justice to the wide range of natural, historic and religious sites to see in North Vietnam. Our one significant take-away was the value of hiring a local guide and driver to allow a more flexible and personal experience in order to make the most of our short time here.