I wanted to make my husband Sid’s 50th an unforgettable birthday.
Jo has already worked her magic on trips to Thailand and Mauritius for us but this time I wanted something different and even more exotic. She, of course, totally came up trumps!
Spending time getting to know her clients is one of Jo’s fortes, so she already understood the fundamentals in terms of what we like but more importantly what we really don’t like!
Recommending that we see as much of Vietnam as possible in three weeks came as a surprise as I initially thought visiting just one area would be the most suitable option for us.
I am so glad I listened to Jo as the itinerary she expertly put together covered north, central and south ‘Nam, all so very different from a scenic, culinary, political and vibe perspective.
We started in the north, in the capital, Hanoi, and worked our way down and it was just FAB-U-LOUS!
What an assault to every sense. It’s loud, it’s crazy, it’s fun and it’s full on – we loved it.
The Hotel de l’Opera sits close to the Hoan Kiem Lake, the belly button of the city and within easy walking distance of everything.
We felt very safe and fully embraced the Hanoi experience, from walking in front of traffic (actually very easy!), eating street food Banh Mi (baguettes stuffed with pate, salad and cooked meat), drinking sugar cane tipples and going to the Water Puppet Theatre – a total must for which we had booked tickets in advance to be delivered to the hotel.
We found a lovely restaurant called Bun Cha Ta, where the food was sensational and my mouth still waters recalling the delicious meal and a few local beers, all for around £20.
Although we also enjoyed a local gastro tour, we found some of the best food ourselves by adopting a “get stuck in and explore” attitude. However, I should add that we need never have an egg coffee again!
The government buildings and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum are away from the centre so we opted to use the “hop-on hop-off city tour bus” which enabled us to see far more towards the north west - bigger buildings, wider roads and a considerable military presence - everything in fact to make you feel small.
Do cover up to enter the Ho Chi Minh grounds - it may be an idea to carry a sarong to cover your shoulders - although to be honest, you can see what you need to from the road as you can’t actually go into the mausoleum!
On the way back, we stopped off at the eye-opening Hoa Lo Prison. Once regarded as “hell on earth” during the French Colonisation period, it was reputedly known as a school to patriotic Vietnamese soldiers and later named the “Hilton Hanoi” by US pilots arrested in the North of Vietnam. It is an eerie place and shows how prisoners were treated in small cells. There is even the original guillotine still in situ.
Hạ Long Bay was our second and much anticipated destination - a 2.5-hour drive, made far more pleasurable with the private transfers that Jo had arranged throughout our multi-trip and it was everything we had hoped for – simply stunning.
Jo also knows that we prefer smaller groups of co-travellers where possible, so she had chosen one of the smallest luxury cruises for us – Paradise Peak – with only 8 cabins.
The whole junk boat experience was superb. We had been designated our own butler, Rachel, who eagerly tended to our every whim. After we were unable to have our lunch on the top deck, she brilliantly organised that we had the whole top deck to ourselves for dinner, an experience made even better with a clear sky, bright moon and cooler temperature. The food on board was a delicious east meets west fusion.
There are several small excursions organised by Paradise Peak, from the very amusing squid fishing to an enjoyable early morning Tai Chi on the sundeck, and a visit to the Sung Sot cave.
Our only disappointment was that we did not book this for two nights as it felt that the whole amazing experience was over too soon.
The next phase of our holiday was for some peaceful relaxation in Hội An. We stayed in a quiet river view room at the lovely Little Beach Hotel, a little further from the main town and closer to the beach. The rooms were light and spacious and the staff amazing.
The next nine days were pretty much spent soaking up the sun, swimming and enjoying life, going to the beach daily where we frequented a delightful small and idyllic local restaurant on the beach, which had both sun beds and impeccable food.
We sheepishly felt compelled to at least organise one local trip and visited the My Son Sanctuary, a complex of Hindu Temple Towers developed from the 4th century to the 13th century.
An early start, along with sun cream application, taking hats and water were good decisions as it was incredibly hot when we arrived at 9 am. These Hindu temples are in the middle of jungle; it was exotic, extreme and felt a touch surreal. A couple of hours looking at the ruins and taking it all in was enough before a welcome return to the beach to cool off in the sea.
Most evenings we ventured into Hội An for supper. What a pretty little town this is, with lots of lanterns, fairy lights and delightful people. Keen to get off the beaten track we ventured down an alley way and found The Quiet American Bar – the 2002 Michael Caine movie of the same name was filmed here. It was a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the streets and their happy hour cocktails were pleasantly addictive.
Hội An is renowned for its delicious white rose dumplings - translucent flowers filled with pork mince – but our personal favourite was the wonderful street food we found on the other side of the Japanese covered bridge - BBQ meats and salad in self-made wraps with non-alcoholic drinks served in a bag.
Ho Chi Minh City completed our Vietnam odyssey, a completely different experience to Hanoi, more modern, brash and, dare I say, more American.
Jo had left the most luxurious hotel ‘til last - the Hôtel des Arts Saigon was to die for. We had a late afternoon drink at the exquisite roof top bar on arrival. The view, the vibe, the cocktails with the little nibbles were divine followed by a more traditional western steak and chips meal in the hotel’s restaurant, which was splendid.
We had pre-booked our day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and Mekong Delta. It was an incredibly long day but worth it as we got to see so much more of the south during the two-hour journey.
The tunnels are in the middle of the jungle, close to the Cambodian border, and it was seriously hot before the water of the Mekong Delta provided some welcome relief from the intensity.
Our final day coincided with Reunification Day and a carnival atmosphere in the city. We visited the major tourist attractions and highly recommend the War Remnants Museum. It is extremely poignant and hard hitting but we felt it important to be educated about the Vietnam War.
The post office is a beautiful building and we took great delight watching the tourists taking their selfies - a reflection of the modern age!
This was a wonderful way to celebrate a special birthday. Jo made everything come together seamlessly, removing any stress and allowing us to simply kick back and enjoy the experience.
A big thank you, Jo. We can’t wait for our next adventure.
Fay & Sid