Margaret’s favorite destination is Southeast Asia, and she has been traveling with Incense Travel to explore Indochina for two seasons. She shares her latest trip and why she keeps going back with us below.
I never get tired of traveling to Indochina, no matter how many times I’ve been. Each time I am excited to learn about new places and experience new things. My most recent trip to Indochina was in early October, and it marked my 5th time to travel there. This time, my husband and I returned to North Vietnam. Our journey began in Hanoi, at the historical Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi – one of the most recommended colonial style hotels in Vietnam.
In Hanoi, we had a private street food tour with a local foodie – Nguyen Tuan, who shared with us his passion for food and took us to unbelievable local eating places in the city’s Old Quarter. We tried a bit of everything he introduced us, including Pho, Banh Xeo, Bun Cha and the Vietnamese sandwich called Banh Mi, as well as the Hanoi’s specialty - the egg coffee. Bob, my husband loves the Bun Cha the best, and I love all the tastes of every dishes that we ate along the way.
We spent our next day in Hanoi seeing the highlights of the city. Our first visit was the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the first president of Vietnam who spent his whole life to achieve his goal of liberating his country from the French colonials as well as the US involvements. His simple stilted house in the garden, where he lived for 11 years instead of the large French-built Presidential Palace, shows his humble life, and that explains why all Vietnamese love him. We then visit the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s Confucius temple and first university, the most popular religious place in the city. Continued onto the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed by our POWs as Hanoi Hilton. One of our most exciting experiences in Hanoi was the motorbike tour on a vintage Russian Minsk motorbike, which took us to the backstreets of Hanoi that I believe not many travelers have been to!
From Hanoi, we traveled to Mai Chau with a private guide and driver, stopping along the way to take photos of the mountain valleys in northwest of Hanoi. Mai Chau is known as a sunny valley where small villages of Thai ethnic minority, one of 54 ethnic groups living in Vietnam, who lives in their stilted houses and dresses their own traditional skirts. Beyond the welcoming and very friendly locals, the scenic villages and rice paddy fields are so beautiful. While in the valley, we stayed at Mai Chau Eco Lodge, located on a green hill with views over the surrounding rice paddy fields.
We got two guided walking days in the valley. I was skeptical about walking around the valley, but pushed myself, and was rewarded with the most magnificent view of the golden rice crop. We met a north Vietnam veteran, who was on his bicycle cycling to his bamboo hut isolated from his own village. It was a great memorable interacting with him and being invited to his stilted house, this 75 years old man was lucky enough to survive the Vietnam war but exposed to the Agent Orange – a dangerous chemical contaminant used by the US military in the war. In the end, it was the scenery and the meeting with the man, not the walk, that truly took our breath away.
After taking in the best of the mountain valley of Mai Chau, we continued onto Ninh Binh province and experienced the countryside of the Red River Delta. Located some 80 mi (125km) south of the capital Hanoi, Ninh Binh has recently become a favorite destination for both international and domestic visitors. Home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trang An, peaceful countryside and beautiful natural landscapes, there are so much to see there. During our stay, we visited a centuries old Buddhist pagoda, and did some leisure cycling in Tam Coc - which is known as “Halong Bay on land”. Our friendly and very knowledgeable guide Buffalo Joe also took us to visit a local boat rower, on her rowing bamboo boat, we spent 2 hours cruising the serene swamp of Van Long and we were lucky enough to spot some rare langurs along our way. We stayed two nights at an extremely nice boutique hotel Tam Coc Garden, which isolates itself from surrounding waters.
The most important element on any classic tour is the guide. They are the ones who will make your trip truly memorable with their knowledge of the fame and their stories of sightings shared along the way. It doesn’t matter how many times I have been in Indochina, I always learn something new and come to appreciate the local life we may not have spent much time learning about.
The best example of that for me is talking with the veteran we met in yellow rice fields. We would not expect to have a conversation with him, but through my guide, we really began to engage with him and we both shared our own life stories. It was really something to be welcomed by our former enemy at his own home, and realized how wrong the war was from a first-hand testimony. It is really a fascinating experience for us.
Before this trip to north Vietnam, I had never seen a langur or known the difference between it and a monkey. I discovered that the langur we saw in Van Long Nature Reserve was the Delacour's langur, an endemic monkey-like to northern Vietnam. The langur is considered to be one of the world's most endangered primate species, it is named for French-American ornithologist Jean Théodore Delacour.
Their fur is predominantly black, with white markings on the face and distinctive creamy-white fur over the rump and the outer thighs, while females also have a patch of pale fur in the pubic area. Without the help of a knowledgeable guide, I might never have known this rare animal or have been able to spot the different types of zebras myself. My favorite experience was to see a group of Delacours jumping over trees and eating foliates after we rowed our little boat through a tunnel cave. If you are a photographer, you are always searching for special moments to capture, and this was definitely one of those special moments in nature.
Our vacation continued in the world famous UNESCO Heritage Site of Halong Bay, cruising on the Violet boat. The cruise is an all-time favorite property of mine, because of my love for superb accommodations in natural wonders. On the boat, you will not only experience the limestone formations and its emerald waters of the bay, you will be also taken a very good care of by the friendly crews on their comfortable boat. Their food is a special experience, and the boat itself is pretty incredible too.
The mix of locations on our trip – from the city of Hanoi to the mountain valleys to the countryside of the river delta to the amazing rock formations of Halong Bay – gave us a well-rounded Vietnam experience. People often ask me how can I go back to the region so many times. But you never know what you are going to see. The fresh and tasty of the local food, the peaceful scenery of the destinations, or the friendliness of the people with their own stories we interacted with along the way – it’s always exciting and new.