By Wendy Wood-Prince
As travelers have become more savvy, visiting the far east has grown in popularity. Navigating Asia can be daunting and the best way to plan and execute a memorable trip is with a travel agent, my favorite being Lake Forest Travel Bureau of course! This past spring, a trip to Vietnam was planned through LF Travel Bureau alongside Abercrombie & Kent Asia. A&K has people on the ground all throughout Asia, which makes for traveling with nary a care.
La Siesta Hotel & Spa.
Crazy jet lag is to be expected and therefore, hotel choices are paramount. Upon arrival in Hanoi, La Siesta Hotel and Spa is the perfect choice. Relatively small, with just 50 rooms, this hotel is centrally located in Hanoi’s old quarter. A comfy, cozy place to begin the adventure.
The notorious “Hanoi Hilton.”
Because of the US history in Vietnam, the underlying ghosts of the atrocities of war are in the air and remain on the minds and in the rhetoric of tour guides and locals. One of the physical reminders of this is the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” where US prisoners of war were held during the Vietnam War. Most of the prison was torn down but the gatehouse is still standing and serves as a museum today.
Lush islands with caves and temples to explore.
All throughout Vietnam the war plays a significant role but once acknowledged and accepted as part of the experience, other aspects of Vietnam come to the fore, notably the beauty of the landscape. River boats take guests on tours of lush islands with stops at caves and temples, Thien Mu Pagoda probably being the most famous. Seven stories high, this is one of the oldest religious structures in the area.
The Imperial City.
Located near the Perfume River is The Imperial City in Hue, a Unesco World Heritage Site. This was once a sprawling city built for the Emperors and VIPs of ancient Vietnam. Partially destroyed over the years by wars, the most recent of which was the Tet Offensive in 1968, restoration is ongoing but slow, however some of the original structures remain.
Rice paddies dot the countryside.
A bike tour through the countryside, passing rice paddies and eating at local spots, browsing local markets is a refreshing change from the crowds around major attractions. The food everywhere is fresh and superbly delicious, an unexpected surprise that is consistent throughout Vietnam.
Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hoi An.
After some intense sightseeing and crowds, a little luxurious respite can be found at Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai in Hoi An. A little more of a vacation spot than Da Nang, it is close to many of the same attractions but feels worlds away. Total relaxation and Four Seasons signature luxury, it is the perfect stop for a breather during an activity packed trip.
Next stop Ho Chi Minh City, this city formerly known as Saigon boasts a complicated past of settlers, colonizers and rulers. The French had significant influence over the architecture that remains today, and although modern high rises and industry stand in stark contrast of the past much of the old architecture is still intact including Notre-Dame cathedral which was made wholly of materials shipped from France.
To this day, Ho Chi Minh is identified with the Vietnam War (although in Vietnam it is called “the American War”) and one of the more ominous and impressive things to see are the Cu Chi Tunnels. This tunnel network was instrumental for the Vietnamese during the war and the intricate network and tiny spaces are mind boggling to see. It takes the bravest of the brave visitor to crawl down into these tunnels and experience how confined this critical network was. Cardiac patients and Claustrophobics need not apply!!
A four hour drive to the Southwest is the city of Can Tho, located in the Mekong Delta river system. This world of floating markets, water taxis and islands to explore is safe and bustling. And the food is amazing and fresh everywhere you turn.
Sunset along the Mekong Delta.
Communism continues to be the prevalent mindset in Ho Chi Minh City but the Vietnamese are working hard to modernize and embrace the Western world. Vietnam is exotic, friendly and a fascinating place to explore!