Vietnam and Laos Experience

13-23 July 2012

Upon arrival at Hanoi Airport we are met our guide  and transferred to Hotel De L Opera Hanoi.

After a lovely buffet breakfast at Hotel De L Opera we headed off for a day of Hanoi sightseeing.  We began our day with a visit to the Temple of Literature, which was founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius.  This is also the site of Vietnam’s first university. The tour takes us to the Presidential Palace complex which is the home of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place.  Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is where visitors can pay respects to the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh.  The queue to view Ho Chi Minh is quite long and moves slowly during peak times  We then strolled through the Palace complex visiting the One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House.  Our next stop is the Museum of Ethnology which has displays of art and artefacts from the 54 different ethnic groups that make up Vietnam.  Lunch was at Koto Restaurant, a not for profit vocational training program founded by Jimmy Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian chef.  Koto recruits trainees between 16-22 years into a 24 month program teaching them life skills, English language and hospitality.  We were treated to a lovely atmosphere and beautiful Vietnamese food.

After lunch we head to Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple, a quiet oasis located in the heart of Hanoi.

The next morning we transferred to Hanoi Airport for our flight to Luang Prabang, Laos.  When landing into Luang Prabang Airport aside from the spectacular view of the countryside you could also see the new airport being built. Met by our guide we headed to Joma Bakery and Coffee Shop for a light lunch.

Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is set between the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers.  A much slower pace than Hanoi, Luang Prabang is filled with historic temples and colonial style buildings.  Our tour of the town starts at the oldest living temple in Luang Prabang, Wat Visoun (Wat Wisunalat) and dates back to 1513.  Leaving the mini-van we walked around the town strolling along the riverside and visiting different temples along the way.

At the Hotel De La Paix we enjoyed relaxing hour or two by the pool before heading to a local restaurant Pak Houay Mixay for dinner and visiting the Talat Night Market (Hmong Market) on the way back to the hotel.

Up at 4.30am this morning to be ready to head into town at 5.00am to give alms to the monks.  Giving alms is giving food and offerings to the monks, the monks only eat until lunch time and the food collected by locals and visitors is their food for the day.  Our guide provides us with bamboo containers of sticky rice, mats to kneel on and a traditional sash to wear.  A truly wonderful experience and highly recommended when visiting Luang Prabang. We then visited the local farmers market on our way back to the hotel .The market has a wonderful and unusual range of local produce.

After breakfast we visited small boutique hotels, one centrally located and the others, along the riverside. 

On our way to Kuang Si Waterfalls we stopped at Santi Resort and Spa for a quick tour.  Surrounded by mountains and rice fields Santi Resort & Spa is six kilometres from town. Kuang Si Waterfalls are approximately 30 kms from Luang Prabang, the multi-tier waterfall flows over limestone formations into a series of beautiful pools.  Most are okay for swimming in.  The Waterfalls are very popular and can be very busy, there is a conversation sanctuary at the entrance for the Lao Bear. A beautiful place to visit whilst in Luang Prabang and well worth the walk to experience the natural settings and maybe take a nice cool dip!!

Luang Say Residence was our host for dinner.  Luang Say Residence is a luxurious five star property..  Situated on former rice fields the Residence has a swimming pool, library, restaurant and complimentary WiFi.We headed back to the Talat Night Market for some last minute shopping.

The hotel we stayed in is a former prison which was converted to a hotel in 2010.  Families are welcome however this property is perfect for couples offering couples spa, cooking school is available on request, indoor/outdoor dining and free wifi.  There are also five bicycles for guests to use free of charge to explore Luang Prabang. Our next stop was at a hotel located on the hillside offering panoramic views of Mount Phou Si.  All rooms have an external terrace, balcony or courtyard and are very spacious. Relax by the pool, spoil yourself at the Laotian Spa, enjoy a yoga session in Yoga Pavilion or hit the gym.

On the way to the airport we visited  a village Silk Factory and Paper making Factory.  

An early start  for our drive to Halong Bay stopping along the way for a few “kodak” moments.  The four hour drive doesn’t seem too long when driving past rice fields and through local villages and towns.   We board our traditional wooden junk for a cruise through Halong Bay. We enjoyed a seafood lunch whilst taking in the sights of the bay, including many rock formations.  Stopping at Thien Cung (Heavenly Residence Grotto) to explore the wonderful cave/grotto. 

We head back to Hanoi and enjoy a lovely dinner at Wild Rice, a local Hanoi restaurant.

Off to the airport early for our flight to Danang.

When we arrived into Danang we drive straight to our hotel where there was time for a quick spa treatment, a choice of either a half an hour neck/back massage or foot massage.  I opted for a foot massage and thoroughly enjoy my half an hour of bliss.

After a quick freshen up we headed off to  Hoi An, a short 25 minute drive. Resorts here are sited on River banks or Beach front.  In Hoi An itself there are also other hotels.

An entrance fee of VND90,000 is paid to enter the Ancient Town of Hoi An.  We strolled across the Japanese Covered Bridge to be met by local market stalls and shop fronts.  Folk songs are played from the boats and floating lanterns light the way along the river.

A 5am start and we are surprised with a beautiful breakfast on the beach at Fusion Maia before we headed off to the airport for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City.

We arrive into Ho Chi Minh City and begin with a guided tour of the Reunification Palace.  This 60s style building is formerly the Independence Palace the home and workplace of the South Vietnamese President.  The Palace was crashed by tanks on 30th April 1975 to signify the end of fall South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War.  The property has been preserved in its original state and the tanks are on display on the Palace grounds.  After a 10 minute down pour of rain we head off to visit the Emperor of Jade Pagoda (temple) where local people come and pray and escape the hustle of bustle of city life.  The Pagoda is surprising tranquil considering the chaos of a Vietnam city.

In the evening is ws off to Ho Chi Minh’s most popular buffet dinner in the Restaurant Nineteen.  The buffet had an amazing array of local and international dishes to choose from including fresh seafood cooked on the spot to your liking.  After dinner we headed to the Rooftop Cocktail Terrace to enjoy the stunning night time view over Ho Chi Minh City and a cocktail or two.  There is local entertainment where you can dance the night away. 

The next afternoon we took in the sights of Ho Chi Minh’s city centre.  We tackled the Ben Thanh Market for some last minute shopping.  If you love a market this is the place to go….very busy and traders can be quite pushy but stand your ground and try to enjoy the haggle and you’ll walk away with some local handicrafts and goods at reasonable prices.  If you don’t necessarily enjoy the haggle, there are government stalls around the edges of the market complex, bargaining is not recommended at these stalls and prices maybe be a little more expensive but it is not as busy and frantic.  Diamond Plaza, a department store is also worth a visit for a quieter shopping experience.

For our last night in Vietnam we had dinner at the Temple Club a former guest house to the Hindu temple across the street and now a popular restaurant for the last 10 years.  The Temple Club offer a diverse menu including Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer and French at reasonable prices with a great atmosphere.  We headed back to the Sofitel Saigon for our last night in Vietnam.

The morning, after breakfast,  we headed to Cu Chi Tunnels for our guided tour of the complex.  Approximately, a 70km drive from Ho Chi Minh City, Cu Chi Tunnels were a very important Vietcong base during the American War where they were never discovered by the American soldiers.  You can experience the day to day life of the Vietcong during this time where they cleverly disguised tunnel entrances and created elaborate traps for when the Americans did venture too close for comfort.

Some of the tunnels have been widened to allow for western visitors, you can explore parts of the 200km underground tunnel network if you are game and not claustrophobic.   

On our way back to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped at local restaurant Ben Nay Restaurant located between two rivers in a beautiful Vietnamese setting.  You can dine in the restaurant or in one of the gazebos along the riverside.

Back in Ho Chi Minh is some last minute shopping and sightseeing before heading to the airport for our flight home.

Both countries offer everything you may wish for in a holiday – culture, sightseeing, beautiful scenery, relaxation, beaches and the food is spectacular!!

Theresa – July 2012