Welcome to the Turquoise Travel Diaries, a collection of interviews, stories, and excerpts from our fabulous team, as they travel around the world. Here at Turquoise, we pride ourselves on unrivalled knowledge of the destinations in which we specialise, so that we can provide honest, expert advice to all our guests and fellow travellers. This week, Asia specialist Fiona has returned from Vietnam and shares her highlights from what is fast becoming one of her favourite countries…
Every time I’m asked what my highlight was from my recent trip to Vietnam, I am left agonising over which one of my unique and exciting holiday experiences I should choose! I stayed in some beautiful, authentic hotels, met the most welcoming and engaging staff and guides, and ate a huge amount of what has become my favourite cuisine. However, I think my top highlights were the excursions I did – they blew me away. They allowed me to really get an insight into the day-to-day lives of locals and find out more about the fascinating history and traditions of this vibrant country.
I began my trip in the northern city of Hanoi. This gave me a ‘gentle’ introduction to navigating the chaotic streets of Vietnamese cities, with motorbikes and scooters dominating the roads. I had to have my wits about me when I crossed the road, as these drivers have no mercy! My guide Tee told me to walk confidently, keep moving forward and never stop, advice which I kept repeating to myself throughout the trip.
On my first morning, my guide took me on a Hidden Hanoi city tour. This tour allowed me to explore the backstreets of the city, which are alive with locals going about their day-to-day lives. I saw hens roaming the alleys, smelled delicious Vietnamese coffee wafting from tiny front rooms and experienced how the locals do their daily food shop, picking and choosing herbs, vegetables, meat and clothes which were laid out on stalls lining the streets. Once I’d soaked up the atmosphere, I headed to a local’s house and enjoyed a cup of herbal tea with him while he shared his family history through black and white photos and videos of the city decades ago.
My next stop was to visit Viet Hai Village on Cat Ba Island. To reach this secluded location, I cruised for a day and a night from Lan Ha Bay. The tour involved hopping on a bike and cycling along small paved roads lined with lush, tropical foliage for about three miles until I reached this quiet village nestled in a valley. After learning about how the village harvested their food and make a living, I was invited to try rice wine. It’s not for the faint-hearted, especially the one with a fermenting snake inside. Stick to the lychee rice wine if you want a more pleasant taste!
I then headed to the district of Mai Chau, a region awash with all shades of green created by rice paddies. From here, there is the option to either explore by foot or bike and enjoy the views of working farms and rice paddies, where I spotted locals wearing the infamous Vietnamese rice hats. I recommend spending at least a few hours exploring, either alone or with a guide, as it’s fascinating to see how these people live, socialise and work.
Further to the east in Ninh Binh I found Van Long Nature Reserve, a huge wetland area where I savoured stunning scenes of limstone karsts jutting out of the shallow water. I headed down to the shore and tentatively stepped onto a tiny bamboo boat. Once I was sure we weren’t going to sink, I relaxed and enjoyed an hour’s boat trip to a hidden cave that disappears when the water level rises in rainy season. This would be a perfect excursion for a romantic evening and I’d encourage you to start at around 4pm so you can soak up the sunset over the water.
My next stop was Hoi An in the middle of Vietnam. Here, all the tours were about the food! Accompanied by a very knowledgeable guide, I wandered around the zigzagging alleys, exploring traditional neighbourhoods and stopping at local hangouts. I tried the famous white rose dumplings after watching the delicate way they’re made. I also tasted Banh Mi, which looks like a baguette sandwich you’d find in the UK but tastes so much better, indulged in both deep-fried and fresh spring rolls, attempted to eat all sorts of noodles with chopsticks – quite a challenge. I even ended up in the home of a local, who helped us to cook our own dishes.
The following day I headed to an organic farm where villagers have decided to veto the many pesticides that are used across Vietnam and opt for more natural ways to keep bugs at bay. These include chilly infused water, a combination of kitchen ash and manure and a lot of weeding! During the trip I was able to turn my hand to a little gardening, too, and helped plant spring onions which I was told would be ready to eat in eight weeks if I wanted to return! Next, I embarked on a short trip up a river on a traditional bamboo basket boat, where I took part in a hands-on cooking class. It was amazing! We made two delicious shrimp dishes and devoured them with a side of morning glory, a commonly eaten green across Vietnam.
My final tour was more sobering. I paid a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, followed by the country’s only modern war museum, which focused on the Vietnam War. The drive from Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels takes around two hours depending on traffic, but it’s well worth it for anyone interested in history. The tunnels, an underground network spanning over 150 miles, served as a hideout for thousands of guerrilla fighters for over 10 years. I experienced what it was like to be confined in such a small space, by crawling through a tunnel and climbing into a bunker which may have served as a kitchen, sewing room, sleeping quarters or weapon storage. I found it hard to fathom how people were able to survive in such tiny quarters. For more information about the war, the city centre museum is the place to go, with striking photography exhibitions and detailed accounts from both sides. It moved me deeply and I came away with a much greater understanding of the horrific consequences of war.
The background to the Vietnam War really enriched my whole experience of Vietnam and I was utterly captivated by its people, landscapes and cuisine. It’s a wonderful country and that’s why it made it so hard to choose just one part I loved the most. It’s all incredible!