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Bright Lights, Big City With my Guide Luc

Jill Higson is a guest who traveled  to Vietnam and Cambodia with Journeys Within over the holidays (you can see her itinerary here) and has blogged about it to share her experience with family, friends and future visitors. Here she talks about her time in the busy metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City and her bond with guide Luc…

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From ​motorbikes ​coming in every direction​ to​ pedicab and cab scams (which I fell for despite prior warning —  that ​is what the heat and​ no sleep will​ do to you!), exploring Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, can seem overwhelming.

Traveling with Journeys Within Tour Company, I was ​fortunate​ to have Luc as my​ trusted ​guide for the majority of my time exploring this buzzing city. He ke​pt me safe, while smiling and enjoying every minute we spent together.  From racing around the city’s streets on a motorbike to gobbling down our favourite shrimp rolls at every restaurant to paddling down the countryside’s river in a sampan boat!

Saigon Selfies
Jill and Luc hitting it off!

Being with someone new is never easy, especially in a foreign country and for two days.  However, Luc’s kindness, easy going manner and humor, help put me at ease and start my journey off on the best note.

Our time together started in the evening with a private concert at the Truc Mai House, where stories were told by the beautiful and talented Mrs Ngo and her son using traditional Vietnamese instruments.  After enjoying the performance, we even got to try the instruments and though we failed miserably at mastering this new talent, we had a good laugh!

Musical instruments
A lesson in traditional Vietnamese music with Mrs Ngo and her son.

The show was followed by a delicious dinner of fried spring rolls (a popular food in Vietnam and served at most meals), rice and​ ​other tasty vegetables, sauces and all the extra condiment’s that accompany a traditional Southeast Asian meal.​

​Day two in the city was ​enjoyed from the back of a motorbike ​with Khiet as my driver and Luc by our side.

We  stopped and saw some classic historical sites such as ​China Town’s bustling ​​Binh Tay Market, where locals stop to shop and eat. We also took in the beautiful Holy Lady Temple, along with an Oriental Medicine Museum, local pagodas (​tall, ornate buildings used for religious worship, with each floor having its own curved and decorated roof) and N​otre-Dame Cathedral, where​ we congratulated a bride and groom after their wedding!​

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The only way to really see Saigon is by motto!

We ended the day with a traditional ​Vietnamese  coffee (individually filtered by cup with thick cream added — a delicious treat that became a favorite drink of mine​!) and drive along the Bach Day river side as the sun set.

After two days in the city, we drove 2 ½ hours out of the city to Cai Be Village in the Mekong ​Delta.  We took a private traditional Vietnamese boat to explore the Cai Be Floating Market​, one of the largest in the world​. We watched rice paper and candies being made and of course got to sample them too. I got in the spirit of shopping and not only bought the homemade candies and honey, but some other non-handmade beauty products as well.​​  The local hawkers made a killing ​from​ this New Yorker that da​y, who paid​ ​ full price no less!​​

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A quiet boat ride is the perfect way to relax after the busy streets of Saigon.

To recover Luc and I were rowed in a traditional sampan boat to a private lunch in a local garden house​.  We were treated ​to local dishes including Elephant Ear fish rolled in rice papers, pancakes and some exotic fruits and vegetables from the garden, all of which we enjoyed. Our host also celebrated doing a few shots​ of homemade Logan win​e with Luc​!  It was a memorable and enjoyable day spent on land and water, one I won’t soon forget thanks to the bond I developed with my Vietnamese guide Luc.

Vietnam Bucket List

It’s that time of year again! With the madness of high season finally passed and the rains bringing a slower pace, it is finally time to reflect. Having already seen much of Vietnam on the job, including the mystical Halong Bay with her parents, Operations Manager Anna shares what is left of her personal Vietnam bucket list…

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I can’t believe a whole year has gone by since our big Guide Training adventure, which took me and Andrea through some of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful and exciting regions, visiting our amazing teams in the different cities, and giving us the chance to not only refresh our memories but introduce ourselves to some of the area’s more hidden gems.

Looking back on this great journey, naturally I can only start to think about all the other amazing places I have yet to explore in this beautiful part of the world!

The list is long and ever growing so for today I’ll focus my dreams on just one of my gorgeous neighboring countries. Here is my compressed Vietnam Bucket List.

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Mekong Delta

Honestly, I am ashamed to admit that this has not been crossed off the list yet. Vietnam’s “rice basket” is without a doubt one of the biggest must-sees in the area, and one which so often slips through due to limited travel schedules.

From floating markets and fish farms, to bicycle rides and sunset cruises, the variety of sights and activities in the area is endless. A long day trip from Saigon is possible to give you a good introduction, but for those who can stretch out their time a little bit more can immerse themselves in this one-of-a-kind environment. You can take a few days to get lost in this agricultural labyrinth of paddy fields and marshlands, Travel on a rice barge, experience true Vietnamese hospitality by staying in the home of a local family, and you can even travel all the way down the Mekong to Cambodia! For those who have the time, this is much more fun than flying. Check out our sample itinerary here.

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Phu Quoc Island

For me, one of the many highlights of living in Southeast Asia is having access to some of the most stunning beaches and seascapes in the world. With its neighbor Thailand hogging most of the sandy spotlight, Vietnam has until recently avoided many of the international crowds, leaving much of its 3400km-long coastline open to only local tourists and developers.

The hunt for that “secluded spot” is more in demand than ever before, and with international interest growing, these beaches won’t stay secret for much longer.

Top of my list – Phu Quoc. Spotted with plantation and rimmed with gorgeous sandy beaches, this Island off the southern coast of Vietnam still has that unspoiled feel. Bai Khem is rumoured to be the island’s prettiest beach. November to March is the best time to visit, when the sunny skies dominate and temperatures hover around 25-28 Celsius. That being said April – June can offer less crowds, cheaper prices and fairly good odds of reasonable weather.

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Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Saving the best til last – the magnificent and magical Son Doong Cave! It is no secret that the caves of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park (located near the Laos border) are pretty much the most exciting geographical discovery in Vietnam’s recent exploratory history. Now claiming to hold the “largest cave passage in the world”, this area is only now just opening up to the public with a strict limit on the number of visitors it will allow in per year. Having grown up with a strong interest in geology, and generally just associating the word “cave” with the word “explorer”, this has been top of my Travel Bucket List ever since it came to light. Read more about these stunning formations here.

 

 

Mekong Delta Homestay Options

One of the must-do’s when you visit Vietnam is to experience the Mekong Delta. This amazing region really revolves around the rivers and the floating markets, beautiful islands and cottage industries have become world famous. Many of our trips visit this area and we love having guests travel between Cambodia and Vietnam via the Mekong Delta. There are some lovely hotels in the Delta, but to truly experience and appreciate the culture and way of life we feel that a homestay is often the best way!  With that said, there are many different homestays available in the area and it’s hard to choose which one is the right fit for you and your interests/comfort zone. Here we have listed four of our favorite homestays, what we feel their strengths are and what we feel their weaknesses are. Of course our tour consultants can also advise you, but this is a quick look to start you off…

Option 1: Ba Duc Eco Tourism and Ancient House in Cai Be

About 1.5 hours drive (110km) from Saigon and 70 km from Can Tho you find yourself in Cai Be. A short boat journey takes your further to the home of Mr. Ba Duc and his family. Mr. Phan Van Duc (Ba Duc) is the 6th generation of the family to live here after the main house was first built by Mr. Phan Van Dang in the 19th century. Located on the riverfront the homeowners are very proud of the history of their home as well as their ornamental plants and fruit orchards. Fruits are produced all year round and visitors are welcome to walk through the grounds and enjoy the fruits in season. The main house is a combination of traditional Vietnamese and French architecture and furniture. This is where you will be welcomed as you arrive and where the family worships their ancestors. A recent addition beyond the courtyard behind the main house is an annex of additional rooms for guests during their stay. This home stay has 16 guest rooms and feels more like a guesthouse, or budget hotel, rather than a homestay, but for those that want some privacy, AC and their own bathroom, this is a great option!

Pros:

  • Easy journey from Saigon
  • Easy to fit in to a busy itinerary to arrive late afternoon and have an early start the next morning to see the local floating market at its best.
  • Architectural and historical interest
  • Air-conditioning in the bedrooms
  • Free wifi available
  • Ensuite bathrooms
  • Fridge and TV in the bedrooms
  • Cooking class available
  • Bicycles available for hire on request
  • Convenient to the floating market, local village and local pottery
  • Learn how to catch fish the local way
  • Can bring suitcases
  • The youngest son of Mr. Ba Duc speaks English

Cons:

  • On the riverfront so can be noisier than other home stay options
  • More of a guesthouse than a small and intimate family home
  • Not a private option as other travelers could be in the other rooms (for some, this might be a pro!)
Guest room at Ba Duc
Riverview from Ba Duc

Option 2: Hai Kiet Ancient House in Cai Be

Instead you may choose to stay with at Hai Kiet Ancient House in Cai Be. Mrs Hai Kiet is a kind-hearted and happy woman who was widowed young and has opened her doors to guests. The Ancient house was first built in mid-1856 and has since been restored through an international restoration organization. This home stay is smaller and more intimate and local in feel. The history in this house is palpable and Mrs Kiet clearly loves visitors and is happy to sit and chat. The guest room is in a dorm style and is very basic with only fans and a share toilet.

Pros:

  • Less noisy as situated on a canal and not the main river
  • Intimate and homey
  • Easy journey from Saigon
  • Easy to fit in to a busy itinerary to arrive late afternoon and have an early start the next morning to see the local floating market at its best.
  • Architectural and historical interest
  • Cooking class available
  • Bicycles available for hire on request
  • Convenient to the floating market, local village and pottery tour inclusions

Cons:

  • Recommend bringing overnight bags only
  • Depending on the tide you can be dropped off outside this home stay, but at low tide there is a walk along the footpath before you arrive
  • Very basic sleeping conditions with mosquito nets and fans
The dormitory
the front garden

Option 3: Nam Thanh Home Stay in Vinh Long

This is a modern family home stay owned by Mr. Nam Thanh. A very welcoming family who know when to spend time with their guests and when to allow guests their own space to enjoy their surroundings, yet they are always available for guest’s needs. This home stay provides a tranquil retreat. The sleeping area is spotless and while it is a shared bathroom there are multiple toilets and showers so no need to stand in line. The food is amazing and the morning bike ride is absolutely lovely!

Pros:

  • Very clean
  • Beautifully maintained garden with hammocks
  • Excellent food and service
  • Some of the family speak English
  • Great area for cycling
  • Very comfortable
  • Peaceful as away from the river traffic
  • Bicycles available free
  • Can visit Vinh Long city by ferry

Cons:

  • Recommend bringing overnight bags only as a walk from the boat drop off point
  • Beds are partitioned by rattan walls with a curtain for privacy so for some this may be a point to consider
  • Cold showers
Riding along the paths of Nam Thanh
Dormitory annex

Option 4: Bac Nam Home Stay in Cai Tac (Can Tho)

This is a very basic and simple family home stay, however Mr. and Mrs. Bac Nam are very welcoming and enjoy spending time with guests for meals, discussion and singing. There is one room inside the main house for guests and a dormitory annex outside. Your transport will drop you at the canal and a sampan will bring you the rest of the way to the home stay. The sleeping area is an outside area with basic bamboo platforms for beds. Though bathrooms are not as clean as would be liked. The truth is that this homestay is ideal for people that don’t mind roughing it and really want the experience of being part of a Vietnamese family.

Pros:

  • The family really enjoy interacting with guests
  • Quiet part of the river
  • Can easily cycle to the local village – bicycles available on request
  • Very local home stay

Cons:

  • Very basic
  • Bathrooms are outside
  • Recommend bringing overnight bags and not suitcases
Mr. and Mrs. Bac Nam
The garden at Bac Nam

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Here are more photos of the homestays:

Reception area at Ba Duc
A view of the kilns from the dormitory rooftop at Ba Duc
The pagoda near Nam Thanh
The eating are at Nam Thanh
Ms. Hien at Bac Nam
Outside of the dormitory at Bac Nam
Andrea and Michelle with the Bac Nam family
Saying goodbye at Hai Kiet
The group at Nam Thanh

A Day Trip to the Mekong Delta

By: Andrea Ross

Our last day in Vietnam we invited Michelle, our Journeys Within Vietnam Director, Khoa, her husband and one of our top guides, and their daughter Rosie, to join us on a trip to the Mekong Delta. Using the new, elevated highway we headed to Cai Be to explore. Here is a photo diary of our day and my thoughts on each stop:

The new elevated highway makes for a much smoother ride and with no motorbikes on it, there is a lot less dodging and diving, which we appreciated!

Once in the Delta we stopped for a bathroom break at the Dong Nam Snake Farm. In the past I had skipped this stop on visits to the Delta, assuming it would be like the Snake Shows in Thailand…a shameless and shameful abuse of animals. I was wrong! Used for research and collecting venom to make anti-venom, this farm touts itself as being the largest in the region!

Some scary snakes that she said would kill you in under 30 minutes!

Khoa had to insist on us leaving the snake farm and heading for the Delta…I did not envy him trying to keep six adults and three children on schedule! We had to have ice cream!!
We now drove along a smaller road following a river and arrived at the boat dock. Our boat was quickly brought and we headed out and into the Delta. On either side of us small house rose up in line with each other, touching wall to wall with thousands of TV antennas rising above the roofs.

Boats, houses and antennas

Once out of the river we passed cargo boats, dredging boats, and boats selling a myriad of fruit and vegetables.

Pumpkin Boats
Banana Boat

Our first stop was on an island known for it’s local Mekong industries. We visited Mrs. Tu and the kids all got to try their hand at making spring roll wraps; Callie ate them almost straight off the hot plate and loved them!

Callie learning to make spring roll wraps

We headed around the island and visited popcorn making and coconut candy making shops. Surrounding all these workshops are sellers with every kind of Vietnamese knick-knack you can think of. It was certainly a touristy stop, but since I enjoyed watching the different industries I thought it was worth ignoring the buy! buy! buy! sellers on the outside.

Brandon making popcorn while Couper stokes the fire

Back in the boat and we headed through a quieter channel and then boarded little boats paddled by local women. They kindly hand you a conical hat each…perfect for getting out of the sun (and the photo ops!).

Heading down a narrow channel
Rosie in her conical hat

After being paddled for a while I said those three little words that every traveler should learn, “Can I try?”  It was not as easy as it looked, but I enjoyed getting to try and the amusement of my passengers. The rower herself found it hilarious how much trouble I had keeping us out of the trees on the side of the stream!

Can I Try?

Off the boats and we headed inland for a walk, stopping at a lovely home to try a variety of fruits…and rice whiskey made from Longan fruits. The man of the house was incredibly proud of his Longan Whiskey creation and the group seemed to approve!

Yo! Cheers with Longan Whiskey

One final boat ride was followed by a late lunch at a family home. The food just kept coming…some amazing Tamarind pork, an entire fish and hand rolled spring rolls made with the rice paper we had earlier learned to make!

Local fish for lunch

After lunch and a break in the hammock we headed back through the Delta to our waiting van and I think everyone took a nap on the way home. It was a wonderful day and while there were moments that were a bit too touristy, they had redeeming value and those moments off the beaten track made for a truly memorable experience.

Mekong Sunset