Jane is wondering what’s the best way to see Vietnam and whether it’s best to book a guided tour or is it safe and easy enough to travel independently.
I’m off to Vietnam in September and have booked flights but little else. If travelling independently, do I have to book everything before I go? Is it possible to hire a local guide or would this be cost prohibitive? And is it safe to go solo?
A. Vietnam is one of the world’s great travel destinations in that it delivers both a terrific holiday and an amazing cultural experience, which isn’t always the case.
Yes, it’s safe as any country can be. If you do opt to go it alone, you don’t have to book everything before you go. Tourism is an important sector of the economy and has been for a couple of decades, so the infrastructure is well developed. Also, English is widely spoken in hotels, restaurants and shops, so you can do it on your own and have one of the best holidays of your life.
I did a busman’s holiday with a friend and our two teenage sons in Vietnam a couple of years ago. Both of us – the mums – have done a lot of independent travel but after a busy year, we decided we wanted someone else to do the hard yards of booking and organising. Hence the decision to hook up with Intrepid Travel. I chose that company because I love how it was started by Melbourne University students Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester back in 1988, and had grown into a major company, with more than 100,000 passengers annually, but still delivers on the founding philosophy of small-group adventure travel. It is also partners with local companies so you are getting insider knowledge along the way and the locals are benefitting.
Intrepid Travel offers varying levels of tours – Original, Basix and Comfort. We chose the cheapest one, which was Basix. You get around on local transport – we shared a bunk-room on the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue – the hotels were fine not fancy, while importantly, being right in the middle of all that you wanted to see. But we did stay on a lovely junk on Halong Bay, and the hotel in World-Heritage-Listed Hoi An was beautifully decorated and had a great pool for lolling around.
There was plenty of free time to do our own exploring – I am still having nightmares about riding in cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), a city with three million motorbikes. FYI: You can call HCMC Saigon – everyone else does. But make sure you don’t use the expression the Vietnam War; it’s the American War and, whichever way you decide to travel, go to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. Unforgettable.
Our teenagers loved it as much as we did, which is saying something! Teenage boys aren’t known for giving their mothers lots of compliments. As I said, it was a perfect mixture of fun and information. The mums got to have clothes made in Hoi An, the boys got to shoot AK47s in the Cu Chi Tunnels and we all got to eat fantastic food together. (The rest of the people on the tour were lovely, too, and very welcoming of the boys.)
If a group tour doesn’t appeal, Intrepid Travel, like many of the tour companies, also offers guided itineraries for individuals, couples and groups. You can either follow the normal itineraries or the consultants will create an itinerary to suit your needs and fancies.
The advantage I feel of either a group or an individual tour with a reputable company such as Intrepid Travel is not only are you are getting insider knowledge that deepens your enjoyment of the trip but also it has the runs on the board and will deliver what is promised.
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Kay O’Sullivan is no accidental tourist. More than a decade ago, she decided to combine two of her favourite things – journalism and travel – and become a travel writer. Since then, she has written about travel for numerous papers, magazines both here and internationally and on the internet.