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The Awe-Inspiring Paradise That Is Vietnam

Fresh Factor 10I just got back from Vietnam and I can safely say it was the most amazing place I have ever been. Mind-blowing natural scenery? Check. Gorgeous architecture? Check. Amazing food? Super friendly people? Unique experiences? Beautiful beaches? Yup, it has all of that too. For me it was the perfect vacation destination.

Guided Tours and Gate 1 Travel

I went via a guided tour led by Gate 1 Travel. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I had never done one of the company’s guided tours before. (I did a Gate 1 unguided tour of Prague, Budapest and Vienna several years back, which was great.) Before I left, I was having trouble getting my head around how one tour manager could possibly provide that much attention and assistance to 30-40 travelers all at once. However, our amazing tour manager Dang handled our group of 35 with ease. He truly made our experience stress free, seamlessly weaving us in and out of planes, boats and buses, and going above and beyond to help us with whatever he could.

The tour included a great mix of both the major tourist attractions (Halong Bay, the Ancient City in Hoi An, the old Imperial City in Hue, etc.), as well as off-the-beaten-path spots including a traditional home owned by an 80+ year old woman in Hue and a jaw-dropping ride through a storybook-like mountain pass between Da Nang and Hue. Dang’s passion for his job and his country were evident and appreciated every step of the way.

Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam

Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam

I believe it would be possible to plan and book one’s own trip to Vietnam. While they don’t speak a ton of English there, those who work in the tourist industry (hotel staff, shop owners, restaurateurs, etc.) could speak and understand just enough to help us when needed. In fact, many travelers I met along the way had booked their own travel, hotels and tours. However, traveling alone, this was not a realistic option for me (at least not for my first solo trip).

I can’t tell you how elated I was – after flying for over 24 hours and landing in a strange country at 2:00 a.m. – to see a friendly young guy at the airport holding a Gate 1 sign and saying “you’re Angela right?” I could not believe that, after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City two hours late in the middle of the night due to flight delays, Dang was still there waiting for me. It was truly priceless, as I thought I’d have to manage a taxi on my own in the pitch dark. The Gate 1 paperwork said that they would wait one hour from my scheduled landing time for me, and then I would be on my own in terms of getting to our hotel, but when Dang said “no, we don’t leave anyone behind,” I could have kissed him.

While traveling with Gate 1 provided me with the safe and easy experience I was looking for, I am also glad I decided to use them (at least for my first trip to the country) because the colorful stories and cultural/historical insight provided by our tour manager really enhanced our Vietnam experience. I also doubt I would have gotten to see nearly as much of the country on my own due to logistical hurdles and also just not knowing that some of the more remote locations even existed.

Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Everything from the hotels we stayed in, to the places we visited, things we learned and meals we ate were just perfection. I honestly don’t have a single complaint about the trip (and it’s very rare for me to not have some type of complaint about most situations). Okay, well, the flights were really freakin’ long, and the food at one of the hotels (out of five) was lackluster, but that’s about it, I swear.

If you’re looking for a vacation that is as safe as it is exotic, I highly recommend Vietnam. And if you don’t want to go it alone, I highly recommend Gate 1 Travel. The trip I took was called “12 Day Classic Vietnam.” It included both scheduled tours and free days (or half days). However, each free day or half day also included an optional tour that you could pay extra to take (usually around $50). I only did two of them, because I tend to want to explore on my own when I travel. Both were excellent though, and I heard great things about the other tours as well.

China Beach, Da Nang, Vietnam

China Beach, Da Nang, Vietnam

My Top Vietnam Experiences

Since I have been back, everyone has been asking me what my favorite part of the trip was, and I don’t really have an answer. The truth is that the entire thing was euphoric for me. However, here is a list of some of the top experiences:

1. Taking a street food tour called “Food on Foot” during a free day in Hanoi, organized by a company called Vietnam Awesome Travel. While Gate 1 took us to many good restaurants during the trip, it was during this street food tour that I ate the best food I’d had in the country. My favorite was the bun cha – grilled, slightly charred pork in a flavorful broth into which you add tons of fresh herbs and dip vermicelli noodles. Brilliant!!! Another highlight was a dessert consisting of sticky rice, yogurt, fruit and dried coconut – unbelievable!!!

Street Food Tour, Hanoi, Vietnam

Street Food Tour, Hanoi, Vietnam

2. Strolling the peaceful Ancient City of Hoi An with its scenic riverfront, ubiquitous colorful lanterns, multiple pagodas and motorbike-free streets. It’s even prettier at night, and very safe.

The peaceful streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

The peaceful streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

3. Cruising through Halong Bay, taking in the surreal limestone karsts, eating a delicious seafood lunch and even getting a spring roll making lesson on board.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

4. Taking a cyclo (aka rickshaw) ride through the jam-packed streets of Hue, feeling the cool breeze on my face as the driver dodged a sea of motorbikes and took me through the narrow paths of a wet market where the locals sold everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to whole, dead chickens and seafood.

5. Sipping the uber strong Vietnamese “white” coffee, which is made with sweetened condensed milk and tastes like heaven.

6. Oogling the dramatic scenery as we drove past China Beach and then into the mountains on the ride from Da Nang to Hue. Both the sweeping images of mountains and ocean, as well as the many scenes of everyday life – water buffalo, goats, prayer shrines and pagodas – made it a once-in-a-lifetime type of ride. (The ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay, while less dramatic, was also captivating with its many rice paddies and farmers working in the fields wearing their iconic conical hats.)

Mountain pass between Da Nang and Hue, Vietnam

Mountain pass between Da Nang and Hue, Vietnam

7. Getting a gorgeous, custom-made jacket in Hoi An that fit me to a tee and was made in less than 24 hours for just $40.

8. Relaxing at the breathtaking tropical paradise of the Hoi An Trails Resort & Spa with its gorgeous rooms, lobby, spa, grounds and pool.

Hoi An Trails Resort & Spa, Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An Trails Resort & Spa, Hoi An, Vietnam

9. Saddling up to a small metal table and plastic stool on the streets of Hoi An to enjoy what our tour manager had said was one of the best banh mi sandwiches in Vietnam at Bahn Mi Phuong, only to find out via the modest food cart’s menu that my idol Anthony Bourdain had eaten there too!

10. Chomping on various dried produce I bought on the street and at the market – mango, coconut, ginger – all so fresh and sweet!!!

11. Purchasing a candle for $1 and floating it down the river one night in Hoi An to make one of my wishes come true. The many candles in the river were very pretty and created a nice spiritual atmosphere too.

12. Learning about the daily life of our tour manager Dang, from how he got his job with Gate 1 to his family, hobbies and wedding day. There’s truly no better way to learn about a country than through the stories of its people.

With our awesome tour manager, Dang

With our awesome tour manager, Dang

13. Breathing in the sweet smells of incense and seeing the locals pray at the many gorgeous pagodas we visited.

14. Touring the unique, European-influenced tomb of Emperor Khải Định in Hue. The look of this tomb was a dramatic departure from the many Chinese influenced monuments we visited (though don’t get me wrong, I loooove me some Chinese architecture too!).

Tomb of Emperor Khải Định, Hue, Vietnam

Tomb of Emperor Khải Định, Hue, Vietnam

15. Spring rolls, spring rolls, and more spring rolls. Fresh, fried, vegetarian, pork, shrimp, catfish – the parade of spring rolls never ended and I never wanted it to end.

16. Experiencing the amazing things the Vietnamese do with fruits and vegetables. From the entirely vegetarian lunch we were served by Buddhist nuns at a pagoda in Hue, to the many fresh salads made with things like green papaya, grapefruit and banana blossoms, to the delicious stir fried eggplant and okra dishes I tried, the Vietnamese effortlessly and impressively make produce the main event!

Vietnam is far too big a topic to cover in one blog post, so expect many more from me over the coming weeks. I am also still in the process of posting all of my photos to Facebook at facebook.com/freshatl. Be sure to check them out and come back soon for more posts! (You can sign up here to get all of my new posts sent to you via email as they come out.) And of course if you have any thoughts or questions on Vietnam, hit me up in the comments section. Cảm ơn!

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