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March 2017 Travel News

Day after day filled with extraordinary things... In the first of a new

series, ‘An Agent Abroad’, ANDREW LOCKHART from Ultimate Journeys, reminisces on his most recent trip to Vietnam...

Vietnam is such a beautiful country, full of charm, colour and a wealth of UNESCO World Heritage sites to explore - pack as much in as possible on your visit V

IETNAM made such an impression on me the first time round I just had to go back and find out more... I’m pretty sure it’s the unique French Indo Chinese influence that gives it so much more flavour and makes it different to all other countries in South East Asia.

This influence has also helped retain much of its charm and colour particularly when you include the many UNESCO World Heritage sites along the way that I did and reveal the real essence of the place. Going back again allowed me to dig even deeper into what I already knew.

Not everyone will have the time or inclination to do just as much as I packed in but here are some of the highlights that I think are worth including. Hanoi in the North - what other capital in the world would shut off streets over the weekend to allow tourists the run of the place and the local children can have freedom to ride their plastic trucks, bikes and toy tractors on the main roads – there’s a great feeling of ‘people mattering more than cars’ here.

In the Famous ‘Old Quarter’ people use the pavements in the morning to sell fruit flowers and vegetables while in the evening everyone gathers to eat communally as families and friends. In the warm evening air ladies meet friends in the parks and join in ‘public dancing’. There are no drunken louts, no uncomfortable behaviour – the young people are well mannered and full of fun. One of the enjoyable sides of holidaying here is the freedom to walk about the markets and cafes in the warm evenings feeling safe and relaxed.. People still eat together communally on the streets and pavements. No one sits at home on their own with a TV dinner here! Ninh Binh – (this is a very good alternative to those who don’t want to spend the night on a junk in Halong bay) – just a few hours’ drive south east of Hanoi and a nice thing to do if you want a day out of the city - you get an hour or so being rowed around in a little boat on a stunning clear water river which meanders through marvellous karst limestone scenery in this lesser known National park. Iconic Vietnam scenery.

However, if you can I would encourage you to take the longer trip to Halong Bay... Halong Bay – this is one of the must do highlights in Vietnam - the four hours’ drive north of Hanoi is well worth the effort. I would avoid staying in Halong town itself, rather take to the water on a junk for one or two nights which explores right into the UNESCO world heritage site.

There are a variety of vessels to choose from, from brand new modern style boats to older, characterful originals. A two-night visit is ideal if you want to explore away from the more popular areas. It’s so relaxing sailing to local beaches, stopping at the small islands, exploring interesting caves and sailing

but on horseback! You can see maybe 400 horses or more in the neighbouring fields as the market takes place all day. Or for the more adventurous you can even go cycling or trekking along traffic free roads to other quiet villages.

Right down in the South we have Ho Chi Minh

City with its lovely Indochinese-French character as well as a fascinating history (with the relatively recent events of the Vietnam War).

You can easily spend a few days here. Millions of motorbikes create a sense of the place ‘buzzing’ and add an air of excitement. I loved the Reunification Palace, and the War Remnants museum where often the guides are living survivors of the war. A short drive (or speedboat if you’re really fancy!) gets you out to the infamous Chu Chi Tunnels.

Private guides will take you around and show you

the secret tunnels. These ingenious 200km long tunnels were built virtually underneath the US air bases and were home to the Vietnamese living underground in very cramped conditions, only coming out at night. It is a huge testament to the strength of the Vietnamese that they tolerated such a hard life for so long during the war. You can still see craters from the bombs dropped from B52s through the forest and a range of hidden traps that were designed to target American soldiers - it’s a fascinating excursion.

The writer poses with a friendly local in Vietnam

through stunning scenery created by nearly 2000 rocks of limestone cloaked in trees and raised up out of the sea - it’s quite a sight.

You can be as active or lazy as you wish - you can get off the boat and explore or go fishing off the back of your boat, kayak, or just simply relax and enjoy a drink while taking in the peace and beauty of such a wonderful setting. En-route you can see things like the amazing CU Van fishing village an entire village (home to some 600 people) floating on the sea!

Further North, not far from the border with China, is the village of SAPA – not often included on mainstream tour operators programme for two reasons - first it requires an overnight train ride there and back and second it can’t take huge numbers. I would encourage you to try and include it if you like seeing minority tribal people. The village is set among rice terraces clinging to hillsides and you will get incredible views of the iconic paddy field terraces that many people imagine when thinking about the Far East. Catching the morning sunlight in the water of the paddy fields and seeing the many workers wearing traditional conical hats toiling away all over the hillsides can be spectacular.

If like me you happen to be here over a weekend you can see the amazing Ba Hac Sunday market where most people come not in cars, or even on motorbikes,

Another optional trip which is available when you are staying in Saigon is the Mekong Delta - a few hours by road from HCMC this incredibly nutrient rich Delta is like the garden of Vietnam – growing vegetables and flowers, fruit etc. My visits here took me onto one of the the islands in the Delta by ferry and allowed me to meet the locals who usually run small family business selling things like honey, tea and homemade candies. The highlight though was taking a sampan around the backwaters of the coconut arroyos – you will really feel like you are off the tourist trail here! The real Vietnam.

Most people experience this beautiful country by working from north to south (or south to north). I have done it both ways and there is no difference! Which ever way you decide do it Hoi An usually comes in the middle of your itinerary and gives you a chance to spend some time at the beach – right when you need it! Hoi an is a lovely ‘ancient town’ filled with traditional shop fronts and a nice range of restaurants and coffee/patisseries. It had a rich Chinese and Japanese history and is easy to walk about - silk lanterns appear to hang from every pillar and post. It’s a lovely place to wander in the evening, and at 9pm there is a coming together of folk placing lanterns on the river. This is acted out over the generations for good health and wishes for themselves and their family. It’s a lovely thing to do and guides can take you out on a little sampan (or wooden boat) and allow you to place your own lanterns. It can be spectacular if you happen to hit a busy night. Afternoons can be lazy with a rustic lunch on the river – where they set up a bbq on a bamboo raft as you

sail by lush jungle - or if you fancy making lunch with a local family, a home hosted programme makes all this possible. The stunning Hai Van Pass stretches between Hoi An and Hue through the Marble Mountains with many hairpin bends offering wonderful views over the coastline below, making the journey here worth the effort.

One or two nights in Hue is enough time to see the Citadel, home to the Emperors over the years and the Purple Forbidden city - a smaller version of the Forbidden city in Beijing. It has been damaged with the war but still quite atmospheric. I loved the morning cruise along the Perfume River in a locally owned fishing boat – nice to help support the locals rather than the larger more touristy options. However, one of the most memorable moments in Hue came when I was finishing off breakfast sitting on an outdoor roof terrace, which looked down over the river. The city was just starting to waken, it was 32 degrees and pouring with rain and over the noise of the rain bouncing on the tin roofs below together with all the motorbikes and riverboats ‘put - put’ putting away all I could hear was an entire school below the hotel singing their hearts out in honour of their teachers!

It was national teacher day! These little magic moments have a habit of occurring along the way - Vietnam is a very special kind of place. Top tip: I would definitely say it is better to have all of the sightseeing and transportation between places pre-booked, not only is this cheaper than trying to buy locally it also avoids any hassle as often tours and excursions are full. It’s good to know that the guide will turn up and not leave you stranded. The distances between the centre of town and the sights you want to see can be up to four hours away so you need to ensure that this is secure and reliable so as you can spend your time enjoying what there is to see and not worry about how it is all going to operate.

Spend a day exploing on a pedal tour

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