This is a review of the pilot tour. Your experience is subject to change for the better as the tour operator is seeking constant improvement. Full disclosure: the owner/operator of the tour is a friend; however we were real customers paying real money on the pilot. Let’s begin.
ABOUT ME: As a reviewer, I have traveled North America and Western Europe extensively from first class airfare, high end hotels, invitation-only restaurants, and exotic cars to living out of a tent, eating gas station food on a dirt bike. While I do have experience with travel agents and tour guides, I nearly always plan and book all trips on my own. This was my first trip to Asia, so given the unfamiliarity and the language barrier, I was willing to hire a tour. I find that getting there is easy, but getting the most when you get there is hard. This tour makes it all easy at a price point that delivers exceptional value.
OPERATOR: The bottom line is you are very well taken care of. The premise of the tour is to put away your wallet, your maps, and your guide books; let them handle it all. The business is relatively new, up-coming, and eagerly striving to be the best, which is to your benefit. At current, the tour operator accompanies the guides and the tourists, assuring that you get the best possible experience at every moment. Equate this to a dinner sitting at the table with the restaurant owner, who is actively making sure you are exceptionally happy.
BOOKING: The operator has an online system available for booking, but I suggest you reach out and make contact for the full experience. Read the whole website, especially the itinerary. Get all of your questions and concerns answered. Set your expectations appropriately. They are exceptionally friendly, personable, and knowledgeable. There is no offshore call center – you speak directly to the owner/operators. Right now you become part of building the business.
GETTING THERE: At the time of writing, there are no direct flights from the US to Vietnam due to airport security standards. Thus, you will need to fly through another Asian country. You will need to book your own airfare to Vietnam or use a travel agent. If you don’t fly on a regular basis, contact the tour operator for recommendations. Once you arrive in Vietnam, you are well cared for, and nothing else is required. I recommend taking advantage of exploring a country along the way.
GUIDES: Essentially the guides are the tour. They provide you will all the information you could possibly need. You are immediately greeted by the team upon arrival at the airport and bid farewell at your departure at the airport. You never have to deal with the language barrier, transportation, finding meals, booking hotels, or creating plan to see the sights. The native guides give a knowledgeable, passionate, and honest, first hand depiction of their country and their lives.
ACCOMODATIONS: We typically stay in Europe and the US in $100-150 per night hotels. All of the hotels have been well tested by the tour operator and the pilot trip. I would categorize the tour hotels to be equivalent to $200-300 per night hotels in the US, depending on the city. The overall hotels and rooms deliver high value, without excessively driving up the overall tour price. Keep in mind that most tap water in the country is not safe to drink. There is bottled water available, and the tour operator keeps you well stocked.
ADVENTURE: Vietnam is a vibrant, bustling country, bursting with activity, color, and people. Natural, religious, cultural, military, and political sites of significance are all included in the tour, along with everyday living, shopping, eating, and interaction with local people. You will be active as much as you can handle without becoming over-tired. At the time of writing, the tour is centered around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City with side trips to Ninh Bình, Mekong River, and many others. Vietnam is roughly the size of California. To set expectations, it is nearly impossible to see it all in 8 days. Note that widely advertised sites like Sapa and Ha Long Bay are not currently included in this tour as they are well outside of the major cities. Keep in mind the tour does include similar views without the 10 hour drives. I would suggest that if those sites are on your radar and you have the time, do this trip first, consult the guides, and then make plans at the end of your trip to expand your experience to those destinations.
FOOD: This is a cuisine tour, so I’ve saved the best for last. In short, the food is absolutely spectacular. You will experience everything from fine restaurant dining to a family farm table (spoiler alert: the farm is better). The quality and variety is unbelievable and exceptional. The spectrum is covered from familiar barbeque to exotic plants. Everything is as fresh as butchered onsite or transported from the farm hours if not minutes before you eat it. Beer is plentiful, wine and liquor less so.
PACKING TIPS: Vietnam is a tropical country. Travel is available year round. From November to April, the North is cool (60°F) and dry, while May to October are hot and rainy. The North varies in temperature and humidity, whereas the South is warm and humid year round. We experienced the edge of both the dry and monsoon seasons in June. Umbrellas a widely available, so raingear is not necessary unless desired. We are carry-on only travelers, but you can bring as much as you are willing to lug around. Laundry is somewhat available – consult the operator for details.
For men, I suggest synthetic short sleeve polos with both short and long pants including zip pockets. Women need to take into account that religious sites require shoulder and knee cover, but head dress of any kind is not required. No formal dress for either sex is required or recommended. Sunscreen and sun-cover hats are recommended, but it is of note that hats can be acquired for as little as $1 onsite.
Cameras and associated equipment are not readily available, but not impossible to acquire. I suggest over packing on memory cards and batteries. Computers and printers are not readily available, so consult the tour operator for advice. Power and Internet are generally available through conventional means. Most hotels have US-type power outlets but with no ground plug. Keep in mind that political sites have limitations on photography and will ask to hold your larger camera bags.