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Review: Private guided tour of north west Vietnam hill country towns

Escorted Tour - Coach

Vietnam

The hill towns of northern Vietnam

  • By SilverTraveller Barbara1

    2 reviews

  • September 2015
  • On your own

114 people found this review helpful

It was a photographer’s paradise! My visit to the hill towns of northern Vietnam took place in September 2015. By “private coach” I mean it was a 7-seater vehicle, together with the driver, my guide and me!

The 8 day tour was from Hanoi to Ha Giang, Lung Cu, Dong Van, Lung Phin, Meo Vac, Hoang Su Phi, Bac Ha, and Sapa, then back to Hanoi.

There are a number of colourful ethnic minorities in the north, eg: Flower Hmong, Lo Lo, Black Dao to name three.

The textiles used in their traditional dress is amazingly stitched. The young girls of today are more interested texting on their cell phones than learning how to embroider, so in a few years the intricate hand embroidery on some of the traditional clothing will be lost.

Accommodation in the far north is not 5-star. But go with the flow for an interesting visit to the area. All of my hotels were clean, had air conditioned rooms and hot showers. Some hotels do not provide meals, not even breakfast. But one of the most enjoyable meal experiences I had was squatting on the small stool on the footpath in Dong Van to have a breakfast consisting of 4 different dishes, plus coffee. I love the Vietnamese food and lunch and dinner was always a hot cooked substantial meal. My guide was particular in checking out the kitchen of some of the places we ate at. If he didn’t think they were up to scratch we would look for somewhere else to eat. (That only happened in a very rural village when we stopped for lunch one day.) Bottled water was provided daily by the guide.

My guide was a keen photographer too, and in the Lung Phin market he quickly made people feel at ease and happy to show off their traditional dress. I was the only European in sight at that market, but people were more interested in buying or selling their products than in me, so I was able to wander around quite freely.

The markets are wonderful places for seeing the colourful ethnic minorities – read up about the history of some of these groups; where they came from, the language they speak, the difficulties they may have had settling and making a living in the area where they currently live. Often they are literally scratching a living off rocky land.

The markets at Bac Ha and Sapa are closer to the tourist beaten track, but are still worth a visit.

The scenery in the north can also be spectacular, particularly with the sharp karst mountain peaks emerging from the swirling mists of the Ma Pi Leng Pass early in the morning.

And in September the rice fields were turning from green to gold and in places the harvest was beginning. The rice terraces are best around Hoang Su Phi and also Sapa. Not to be missed!

My travel was arranged by Gracie of Travel Vietnam.

The company operates only on the internet i.e. on-line, and while they had a 12-day escorted tour covering roughly the same route as mine (among many other tours), Gracie was very accommodating in drawing up an 8-day private tour. I was able to ask her to arrange a hotel I particularly wanted to stay in – no problem. I want to stay in Bac Ha the night before the market day, rather than drive thru the town on the day of the market – no problem. I didn’t want to take the overnight train back from Sapa to Hanoi – no problem, I could drive back with the guide. (The overnight train to Sapa may be an ‘experience’ but having done it once on an earlier visit to Vietnam I was not interested in doing it again.)

It was not until late in the planning stage that Gracie learnt my age (more a white haired than a silver haired traveller!) but all the travel arrangements were well judged. And if you let her know any particular interests or requirements she will make the necessary adjustments e.g. making sure the hotel has a lift. She gave me a company cell phone for the tour in case I wanted to contact them (I didn’t, but she rang me to see how the tour was going.) Gracie also purchased a sim card with data on it for my personal smart phone which I was able to use pretty well everywhere.

TravelVietnam can arrange your Visa for Vietnam also.

The driver was amazing. I don’t know how he managed to drive on the narrow roads in sometimes manic traffic and come thru without a scratch on the vehicle!

The guide was excellent, as was his English. He kept his eyes out for interesting sights as we travelled, and would ask the driver to stop when he spied something e.g. a woman spinning hemp in her back yard, or women winnowing rice. And if I didn’t want to climb 100 steps up to flag pole, then I didn’t. It was my choice. If he sensed that near the end of the day I had had enough (yes I had!!) he would suggest going to the hotel and doing the activities the next day. He wasn’t just a tourist guide, he was a psychologist!! It was by having his ‘ear to the ground’ that he learned of the Lung Phin market which was such an amazing experience – not on the itinerary but we could be flexible enough to visit it. (The market in fact was ‘scheduled’ by the phases of the moon, and we just struck it lucky!)

Having people like these to organise and conduct my tour was worth their weight in gold.

Personal safety was not an issue but you need to take normal precautions with regard to handbags and wallets.

If you were on an escorted tour of say 6 – 10 people then you may not be able to do the stopping and starting and diverting that we did. But the TravelVietnam company and consultant Gracie would give you careful and individual attention and make sure you had an excellent tour of Vietnam.

Go East my friends – to Northern Vietnam!

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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.

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