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DAY 1: HO CHI MINH CITY ARRIVAL
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Fly to Ho Chi Minh City, referred to locally as ‘Saigon’. Upon arrival your guide will greet you and transfer by private car through the city to your hotel for check-in. This afternoon wind down and indulge in the city's chicest spas followed by a Vietnamese dinner in one of Ho Chi Minh City's best restaurants. Overnight in Ho Chi Minh City.
DAY 2: HO CHI MINH CITY
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The half-day tour takes a unique look at familiar and not-so-familiar landmarks in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, to reveal the city’s culture, architecture, religious practices and fascinating history. The tour begins in the cool early morning with a pickup at your hotel. Our first stop is the Ernst Thalmann School on Tran Hung Dao Street, an historic location that marks the beginning of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia in March 1950. We tell the little-known story of how 500,000 Vietnamese demonstrated through the streets of the city despite French tear gas attacks and massed troops. We continue through historic District One and pause at the northern end of Nguyen Hue Street. Here we note the buildings and constructions that traverse more than 300 years of Saigon’s history, from the establishment of the Bat Quay Citadel to the declaration of independence in 1945 to the colourful times of the Rex Hotel as a Bachelor Officers’ Quarters during the War. Our next stop is a quick look at the little known Hindu Temple in District One, moving then to the remarkable Reunification Palace. Here we explain the history of the building, its role and the role of Le Duan, after whom the boulevard in front of the Palace is named and we touch on the Time of Hardship from 1975 to 1985. Next we visit a twin set of neighbouring landmarks: the Post Office, noting the architecture and in particular the map of Saigon that shows where this modern city has come from, followed by a walk across the street to the sublime Cathedral of Notre Dame (“Our Lady”), where we’ll touch on the rituals around weddings in Vietnam and the role religious organisation plays within the State. A drive down Dong Khoi Street (it means “people’s revolution”) allows us to correct a modern myth. We reveal the place where, in 1975, during the dying days of the former regime, the iconic photograph was taken of a helicopter lifting people out of Saigon. A stop at the historic Opera House (now the Municipal Theatre) lets us talk about the history the square represents from the time it was the main road into the Bat Quay, to the French invasion, to the wartime ‘Five O’Clock Follies,’ to the filming of Phil Noyce’s “The Quiet American”. A visit to a rare Muslim Mosque in Dong Du Street gives us a focus for explaining the Cham people of Vietnam and the famous modernist movement that gives the street its name. We then take the ferry (an experience in itself) across the river to District Two where we see downtown Saigon from a different perspective and we have a chance to familiarise our guests with the fully-restored Classic Vespas. After a quick cool drink, we head west into District 5, Saigon’s own Chinatown, known locally as Cholon. We’ll check out the colourful, surrealistic Cai Dai Temple on the way and taking a stroll through the fabric market as well as visiting the Silversmith Guild Hall before passing by the Francis Xavier Church where the Ngo brothers hid out during the coup against them. Our last stop is the Chinese Community Spirit House to the goddess Thien Hau, protector of travellers on the sea. This is, without doubt, one of the most striking of its type in Saigon. Here we explain the meaning of these societies to Confucianists. To fulfil the spirit of one of the exhortations in the Spirit House, “Universal Salvation To All Creatures,” our guests release finches. End the tour at the hotel. For lunch try some traditional Saigon fare at ‘Com Nieu Sai Gon’. Described by the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as “my favourite place in town”, watch as clay-pot-baked rice is ‘flung’ across the room by the unassuming waiters. This afternoon step off the beaten track and take a stroll to the oldest quarter of the city (car at your disposal should you need it). Explore Saigon’s well-kept secret - Antiques Street (Le Cong Kieu), where genuine antiques are mixed in with genuine fakes: Aladdin oil lamps, carved wooden chests, Marelli copper fans, opium pipes, abacuses, etc. You can also find military cast-offs from the Vietnam War, and if you look hard enough, relics from the French Indochina era. Follow a typical street to reach the Beaux-Arts Museum, a superb neo-colonial building home to various modern arts. Explore the art galleries surrounding the museum, where local artists gladly display their talent. A visit in Ho Chi Minh City would not be complete without a taste of its best ice cream - Fanny’s, a quaint little French atmospheric parlour, before continuing on to the trendy boutiques and shops of Thon That Thiep Street. This evening, a private home dinner in Ho Chi Minh City is the perfect way to gain deeper insight into Vietnamese culture and cuisine. Located in suburban Ho Chi Minh City your host family will cook you a great meal, whilst here you can learn more on how the locals really live and eat and this intimate interaction is sure to leave you with lasting memories! Your escort guide will be a local university student, which adds to the experience. Overnight in Ho Chi Minh City.
DAY 3: HO CHI MINH CITY – MEKONG DELTA
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After breakfast, depart for the Mekong Delta. Leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind as you travel through Vietnam's picturesque countryside with its rice paddies and rural villages. Upon arrival in the Delta board the private 'Song Xanh', modelled after a traditional sampan. The boat's small size allows you to discover the smaller canals and tributaries of this region. Your visit includes the home of Mr. Huyen Thuy Le, a character from the novel ‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras as well as Thien Hau Pagoda. Return to the boat for lunch. Continue to Can Tho stopping en-route at a Cao Dai Temple. Back on board your sampan, continue to Can Tho stopping en-route at a Cao Dai Temple. Cao Daism is indigenous to South Vietnam and the colourful and unusual murals that cover the temple's interior will blind you with their brilliance. Before sunset, the last stop is at a splendid 19th century house where an unforgettable candlelight dinner will be served. After dinner, proceed for one hour to Can Tho where your sampan will be moored for the night. Overnight aboard the Song Xanh Boat.
DAY 4: MEKONG DELTA – HO CHI MINH CITY – DANANG – HOI AN
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As you cross the Mekong this morning on the way to Cai Rang Floating Market, take in traditional sights such as rice barges, wooden ship building yards and even fruit drying along the Mekong's banks. After visiting the colourful floating market, you will return to Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport for the flight to central Vietnam. From the Danang airport, it’s a 30-minute drive to the ancient port town of Hoi An. Despite the passing of 200 years and the ravages of weather and war, the centre of Hoi An remains much the same as it was in its heyday. The remainder of the day at leisure. Overnight in Hoi An.
DAY 5: HOI AN
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Spend time with a local farming family to learn about their daily lifestyle and to discover the flavours of fresh Vietnamese cuisine. Bike along shady lanes to the village of Tra Que and join the farmers as they work on their vegetable garden. After the farming activities you will be shown how to prepare tam huu, a local delicacy, before sitting down for a home cooked meal including banh xeo a speciality savoury pancake wrapped in rice paper before the ride back to Hoi An. A walking tour is the best way to see this marvellous town. Visit the former merchants’ homes, the 400 year-old Japanese Covered Bridge and the colourful market. Dinner will at one of Hoi An’s best restaurants which serves original and creative cuisine that can only be described as Vietnam-Latin American-Japanese fusion. With a combination of refreshing flavours, beautiful presentations and a relaxing atmosphere this eatery has one the heart of many loyal and happy customers. Overnight in Hoi An.
DAY 6: HOI AN – HUE
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Morning at leisure before leaving Hoi An for Hue for the 3-hour drive to Hue. The scenic route passes through Danang where you will visit the Cham museum that has collected and exhibited the finest collection of Cham statues and works of art. After your visit, continue the drive over the Pass of Ocean Clouds and dropping down to the wonderfully photogenic fishing village of Lang Co. Then, you will reach Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. Enjoy a vegetarian lunch at a Buddhist pagoda with monks. This intimate experience will allow you to gain knowledge on Buddhism in Vietnam. Dine tonight at the private ‘garden house’ known locally as ‘nha vuon’ of one Hue's most famous architects. This traditional style house, which is set in a large and attractive formal garden has connections with the ancient Hue Royal Imperial Court. The traditional architecture has long been associated with the natural environment and the ancient belief of ‘feng-shui’. On arrival you’ll be greeted in the foyer of this magnificent house with a traditional Vietnamese welcome. The lady of the house will personally prepare an extraordinary Vietnamese meal, which is served privately in the traditional manner in the private gardens of her home. Overnight in Hue.
DAY 7: HUE
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Rise for an early breakfast followed by a visit to the city’s vibrant Dong Ba Market to see it’s abundance of fresh produce. It was in Hue that royal chefs developed the more elaborate dishes of Vietnamese cuisine. Start Continue to the Imperial Citadel where the Nguyen Dynasty ruled between 1802 and 1945. After exploring the ruins of this wonderful monument, depart to the Hue Royal Fine Arts Museum which is housed within the former Dien Long An Royal Palace. Enjoy lunch along the way at the boutique Pilgrimage Village Resort. Following your meal continue to the Mausoleum of Tu Duc, built decades before its occupant's death the tomb was used as a palace retreat before the Emperor’s final resting place. At the end of the day visit the tomb of Khai Dinh which is traditional Vietnamese in design with a European touch making it unique from the other tombs. In the afternoon return to your hotel. Optional alternative afternoon tour (in replace of visit to either Tu Duc or Khai Dinh Tombs): If you want to explore beyond the tombs hop aboard a cyclo for a tour of the ‘local’ part of Hue’s citadel where the daily life of the city’s inhabitants can be observed. Evening at leisure. Overnight in Hue.
DAY 8: HUE – HANOI
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After a morning at your leisure, transfer to the airport for a short flight to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. Upon arrival, your guide and private car will meet you and transfer you to your hotel for check-in. Lunch is served in a breath-taking restored colonial villa. Start with an insider’s tour of the The Long Bien Bridge (originally named Doumer Bridge) which was built in 1902 by Sir Gustave Eiffel with specialist guide Douglas Jardine. Born in Connecticut in the United States, Historian Douglas Jardine has lived in Hanoi for 4-years and is a Professor of History at Hanoi University. He is endlessly fascinated with the beauty of Hanoi where he spends time researching history, art, architecture as well as social studies. Take a walking tour of this fascinating structure to learn more on how this bridge helped shape Hanoi’s future. This afternoon continue to West Lake and one of the oldest Buddhist pagodas in Hanoi, Tran Quoc, and the nearby Taoist temple of Quan Thanh which dates from the Ly Dynasty. Dine tonight at one of Hanoi’s best restaurants. Overnight in Hanoi.
DAY 9: HANOI
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Hit the streets of Hanoi for a full day street food tour and cooking class with an American chef/culinary instructor and food writer. A Hanoi resident and the author of five cookbooks, your specialist guide for the day leads gastronomic adventure tours in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Start the day with the locals with Hanoi’s celebrated beef and rice noodle soup, Pho. During breakfast, an overview of the Vietnamese food scene, particularly in Hanoi, and discuss the upcoming day’s activities. Continue to a local market within the city to learn about and taste some of the ingredients used in the local cuisine and to watch the buying and selling rituals of a Vietnamese market. Your culinary expert will introduce you to some of the vendors, explain about the ingredients for sale and assist you with purchasing items to take home (if desired). Many photo opportunities will be available in this bustling, vibrant and colourful scene. Next have a Vietnamese ca phe (coffee) or tra (tea) with the locals at one of the many sidewalk cafes in the historic French Quarter. Drive to Truc Bach lake for a snack of Phở Cuốn, a grilled beef and rice noodle roll. From here visit a neighbourhood market near the Temple of Literature. This is a smaller market where your culinary expert shops almost daily. You will have a chance to visit more closely with some of his vendor friends and to learn even more about the food. Lunch at one of Hanoi’s best bún chả establishments, Bún Chả Chanh. Open only a few hours in the afternoon, this place is run by a couple of sisters who use real wood for the cooking and still fan the fire by hand instead of the ubiquitous electric fans. Situated down a narrow lane, you will sit on tiny stools at low plastic tables along with the regular crowd of bún chả aficionados and enjoy traditional grilled pork and rice vermicelli noodles with fresh herbs and greens like true Hanoians. Very few foreigners ever find this eatery so it is a very special treat. A final stop at one of Hanoi’s renowned Bia Hoi, where they serve fresh draft beer and tasty snacks. These “pubs” are traditional favourite social gathering spots as well as watering holes during the afternoons and evenings throughout Hanoi. Here we will sit at low-slung, plastic tables on small stools and rub elbows with the locals, drink some bia (beer), have a snack or two (if you still have room for eating) and talk about our day. You will also give you some recommendations as to dining around Hanoi and the rest of the country. In the late afternoon transfer back to your hotel. Dinner is free this evening. Overnight in Hanoi.
DAY 10: HANOI – HALONG BAY
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After breakfast leave Hanoi for an overnight boat trip on Halong Bay. Journey there through the rich farmlands of the Red River Delta, observing everyday life of Vietnamese villagers as they work the rice fields, take pigs to the market on bicycles and plough the fields with their water buffaloes. Arrive in Halong City late morning and board your traditional wooden junk for the overnight journey into the Bay. En-route lunch will be served. Following cruise by rock formations with such names as Sail, Dog and Dinh Huong (incense pot). Towards the end of the day set anchor for the night. As the sun sets over the bay dinner is served on board with fresh seafood, salads, and fruits. Overnight on Halong Bay.
DAY 11: HALONG BAY – HANOI
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On your return to Halong City enjoy a wholesome brunch as your boat weaves through strange-shaped limestone rock formations. Upon disembarkation your driver will meet you for the transfer back to Hanoi. *As an option visit one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam ‘But Thap’ on the way back to Hanoi. The rest of the afternoon and evening free at leisure. Overnight in Hanoi.
DAY 12: HANOI – DUONG LAM – HANOI
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Depart your hotel at 0830 and travel west of Hanoi to Duong Lam village, a purely agricultural village of the Northern Red River Delta which still preserves many hundred-year-old houses. Visit Mong Phu temple in Mong Phu commune - the only hamlet whose original village entrance remains intact. Continue on through the narrow alleys to see the old laterite houses which make up this charming village. For lunch enjoy a local style meal in a 100-year old house. After your meal, continue driving to Mia Pagoda (another hamlet of Duong Lam), built in the 15th century. There are around 287 statues of all sizes here, among them are famous sculptures such as the statue of Buddha and the statues of the ‘Eight Vajra Deities’. Then, visit Ngo Quyen temple and Phung Hung temple, places dedicated to two national heroes - Ngo Quyen and Phung Hung. On the way back to Hanoi stop at Tay Phuong Pagoda. The pagoda offers beautiful architecture and ancient and unique sculptures. It was one of the first pagodas built in Vietnam and has magnificent dragons and demons carved into the wooden roof. From here continue back to Hanoi, a 45-minute drive. Your farewell dinner will be held in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the home of a true Hanoian who learnt her culinary skills from her grandmother, who used to cook for the French elite in the 1930’s. Overnight in Hanoi.
DAY 13: HANOI DEPARTURE
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Today is departure day. Your private car and guide will be at your disposal to enjoy some free time for last purchases or simply relax before your transfer to Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport for onward flight.
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