Before sharing my Vietnamese experience with you, I think I owe you an apology in regards to my noticeable absence over the last couple of weeks. It’s a sad excuse, but you never really notice how quickly time goes by when you get so caught up in every day events. I’m making the promise now (really, it’s on the internet and that stuff never disappears) that I will share stories on a more frequent basis and won’t go AWOL without warning you first. And what better day is there for re-connecting with travel stories than on a miserable rainy day?! Hopefully this will transport you to a sunny, place even if only momentarily.
2012 was a busy year. It was my first year of uni  – making lots of new friends, learning so many new things and really trying hard to get used to a new way of learning. Amongst all of this, I was also planning a holiday with some friends to Vietnam. Since watching the Top Gear Vietnam special, the country had very quickly made its way to the top of my ‘to go’ list. After spending months contemplating the travel options that were available, my friends and I decided on booking an Intrepid Tour. If I’m being really honest, I wasn’t keen on the idea of going on a tour at all. From what I’d seen, tours were a big bunch of people who jumped from sight to sight in major cities, following a leader who carried a flag. Or they were large groups of people who’s idea of travel was to get hammered every night and spend 10 minutes at major sights, capturing their clichéd poses in front of the sights. I was worried about going on a tour and experiencing something like the above and not having a lot of time to do my own thing. Having already travelled a lot, independence is something that I thrive upon and I didn’t like the idea of having such a strict itinerary.
My apprehension in regards to tours naturally lead me to researching the crap out of Intrepid, and needless to say, I was impressed with what they offered. Unlike other well known tour companies that really don’t have a lot of focus on the culture of the visited area, Intrepid is a tour company that really focuses on experiencing the culture of whatever country you are in. Instead of hiring tour guides from Western countries, Intrepid Tour Guides are locals – giving travellers a cultural experience that you wouldn’t gain from several other tour companies. There are so many little things that Intrepid include in their travel deals that impressed me; the tour-phobe. They incorporate a lot of spare time in their itineraries, giving travellers the freedom to do what they want, in terms of age restrictions, they are pretty well non-existent, meaning that you can enjoy the company of people who have come from all different walks of life and most importantly, they give you time at each destination! You’re not at one place for a measly single night, it’s usually a minimum of three days per stop and your time is basically unlimited at each sight, so not only do you get to take your photos, you get to really experience and learn about the area!
Knowing all of this about Intrepid made me feel a lot better about being a tour member, but there were still moments of uncertainty leading up to the trip.
I flew into Hanoi alone and met up with my travel companions a few hours later at the hotel. Having spent 5 weeks in Nepal a year earlier, I was expecting Vietnam to be similar in terms of it’s socio-economic standing and was surprised to see that Vietnam is quite developed in comparison. Our tour was to start in Hanoi, however we had arrived a few days earlier in order to overcome any jetlag and to get a general feel for the country. The time that we spent in Hanoi prior to commencing the tour was spent walking around the city and having daily massages – a must when in ‘Nam!
A few days later we had a tour ‘meet and greet’. Including the tour guide there was around 15 of us in the group, ranging from 20 to 40+ years in age. It was exciting to be meeting all the people that we’d be travelling with for the next couple of weeks!
We had all signed up to be part of Intrepid’s Vietnam Express Southbound tour where we would travel around Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). For the entirety of the trip, the general feel was a laid-back, happy-go-lucky kind of style. Everyone got along well and we all shared a love of travel. The days were spent sightseeing (alone or as part of the group) and the nights were made up of good food, good company and a good couple of rounds of beers.
Vietnam was magical, it was everything that I thought it would be and more. I was constantly being blown away by its endless beauty. Like to what I experienced in Nepal, the locals were all so incredibly happy! I loved that everywhere we went we were always greeted with a smile. One of my favourite moments of the trip was at a nightclub in Hue. Not because of the party-scene, but because we went in as a group and there was no alienation of anyone due to age. Everyone that was in the club was there to be surrounded by friends, having a good time! I absolutely loved it, especially as over here (in Australia), being above a certain age and going to a club comes with a lot of negative connotations, it was so nice to see people enjoying their time in Vietnam irregardless of age.
To sum it up, travelling independently is my preferred method, however in countries where it is safer to be part of a guided tour than to be alone, Intrepid is my company of choice. I enjoyed my travels with Intrepid and have since recommended them to people who are seeking experiences similar to mine.