To help us plan our month-long trip to Vietnam, we contacted Lesley Brooking, who owns a personal-travel-service company called Pacific Experience, with offices in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Lesley is a good friend, we trust her, and she knows Asia intimately. Conde Nast Traveler and other top magazines have recommended Pacific Experience as one of the best travel companies in the country specializing in Asia. Lesley helped us plan where we would go in Vietnam, and the best ways to get from place to place. She recommended certain hotels, trains, must-see markets, and historic sites, and connected us to private guides who were some of the most interesting and accomplished people we met as we made our way through the region.
Lesley convinced us that to go to Vietnam and miss visiting the temples at Angkor Wat, in nearby Cambodia, would be a major opportunity lost. We took her advice and were happy we did. We flew from the United States to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and spent four days in Siem Reap, the town nearest the temples. We highly recommend the services of Pacific Experience (www.pacificexperience.com).
That said, Douglas and I are mostly seat-of-the-pants travelers. We normally arrived in a town or city, armed with our Lonely Planet and Footprint travel guides to Vietnam, got a cab, and drove to hotels recommended in those guides. If you’re sailing in Vietnam, you’ll probably be visiting during the summer, which is the off-season. There will be no problem whatsoever getting a room anywhere, because there are far fewer tourists, and all the hotels and restaurants have lots of availability.
Our routine was this: Douglas would wait in the cab with our bags; I’d go in and look at the room, negotiate a price, and take it or leave it. If I decided against the room, our taxi driver would drive us to the next recommended hotel, or show us one he thought was a better deal for the price. We always got great deals this way and found terrific places to stay on a shoestring. These were our best finds:
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, we found the Steung Siemreap Hotel ([email protected]aphotel.com) through a very helpful taxi driver (we looked at two hotels before discovering this one); our driver wanted us to stay in a Cambodian-owned establishment and was patient about finding a nice one for us. It was $65 a night (Siem Reap is far more expensive than anywhere else in Cambodia). The town has hundreds of guesthouses with rooms for as little as $8. However, ours was relatively lavish: a beautiful pool, lovely breakfast room, and helpful staff. Ask for a room overlooking the pool, in the new building.
In Hanoi, we stayed at the very cheap but acceptable Hanoi Lotus (www.hostelinvietnam.com) in the Old Town, for only $15 a night-including air conditioning, large bathroom, mini-bar, internet, breakfast, and cable television. Request a back room, the street noise is annoying. The hotel doesn’t have any ambiance whatsoever, but it’s clean and comfortable, and in a great location for restaurants and walking the old city.
As we explored Hanoi, however, we found the Lucky Hotel (www.luckyhotel.com.vn), which looked terrific, and we wish we’d stayed there instead. The rooms had a lovely ambiance, all the amenities were beautifully appointed with elegant Asian furnishings, and cost about $30 a night. Yes, that’s twice as much as the Lotus, but it was five times nicer, and considering what you get for the money, a terrific deal.
In Ho Chi Minh City, we stayed at the Xuan Loc Hotel (Spring Hotel) ([email protected]), which cost only $30 a night, was beautifully decorated, centrally located, had Internet, air conditioning, included breakfast, and had a very friendly staff. They arranged a tour for us to go out to the Cu Chi Tunnels–a must-see. Ask for a room overlooking the street, on a higher floor, and enjoy the spectacular view of the temple rooftops. There are several Spring Hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, so check the address with the taxi driver; be sure it’s the one on Le Anh Xuan Street.
In Sapa, the Royal View Hotel (www.royalsapa.com) is only about $40 a night, and it’s a beauty with new and well-appointed rooms, and absolutely breathtaking views over the mountains. It is perfectly located, just on the edge of the bustling town, at the beginning of the best hiking trails to the mountain-tribe villages. Be sure to ask for a room with a view.
In Nha Trang, which is where you go to board the Sunsail charter boats, we stayed for a night at the Nha Trang Beach Hotel, which was simple, convenient, spotlessly clean, included Internet, breakfast, and had nice views over the spectacular beach-all for only $18 a night. We took the six-hour train ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang, took a cab to town, arrived and found the hotel. The next day, we provisioned, got aboard Tubtim, and left on our charter.
There is an alternate idea, however, that will save you a day: Instead of taking the train to Nha Trang (a pretty trip, but it does take six hours), fly directly there first thing in the morning, check in and drop off your bags at the Sunsail office, and take a cab to the market, and provision (have the taxi driver wait for you, and store your purchases in the trunk as you buy them). Then take the taxi back to the office to pick up your bags, board your charter boat in the afternoon, and take the short sail across to Hon Tre island. This will get you on your way a day earlier. Douglas and I spent a month traveling, so a day here and there was no big deal. If you’re on a tighter leash, however, this is one way to save a precious day for more sailing or touring elsewhere.
On the other end, it’s easy to fly out or take the train out the same day you bring your boat back to Nha Trang, a touristy beach town that doesn’t offer as much as other towns when it comes to historic sites. If we’d been more pressed for time, this is how we would have arranged things.
Hiring Private Guides
The following are the names of guides we hired and who we highly recommend. All speak excellent English, are very well educated in the history and culture of their country, and are wonderful people with whom to spend time. It’s easy to contact them by email before you go to Vietnam, and arrange meeting places.
In Sapa, we hired Pham The Thanh, who hiked with us for a couple of days through the mountain villages-where the government requires a guide-and who arranged for us to join a small group in a van and take it up to the Flower Hmong weekly market-a treasure of an experience. Reach via email ([email protected]) or cell (09 153 518 85). He can arrange to pick you up at the train station, or you can just negotiate your own cab to Sapa, or join a van, which you can arrange when you get off the train. Pham was knowledgeable, funny, reliable, and wonderful company.
In Hanoi, through Pacific Experience, we hired Le Thanh Long, who told us he’s done many tours with American Vietnam War veterans, and enjoys the relationships he’s built with them. Long has a master’s degree in business, and is well versed in American and Vietnamese politics and history. We thoroughly enjoyed our time and conversations with him. Reach via email ([email protected]). To book him, contact Pacific Experience.
In Cambodia, we hired Seng Keo, who arranged a private car for us to head out to the temples. Keo was a tireless guide, filled with passion for the amazing temples and their history, and had a deep understanding of the political situation in modern Cambodia. Email [email protected]; phone 855 12 630 813.
Sailing In Vietnam
For chartering sailboats, Sunsail is the only company that has secured the right to be in Vietnam, and it has a great operation in Nha Trang. The boats are new and in excellent condition; by the 2008 season, the plan is to add a Leopard 40 catamaran to the fleet. The Sunsail team in Nha Trang is experienced and knowledgeable. Morgan Hayes, the base manager, invites anyone interested in chartering in Vietnam to contact him personally so that he can steer you to the best arrangements and help you plan your itinerary. He is an invaluable source of information, and we highly recommend that you contact him during your planning phase. Email [email protected]; cell phone +84 (0) 98 630 3984. Also consult the website for general Sunsail booking information about chartering in Vietnam (www.sunsail.com/yachts/destinations/south_east_asia/vietnam).
Once you are booked with Sunsail, call or email Morgan a couple of days before your charter begins, just to touch base, and to let him know what time of day to expect you-especially if you intend to do your provisioning and set sail on the first afternoon of your charter. He always carries his cell and is easy to contact.
We arranged our two days on a junk boat in Halong Bay through Pacific Experience. The boat, Halong Dream, was an elegant beauty, and there were only four of us aboard. Normally, the boat would have accommodated 20 people, but we were fortunate it was low season, and not busy. We had it all to ourselves and were thrilled with the voyage. It’s also easy to arrange this excursion while you’re in Hanoi. You’ll see signs everywhere at hotel tourist desks offering Halong Bay cruises; just be sure to see pictures of the boat and the accommodations before signing up.
For cruising sailors hoping to bring their own boats to Vietnam, presently the government only allows cruising in the 60 miles around Nha Trang. An agent is required to process your paperwork; we recommend Alan Goodman ([email protected]), who lives in Nha Trang, and can smooth the process for you. More on entering Vietnam on a cruising boat is described in Jack Van Ommen’s exclusive Cruising World web feature, Vietnam Revisited.
References on Vietnam
Andaman Sea Pilot (2007/2008 edition)-This new and impressive guidebook covers the Gulf of Thailand, Vietnam, the Malacca Straits, and Darwin to Singapore. It was written by experts from each of these regions, including Morgan Hayes, Sunsail’s Vietnam base manager, who has spent several years sailing throughout Asia. The book includes charts, GPS positions, anchorage information, and a region-by-region cruising guide. (www.andamanseapilot.com)
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain-novel by Robert Olen Butler
The Sorrow of War-memoir by Bao Ninh
The Quiet American-novel by Graham Greene
Indochine-film starring Catharine Deneuve, a love story set at the end of French colonialism in Vietnam
Platoon, Born On the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth-an Oliver Stone trilogy
Books recommended by historian, teacher, retired Army colonel, and Vietnam War veteran Al Jacobs:
Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege-Keith Nolan
Word of Honor-Nelson Demille
Fields Of Fire-James Webb
A Country Like This-James Webb
On Strategy, A Critical Analysis Of The Vietnam War-Harry Summers
The Thirteenth Valley-John Delvecchio
Bernadette Bernon is a CW editor at large and freelance writer living in Portsmouth, R.I. See her feature on sailing in Vietnam in CW’s January 2008 issue.