Visit the major sights of Vietnam and Cambodia, the very essence of Indochina, experiencing their captivating blend of French colonial history, unique local culture and beautiful rural scenery. Overwhelming image retained by visitors to Vietnam is that of a country blessed with an extraordinary beauty. It’s a mosaic of mist-shrouded mountains, vibrant green forests, a patch-work of rice paddies and pristine white beaches, whilst its villages and cities are custodians of the culture and monuments of a unique 2,000 year old civilisation.
A journey through some of the delightful countryside is like stepping back in time: farmers bent double underneath their traditional conical hats work in fields stretching into the distance, whilst docile water buffalo methodically plough the rice paddies. On the roads there are bicycles being ridden to market, over-loaded with everything from huge sacks of rice to an imponderable number of ducks! Lining the riverbanks are wooden houses, balancing precariously on stilts and thatched with palm leaves.
Vietnam has a long and chequered past: for 2,000 years it was ruled by the Chinese, the Khmers, Mongols, Portuguese and the Japanese. They all left their legacies in the temples and Pagodas, together with palaces, fortresses and innumerable other buildings in every style imaginable. It was then colonised by the French, whose contribution was cathedrals, fine mansions, neo-classical public buildings, not forgetting excellent baguettes and pastries – an eclectic mix! Many visitors also inevitably recall the US-Vietnam war – who could forget those dramatic images of the frantic helicopter flights from the roof of the US embassy?
In the past few years Vietnam has opened its doors to the world and much has changed. Today, in one of the world’s last communist countries, the motorcycles and western dress of the industrious youth happily co-exist with orange-clad Buddhist monks and political posters from a different era. Visitors are invariably impressed by the development of excellent hotels and services in all the major centres and the much-improved road network. Hanoi and Saigon still retain a French flavour in their pavement cafés, architecture and wide tree-lined boulevards. In Hue, the former imperial capital, we see the amazing Citadel and its imperial Forbidden City, modelled on Beijing. Contorted by years of erosion, we’ll also explore the staggeringly beautiful rock formations of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But Vietnam is more than just history and scenery. It also boasts a world-class gastronomic heritage: a delicious fusion of Malay, Chinese and Thai cuisines. With plenty of French-run restaurants thrown in for good measure, all at excellent prices, you really are in for a treat! The Vietnamese themselves are a wonderfully friendly people, always smiling, courteous and proud to show off their beautiful country to all.
Our tour in Cambodia includes a stay in the capital, Phnom Penh. Beautifully located at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, Phnom Penh, with its vibrant riverside ambience, is one of the ‘hidden gems’ of Asian cities. After being virtually completely depopulated during Pol Pot’s regime, the city is now full of life and thriving once more. A short flight away is the town of Siem Reap, the gateway to the incredible complex of temples within the ancient city of Angkor. At its height in the thirteenth century, Angkor had a staggering one million inhabitants, larger in area than Manhattan. It was the capital of the fabulously wealthy Khmer Empire that stretched from Thailand, through Laos and Cambodia to southern Vietnam. The incredible state of preservation, the beauty of its design and artistry of its sculptures have, for many, made Angkor one of the great wonders of the world.
Vietnam and Cambodia are countries in flux, but bicycles and mopeds still outnumber cars by 100 to 1, so now is the time to visit these most fascinating and colourful destinations, whilst so much of their unique character and traditions are still in evidence!
AT A GLANCE
Experience more with so much included
You should arrive at Dublin airport, change at Heathrow airport to take your overnight flight to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines.
ARRIVAL IN HANOI
After our morning arrival, we transfer to the five–star Melia Hotel, for three nights on bed and breakfast. This is a fabulous hotel with three restaurants, lovely pool, fitness centre and all the facilities you would expect from a major international property. We have a wonderful introduction to Hanoi on our trip into the city’s old town by cycle rickshaws with time for some lunch before returning to our hotel. The rest of the day is at leisure.
Today we explore Hanoi, past and present. The French created this gorgeous colonial city of tree lined avenues, belle epoque villas, grand public buildings and an Opera house, all built around more than a dozen enchanting lakes. This graceful scene blends beautifully with its old quarter, a tangle of narrow streets, the commercial heart of the city for hundreds of years and now full of tiny shops, pagodas and the ever-present populace astride their bicycles and mopeds.
During our guided tour we also see the beautiful Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius and Vietnam’s first university, and the imposing marble mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself, embalmed and eerily on display. This afternoon is free for you to explore this beautiful city as you wish. You could even visit a traditional water puppet show - a real spectacle where, as the name suggests, with the aid of fireworks and music, folk stories are played out by skilful puppeteers.
HALONG BAY CRUISE
Today we visit Vietnam’s greatest natural wonder, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay. Leaving Hanoi, we enter a timeless landscape of rice paddies, following the Red River delta to the emerald seas of the Gulf of Tonkin. Just offshore, some 3,000 limestone islands and outcrops rise almost vertically from the sea, forming one of the most extraordinary and spectacular bays in the world.
As we board our converted Chinese junk and glide along the jade-green waters it’s not hard to imagine how the myths of their creation began: a dragon is said to have plunged into the sea and its thrashing tail sculpted the craggy islands. We visit some of the vast and beautifully illuminated caves and grottoes before having lunch on board. We return to Hanoi late afternoon
Today we fly south to Danang and then drive over the stunning scenery of the Hai Van Pass before descending to Hue, Vietnam’s last royal capital and its traditional centre of religion, culture and education. It’s one of the country’s most beautiful small towns, bisected by the serene Perfume River and dominated by its immense Citadel. This houses the ancient capital, encircled by an amazing 6 miles of high, 65 foot-thick walls and a moat. Tonight we stay for two nights on bed and breakfast basis at the excellent five-star Imperial Hotel Hue.
HUE IMPERIAL CITY
This morning we start with a leisurely river cruise to the magnificent seven-storied Thien Mu pagoda, a working Buddhist shrine, affording beautiful views towards the mountains on the border with Laos. We then visit the incredible complex of the Citadel and within it, the Imperial City. We see the Palace of Supreme Harmony, which contained the emperor’s throne and was the site of the most important official ceremonies and functions. Everything is painted in the royal colours of red and gold and the whole building is a stunning example of the magnificent lifestyle enjoyed by the Vietnamese royal family.
In the afternoon we visit Emperor Tu Duc’s mausoleum. More interested in poetry than running the country, Tu Duc’s lifestyle suggests he had plenty of free time - he had 104 wives, 50-course meals and tea made from the dewdrops of lotus blossoms! It took 3,000 workers three years to build his amazing mausoleum, which includes a large lake, pavilions and a theatre. Lunch is included today and the evening is at leisure.
Today we fly to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still insist on calling it. Brash and boisterous, it has real zest for life. Built virtually from scratch by the French, on a bend of the wide Saigon River, we stay three nights on bed and breakfast at the excellent, five-star Equatorial Hotel. Saigon is Vietnam’s culinary capital offering a very wide variety of excellent dining experiences, from top class restaurants in swish luxury hotels to French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Indian options, plus everything in between.
CU CHI TUNNELS
This will be a day to remember! We visit the famous Cu Chi tunnels, a complex underground network stretching for 200 kilometres, which included hospitals, meeting rooms, sleeping quarters and kitchens. Begun during the last years of French rule and vastly expanded during the 1960’s, the tunnels provided a base for the Vietcong from which to attack US forces within just 30 miles of Saigon. Our visit here is a fascinating insight into these times: we see the tunnels themselves and examples of the many mantraps and stake pits which protected them. Despite being carpet-bombed, the tunnels were never really penetrated and should you wish, you may even try out real period weapons on a firing range.
We continue through rural farming communities back to Saigon. In the afternoon our city tour covers all the major sights including the colonial-style central post office, the cathedral and the Reunification Palace where famously in 1975, a tank burst through its gates in the final defining moment of the Vietnam War. We also see the War Remnants Museum and the lively Ben Thanh market a fascinating insight into Saigon daily life, you can find anything here, all at extremely good prices!
MEKONG RIVER DELTA
Today we drive out of Saigon towards the great Mekong River delta. The first stop is at one of the many islands where we walk through a typical village and try out several different types of tropical fruit that are grown in the area. Travelling in small boats we continue our exploration through the narrow canals by visiting the aptly named Coconut Island, where locals specialise in producing rice paper, coconut cakes and other local delicacies. Dappled sunlight filters through the wide leaves of the mangroves as we arrive at a typical local restaurant for lunch of local Mekong specialities, including the famous and delicious deep-fried elephant ear fish! We return to Saigon in the afternoon.
FLY TO PHNOM PENH
Our last morning in Vietnam and we have just enough time for a morning walk round Saigon centre, a coffee and a delicious pastry in one of the many cafés before taking the short flight to Phnom Penh and our hotel, the centrally-located four-star Palace Gate Hotel for two nights on bed and breakfast.
Today we’ll visit the majestic Royal Palace with its silver pagoda and the fascinating National Museum. After lunch in a local restaurant, we visit the Tuol Sleng Museum – originally a school, turned into the country’s most notorious prison by the Khmer Rouge, it now charts the terrible suffering during their occupation of the city. Finally there’s time for a stop at one of the local markets before we return to our hotel for the evening.
FLY TO SIEM REAP
We leave for the airport and our short flight to Siem Reap, staying three nights at the four-star superior Borei Angkor Resort & Spa, which has a large pool, spa and a choice of four dining outlets.
Today we see the haunting soft morning light rise over the eerie temples of Angkor. Surrounded by jungle, shrouded in mist with a tropical dawn chorus reverberating in the air, this is something you will never forget! We visit the huge fortified 13th century city of Angkor Thom, with its five monumental gates, and 300-foot wide moat - its centre containing one of Angkor's most remarkable sites, the temple of Bayon. Crowned by over fifty towers, each with four enormous carved heads looking out in every direction, this is an awe-inspiring masterpiece of Khmer art. We'll also visit the smaller temple of Ta Prohm which has been left in its natural, unrestored state, with giant tropical trees bursting through the ruins, their roots clinging like vast tentacles across the walls and roofs. After lunch at a local restaurant and late in the afternoon we see the massive temple of Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious structures in the world. The main entrance faces due west to catch the rose-red glow of the setting sun a truly magical time of day.
SIEM REAP FREE DAY
Today we have left free for you to return to the many monuments of Angkor, explore Siem Reap or relax around the attractive pool at the hotel. Alternatively, you could take an interesting tour to the nearby lake of Tonle Sap to visit a floating village (subject to season and water levels) or try your culinary skills by taking an optional half day cooking class.
At the appropriate time you will be taken to the airport for your return flight via Saigon (change of aircraft) connecting to our homeward direct flight to Heathrow.
We arrive back in Dublin in the morning after a truly unforgettable tour.