Travelling off season to Vietnam in December
Vietnam had been on my wish list for a long time but for some reason always postponed.
I was actually quite scared it could be a touristy destination, but luckily travelling to Vietnam in December turned out to be a perfect time to discover this Country without the crowds.
After my first experience as group leader in Corfù, a trip honestly far from my way of travelling, I was wishing so much Vietnam to be my next destination, and so it was.
I must say I was a bit concerned before my departure because when you travel with a group a lot depends also on your travel mates, plus I was the group leader so I was responsible for their vacation too.
Many people think that working as a group leader is just about having fun and travelling for free, but it is not entirely true. You are indeed in charge of many things, not only about the local organization of the itinerary, but most importantly about the happiness of your participants.
People choose to travel in order to relax, disconnect from their daily routine, challenge themselves, make new friends and even transform themselves.
As a group leader you are responsible for leading them to achieve, and even go beyond, their expectations.
Travelling as group leader with WeRoad
I have discovered WeRoad by chance on a Facebook ad in a moment I was living a profound personal crisis and was needing more travelling and social life.
I believe nothing comes hazardously in life.
The ad was about job opportunities as group leader for this Italian travel company that was becoming very popular on social medias. I knew exactly what this role implied since I had travelled with group tours before and always thought it was not my cup of tea.
But, at that particular moment I thought it could have represented a chance to make a change in my life so I applied and few months later I was in Milan for my training together with other hundreds of young and passionate group leaders eager to discover the world.
I immediately understood that WeRoad is a young yet smart and highly professional company turning holidays into real transformative experiences, pushing millennials to travel also on their own and beyond their comfort zone.
“Take your backpack, we will bring new friends”
is their motto that well represent their travel philosophy. It’s not unusual to read moving comments by participants who come back from a trip with a whole new purpose in their life, enthusiasts and transformed. I am aware it may sound a bit of an exaggeration but I can confirm this is what happens for real.
Travelling 13 days with a bunch of people you had never met before, living and sharing such intense experiences and emotions has the power to create close bounds that in “ordinary” life would probably require months.
In my first trip to Corfù unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to experience this, probably due also to the type of travel more concentrated on relax and beach life.
Whereas during my last trip to Vietnam in December, I have seen people open up with perfect strangers sharing their intimate life experiences, new friendships (and even more than that) blossom, people coping with a style of travelling clearly out of their comfort zone but still able to appreciate these new experiences they would have never imagined of living.
I have lived myself a transformational travel, experiencing a natural empathy with many of my travel mates with whom I’ve shared unforgettable moments.
The last day we said goodbye to each other sharing hugs, tears and smiles, aware that with some we will never meet again but still will be part of these amazing memories.
Authentic Vietnam off the beaten path
The first days of our itinerary in Vietnam in December have definitely been my favourites.
We travelled from Hanoi towards south-west to the mountainous region of Mai Chau and the Nature Reserve of Pu Luong (approx. 3 hrs 30 min by bus).
Contrary to the more popular region of Sapa, this rural area characterized by lush rice fields is still relatively off the beaten path.
However, don’t expect local ladies wearing the traditional Vietnamese dresses because here you will meet a Thai minority tribe still living in wooden stilt houses and weaving colourful silk scarves typical from Thailand.
Walking and cycling among spanning rice fields (though empty as in December rice has already been harvested), meeting the eyes of local farmers that greet you with a shy smile, will forever be one of my sweetest travel memories.
Happiness often lies in small and simple things.
Another great experience was to share the room with all my group at a traditional homestay immersed in nature where to spend nights simply playing cards or chatting about life.
We have immersed ourselves in the local culture participating to traditional dances, cheering with the local rice wine, observing the farmers at work in the rice fields, lingering our gaze and thoughts over the beauty of nature that surrounded us.
If I think about Vietnam these are undoubtedly the first images that come up to my mind.
When I first landed in Hanoi it took me an entire day to get used to the endless honking horns, streets jammed with scooters, pavements used to park scooters, sell stuff or even have your hair cut.
The same happened to me years ago when I first arrived in Porto, a city that didn’t impressed me at first sight but that I learnt to like after a road trip that took us across Portugal (read more about this trip at this link), ending to love it even more than Lisbon because we found it more authentic.
I have had the same feeling with Hanoi. It is not easy to explain because the city itself doesn’t boost any special site able to really stand out but after two days spent here I must admit that I fell in love with it because I felt all its authenticity.
7 things not to be missed in Hanoi:
1- Wander off the ancient quarter lanes watching artisans at work, the display of daily life scenes or tasting local food.
2- Walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as the lake of the “restored sword” according to a legend about a sacred sword given by the Gods to the Emperor to defeat the Ming Chinese army. After the battle a golden turtle emerged from the lake to take back the sword. The lake is a tranquil oasis amidst the hectic city life where to admire the Ngoc Son Temple and its quaint red bridge Huc.
3- Visit the Literature Temple, a complex featuring five courtyards lined with historic buildings dating back to 1070 dedicated to Confucio and his disciples. The temple was also the first university of Vietnam. For years students came here before their bachelor exam to seek good luck rubbing the head of the turtle statues. Although today it is forbidden to touch them, it is not uncommon to see groups of newly graduates who gather here to celebrate.
4- Enjoy the sun set on Ho Tay Lake (West Lake) and visit the Tran Quoc pagoda, with its 15metre tall tower. Free entrance, closes at 5pm.
5- Taste the traditional Bun Cha dish, a mouthwatering soup with rice noodles and meat balls. It was one of my best meal ever in Vietnam, I suggest you to try it at Bun Cha Dac Kim
6- Enjoy a ride by rickshaw, characteristic passenger cart pulled by a bicycle that venture into the city traffic jam while you hold your breath hoping not to die 🙂
7- Sip an aperitif at one of the many sky bars at sunset (“happy hour” with drinks half price available until 6pm!), it is more of a western experience but nice to enjoy the view over the city.
Very different was my impression of the capital city Ho Chi Minh, bigger and more chaotic, perfect for nightlife enthusiasts. I cannot say much about the city itself though since we have spent only half a day there.
Don’t miss a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, an area where the hot point of the Vietnam war took place, only 2 hour drive from the city.
The tunnels develop underground for 250 km on three levels, from 3 to 6 as deep as10 metres, featuring kitchen, bedrooms and rooms where people lived for days without seeing the daylight.
Visiting this incredible place was a super interesting experience, essential to understand a bit more about this Country and the strength of its people.
Vietnam Unesco World Heritage sites: Ninh Binh, Halong Bay, Hué, Hoi An
The Ninh Binh Province is located 100 km from Hanoi and is becoming more and more popular for the breathtaking landscapes of Tam Coc and Trang An, an area of 6.000 hectares declared as Unesco World Heritage in 2014 and considered the “Halong Bay on land” thanks to the similarity of their limestone pinnacles that here fringe the Red River delta.
It is where King Kong was filmed but today it is no longer possible to access the movie set area due to preservation reasons.
You can visit Trang An by characteristic rowing boats along three different itineraries of approximately 2 hours across gorgeous inlets surrounded by lush rice fields.
I must say it was not my favourite activity, probably because visiting Vietnam in December has the downside of being wuite wet so we got drenched by a pouring down cold rain just few minutes after departure. Also, despite being off season, I found the place a little too touristy for my taste.
I much preferred the following day at the Mau Caves, a panoramic lookout from where to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the gorge. Mind the 500 steps to reach the top !
Infos on the area: Tam Coc village features a number of hotels, hostels, homestays, restaurants and all tourist amenities however be aware that almost each bar or business shuts down at 10pm so forget about long-night parties.
Suggested restaurant: Family Restaurant simple, traditional food at fair price.
In the Ninh Binh province you can find also the Bai Dinh Pagoda, the biggest Buddhist pagoda in South-East Asia covering an area of 500 hectares!
The original pagoda is perched on a hillside and reachable by means of 300 steps, whereas the new pagoda of the same name was built 800m away in 2003 and features various temples, 500 statues depicting the Buddha disciples in meditative positions, a huge bronze 36 tons bell and a 13-storey tower from where you can enjoy spanning views on the surroundings.
Only negative point for me was to not see any monks at all! I was surprised in fact as in Thailand and Burma you bump into monks almost everywhere so I was expecting to meet some at least at this religious complex, I don’t know maybe they simply have dedicated areas but I got the feeling that Vietnam is not so religious.
Halong Bay needs no presentation being one of, if not The Must, of Vietnam.
Unesco World Heritage Site since 1994, the bay stretches for 1500 sq km and boasts more than 1600 small islands and limestone pinnacles emerging from its emerald waters.
Despite being overcrowded with tourists, the best moments to enjoy this place is definitely at sunset and sunrise while navigating by the traditional junk boats. Indeed, during the day you are offered a series of activities that honestly are nothing special. We spent 45 minute kayaking in a small inlet jammed with boats, a hike to a panoramic lookout where you could hardly see the panorama between all the cameras and selfie sticks, a visit to a cave the following morning which was nice but not exceptional.
Yet, despite all these downsides, all my group loved Halong Bay for its jaw-dropping sunset colours, a night chatting on the deck under a blanket of shining stars, the warm colours painting the bay at sunrise.
The imperial city of Hué was declared Unesco World Heritage Site for its historic monuments in1993.
Located in the central region of Vietnam, we have reached Hué by train from Hanoi on a 13-hour overnight trip to cover approximately 700 km. But you know, in Asia the train system is not the fastest you can get 🙂
Still, this was not my first time travelling by overnight train which I had previously experienced in Thailand, India and Myanmar and I must say that the one in Vietnam has probably been the best one!
We had berths reserved for 4 people, blankets, water and snack (plus the bloody air con though it was winter, argh).
However, I found it even too “westernised” and missed a bit of that folklore atmosphere I experienced in Burma or India, sleeping next to a monk, mingling with local families, waking up with curry smell in your nostrils and the unmistakable call “chai” of the indian spiced tea vendors 🙂
We arrived in Hué at 8:15 in the morning and went straight to visit
some historic monuments:
1- The Minh Mang imperial tomb: built at the beginning of the 1800s it covers an area of 44 acres and more than 40 monuments connected by footpaths fringed by lovely gardens and small lakes.
2- The Khai Dinh tomb is smaller in size but more impressive for its position on the hill side, reachable by means of 127 steps.
Built at the beginning of the 1900s with new materials such as concrete and wrought iron that the Emperor had seen in the French architecture during his trip to Europe. After a first flight of stairs there is a court with a guard army carved out of stone representing guards, mandarins, horses and elephants. The interior of the palace is in contrast with the grey of the outside, boasting beautiful colourful mosaic tiles and a bronze statue of the Emperor.
3- The Citadel is a must if you are visiting Hué. 520 hectares surrounded by 6metre tall walls host temples and palaces, reminding us of the glorious past of this town that was Capital of Vietnam in the 1800s until the beginning of the 1900s when the French conquered the Region. However, the Nguyen dynasty was kept on power during the French domination and only turned down later by the revolutionary government of Ho Chi Minh.
The Citadel structure developing on a central axis reminds the Forbidden City of Beijing. Entering the monumental gate Ngo Mon, you walk past the Supreme Harmony Palace, seat of the emperor government, the Thien Phuong pavilion housing the imperial library, the Hien Lam Temple, where the 9 urns dedicated to the Nguyen emperors are kept in the courtyard.
During the day we couldn’t miss a stop at the local market, the best place where to immerse yourself in the culture of a Country. I must say I found the markets, and Vietnam in general, very clean and neat compared to other Asian Countries I visited.
After some fruit shopping (I discovered rambutan in Borneo and always look forward to buy some wherever I found it!), we had lunch at a traditional restaurant managed by two lovely sisters Lac Thien.
Hoi An became a Unesco World Heritage Listed Site in1999, for its well-preserved commercial harbour dating back to XV-XIX century.
Today, this quaint town on the riverbanks of Thu Bon River is appreciated by international travellers for its laid-back and romantic atmosphere characterized by hundreds of colourful lanterns that adorn its lanes.
When the night falls the river reflects all the lantern lights, characteristic boats take travellers for a ride while they make a wish releasing candles on the water, street food stalls invite visitors to savour local specialities.
We spent two days in Hoi An, some of us experienced the basket coconut boat, characteristic local bamboo boats used to fish. It is said that they were invented by locals in 1880 to avoid the taxes introduced by the French government.
The tour with Hoian Basket Boat Tour lasts 2 hours and include a ride by coconut boat and a stop at a typical village with food tasting.
I took part with others from my group to a fabulous cooking class!
My passion for food is no secret, I love to taste local specialties wherever I go and participate to cookery class whenever possible.
The tour started at the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School where we met our guide who took us to the local market to collect some of the fresh ingredients. We then boarded a boat that took us in 20 minutes to the location where the actual cooking class took place.
It was a fun day and we got to know (and eat) some traditional recipes that were first explained to us by a chef before cooking them ourselves. Highly recommended!
Instagram and Vietnam, all you need to know about the Golden Bridge
Who hasn’t seen on Instagram those amazing pictures of the Golden Bridge held by the huge hands standing out of a lush green scenery? I did and always thought I wanted to go there one day.
But, when I started to organize my itinerary to Vietnam I soon realized the Golden Bridge was just another of those Instagram spots where the picture doesn’t really reflect reality.
In fact, the bridge has no history at all being built only one year ago inside the entertainment park Sun World Bana Hills, located 20 km from Da Nang city. To see the popular Golden Bridge you have to pay 750.000 dong (approx. 30 euro) that allows you to access the French Village, the Jurassic Park area, a wax museum and other indoor game rooms for families.
Despite the premises, we decided to stop here since we where travelling past by private transfer on our way to Hoi An, just to see it with our own eyes.
I honestly wasn’t impressed by the bridge that with its 150 metre length appears actually quite small in the environment where it is set. Plus, the amount of people posing for a selfie gets easily on my nerves. For sure, I wouldn’t recommend it just to take a picture!
What I liked the most about the park was actually its funicular system that take you from the entrance all across the valley up to 1400metre asl where the park develops. Riding the Guinness Record funicular 5km long with an elevation gain of 1600 metre is what made the price ticket worth for me.
So, I am not saying you shouldn’t go there, but it is important you are aware of what you should expect 😉
Best of Vietnam in December: my top 3 experiences
“Did you like it?” is the sort of question I am always asked once I return from a trip.
Not easy to reply as each trip is different and has some good and bad things about it. For sure you always take back something good to treasure.
Lately, I have been used to write down at the end of each trip the three top moments which I think will stay forever in my heart.
It can be anything from a beautiful landscape, to a flavour or a moving moment during the trip.
So now that I lead group around the world I like to ask to my participants to do the same because I find it very interesting to see how differently each one of us live the same experience.
Here are my top three experiences in Vietnam that I will never forget:
1- Cycling across the endless Mai Chau rice fields
It was my third day in Vietnam, second with my group, and finally we reached the countryside. We had already spent the afternoon walking around a rural village but it was not until I sat on that bicycle that I finally took a breath and relaxed, despite my phone was black out and I was freaking out.
No panic, I put my phone away and decided to simply enjoy the ride with no worries about pictures, videos, Instagram stories and so on.
Sometimes when we travel we have to remember to disconnect with the outside world and enjoy the moment.
2- A special sunset on Halong Bay
I honestly had no great expectations about Halong Bay since I was aware it was very touristy. The weather had been horrible especially the last two days in Ninh Binh where we got a sudden shower and freezing wind. But luckily we arrived in Halong Bay with a clear blue sky.
We followed all the activities on program before reaching the top of a lookout crammed with tourists fighting for a spot to take their perfect selfie.
Suddenly, the sun started to set on the water painting the bay with right red colours. We were speechless. Luckily we could enjoy it with more privacy minutes later from our private boat. It may sound banal, but it was one of the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen.
3- Monks chanting at the Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi
The first day I spent in Hanoi I had walked more than 10 km across the city, from the old quarter to the West Lake and Tran Quoc Pagoda. When I came back to the city at the end of our itinerary, I decided to take some of my participants with me back to this place for sunset.
We arrived just on time to enjoy a breathtaking sunset over the lake before entering the pagoda where, to our surprise, we found two monks (the first and only we met all over Vietnam!) chanting the evening prayers.
The perfect occasion to sit down, close my eyes and soak in all the beautiful memories and vibes of the past two weeks.
Sitting there, chanting the om with the monks, I realized this amazing trip was coming to an end. I felt sad but at the same time immensely grateful and at peace. Another unforgettable moment of this transformative travel to Vietnam.