This is Vietnam

As Vietnam reemerges as a top destination, three world travelers share their favorite moments and what visitors can expect during their stay
Renata Faeth and Raya Garrison

When visiting Vietnam, one steps into a kaleidoscope of color and fragrance, where glass skyscrapers juxtaposed ancient temples, city streets are swarmed by motorbikes and street vendors give way to quiet back alleys where aromas of lemongrass and ginger float through the air. This is Vietnam, where the sheer force of sensory impact is at once dazzling and bewildering. It’s a destination for the curious—the inquiring traveler longing to encounter the unexpected.

AAA’s Maple Grove branch manager and veteran traveler Kate Karger recently explored Vietnam on an eight-day journey with Avanti Destinations, a travel company offering independent discoveries in Asia, Europe andSouth America. “Vietnam was always a bucket list item for me. I was in college during the Vietnam War, old enough to be impacted by the images we saw on TV. Now, as a travel professional, I wanted to see for myself what I’ve learned from my work: that Vietnam is not only beautiful but wildly fascinating.”

She came home fortified, nourished by a great travel experience and eager to make recommendations. “First,” she says, “Allow time for a day trip on the Mekong River Delta. What an experience! It’s an easy add-on to Ho Chi Minh City, and for many visitors, a highlight of their trip. It certainly was for me.”

Along the Mekong River

As the mighty Mekong River makes its nearly 3,000-kilometer journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, it slowly swells into a vast ecosystem of rivers, swamps and islands not far from Ho Chi Minh City. The delta region teems with sampans (flat-bottomed tourist vessels), fishing boats and vibrant floating markets. These markets provide day-trippers with a glimpse of Vietnam’s thriving rural economy and centuries-old culture. Smaller wooden boats carry passengers deeper still, into a jungle of narrow channels walled by towering bamboo and tropical foliage. Here, in the silence, the simplest of sounds—the slow creak of the oars, the soft hum of birds and insects—waft over the water.

Culinary Experiences

Karger’s second recommendation is to experiment with food. “Don’t hold back. Vietnam is a delightful—if sometimes daring—epicurean adventure.” Yes, the cobra wine might be a once-and-done, but meals are complemented with treats like honey tea and tropical fruit, homemade coconut candy and a visual artistry that makes dishes almost too pretty to eat. Plates are accentuated with carved peacock cucumbers, melon dragons and carrot flowers. Pho—rice noodles and meat in a flavorful broth—is always served with a bountiful choice of condiments like garlic chili sauce, scallions, lemongrass and limes.

Take Banh Mi 25, a tiny restaurant in the capital city of Hanoi, as yet another example: The menu features the popular Vietnamese version of a submarine sandwich. “Banh mi fuses French and Asian street food. It’s an irresistibly crunchy, soft and chewy baguette filled with meat and topped with cucumber, pickled daikon and herbs. I’d eat one every day if I could,” Karger laughs. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by Vietnam’s vast cuisine options, Karger adds that a privately guided food tour can be a terrific way to discover authentic, off-the-beaten-path dining experiences.

Shopping the Markets

As a last note, Karger raves about the shopping scene. Massive indoor markets like Ho Chi Minh City’s famous Ben Thanh Market provide an authentic thrill of the hunt, and bartering for an intoxicating frenzy of possibilities is an adventure in itself. Textiles, tea sets, animal figurines and clothing are popular purchases, along with harvested fruits, flowers, spices and seafood.

Consider a Shopping Guide

Hiring a shopping guide is also worthwhile if you’re serious about finding unique souvenirs but prefer to have someone else to do the bartering. “They can take you where you want to go for what you want to buy,” says Karger. For example, in lovely Hoi An, a historic former port town outside Danang, an endless selection of tailor shops is tucked between ancient tea houses, Chinese temples and modern boutique hotels. Patrons can have suits, dresses and shoes custom made in 24 hours for a fraction of the cost in the U.S.

More to Explore

Frequent travelers and AAA members Brian and Nasrin Jewell also recently experienced Vietnam for the first time, all coordinated by AAA Minneapolis Travel Advisor Carri Loken. They visited not only Vietnam, but Thailand and Cambodia as well. Similar to Karger, Vietnam had been a dream destination of theirs for as long as they can remember. With political tensions easing up and tourism on the rise, they decided now was the time to go.

Upon arrival in Hanoi, the Jewells were instantly impressed with the lush natural landscape intertwined with layers of history and modern architecture. “It hasn’t been overrun by tourists and felt so authentic and welcoming from the moment we landed,” Nasrin says.

Their tour began in Hanoi where they visited many historic sites, including intricate ancient temples and President Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Stilt House. Motorbikes are the primary mode of transportation in Hanoi, and the Jewells quickly became accustomed to the sight and sound of them whizzing by on narrow streets of the Old Quarter, until it came time for them to travel on those same streets to their next destination. “It was definitely thrilling and something we won’t soon forget!” Brian notes.

Next they moved to the rural mountain province of Hoa Binh, just southwest of Hanoi. The green valleys were filled with rice fields and palm trees, while impressive mountain peaks lined the sky and native wildlife roamed about. Compared to the bustling city of Hanoi, it was like stepping into a whole new world. “It reminded me more of the images portrayed of Vietnam during the war. It is so beautiful and serene,” Brian says.

Immersive, Cultural Experiences

In Hoa Binh, the couple was also able to get a taste of what local life was like for the indigenous farmers in the region, and they dove even deeper into Vietnam’s culture when they experienced a traditional dance presentation. They then ventured south for an overnight cruise along the emerald blue waters of Halong Bay, a designated World Heritage site known for its thousands of rainforest-topped limestone islands. A planned stopped at the Sung Sôt (or Surprise Grotto) on Bo Hòn Island gave way to a massive grotto with gorgeous stalactites lining the high ceilings.

No matter where in Vietnam the Jewells traveled, they were greeted with the most genuine and hard-working people they have encountered in their travels. “They were very friendly and also accepting of us as Americans [which is] the opposite of what I thought would be true,” says Brian.

They rounded out the Vietnam portion of their trip in Danang, where they participated in a food tour. Although the Jewells consider themselves adventurous eaters, even they called uncle when it came to the street food trứng vịt lộn—a fertilized bird egg that is incubated for 19 to 21 days, boiled and eaten directly from the shell. Seeing unique dishes only added to the experience, though, and they enjoyed all the aromas and new flavors they were able to encounter because of the tour. As a final farewell to an incredible Vietnam experience, they dipped their toes in the crisp white-topped waves of the East Vietnam Sea along the beautiful sands of Da Nang beach.

Sounds of Home: Minnesota Orchestra Tours Vietnam

Our own Minnesota Orchestra will be touring Vietnam and South Korea this June to celebrate 25 years of repaired relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. They will have three concerts in Hanoi as well as Ho Chi Minh, the city’s first concert from a visiting major orchestra.

Smooth Sailing: Seamless Travel

All of their tours, including the scheduled stops and presentations, were seamless. While it is feasible to get around on your own, the Jewells found their guides to be incredibly helpful, friendly and knowledgeable, and they helped them experience much more of Vietnam than they would have on their own. “We became good friends with all the local guides by the time we left,” Nasrin says.

Whether you want to have a local, expert guide every step of the way or simply want help coordinating flights, Vietnam has a wealth of once-in-a-lifetime experiences just waiting for you. Reach out to your AAA Travel Advisor, and soon you’ll find yourself in an emerald glade of jungle, exploring the markets—floating or otherwise—sharing a meal and learning more about Vietnam’s beautiful culture.

Take A Cruise on the Mekong River with Amawaterways

AAA Minneapolis Travel Advisor Carri Loken recently visited Vietnam on an AmaWaterways Mekong River Cruise from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City. “Like the popular European river cruises, it’s the ‘good life’ on board—a balcony to watch the world go by, luxury amenities and self-controlled air conditioning in my stateroom to escape from heat and humidity.” Loken’s favorite excursion? The Cai Be Floating Market, an all-day discovery of everyday life in Vietnam. Her small group visited a family-owned coconut candy-making business and a small fruit plantation, found a photo-op among spectacular emerald green rice fields, and motored to a floating market on the Mekong Delta to watch locals trade fruit and local commodities. Her fondest memory? The gracious, welcoming Vietnamese people.

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