Wednesday, May 16, 2012

“A memorable first visit to Viet Nam”

As their name suggests, ATA is at their best doing active travel; take advantage of it to get away from the crowds and experience Vietnam in a more direct and authentic way.

We arranged a private, two week, multi-tour package in Vietnam with ActiveTravel Asia (ATA) in October 2011. ATA staff, especially Sunny, worked with us to put together a customized itinerary that met our needs and interests. The result was a remarkable and challenging vacation of dramatic landscapes, intense cultural exposure, physical activity, great food, and beautiful people. Our trip had three major components: a 5D/4N sea kayaking tour of Ha Long Bay (including Cat Ba Island), a 3D/2N trek with homestays in the Sa Pa area, and a 2D/1N bicycling tour with homestay in the Mekong Delta
. Between tours we spent time exploring Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and took day trips to Trang An (ATA) and Cu Chi (not ATA). ATA provided different guides (with the appropriate knowledge and skills) for each area we visited, skilled drivers, all accommodations (junk, hotels, homestays, bamboo hut), train travel between Hanoi and Lao Cai, and air travel from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. While the trip did not precisely follow all details of the 6 page itinerary, ATA delivered on what was promised. Our experience was well worth the cost of the trip. We would recommend ATA to friends and would use them again.

Ha Long Bay richly deserves its reputation for natural beauty, but we wanted to see it by kayak and away from hordes of tourists on big tour boats. We initially selected ATA because they could give us full day kayaking, with guide and support boat, rather than the hour paddling among the tour junks that most other operators seemed to be offering. We did see Ha Long Bay from the deck of a junk, shared with only two other couples. (The seafood prepared on board was delightful.) But we also were able to spend most of two days kayaking among the karsts and through the sea caves with few, if any, other visitors in sight. We also spent a day hiking through the jungle over the rocky spine(s) of Cat Ba Island. When we had some down time on our final day on Cat Ba, our guide Hue arranged for a last minute motor bike tour of the island, including the Hospital Cave, a hospital built into a cave during the American War. Out guide Hue was with us for the entire Hanoi/Ha Long Bay portion of the tour and was excellent. Also deserving our praise were Hiam, the local guide who joined us on Cat Ba, our most excellent driver who navigated the chaotic streets and highways of Hanoi and the Red River Delta, and the crews of the junk “Jewel of the Bay” and our kayaking support boats.

Our experience of Sapa differed, in a good way I think, from that of other travelers we spoke with. We chose to spend two nights in the hill country instead of only one, and, when Sunny asked us how many hours of backpacking we were up for in a day, we told her 6 to 8. As a result, we did a lot of hill walking, saw almost no other tourists outside Sa Pa town, and were not pestered by street sellers once we left Sa Pa town. The local people we met were going about their own lives in the misty green hills. The homestays were remarkable, especially watching the guides and residents preparing delicious, multi-course meals over an open, bamboo fueled fire, with a single pan. At one homestay we pampered ourselves with a soak in a Red Zao herbal bath in a wooden soaking tub with greenery freshly gathered from the surrounding forest and steeped in a large cauldron over an open fire. Then there were the after-dinner toasts of home distilled-rice liquor (“happy water”) shared with guides and host. In addition to our young and enthusiastic guide, Huy, we were accompanied by a trainee guide and a cook/porter, Pho. Pho was a local from the Black Hmong community and the picture of calm serenity, leading the way over muddy hillsides in cheap plastic sandals while we slipped and skidded about in our hiking boots.

The Mekong Delta is ideal for bicycling as it is largely flat and interlaced with paths just wide enough to meet and pass a bicycle or motor bike. ATA provided solid Trek bikes, a driver and van to and from Saigon, boat transit between biking legs of the route, and a homestay in the delta. The route was well chosen. The food, whether cooked and served on a river boat or at an open air riverside restaurant, was excellent. Our guide, Ahn, was a delight – knowledgeable and helpful without pushing or hovering.

If you go, be prepared to rough it, especially in the hill country. (The plumbing there, where there is plumbing, is fascinating, but not what Westerners are accustomed to). Unless you travel very light (one modest backpack) clarify what you will need to carry yourself for each leg of your tour and how you can stow the remainder. ATA can accommodate you but you have to ask.

ATA is a Vietnamese company; that is one of its strengths, but unless you speak Vietnamese expect the occasional language/cultural confusion. Just roll with it and remain flexible and polite. The ATA folks we worked with were extremely conscientious and reliable.

Visited October 2011

Recommended tour:

Sapa Trekking & Homestay


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