Our advisor, Michele, was extended an invitation to travel to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam with our preferred vendor, Trails of Indochina, for two weeks this past June. The experience, thirteen days of personalized cultural experiences, was transformative. Upon her return she shared with us her itinerary and favorite parts of her travel.
Lan Ha Bay
Upon arrival we had the easiest transfers I think I’ve ever experienced. Trails of Indochina made sure someone was there, holding a signboard with my name on it- like you might see in the movies. I was able to actually hand this representative all of my visa forms, fee, passport, photo, and luggage tags before they escorted me to immigration and the process was so smooth and quick. This was huge after sixteen hours of travel! I didn’t even have to wait for my Visa- immigration processed it while I was on my way to the hotel. The hotels were absolutely beautiful, too. We stayed at the Belmond La Resident Phou Vao and were able to tour Rosewood Luang Prabang, and Sofitel Luang Prabang and the Amantaka Luang Prabang Hotel, three other local hotels. Each property in Luang Prabang has a unique and stunning architecture, designed specifically to highlight and celebrate the natural habitat. I have traveled extensively and have never seen such a delicate balance between luxury and the preservation of natural beauty. The area is simply stunning.
While in Luang Prabang we were able celebrate the 20th anniversary of the area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, cruise to the Oak Ou Caves, buddhist temples, a private Baci ceremony, a tour of the royal palace, and several amazing meals. My favorite part of my time Luang Prabang was the Baci ceremony, a traditional Lao ceremony to bring good luck and blessings to all who attend. During the ceremony, a white thread of silk or cotton is tied on the right wrist of those who are being wished well, as well as all of the guests who assemble. The thread is first knotted before tying on the first of the person to be blessed and other guests, then before the thread is tied the hand is held chest high as a mark of respect. The thread is symbolic of peace, harmony, good fortune, good health, and human warmth and community. The thread is then worn until it falls off on its own, and must never be cut. Who doesn’t want to start a trip by being blessed with wishes of good fortune? Having an event like this at the beginning of our trip brought together our entire group of travel agents from across all fifty states. It’s impossible not to bond over something as beautiful as a ceremony like this. To see such beauty in the Lao culture was a treat, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to witness the private Baci ceremony at the Belmond la Residence Phou Vao.
I loved Hanoi. Loved Hanoi. There is such a rich culture here and the way they have preserved their traditions, from Tai Chi to silk lantern making, in the midst of change over centuries, is remarkable. Our United States is such a new country, it is hard to fathom that Hanoi has existed for over 1,000 years. While in Hanoi we toured Apricot Hanoi Hotel, Hotel De l’Opera Hanoi, MGallery by Sofitel, Anantara Hoi An Resort, Four Seasons Resort the Nam Hai, and Boutique Hoi An Resort. Each property was lovely and had its own distinct flair, but I much preferred the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel and the Anantara Hoi An Resort. I stayed in both of these and found each of them lovely.
One of the most powerful things about traveling, especially with groups like Trails of Indochina, are the person to person connections one can make. We weren’t set up on some kind of scripted, Hollywood tour. We were dining, hanging out with, and learning from real citizens of the city who live in Hanoi every day. Our Tai Chi session was taught by someone who teaches several classes per day and our lantern making course was taught by the incomparable Mr. Huynh Van Trung, who was born into a traditional lantern making family. Trung inherited his valuable skills in making lanterns from his father, the well-known artisan Huynh Van Ba. Trung gave us a brief introduction to the history, shape, and color of the lanterns, as well as the stages of productions, and then we were able to take it home as a souvenir. It was amazing.
After our lantern making sessions we were able to explore Hoi An Ancient Town, wandering through the streets that once served as Faifo, a prosperous trading port that attracted Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portugese, and Spanish ships amongst others. We saw rows upon rows of old merchant houses, the famous Japanese covered bridge, first built in the 1590’s by the Japanese community to link them with the Chinese quarters across the stream, and the colorful market with stalls absolutely brimming with local specialties including silk. By evening I was starved and I think I ate my way back to my hotel. Between the food stalls and local restaurants, I must have stopped at ten different places. I ate banh mi, Fried Wonton, and sweet soup Che… and then I couldn’t move!
Lan Ha Bay and Saigon
Saigon was an experience like no other. This city is so densely populated it can at first be overwhelming, but I found it invigorating. The darker the night gets, the more vivid Saigon gets. One of the highlights of this trip was the vintage vespa food tour I took while in Saigon. A few other advisors and I opted for this particular tour and it was amazing fun- we were whisked around the city, in and out of the dense traffic, on these fantastic vintage scooters by our expert guides to all of the most authentic local restaurants. We stopped in at least ten different establishments to sample the local cuisine and chat with the locals. This was a great way to experience the local fare and flare.
The next day I was able to experience the magic of the Mekong Delta River, and the people who live along its banks. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I love food and I love to experience other cultures through their cuisines, so seeing a small home factory that makes the traditional dish of sticky rice and coconut leaves was a delight. We took a small boat along the river, stopped at a local ship building workshop, then traded our boat for bicycles and enjoyed a gorgeous ride through the local village. We ended our journey on the narrow canals of the Mekong at a local farmer’s house for lunch and a chat about the region and life on the river. I cannot stress enough how amazing it is to travel this way; having local tour guides makes a world of difference in experiencing a country in an authentic, real way.
I went, I saw, I ate. Yes, that is in fact the theme of my travel summary! I was so impressed by the food tour in Saigon that I signed up for another in Siem Reap, and I am so glad that I did. Our first night in Siem Reap I was escorted by an expert guide via tuk tuk, another type of scooter, to the old market area of the city. At first our guides were reserved, opting to sit separately from us to give us our space. By the time we were on our second stop, however, we had convinced them to join us and had the time of our lives. It felt more like a night out with old friends than a brand new experiences with strangers I had met only a week ago- or even an hour ago! After our excursion to the old market area we continued on to Road 60. This place is amazing. With over sixty busy street food stalls, this area is hugely popular with local families who come out to dine in the early evening. We sampled exotic fruits, grilled meats, and even fried insects.
Our wonderful food tour was followed up the next day by a tour of the religious sites in Siem Reap. We started at Angkor Wat, one of the modern wonders and most important religious monuments in the world, at sunrise. Here is where the truly transformative part of the journey began for me. After our sunrise visit my guide lead me to a small house near the temple to meet with Khean Prang, a gentleman born in the 1950’s in Cambodia, when the country was undergoing an exceptional strive for modernity. Prang began his career working at as a Temple conservationist, working with the French as the forefathers within UNESCO began developing the Temples for their return to the spotlight. Prang’s peaceful life and fulfilling career didn’t last; Lon Not took control and the uprising of the Khmer Rouge began in Siem Reap. Prang was drafted into the war and the Temples were taken hostage as the headquarters of Khmer Rouge. Prang spent years in the killing fields as the war ravaged his city. Prang’s is a story of love and joy. A father of eight and now a grandfather, Prang led us through his years in war and what rebuilding his life with his family was really like when he survived the killing fields. This experience with Prang has become the fabric of my time spent in Cambodia. I feel blessed to have ever had the opportunity to meet and know him. These are the unforgettable things that travel does for us; enriches our minds, expands our horizons, and strengthens our hearts as we learn to listen to others.
For more information on booking your next adventure with Trails of Indochina you can give us a call at Maupin Travel at 919-832-5550 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to working with you to plan the trip of your dreams! I hope Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are as fulfilling and transformative a destination for you should you consider going.