Experiencing the Not-So-Familiar Vietnam

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Water puppet shows, too, are a unique Vietnamese art form dating back 1,000 years. The performances show scenes from rural life as well as ancient myths and legends. “If there’s one thing I wanted to do when I was in Hanoi, it was the water puppet shows,” Ney says enthusiastically. “You sit in the grandstand and the puppets come up from underwater. That is a must-see and no one should go to Vietnam without seeing the puppet show.”

Day tours out of Hanoi with Brendan include a 3-hour drive out to Ha Long Bay where guests embark on a 4-hour cruise through the nearly 2,000 islands in the clear emerald waters, along with a seafood lunch served on board. But if you want to avoid the 6-hour roundtrip transfer on the day tour, Ney says, “…you can buy a three-star overnight cruise on a junk, or up to a five-star luxury vessel—you have a choice of all different types of cruises.”

Brendan can also take travelers out to the Mai Chau Valley, southwest of Hanoi in Hoa Binh province where many ethnic minorities live, including the white Thai and as they walk through the villages, travelers learn about the people, their way of life, and their traditional arts and crafts. They’ll also enjoy a typical lunch and sample some rice wine with a local family before returning.

The central part of the country, Ney says, where travelers begin in Da Nang before heading down to Saigon, is more cultural where you’ll spend at least two nights in Hoi An and Hue where they’ll see all the ancient temples, many of which go back thousands of years. Here, too, thanks to the old merchants, Ney explains, “…there’s Russian influence, there’s French influence, there’s Japanese influence—it’s a pretty amazing part of the world to visit.”

hill tribes But it’s the heart of the country and the myriad cultures of the hill country and the Mekong Delta where travelers will find the exotic experiences they’re seeking. Geographic Expeditions, which, according to product developer Sara Barbieri—is a company that tries to “…make our trips with our itineraries and their components so that they make people feel they’re really there and not just skimming the surface”—has a program called Hill Tribes of North Vietnam, offering day hikes into the remote Ha Giang Province.

“There’s a lot of hiking but it can be modified to the clients’ desires and their abilities,” Barbieri says, but it’s worth it because these are amazing areas to go. “They’re very beautiful with the rice terraces and the landscapes. When you’re up in the heights and looking down into the valley, it’s absolutely stunning.”

Barbieri warns that, “…things will be very, very simple there. The roads won’t be very good, it’s much less frequented so you will get a more authentic experience. But you do have to be willing to travel in a very simple manner because the roads, the accommodations, the kinds of food that will be available, it will all be very simple. And there is a 2-night home stay that is included. So you actually spend 48 hours living with a family and that,” she says, “can be very interesting.… We do that on several of our itineraries. The other thing you have to remember about this itinerary is that there are some very long drives. In order to get a sense of the landscape, I think it’s really important to go through it rather than just over it.… You can stop along the way and you’re much more inclined to come across real people along the way, doing real things.…”

Some of the “real things” people will experience on this 8-day journey is a visit to Phuong Do village, home to the oldest community of Tay in the area and one of the earliest known minority groups in Vietnam, having settled in these valleys in 500 B.C. Next day it’s on to Quyet Tien minority market where the Nung, White H’mong, Po Y, Dao Lanten and Tay all gather for trade, then continue over the impressive Quan Ba Pass, known as Heaven’s Gate to a White H’mong village specializing in flax weaving. Next, it’s off to Sung La, home to the LoLo people, one of Vietnam’s rarest ethnic minorities with a population of less than 4,000. Music is important to the LoLo and each family owns paired bronze drums, one considered male, and the other female, integral parts of their rituals and festivities.