Karl Cushing joined six agents in Vietnam and Laos on a Travel Indochina fam trip
If you’re looking for barometers to predict a destination’s popularity, then direct flights and new hotels are great giveaways. Where these lead, tourists will follow, and Vietnam and its Indochinese neighbours have been reaping the rewards over the past few years.
Agents who know the region are well-placed to capitalise on this growing demand, and after a nine-night fam with specialist operator Travel Indochina, the six agents I travelled with – all first-time visitors – were ready and raring to sell.
With a great range of sights from north to south, long, thin Vietnam is a fantastic touring destination, its airports in the north (Hanoi) and south (Ho Chi Minh City) inviting open-jaw flights.
Our first destination was the capital, where we stayed at the Hilton Hanoi Opera. We also toured the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’, the former central prison. Now a museum, it offers fascinating insights into the country’s troubled past.
The agents loved the guided tours of Hanoi’s old town and French Quarter, home to all manner of colour, bustle and life, but the favourite activity in the north of Vietnam proved to be an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay, where we watched a stunning sunset and an electrical storm from our Paradise Cruises ship.
With its 3,000 or so limestone outcrops, the bay, an easy three to four-hour drive from Hanoi, is a marvel of nature. Recommend an overnight sailing to truly appreciate the area’s majesty. On our trip there was lots going on: from cruising to swimming, lazing on the beach to exploring fascinating caves, plus onboard activities including a singer, disco and cooking demonstration.
From Hanoi we flew to Danang, where the sandy beach and the Fusion Maia hotel, with its inclusive spa treatments, proved popular. Nearby historic gem Hoi An was our southern highlight, the architecture and food reflecting a mix of influences from French to Chinese and Japanese. The town is renowned for its excellent tailors who can run up outfits in hours.
From Danang we flew to Luang Prabang in Laos, via Hanoi. While much of Vietnam has been transformed since my last visit in 2000, this beguiling heritage city, sitting on a headland where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers converge, seemed little changed.
Photo opportunities abound, from the early morning ‘tak bat’ ritual of monks receiving alms in the street (tip: show respect by not using flash) to busy morning markets, along with trips to the National Museum, Wat Xieng Thong and the night market.
An afternoon excursion to Kuang Si Falls, a 45-minute drive, offered a good introduction to the lush, mountainous countryside. The lower pools attract swimmers, while visitors who hike to the top are rewarded with fine views.
With just two nights in Luang Prabang the Laos leg was an all-too-brief taster but it served to highlight the contrasts with Vietnam, and demonstrate why Luang Prabang is the jewel in the Laos crown.
Hotels – Vietnam
The Hilton Hanoi Opera was an unremarkable if solid option, scoring for its location near the old town and excellent breakfasts. More impressive was the nearby Sofitel Legend Metropole, its belle époque charms a hit with the agents.
Agents loved Fusion Maia’s large, well-appointed and stylish villas with their lounge areas, sunken bath, four-poster bed and plunge pools in private gardens, while canopied loungers grace the grassy poolside area edging the enviable beach. Its USP is the two included daily spa treatments.Another hit was A La Carte Da Nang Beach Hotel, Maia’s new sister property, where we were gifted a stunning sunset from the amazing rooftop infinity pool and bar restaurant area – a destination in itself.
Hotels – Laos
The gorgeous Luang Say Residence juxtaposes colonial-era stylings with a secluded, modern pool area. The service is excellent and the 24 generous suites feature four-posters, ceiling fans, large bathrooms and terraces overlooking the manicured grounds and hills beyond.
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