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Posts Tagged ‘Best of Vietnam’

Friendly Planet review: If you’re going to Vietnam, go with a group

The other day I wrote about an article in Redbook that talked about making the most out of group travel. No sooner did I post it, I read this unsolicited e-mail from Bruce Partridge about his group tour experience.

Bruce and wife traveled on Friendly Planet’s Best of Vietnam tour and opted for the Angkor Wat extension. Read on to hear why they believe they’ve been missing out by not traveling with groups more often. And as always, this e-mail is verbatim. My fingers didn’t touch a word. :)

“My wife and I usually travel on our own — in all to more than 60 different countries. So, this tour was one of the few we have ever taken with a group. It was so good, we have decided that we’ve been missing something. Tour guides were knowledgeable and pleasant; accommodation and arrangements were excellent, our fellow travelers engaging — and in the long run, a lot less hassle at less cost than if we had traveled on our own. We tell our friends — Friendly Planet is the only tour company we will even consider, and is even better than travel on our own.” – Dr. Bruce Partridge, British Columbia

Bruce, I’m delighted to hear that you’re a group travel convert. Let us know what tour you plan to book next!

Vietnam is Anthony Bourdain’s favorite place on Earth to eat

MAIN COURSE: Vietnamese elephant fish

Last week on the Travel Channel’sAnthony Bourdain No Reservations,” Tony traveled to his favorite place in the world to eat, Vietnam. Tony’s got good taste. It’s one my favorite places to go to for the food. Last year on my trip to Vietnam, I happily ate my way through the country.

Like me, Anthony had plenty of good things to say about the food in Vietnam. For starters, you can sample the amazing cuisine of this beautiful country, and not spend a fortune. Whether you choose a restaurant, a sidewalk restaurant, or a market food stall, it’s consistently delicious, aesthetically presented, and quite affordable.

I told you about the succulent five-course lunch I enjoyed at a remote Mekong Delta restaurant.The entire meal, including delicious appetizers, main course, and dessert was prepared for 19 guests on four little burners in a sliver of a kitchen that lacked most modern-day appliances. And like my other meals in Vietnam, it was not only palate pleasing, it was beautifully presented in the Vietnamese way: simple ingredients, artistic arrangement, appetizing, and delicious.

One of my favorite foods, and one of the prettiest, is the Vietnamese spring roll. These spring rolls are created with a thin, flat rice pancake filled with a variety of ingredients. They usually include perfectly cooked shrimp, which are placed in the center, fragrant fresh basil or parsley, a sliver of cucumber or another vegetable, and a fresh scallion.

The pancake is carefully rolled, with the ends tucked in, to hold the contents in place. The scallion’s green end protrudes from one end of the roll like a tail, to be eaten with the last bite of the roll. The roll is then dipped into a delicate, mildly spicy fish sauce garnished with a few paper-thin slices of chili pepper. Ordinarily, a fish sauce would make me say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Not in Vietnam. The fish sauce adds to the medley of delicate flavor, and the result is simply sumptuous.

What makes Vietnamese food even better is that it is very healthy and extremely low in fat. I came home having lost five pounds, despite eating at every opportunity. It consists of fish and meat in small quantities, plenty of vegetables, and fruit galore. And, while we here in the West love our freezers and microwave ovens, in Vietnam everything is fresh, fresh, fresh!

In the restaurants you’ll find the chef going to the market to buy herbs, spices, vegetables, and fruits two, even three times a day. Herbs that were bought early in the morning are no longer considered fresh by 11 a.m. I have no doubt that the freshness of the ingredients adds to the amazing taste of the food.

One of my favorite spots to visit whenever I travel is a local market. I love to see the types of foods consumed by the locals, and I enjoy tasting when conditions permit. In Vietnam, a visit to a local market is an amazing treat.

First, they are incredibly clean, despite the fish, poultry, and meats on display. Then there are the colorful pyramids of exotic fruits, vegetables, and herbs. They say that anything you stick in the ground in Vietnam will grow, and a visit to a local market will prove the point.

Finally, you’ll discover that you can easily taste your way through the country by visiting these markets. Just stop for a snack or a meal at the small stalls, where vendors prepare some of the most delicious treats you can imagine.

There’s so much food to savor in Vietnam, and I’m not surprised at all that Tony Bourdain selected it as his favorite country for eating. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who is interested in a true cultural experience coupled with a gourmet holiday will be delighted by a visit to Vietnam.

If you get a chance, see what Tony’s experience was like. And if you want to taste some Vietnamese food, you can always book Friendly Planet’s Taste of Vietnam or Best of Vietnam tours.

Eight-day Taste of Vietnam for $999 featured on the Examiner.com

As you probably picked up from my series of posts about my own Vietnam experience, Vietnam today draws thousands of Americans eager to fully understand the country, its people, culture, and ways of life — despite its controversial past.
But this remarkable journey has traditionally come with a high price tag, with tour prices easily exceeding $2,000. Until now. Last week, we unveiled our ultra-low-cost Taste of Vietnam vacation deal. The examiner.com picked up the press release we sent out last week with the full details. You can also read on below for more information.
The package, starting at just $999, visits two of Vietnam’s most dynamic and culturally awe-inspiring cities: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi.
The trip includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles (with JFK departures available at a surcharge of between $150 and $200, depending upon departure date); all ground transfers; all intra-Vietnam flights; six nights in superior hotel accommodations; daily buffet breakfast; and comprehensive sightseeing in each city with a local, English-speaking Vietnamese guide, including entrance fees.
Travelers can also choose from an array of discounted optional tours, such as Halong Bay, which can be done in one day or an overnight stay aboard a deluxe river boat, the Emeraude, as well as an optional extension to Bangkok, Thailand.
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There’s no doubt that Vietnam is spellbinding, and allures travelers for so many reasons. Its exotic location has shielded it from throngs of tourists and trampled habitat, fast food chains, and strip malls that often accompany those groups.
The country’s pivotal role in recent history also draws many U.S. veterans who want to return to Vietnam to find closure, see how the country has changed, find old haunts, and even rediscover old friends. There are also many Vietnamese people who settled in the U.S. in the years following the war who are longing to return for a visit, and whose children have never seen the homeland of their parents. Before now, maybe they couldn’t afford it. But now travelers can do it all for $999. That’s a deal that I’ve never seen in my 30 years of travel experience.
Among savvy travelers, Vietnam has emerged as one of Asia’s most popular new destinations. The fascination for Vietnam comes from its extraordinary beauty; simplicity of life; and warm, incredibly approachable people. The tour, conducted by English-speaking, Vietnamese licensed guides, immerses vacationers in the country’s intense beauty and rich culture, starting with Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by many locals) and ends in Hanoi.
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Vacationers get a taste of life in modern day Vietnam, with the country’s floating markets, winding canals, sweeping rice paddies, and bustling cityscapes. They also take a step back to the country’s controversial past, including a trip to Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” and the Cu Chi Tunnels that were part of the underground highway of the Viet Cong.
For travelers with more time, Friendly Planet Travel also offers a 13-day Best of Vietnam trip for the low price of $2,399, with optional extensions to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Sapa Hill Tribes.
The 13-day fully escorted tour takes vacationers from south to north — with stops in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, and Hanoi. For both vacations, on sale prices include savings of up to $800 per couple if reserved before Aug. 28.
If you’d like more information, or want to book, please visit our online booking agent, or contact us.

My journey through Vietnam (part 2)

Last week I started to tell you about my recent journey to Vietnam. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of running my own travel company is the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most beautiful and culturally rich countries. And my very first trip to Vietnam was no exception.
The snaking traffic of Saigon and the aromatic foods of the bustling outdoor markets were just the beginning of what would be an unforgettable trip through the heart of Vietnam. Our next stop was the Mekong Delta. That morning, I boarded our touring coach with our guide, Man, and the other eager travelers, and we set off on a long drive to our waiting boat.
Along the way, we passed seemingly endless rice paddies on both sides of the road. Whole families were out, weeding, tilling, and tending to the magic grain that fees this nation.
Popular author Malcolm Gladwell has written, in his best-selling book, “The Outliers: The Story of Success,” that to understand successful rice farming is to understand success. It takes a great deal of patience, precision, intelligence, and planning, to grow rice.
And while the people who live in the Mekong Delta are considered among the least prosperous in this generally poor country, the Mekong Delta dwellers themselves believe they are actually very lucky. With rice (which grows everywhere), fish and other seafood (which is pulled from the area’s many rivers, streams, and canals), and the extraordinary abundance of locally grown fruit, vegetables, herbs, and other edible plants, everyone thankfully always has enough to eat.
A small look at life along the Mekong.
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Our bus brought us right to our boat, a luxury vessel compared to the small fishing boats and houseboats we passed as we chugged along on our way to see some very special sites. Our first stop was a communal village where local villagers use some of the rice they grow to make products, such as rice cakes, for sale throughout the country.
All aboard! Our trusty crew was ready for our boat ride, one of the most memorable experiences from my entire Vietnam journey.
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These rice cakes aren’t anything like those available in the U.S., which are mostly consumed as bland diet food. Rather, these are made from freshly popped rice, mixed with honey and seasonings, and then formed into rectangular cakes. Once packaged, these sweet rice cakes are sold as treats throughout Vietnam. But more than the sweet taste, the process by which the rice is popped is what makes the treat well worth the calories for me.
The rice is threshed by hand, or sometimes (if the farmer is lucky to have one), by machine to remove the hulls. No part of the plant is wasted, as the hulls are gathered into a furnace to be used as fuel for a fire that heats a huge, wok-like pan filled with sand from the river. Once the hot sand — black from repeated heating — reaches its optimum temperature, the rice is poured in and stirred.
At first, I couldn’t imagine why the rice was being mixed with the hot, black sand, but it soon became abundantly clear. The rice begins to pop — just like popcorn — as the attendant stirs the black sand and rice over the fire. Soon, the white, fluffy rice has popped and is ready to be removed from the heat and separated from the sand.
An ingenious series of homemade filters does the job efficiently and elegantly. The first filter is made from fine chicken wire strung on the bottom of a wooden frame. The popped rice remains in the filter and the sand is sifted back into the wok. Then the popped rice is poured into a second filter made of much finer chicken wire, and the rest of the sand is removed. Now the rice is ready to be treated to the honey and other yummy flavors that make this such a popular Vietnamese sweet.

The entire process was mesmerizing and definitely hard work, as the temperature around the wok was most likely well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As we watched, we were served lovely lotus tea by the matriarch of the commune, a tiny Vietnamese grandmother. We chatted with this impressive woman who was unsure of her age, but believes she’s at least 75 years old. While we sipped our tea, her grandson minded the rice popping process. Every villager smiled patiently as we snapped pictures, even as we all jostled for the best camera angle.
That’s probably the operative thought from my trip. Everyone was smiling. It’s something you see everywhere in the Vietnam. There’s one particular rice farmer that stands out in my memory because I wish I had a more powerful camera lens to capture the large, sincere, and completely infectious smile that spread across his face as our coach passed his fields. And you can be sure that everyone aboard the coach was just as happy to smile and wave back to him.
Hello from one of the Mekong Delta children.
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My Friendly Planet journey through Vietnam (part 1)

Perhaps no country in the world hits such a psychological nerve as Vietnam. It is a notion that nearly divided our entire country 30 years ago, and yet today draws back thousands of Americans eager to fully understand the Vietnam experience — its people, culture, and ways of life.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m no stranger to the world. But despite my decades of world travel (plus the fact that we’ve been offering Vietnam as popular tour destination for years), I’d somehow never had the chance to visit Vietnam. Having just returned from 10 days of touring the country south to north, my only regret is that I didn’t make it there sooner.
In Vietnam, you won’t find any of the usual sites and sounds of typical Western countries, such as towering cathedrals, impressive monuments, colossal amphitheaters, or excavations of ancient civilizations. Rather, the fascination for Vietnam comes from its extraordinary beauty; simplicity of life; and warm, incredibly approachable people. Not that Vietnam is lacking in ancient civilizations and monuments, but the culture — like its Buddhist religion — shuns opulence in a way that we westerners might find surprising.
Life in Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city, is different from any other place in the country. On arrival, driving from the airport to the city, I was dazzled by the swarms of motorbikes that are this country’s major mode of transportation. Often, there are two, three, and even four passengers on a single bike. And they move like a river through the busy streets, flowing around anything — or anyone — that gets in the way.
As you can see, it was crowded.
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Lesson one upon arrival from Man, our sweet and helpful guide, was in crossing the street without risking life or limb. It turns out that the trick to navigating safely is to keep moving, slowly but steadily, through the traffic, and to keep looking, not in the direction of the oncoming flow of motorbikes like you might think, but in the direction of your destination. Man swore that the motorbikes would just maneuver around me, and — to my amazement — he was right.
Here’s Man, a Friendly Planet Travel tour guide, giving us a few handy tips on navigating ourselves through the streets of Saigon.
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Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called) has plenty of sites to explore, including a wonderful central market that filled with aromatic fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, clothing, shoes, and anything you might want, all at prices that might make you an instant shopaholic. There are also rows upon rows of food stalls in the market, where you can taste some of the delicacies that make Vietnamese cuisine so popular around the world.
If you’ve never tasted an authentic Vietnamese spring roll made from a paper-thin rice crepe, carefully filled and rolled up with sprigs of basil, cilantro, steamed shrimp, bean sprouts and dipped into a delicate, slightly spicy fish sauce, you’re missing an incredible treat. And without any help from sugar or addition of any kind, the pineapple, mango, mangosteen, and lychee are delicious. I couldn’t get enough of them (and I’m not known for my voracious appetite).
This woman is making the rice paper for spring rolls by hand. Delicious!
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Stay tuned, because I’ll be continuing my Vietnam tales this week!

About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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