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A picture is worth a thousand words: 5 photos that define Vietnam

We shared Friendly Planet Travel reservation agent Liz Hutchins’ first-hand account of her trip to Vietnam last year in a blog post, and more recently, her review of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. But Liz is also an amateur photographer, and took many pictures during her trip, so we thought it was fitting to ask Liz to share her five favorite photos of Vietnam with our blog readers. Scroll down to see her choices.

“As I was preparing for my first trip to Vietnam, and my first trip to Asia, I bought a 32-GB memory card. I was determined to take as many photos as possible to make sure I’d remember my fabulous experience, and I surpassed 1,500 images. Of course, I still wish I could have seen more, but that just gives me an excuse to revisit this beautiful and culturally astounding country. Allow me to share with you my favorite moments:

#1:


Everyone always asks me, “What’s the strangest thing you saw someone carry on a motorbike?” This picture shows just one of the 12 locals I saw transporting TVs on their bikes. I think 40 inches was the largest TV I saw, but the biggest cargo I saw being transported via motorbike was a full-size mattress! Sadly, I did not capture this. Other extreme cargo included a stack of cages with chickens, a 6-foot-tall pane of glass, and a family of four.

I really enjoyed riding on the back of a vintage Vespa myself on our Vietnamese food tour. Taking pictures while holding on for dear life was a bit difficult, and they all turned out blurry. But the one thing that I’ll remember from the ride is that my face hurt from smiling so much. It was amazing! (more…)

A traveler’s review of authentic Vietnamese cuisine

We shared a bit about Liz Hutchins’ first trip to Vietnam in a previous post, but Liz has more to share with us! Read on for her personal account of experiencing authentic Vietnamese cuisine.

“The most interesting food I encountered in Vietnam was the infamous durian fruit. I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater, and after hearing many stories about the world’s stinkiest fruit, I decided I had to try it.

I thought I’d be clever and try durian-flavored ice cream, and found it at Fanny’s Ice Cream Parlor in Ho Chi Minh. As I scanned the pristine ice cream selections, I noticed that the durian ice cream was not in the glass case in the front of the store, but in the back freezer. I became apprehensive, so instead of getting an entire serving, I asked for a sample to taste only. I was alone in my adventure, as no one else in my group had any desire to try it.

These signs should have tipped me off that I was in for an unpleasant experience. I had been warned that durian ice cream smelled like dirty gym socks or garbage, so I held my breath and just went for it. At first, it wasn’t that bad … different is the only way I can describe it. Afterwards however, oh boy! Every breath I took, every sip of water, every attempted bite of food, all I could do was relive that awful bite of ice cream. Sadly, I had to endure a night of illness and plain rice, as the dreaded durian got the best of me. I’m told that many Vietnamese people love it though, and the fruit is sold all over the country.  All I have to say is … consumer beware of this funky fruit.

I certainly did not, however, lose faith in Vietnamese cuisine after this incident. As they say, when one door closes, an open window with delicious smelling food wafts through it. Case in point was my amazing tour with food blogger, cookbook author, and restaurateur Daniel Hoyer, who owns a restaurant in Hanoi and knows all of the best places to eat in this fabulous city. (more…)

The sights and tastes of Vietnam

Known for its extraordinary beauty, charming people, and delicious food, Vietnam remains a favorite destination among travel enthusiasts. Previously, I mentioned that I invited some of our staff members to share their travel experiences on our blog in order to give our readers a snapshot of some of the most fascinating places around the world. Today Liz Hutchins, one of our reservations agents, shares her account of her trip to Vietnam:

“After months of preparation for my trip to Vietnam, I knew to expect certain things when I got there: lots of motor bikes, terrific food, and sights that I have come to know from countless movies and TV shows. What I didn’t expect was that I’d immediately fall in love with this beautiful country.

As soon as I landed, I was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless swarms of motorbikes, crowds, and food. People were either bustling about or sitting down to enjoy a delicious meal. Food stands selling Pho (a dish made of broth, rice noodles, a few herbs, and meat), broken rice, and Banh Mi sandwiches were everywhere, and I couldn’t wait to try them all!

I first tried Vietnamese food around 12 years ago, and ever since, I have been obsessed. When I had my first crispy spring roll all those years ago, who would have thought someday I would be making them in a cooking class on the Mekong Delta? Vietnam is a foodie’s paradise, and every day is an adventure! (more…)

Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of Vietnam tour in photos

Last week Sue Phillips of Solana Beach, Calif. told you the reasons why she keeps booking group tours with Friendly Planet Travel. After I published the post, Sue sent me some photos she took on Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of Vietnam tour.

Scroll down to give them a gander. And if you have photos from any of our tours that you’d like featured on the blog, e-mail me or post them on Facebook and tag Friendly Planet Travel in them.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Outdoor market in Vietnam

Sue and Reed on Halong Bay, Vietnam

Sue and Reed in the South China Sea

Restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam

Sapa minorities embroidering 

School in North Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Vietnam: The last place on Earth you’d ever associate with luxury

When you think of Vietnam, you probably remember the war overseas and civil unrest in the United States. But the truth is, the war ended in 1975 and the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam has been mended. More recently, Vietnam has become one of the most exotic destinations on Earth to experience.

That’s why JustLuxe asked me to cover it. JustLuxe is an online magazine that focuses only on the most luxurious things in life, especially those unexpected luxuries that they can reveal to their readers. And Vietnam is, for obvious reasons, the perfect fit. Its beauty and simplicity of life, juxtaposed against its emerging economy, makes it one of my favorite countries to visit.

During my last trip to the country, I got to enjoy a luxurious overnight cruise aboard the Emeraude on Halong Bay. In my guest article, “Sail the Halong Bay and Explore Vietnam on the Emeraude,” I share every detail about my stay aboard the ship. Read what my experience was like, and if you have questions about Vietnam, leave them in a comment on this post.

Thanks again JustLuxe for featuring my article!

Get another serving of the Taste of Vietnam tour with the podcast transcript

If you’re unable to listen to Charlie Clarke’s first-hand account of Friendly Planet’s Taste of Vietnam tour, grab the transcript. It’s a great resource to hold on to for anyone thinking about traveling to Vietnam.

Friendly Planet review: An in-depth look at the Taste of Vietnam tour

You might remember me writing that Vietnam is one of my favorite countries to visit. And I not only love it for its extraordinary beauty and charming people, but for its delicious food. I never thought I’d find another traveler who is as enthusiastic as me about Vietnam, until I met Charlie Clarke from Calgary, Canada.

Charlie and his partner Wayne recently returned from Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of Vietnam tour and thought it was fantastic. They departed on Sept. 22, and when they returned, Charlie sent me an e-mail detailing every part of the trip he and Wayne particularly loved. From the hotels, to the food, to the tour guides, he explained why it was such as great trip.

One of our Friendly Planet bloggers, Melissa, followed up with Charlie on the phone to get a first-hand account of his experience on the Taste of Vietnam tour. I wanted to hear exactly how Friendly Planet stacked up against his past travels, and what made his trip fantastic. Listen to the podcast if you want to know what the tour is like, start to finish, from a Friendly Planet traveler.

In the podcast, Charlie takes Melissa through Vietnam’s largest and most important cities: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi. In Ho Chi Minh City, Charlie duck-walked through the Cu Chi Tunnels, learned how to make rice paper, ate elephant ear fish, and more.

In Hanoi, his group got the chance to celebrate Vietnam’s 1,000 year anniversary on Oct. 1. They also took in a Water Puppet show, an ancient form of Vietnamese entertainment, and more. Charlie was more than impressed with Friendly Planet’s tour guides in both cities because as he says, “they give you information that you can’t find on Google.”

In addition to talking about the tour, Charlie offers advice on what to pack when traveling to Vietnam in September, how to pack lightly, and what to expect in terms of the weather. He also gives you a lesson in Vietnamese culture by sharing some gestures you should use and clothing you should wear to show respect.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more information in the podcast that’s incredibly valuable to anyone wanting to hear first hand what a Friendly Planet Travel tour to Vietnam is really like, directly from a just-returned traveler. All of us at Friendly Planet are grateful to Charlie for sharing his experiences with us, and we look forward to having him with us on tour again very soon!

Charlie in the Cu Chi Tunnels

Charlie and Wayne on Halong Bay

A spectacular view of Halong Bay

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.

Getting a Taste of Vietnam

It’s been almost a year since my visit to Vietnam. I can’t believe how fast time flies. It feels like I was just basking on the sun deck of the Emeraude, sailing in the beautiful waters of Halong Bay. Vietnam was one of those trips that I just didn’t want to end.

CRUISING: Halong Bay’s stunning emerald green waters

When I was there, I fell in love with the country’s extraordinary beauty and charming people. I’ve never before experienced a country whose people were so warm and receptive to tourists. Despite America and Vietnam’s history, the Vietnamese people hold no animosity towards us.

In fact, if you don’t speak Vietnamese, you really only have to smile to communicate with the people. After spending two weeks in the country, I wanted to make sure our Taste of Vietnam tour was giving something more than just tourism back to the country.

I set out to find opportunities for our travelers to directly give back to the locals of the towns they are visiting. So now on the Taste of Vietnam tour, we bring travelers to KOTO. It is a nonprofit restaurant and vocational training program that is changing the lives of disadvantaged youths in Vietnam. A portion of what our travelers spend there goes directly back to KOTO to continue to improve the lives of Vietnamese children.

Another place we visit, en route to Halong Bay, is a shop where travelers can buy paintings and jewelry. The profits from the shop go to a school that teaches handicapped Vietnamese to become artisans. The students then create all of the artwork in the shop our travelers visit. Everything you buy directly benefits students at the school.

Better yet, these two places are not often visited by tourists. So you get to not only give a little something back to this beautiful country, but you also get to see some places off the beaten trail.

In addition to finding these great social causes in Vietnam, I found more ways to make the eight-day Taste of Vietnam tour even better. For $1,199 you’ll also visit two of Vietnam’s most dynamic and culturally awe-inspiring cities, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi.

The price includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles, all intra-Asia flights and ground transportation, superior hotel accommodations, daily buffet breakfast, and comprehensive sightseeing in each city with a local, English-speaking Vietnamese guide.

The tour immerses travelers in the country’s rich culture, starting with Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by many locals) and ends in Hanoi. They see the country’s floating markets, winding canals, sweeping rice paddies, and bustling cityscapes.

Travelers also take a step back into the country’s history with 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.

There is also an array of discounted optional tours, including the Halong Bay overnight cruise, my personal favorite. Travelers stay aboard a deluxe river boat, the Emeraude. It’s a replica of one of the classic steamships of the colonial era of French Indochina. You feel like you’re in the movie, “Indochine,” which consequently, is played on your stay.

And if that still isn’t enough, take advantage of your already included international airfare and spend three additional nights in Bangkok, Thailand. Visit what is often called the “Venice of the East” for its network of canals (klongs), and explore Bangkok by boat.

Book our eight-day Taste of Vietnam tour for $1,199 by Feb. 24, 2010. As I said earlier, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with this amazing country and not want to leave. For complete details, visit our Web site. If you have any questions, send me an e-mail.

All aboard the Emeraude: a Vietnam trip to remember forever

This summer, I told you all about my own experiences traveling throughout Vietnam. Well, one of my favorite parts of the trip was our stay aboard the Emeraude, in the beautiful waters of Halong Bay.

Anyone who visits Vietnam will no doubt want to visit Halong Bay. This amazing bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site is dotted with thousands of limestone karsts and isles. Local legend has it that long ago, when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent dragons to help defend the land. The dragons spit out jewels and jade, which turned into the islands and islets of Halong, forming a great wall against the invaders.

Most tourists take a short cruise, half a day usually, to admire the beautiful waterway, but for those with a little more time and a flair for a romantic journey back in time, we recommend a night aboard the Emeraude, a replica, one-of-a-kind steamer from the French Indochina days.

FP_Emeraude.jpg

During the day, you cruise around one of the most gorgeous waterways in Asia. While you cruise, you can enjoy a terrific massage aboard or relax on the deck and admire the views. High tea is served in the late afternoon, and dinner aboard the cruise is excellent continental and Vietnamese cuisine.

Each of the Emeraude’s cabins exudes warmth and character with high standards of workmanship, distinguished style, and impeccable service. With its polished wooden floors and brass fixtures and fittings, the Emeraude’s charming rooms offer timeless elegance. All cabins have a picture window. Balconies and sitting areas are located outside each cabin on the walkway. Each cabin has a private bathroom stocked with toiletries. Hair dryers are available at the reception

The Emeraude’s restaurant offers delicious, freshly caught local seafood and other specialties. While taking in breathtaking views of the bay, passengers can enjoy the delicious flavors of the local cuisine.

From the sun deck, passengers can treat themselves to a soothing massage while sipping a refreshing cocktail and gazing at the rock formations reflected in the crystal clear water of the bay.

The Emeraude’s swimming deck offers passengers the opportunity to swim in the cool waters of the bay surrounded by the majestic scenery. At dawn as the sun rises, passengers can participate in T’ai Chi class while taking in the calming silence of the bay. Cooking classes are also available on board, which I can tell you from experience is a wonderful and educational time!

The decks invite sitting and enjoying the magnificent sunsets, and then, when it’s dark after dinner, guests can watch the film "Indochine" under the stars. The entire experience is very romantic and a true step back to another time. And (perhaps best of all) the cost for this wonderful experience is about $120 per person, including meals and accommodations.

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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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