If I had to choose three destinations on my wish list to visit Vietnam would've been top of that list. And with huge thanks to Phillip Skyba at EXO Travel I was able to make that wish a reality. Along with my fellow "fammers" we set off to discover just what this intriguing destination had to offer.
When we arrived in Vietnam, after an 11 hour flight via Bangkok, we all felt understandably jaded, but fortunately the bustling city of Saigon was bristling with an energy that was impossible to deny. Once we'd checked into our first hotel, The Park Hyatt - a beautiful French colonial property in the centre of Saigon - we were shown around and given a delicious lunch consisting of typical Vietnamese cuisine. As I sat there lapping it up I remember thinking "if this is the taste of things to come, I'm going to love it here." Afterwards we were given a brief tour of the city, and as we drove from site to site in our tuc-tucs we were immersed into the city where almost everyone gets about on a scooter. The first thing we all noticed was just how happy and friendly everyone was. It was a genuine happiness too and given their not-so-distant historical turmoil, it was a unexpected but pleasant surprise. Later that evening, as we were driven pillion on the back of scooters to the restaurant, we were treated to what it was really like to drive through the chaotic traffic of Saigon. It was a truly exhilarating experience and more than once I just closed my eyes as my life flashed before me. But the drivers knew exactly what they were doing and despite what looks like complete madness to any Westerner, there doesn't seem to be any road rage. Everyone just gets with it. It's very liberating stuff. After a lovely dinner we were treated to another eye-popping experience as we went for cocktails at Chill Skybar. This is one of the places to go if you're in downtown Saigon; twenty odd floors up, looking down at the bright lights of Saigon this was indicative of everywhere else we'd visited so far. Everyone was super-friendly, from the other guests, to the bar staff, to the security; everyone just wanted to say hello and welcome you to their country. It was a great first day initiation.
Next morning we checked out of our hotel and after a long but rapid boat ride we arrived at Cu Chi tunnels. Anyone with the slightest curiosity of the Vietnam War (or the American War as the locals call it) needs to visit here. I found it a very emotive visit; sampling what life was like for the North Vietnamese soldiers living a lot of the time under ground in their tunnels was very a sobering experience. This was brought home when we were all allowed to fire an M16 combat rifle on the firing range. Firing these or even just hearing one being fired really instilled the noise and violence that these weapons must've reaped.
Later that afternoon we hopped on a plane to Da Nang where the Four Seasons Hotel there waited for us. Now, like many people in our industry, I've stayed at countless 5 star hotels and unfortunately, over time, you get a little indifferent to them, but with this Four Seasons Da Nang there was no chance of that happening. It has to be one of the most impressive and welcoming hotels I've had the good fortune of staying at. The villa (yes, villa!) which I shared with two of my companions backed onto the beach via a lengthy infinity pool that itself backed onto a communal living room villa we shared. Each of our sprawling private villas featured modern fixtures and fittings, outdoor shower (if you wanted it) and a four-poster bed that was to die for. After one of the best dinners I'm ever likely to have the impulse not to have a late night private pool party proved too much. Sometimes you've just got to just seize the moment and appreciate that these opportunities don't come around that often.
Next day we visited Hoi An which is a must for anyone visiting Vietnam. We saw it during the daytime which was enchanting enough but it's best seen during the evening when the countless lanterns that decorate this ancient town are lit up. That said, just strolling around Hoi An with its many colours, smells and abundance of friendly inhabitants ensures you know you are in no other place other than Vietnam. Dinner that evening was at the splendidly quirky and extravagant Intercontinental Da Nang. Sprawling down to their own beach from the hills above this is a fabulous property with lots of different accommodation and dining options along with an awesome ballroom that really has to be seen to be believed.
After the hardship of checking out of the Four Seasons we were back at Da Nang Airport to board our flight to Hanoi the capital of Vietnam. Once we'd checked into our hotel, the Sofitel Hanoi - another beautiful, classic, French colonial hotel - we were given a tour of the city. It being the capital of North Vietnam during the Vietnam/American War you can certainly see the communist influences in the city. But, as most Vietnamese resident will tell you; Vietnam might be a communist country but that's only in title. It retains a large amount independence from that ideology and in a rickshaw ride around the city this was very evident to see. Back on the scooters that evening, and with another hair-raising ride through a Vietnamese city, we arrived at a local beer garden where we were informed just how cheaply you could eat and drink if you were to properly immerse yourself and step away from the 5 star hotels. A beer here cost just 30 cents. This was well noted by me in particular for when I return as a tourist one day.
Next day we drove up to the mountains of Yen Tu where we had the luxury of staying at the M Gallery there. In keeping with everything else we'd been shown during our trip, this hotel and region were jaw-dropping. I know I wasn't the only to feel a bit emotional on seeing the beauty of our surroundings. When I opened the huge doors leading out to my bedroom balcony I was taken aback by what greeted me. The scenery was so lush and unspoilt that I was reminded, if I needed it, that I could only have been in Vietnam. And once we'd taken a cable-car up to the Pagoda high up in the mountains and filled my camera with photos, I realised that this was exactly what I wanted Vietnam to be; scenic, un-westernised and traditional. It was a true feast for the senses.
Next morning brought us another change in destination; this time we were set to embark on a 1 night cruise aboard the President Cruise ship. The ship itself was of a high standard and the cabins were modern and spacious and it was easy to forget you were actually on a ship at all. But what made the journey so special was the scenery. We had the stunning backdrop Halong Bay - a cluster of nearly 2,000 little islands of varying sizes - constantly distracting us from everything else. After a visit to the caves, where we encountered the only instance of production-line tourism whilst we'd been in Vietnam, me and half of our group visited one of the nearby island's beaches. Had it not been slightly over-subscribed by other tourists it would've been a charming little place. It was whilst we were drying off after a swim in the sea that one of my companions, Amanda, asked a group of locals that were playing football on the sand if she and I could join in. Before I knew what was happening I was running around, jostling and playing alongside my new teammates. I have to say, I've played better, but I've never played in a better setting than there. A magnificent sunset followed by a blood-red moon on that final full evening of our stay in Vietnam seemed very much in keeping with everything else that had gone before. One word that I could use to sum up the trip and Vietnam in general… Magical.
I think Vietnam will work really well for incentive groups. There is just so much to see and do and your money will go much further there than in many other destinations. We packed two weeks' worth of activities and sight-seeing into one week and that is testament to how much is on offer in Vietnam. If you're thinking of taking a group out there, don't hesitate, do it. They won't be disappointed.
I just want to thank again Phillip Skyba at EXO Travel for inviting me along, his team out in Vietnam for hosting such an awe-inspiring trip, Donna Stevens from Thai Airways for organising the flights and making sure we all got on them. And last but not least, my companions who were an amazing group of people that all bonded so well in just a week.