When I first began planning my trip to Southeast Asia, I was going to do it all on my own; make all my own arrangements for transportation, book all my own hotels, and figure out all the best stuff to see using my good friend Google. I was going to start in Vietnam, and then spend some time in Thailand.
But, the more I tried to plan, the more stressed out I got about tackling Vietnam on my own — especially considering it would be my first time traveling solo in Southeast Asia.
It wasn't that I was afraid of Vietnam (or worried about traveling there as an American) — I was nervous about all the little details; getting on the right buses, not getting ripped off by cab drivers, finding decent hotels in all the places I wanted to visit…
Vietnam is not quite as developed as Thailand; there IS tourism infrastructure there, but it isn't quite as easy to navigate as Thailand.
In the end, I decided that the stress of going solo in Vietnam might make it hard for me to truly enjoy the experience. And so I decided to look at other options.
I've worked with Intrepid Travel in the past (in Eastern Europe, in Central America, and in the Greek Islands), and so I began browsing their offerings in Southeast Asia. This is actually where the company began operating tours 25 years ago, and so I knew whatever I found would be top-notch. Twenty-five years, after all, is a lot of time to practice and make improvements.
Originally, I was only going to visit Vietnam and Thailand. But then I stumbled upon a tour encompassing both Vietnam and Cambodia that ended in Bangkok, Thailand — “The Best of Vietnam and Cambodia.” It sounded perfect, and I told myself that NOT visiting Cambodia (and the Angkor Temples) while I was already in the area would be silly.
So I got in touch with Intrepid, and within a few weeks was booked on a tour for the first couple of weeks of my Southeast Asia trip. My stress levels instantly lowered.
The tour, it turned out, was actually TWO tours connected in the middle — one in Vietnam and one in Cambodia. And so I've decided to review them separately, since I had two different guides and two somewhat different experiences.
Vietnam Express Southbound tour
The Vietnam portion of this tour was the “Vietnam Express Southbound” trip, beginning in Hanoi and ending in Ho Chi Minh City (where I then met up with the connected Cambodia trip). Here's a look at this tour:
Before you go
Intrepid requires you to have travel insurance for the entirety of your trip. You may be covered under your regular insurance plan, but if you're not, I recommend buying coverage through World Nomads. They offer the most affordable basic travel insurance out there.
When visiting Vietnam, you likely will also need a visa. And a Vietnam visa is something you have to prepare for, by either getting it before you leave or applying to get a visa on arrival. Check out this info on getting a Vietnam visa for US citizens. It walks you through the different options for obtaining your Vietnam visa.
Where will you go?
Over the span of 10 days, we visited quite a few destinations on this tour:
- Ha Long Bay
- Hoi An
- Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
- Mekong Delta
We also had opportunities to get out of the cities on half-day trips, usually visiting markets or cycling through the countryside.
Who will you travel with?
The travelers in my group hailed from Australia, the U.S., the UK, and Chile, with ages ranging from 20 to 60+. There was a family traveling together from England, young couples from Australia, and a handful of solo travelers, too.
This is a pretty typical mix for an Intrepid group, in my experience. And, as always when traveling with Intrepid, our group was small — only 13 people.
I've never had a “bad” group on an Intrepid tour; they have all been good for the most part. But this group? This one was especially fantastic. Despite the age differences and the fact that we all came from different parts of the world, we all got along ridiculously well.
Everyone always seemed to be up for just about anything, whether it was singing karaoke on a boat in Ha Long Bay, dressing up like concubines in Hue, or going on death-defying bike tours in Hanoi. We had SO much fun, and the group definitely helped me enjoy the trip more.
Who is the guide?
Our tour leader, a tiny, high-energy local by the name of Hai, was equally as fantastic. He was a great leader in the sense that he took care of all the little details of our trip flawlessly. We were never delayed, and we were always well-informed about where we were going and what we needed to bring (like breakfast on our overnight train ride, or something to cover up with for visiting temples in Hue).
He was also incredibly knowledgable about Vietnam in general, and was almost always able to answer any questions we had.
I also never felt like he was pressuring us to book optional extras or buy things at the various tourist stops we made. He was just a happy guy that you genuinely enjoyed being around, whether you were stuck on a train for 12 hours or laughing at his antics at a local club.
It's so true that a guide can make or break a tour like this. In this instance, Hai absolutely made the trip, and I think everyone in the group would agree. We were spoiled by the fact that Hai knew so much and that he had such a fun personality. He also was very conscious about what Intrepid stands for as a tour company, which was quite refreshing.
How will you travel?
The majority of travel on this tour was done via private mini bus. This made the hours in-transit quite comfortable, and made it easy for all of us to chat and get to know one another. We also took one overnight train (from Hanoi to Hue) and one short flight (from Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh City).
I will make a note for anyone planning to book this tour in the future that the local trains in Vietnam are definitely NOT fancy. We were booked into “first class” cabins, which meant 4 beds in each room.
The train cars (and the sheets) were not particularly clean, and we may or may not have had some rodent residents in our train car… My advice is to just accept this as part of the adventure, and perhaps make sure you have a sleep sheet with you.
Where will you stay?
This trip is an Intrepid Original style of trip, which means 2/3-star tourist class accommodation. If you are traveling solo, you’ll be sharing a room with at least one other person unless you pay the single supplement fee (which I did for this trip, since it was extremely affordable).
I'm used to traveling this way — usually mid-range hotels that are not disgusting, but also not super fancy. On this tour, however, I think we were all quite impressed with the class of hotels we stayed in. None of them were huge chain hotels, but all were clean, comfortable, and usually came with free wifi. And some of them were downright beautiful, like the Phu Thinh Boutique Resort and Spa in Hoi An.
Note that accommodations on this trip also include that overnight train mentioned above, as well as one night on a boat in Ha Long Bay. The “junk boat” we slept on in the Bay was far from junky, though — it was full of character with decent-sized rooms with ensuite toilets and showers.
What will you eat?
Traveling through Vietnam, you of course will eat lots of yummy Vietnamese food! Our tour leader was really good about offering to plan group dinners for us, or giving out personal recommendations on good places to eat if we wanted to do our own thing. He also would stop at roadside stands for us to have a quick lunch of pho (noodle soup) right alongside the locals.
My favorite Vietnamese dishes included beef pho, spring rolls (especially the fresh ones), and Cao lầu (a regional specialty in Hoi An, pictured below).
What will you do?
Activities that are included in the price of this trip include:
- An overnight cruise at Ha Long Bay
- Guided tours around Hue (including to royal tombs, the Imperial Citadel, and the Thien Mu Pagoda)
- Cruise down the Perfume River in Hue
- Visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City
- A day trip to the Mekong Delta from HCMC
This trip also included tons of optional activities. Some of these included:
- Kayaking a Ha Long Bay
- Bike tours in Hanoi, Hue, and Hoi An (mostly in the countryside)
- A “royal banquet” dinner in Hue
- A cooking class in Hoi An
- A trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels from Ho Chi Minh City
- A water puppet show in HCMC
The optional activities were always just that — optional. However, our group generally signed up for anything and everything.
Despite a fairly full schedule, we still found ourselves with a decent amount of free time. Usually we would either relax, or divide up into smaller groups to do things. I went to a local market with an Aussie couple in Hue, wandered around to see the sights with a small group of people in Ho Chi Minh City (like the Reunification Palace and all the Tet decorations), and even took a night off from the group to meet up with some friends in Hoi An.
Overall, this was a really great tour. The only downsides I can think of are that it could be longer (another night in Hanoi and perhaps an extra one in Hoi An for people who want to get some things custom-tailored would be great) and the price could perhaps be raised in order to just include a lot of those “optional” activities.
Those activities add up — it would probably feel like less of a strain on the wallet if more of them were just automatically included in the price of the trip, even if that meant raising the price $100 or so.
Would I recommend it?
DEFINITELY. I loved this tour, my group, and Vietnam in general. Thanks to the mix of cities and countryside, I feel like I really got a good taste of the country. Having a local guide allowed me to understand Vietnam a lot better, and also have a lot of great local interactions that I know I probably wouldn't have had if I had been traveling solo.
Overall, it's a trip that I have very fond memories from, and one that I would recommend to anyone wanting to visit Vietnam without having to worry about any of the details.
In the end, this turned out to be the perfect introduction to Southeast Asia for me.
If you want to read more about this tour, here are some posts to check out:
- Ha Long Bay: Just as Incredible as You've Heard
- Of Kumquat Trees and Death Wishes: Cycling in Hanoi
- Exploring the Imperial City of Hue, Vietnam
- There's Something About Hoi An
- Central Vietnam By Bike: Rice Paddies and Smiles
- In Photos: Markets in Vietnam
- An American in Vietnam
- A Day in the Mekong Delta
- Celebrating Tet in Vietnam
Would you ever consider a tour like this in Vietnam?
If you'd like to book this same tour, check it out here.
*Note: I did receive a complimentary tour of Vietnam and Cambodia from Intrepid Travel. As always, though, opinions are completely my own.