Traveling in Vietnam with Intrepid Travel

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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.

Sampan boat ride in the Mekong Delta

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.

Lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam

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

If you're wondering what to pack for a trip like this, check out my Southeast Asia packing list. Must-have items (in my opinion) include light layers, comfortable sandals, and a sleep sheet.

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.

Saigon City Hall

Where will you go?

Over the span of 10 days, we visited quite a few destinations on this Vietnam tour:

Limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Ha Long Bay
Hue Imperial Citadel gate
Hue Imperial Citadel

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.

Cooking class in Hoi An
Cooking class in Hoi An

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 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.

Royal Banquet dinner in Hue, Vietnam
Our whole group dressed up in Hue

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.

Market in Hoi An, Vietnam
Market in Vietnam

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 I always take note of.

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).

Vietnam overnight train
Overnight train

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.

Phu Thinh Boutique Resort and Spa in Hoi An, Vietnam
Phu Thinh Boutique Resort and Spa

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 in Vietnam?

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.

Bowl of Pho in Vietnam
Roadside pho in Vietnam

My favorite Vietnamese dishes included beef pho, spring rolls (especially the fresh ones), and Cao lầu (a regional specialty in Hoi An, pictured below).

Cao lầu in Hoi An
Cao lầu

What will you do on this Vietnam tour?

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
Ha Long Bay Sunset
Ha Long Bay sunset

This trip also included tons of optional activities. Some of these included:

  • Kayaking at 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
Ha Long Bay kayaking
Kayaking in Ha Long Bay

The optional activities were always just that: optional. However, our group generally signed up for anything and everything.

Vietnam countryside

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.

Any downsides?

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.

Cycling in Vietnam
Bike tour in Vietnam

Would I recommend this Vietnam tour?

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.

Book this Vietnam tour for yourself!

Street scene in Hoi An, Vietnam
Street scene in Hoi An

If you want to read more about this tour, here are some posts to check out:

If you'd like to book this same tour, check it out here.

Vietnam Express Southbound tour

*Note: I did receive a complimentary tour of Vietnam and Cambodia from Intrepid Travel. As always, though, opinions are completely my own.


Would you ever consider a tour like this in Vietnam?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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70 Comments on “Traveling in Vietnam with Intrepid Travel

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  1. I am so beyond excited to do this tour solo next August.I am also going to Cambodia and Thailand (Best of Vietnam and Cambodia). How much would you recommend on bringing for expenses? What air carrier did you fly on? Would you say that there are many young adults (early 20’s) on your trip? Ill only be 20 at the time of travel. Look forward to your response!

      Hey Andrew! That’s the tour I did, too (the Best of Vietnam and Cambodia one) – it’s a good one! I believe they give you a recommended amount you should bring for spending money – that’s usually pretty accurate, and I would perhaps budget a little bit more just in case. (I mostly just took cash out of ATMs as I needed it, though.)

      I did a bigger trip in Southeast Asia, so I flew a variety of air carriers, including Turkish Airlines, Hong Kong Air, Thai Airways, and ANA. It all depends on where you’re flying from.

      And yes, Intrepid tours are usually a good mix of ages. There were a handful of people in their early 20s on my Vietnam/Cambodia trip.

    Thanks for this thorough review. I actually just did this tour last month, also as a solo female traveller, and I definitely concur with all your comments. Was an amazing trip for me and I would highly recommend it. I can’t believe all that I did in such a short period of time. If I were to organise it myself it would take a lot more planning. As well though as you mentioned I also had a great tour guide and fantastic company with my group (only 7 people) which made it that much more enjoyable.

      Great to hear that you enjoyed your trip, too! And yes, so much easier when you don’t have to do all the planning, especially when you’re traveling solo!

    The bananas…the bananas I eat in Europe and North America are soooo bland compared to nearly every variety of bananas in Southeast Asia! And you got a pic of the bananas! The ones you picture above are really delicious in oatmeal! haha

    Did you try any of the bananas on your trip to Southeast Asia?

      Yes, I had bananas a couple times! They were indeed delicious. I also loved Vietnamese coffee!

    Amanda, I actually stumbled through your blog and find it very informative with all respects and i liked it when you wrote: Our tour leader, a tiny, high-energy local by the name of Hai . Keep it up, nice blog 🙂

    Hi Amanda, I really enjoyed this blog post and note that your trip was paid for by Intrepid. You are a great saleswoman!! I am off on this trip in about 10 days and reading your posts and watching your video has helped add to the anticipation. Beautiful pictures too. Hope you don’t mind I’ve shared it on Facebook.

      I don’t mind at all if you share it! And, don’t worry – even when another company pays for a trip, I still write 100% my opinion. (If you read my review of a Cambodia trip with Intrepid, you’ll see I didn’t have all good things to say – the Vietnam trip really was just that good!)

      Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Beautiful post Amanda very descriptive and also informative. The food was also amazing my tounge is tickling to taste those foods.

    I don’t know how I stumbled on your blog but I sure am glad I did. Loved your review and will be following your blog from now on. You have inspired me into really visiting SE Asia and not just dreaming about it.

      Aww thanks so much, Yara! 🙂

    Hi Amanda,

    I’m looking at booking this very trip for feb. 2015. Great to read your report and see you had such a great time. Sounds like just what I am looking for. I’m planning to arrive for the New Year celebration as well. Did you book online with Intrepid or over the phone? Not sure if there is a difference.

    Off to Read the rest of the posts from your trip.
    Thanks,
    Pete

      Hey Pete! Glad you’re considering this trip! I really did love it, and would highly recommend it to others! It doesn’t really matter if you book online or over the phone – Intrepid will take care of you either way!

    Great review!! It’s got me really excited for our trip in January. This will be my first time to Vietnam and Cambodia and also my first Intrepid tour. Would you have any suggestions on the type of luggage would be more suitable – a suitcase or would a backpack be more appropriate??

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Keira!

      As for luggage… we had a half-and-half mix in our group. Some people had suitcases, others had backpacks. Since we mostly used private transport on this trip, it didn’t make a huge difference, to be honest. So I would say go with whatever is more comfortable for you! (If you’re going to travel on your own in the region before or after the tour, I would probably go with a backpack. But if you’re just doing the tour and that’s it, you’d be fine with a small suitcase!)

    Hello!!

    I have just discovered your blog and its really amazing! I am considering the vietnam and cambodia tour next march. I am a 25 year old solo traveller, never been travelling by myself or anywhere near vietnam.

    I think the intrepid tour looks really good, just slightly nervous as Ive never done anything like this before.
    Everyone I talk to says I should just go it alone… and ‘don’t waste money on a tour’ but I really don’t know. Did you get enough time to see everything and have your own free time. And would you say tour is better for a newbie!!

    Thank you, and again your blog is amazing!
    Emily

      Hey Emily! Listen to your gut – not what other people are telling you. Vietnam and Cambodia are not as easy for a first-time traveler as, say, Thailand might be. But even then you might feel more comfortable in a group, with someone else worrying about all the details for you.

      This tour was really great – I didn’t feel like we moved around too fast, and I definitely had enough free time to do/see all the things I wanted to.

      You just have to ask yourself if you would be comfortable enough traveling solo for the first time to a part of the world you’ve never been. For some people, this is no problem! For others, it sounds a bit daunting. If you’re in the latter group, I would definitely suggest looking into a small group tour. No sense stressing yourself out just because someone else is telling you a tour would be a “waste.”

        Thank you for your response. I think id be happier going in a group..m as you say it takes the stress away!!!! I am.now following your blog and can’t wait to read what else you get upto 🙂

          Do whatever will make you the most comfortable. After all, it’s YOUR money that you’re spending! 🙂

    Thank you, Amanda for such a thorough review. I’m on my way to join this Intrepid tour today and would not have had the courage to take part in it if it wasn’t for you!

      That’s so great to hear, Kat! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    […] the people of Vietnam really made an impression on me. I traveled around the country in a small group with a local guide. We met a few of his friends along the way, and he always went out of his way to make sure that we […]

    Hi Amanda,

    Thanks so much for your detailed review. I am looking at this tour through Intrepid. I wanted to make sure the tour allows for downtime/solo time too, so excited about it.

    Your blog post has convinced me to seriously consider this tour.

    THanks and happy travels!

      There are quite a few optional activities on this tour. If you choose to do them all, then that takes up a bit of your free time. However, it didn’t bother me much. It depends on your group, I guess – my group was always up for anything! We still had plenty of free time to explore most of the cities on our own, too, though.

    We were exactly the same when we went to Turkey, wanting to do it by ourself but then we thought it would be easier with Intrepid- plus it gave us opportunities we couldn’t do on our own.

    Vietnam is very high on my travel list, and your video proved its place there!

    http://www.house-in-tillford.com/

      In some places, I think you really are better able to have unique experiences if you have a local guide. I definitely felt that way in Vietnam!

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