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With its turbulent history, rich array of cultures, astonishing natural beauty and world-renowned cuisine, Vietnam is a destination worth dedicating time to. Seeking an experience that would go beyond surface level, I discovered the Lonely Planet Experiences tour of Vietnam powered by Intrepid Travel.

This immersive 15-day tour traces Vietnam’s eastern coastline from south to north by train, bus and boat — with hikes and bike rides along the way. Led by an expert team leader and with the collaboration of local guides and communities, we explored the many facets of daily life in Vietnam, with ample downtime to relax and explore. Here are some of the most memorable moments from my intrepid trip.

Scooters and cars clog a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City
It takes nerves of steel to navigate the streets of Ho Chi Minh City as a pedestrian © David Bokuchava / Shutterstock

Cruising the Mekong Delta

I met my group in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, a buzzing metropolis where just crossing the road is an exhilarating adventure (top tip: walk at a steady pace, don’t stop, let them drive around you). While we had time to sightsee on day three — I paid a visit to the moving War Remnants Museum and the imposing Reunification Palace — our real adventure began on day two in Ben Tre, a province of the Mekong Delta.

Aerial view of a small blue boat heading downstream at a coconut plantation in the Mekong Delta.
Exploring the local area via boat along the Mekong Delta © cuongvnd / Getty Images

Guided by a Ben Tre local, we cruised the palm-lined canals by boat, paying visits to local businesses like a coconut candy producer that husks a colossal 20,000 coconuts a day. Lunch on the banks of the Delta was a highlight — we enjoyed the Mekong specialty elephant ear fish, served whole and crispy with fresh salads on the side. We then settled into our homestay for the night — a local guesthouse — where we received a warm welcome and more delicious Vietnamese cuisine prepared by our hosts.


The city-dwellers among us particularly appreciated the chance to unplug for the night in such a tranquil setting.

Main street in old quarter of Hoi An, Vietnam
The beautiful architecture in the old quarter of Hoi An is perfect for a walking tour © Boris-B / Shutterstock

Exploring Hoi An and surrounds

Hoi An’s reputation precedes it — from the stunning World Heritage-listed architecture to the abundance of quality tailors. So I was glad to have a full three days in Hoi An up my sleeve, with lots of free time to wander. Here, our group leader took us on a fascinating walking tour of the old town, visiting landmarks such as the vibrant Quan Cong Temple and the historic Japanese Bridge. We also had the chance to explore Hoi An’s surrounding countryside on wheels, with a refreshing bike tour that took us past peaceful rice paddies and streams.

A young woman is selling colourful lanterns at a market in Hoi An
The night markets are full of colourful delights in Hoi An © Thanachet Maviang / Shutterstock

The city assumes an air of romance after sundown, when its laneways and riverside promenades are illuminated by swathes of vibrant paper lanterns. It’s the perfect time of day to peruse the night markets or check out one of Hoi An’s many bars and restaurants — some of my favourite spots included Market Bar and Hill Station. Like most of my travel companions, I also took full advantage of our extended stay to visit one of Hoi An’s famous tailors (our guide recommended Yaly Couture) and have some quality pieces whipped up.

Hiking in Da Bac

Our second homestay experience on the trip didn’t disappoint — this time in Sung Village, located in the verdant Da Bac district of the Hoa Binh Province, a few hours west of Hanoi. The village is home to around 70 Dao Tien tribe families, whose main source of livelihood is farming, in particular Shan green tea, grown in plantations staggered down the mountainside.

Green hills and valleys in Hoa Binh province, Vietnam
The beautiful countryside in Hoa Binh Province provides incredible hiking opportunities © iStock / Getty Images Plus

Our first hike was more of a warm up — a two-kilometre walk to visit the majestic Sung Cave and a 100-year old tea plantation. That evening, we enjoyed a generous spread of dishes made from seasonal produce. I appreciated this fuel the next morning on our second, longer trek — this time a ten-kilometre walk from Sung village to Da Bia, through local villages and past breathtaking mountain vistas.

Kicking back on Cat Ba Island

If you’re a water baby like me, then two full days on Cat Ba Island may just sound like paradise. Nestled in Lan Ha Bay in the greater Halong Bay area, the jungle-clad island boasts white sand coves and lush national park area ready to explore.

An aerial view of boats moored in Halong Bay, Vietnam
Finding a more relaxing spot than Halong Bay is difficult © Alex Stoen / Getty Images

Most of our time on the island is free, with a relaxed boat cruise including lunch, followed by a fun kayaking session, on our second day. For those of us who didn’t set up camp on the beach with a good read (guilty), some members of the group embarked on a short yet steep hike up to Cannon Fort, which on a clear day offers panoramic views over the karst-scattered bay.

Busy motorbike traffic in the Old Quarter in Hanoi
The bustling old quarter in Hanoi © DrimaFilm / Shutterstock

A taste of local life in Hanoi

We wrapped up our tour in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, where French Colonial architecture sits in contrast with grand, Buddhist pagodas — layers of architectural influences speaking to centuries of foreign occupation.

Here, we explored the city’s bustling Old Quarter with a local guide, which is still going strong after over 1000 years of trade. With a handful of free nights in Hanoi, I jumped at the chance to visit some recommended dining spots with fellow foodies in the group. Top of our list was Cafe Giang, to sip on a sweet egg coffee, Pho Thin, for their fragrant pho soup, Banh Mi Hoi An, to grab a crunchy filled baguette to go, and Cha Ca Thang Long, to share a simmering hot pot of turmeric fish, fresh herbs, peanuts and rice noodles.

Taking advice from our group leader, the early birds amongst us also went for a sunrise walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s when you’ll catch energetic locals in their element, with everything from Tai Chi to ballroom dancing and yoga taking place by the water’s edge.

Lonely Planet Experiences, in partnership with Intrepid Travel & Urban Adventures, are a new range of mutli-day, day and half-day tours offering amazing experiences in the world’s best-loved destinations. 

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