Journeys Within was honored to work with Fred A., who traveled with us in 2018 to revisit some of the sites he was deployed to during his time with the U.S. Army in Vietnam back in 1970-71. Scroll down for the itinerary we crafted for Fred and his wife Natalie.
While on his trip, Fred wrote a travelogue “Back FROM The World” featuring blog posts, photos (including those used here) and insights from his return. Read more here…
We also had a chance to ask Fred a couple of questions after his return…
Journeys Within: You write that “Vietnam is where I grew up…” in one of your posts where you talk about the reasons for returning to the country 47 years later. For how long did you want to make a trip back to Vietnam? And what did you hope to get out of the trip?
Fred: Like so many others, I put Vietnam in the rearview mirror when I returned home from my tour in 1971. But in the last couple of years, not sure why, Vietnam was suddenly on my mind like an itch that needed to be scratched.
When my wife and I started planning the trip, our objectives were fairly simple: to see the many parts of Vietnam that I didn’t know from the war—particularly, for example, Hanoi. And I also had as a priority to “put boots on the ground” where I had been stationed during the war; The sprawling base camp and airstrip of the 23rd infantry Americal Division in Chu Lai, just south of DaNang.
I was a lucky participant in the war, having not been wounded—or worse. But serving in Vietnam was very much a coming of age experience when I was 20. My wife lived through that period with me then. Being in country with her this time reawakened powerful emotional feelings.
JW: You traveled pretty much the length of the country on your trip. What area(s) were you most excited to see and why?
Fred: Looking back it’s hard to say what blew me away more, the stunning scenery in the rural north and central Vietnam, or the majestically modern face of today’s Saigon. I knew Vietnam was fast developing and modernizing and I was very curious to see the country in its modernity. I guess if I went back, however, I’d want to spend more time in the highlands and countryside. I remembered how lush and beautiful the rural areas were and how much I was infatuated by the beaches and the sea. I was really excited to revisit that side of Vietnam for sure.
The pastoral beauty that I recall from my army days—including the fabulous seascapes—really got me off.
JW: What surprised you most about Vietnam today?
Fred: There were surprises everywhere I turned. I think the diversity of the land and the people—even the regionality of the food—was the most surprising. I had originally seen only a small snippet of the country when I was first there. I was really impressed by the differences in terrain, people, customs, and even language as we traveled from north to south.
JW: What advice would you have to other Vietnam War veterans thinking about planning a return trip?
Fred: First and foremost: go now while you can still appreciate it. We’re not getting any younger. I wish I had gone back sooner. I’m glad I finally did it.
And second: go with someone, or more than just one—family or friend—who will appreciate what Vietnam means to you (even if you are not exactly sure yourself, as was true for me).
Day 1 Hanoi: Fast Track Service on Arrival
Welcome to Vietnam! On arrival you will be met in immigration for your fast-track arrival service. Look for the person with our welcome sign for you. Hand over your photo, visa letter and passport to the person meeting you. You will then be invited to sign the visa form already completed on your behalf before receiving the visa label in your passport. Collect your luggage and clear customs.
Arrive at Noi Bai airport where you will be met by your guide and driven the 1 hour journey to Hanoi.
Day 2 Hanoi: Full Day City Tour
Hanoi, originally named Thang Long or “City of the Ascending Dragon,” was the first capital of Vietnam in A.D. 1010. Situated in the center of Northern Vietnam, Hanoi ranks in the top 20 biggest cities of the world. Among Hanoi’s sightseeing highlights is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, where you can see ‘Uncle Ho’ laid out to rest. Ho Chi Minh was the founder and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Highlights also include the National Art Museum or Fine Art Museum; the Hoa Lo Prison; central Hoan Kiem Lake where Hanoians enjoy their early mornings with Tai Chi and “Vietnamese style” aerobics in the peaceful atmosphere; the Old Quarter where streets are named after the trades practiced here since the 15th century; the Hanoi Hilton museum where John McCain and other prisoners were held during the war; the Ethnology museum; and the Temple of Literature which serves as an excellent example of Vietnamese architecture. Hanoi is Vietnam’s cultural center, and the galleries, puppetry, music, and dance performances are worth staying at least a few days to take in. This morning start by discussing options with your guide what you would like to do and see today. Your guide will be with you all day so discuss what suits you and then have fun!
Day 3 Hanoi: Afternoon Market and Street Food Tour
This afternoon you will be met by a celebrated chef at your hotel at 3pm. Today you will get a chance to experience Hanoi in a truly unique way – by eating local food in the most local of places. Most of the areas visited will be outside of the main tourist areas. First, you will head to a local market where you will learn about and taste some of the ingredients used in the local cuisine and see how locals engage in their routine of price negotiating. The chef will introduce you to some of the vendors and explain the uses of the food being sold. If you are interested in purchasing anything at the market, the chef will assist you in your negotiations. After your haggling, relax and enjoy a Vietnamese Ca Phe (coffee) or Tra (tea) with the locals at one of the chef’s favorite sidewalk cafes in the historic French Quarter. Here the chef will give an overview of the Hanoi food scene and discuss the daily life and culture of Vietnam from an expat’s perspective. Lunch will follow with the chef at one of Hanoi’s Bun Cha establishments to enjoy traditional grilled pork and rice vermicelli noodles with fresh herbs, greens, and crispy spring rolls (Nem Ran) like true Hanoians. After dinner you will be transferred back to your hotel.
Day 4 Halong Bay: Dragon Legend Cruise (Day 1 of 2)
Your guide will meet you at your hotel at 8 am. Today, you leave bustling Hanoi behind on your private transfer to your cruise connection point. Your journey will take around 3.5 hours by road and along the way our team will advise you of the best places to stop for a comfort break and photo opportunities depending on your timing.
Arrive at Halong City by midday where you will transfer to the pier to board your junk. Enjoy a welcome drink before enjoying your set menu lunch, while cruising through the magnificent Bai Tu Long Bay (the peaceful northern part of Halong Bay, commonly overlooked by most visitors). After lunch you will arrive at the Vung Dang – Cong Dam area to enjoy swimming or kayaking in and around the Karst Mountains. Refresh yourself in the outdoor or indoor mineral seawater pool, the fitness room or with the boat’s spa and massage services (own expense), before enjoying a delicious a la carte dinner in the open air. After dinner you can continue to enjoy on the deck or choose to join in with the evening’s activities of a movie screening or squid fishing from the boat. After dinner you can continue to enjoy on the deck or choose to join in with the evening’s activities of a movie screening, or squid fishing from the boat.
Day 5 Halong Bay: Dragon Legend Cruise (Day 2 of 2)
Begin the day with morning Tai Chi exercises and an opportunity to view the sunrise over the bay. At 7am relax over morning coffee and breakfast. Cruise the turquoise waters to the Con Do area to explore the well-hidden Thien Can Son Cave. Just after 10am check out of your cabin and enjoy a buffet brunch while the crew navigates the boat back to harbor.
Your guide will meet you as you disembark and will transfer you to Yen Duc village.
Your driver will be waiting to welcome you as you disembark your cruise. Your guide will discuss the next few days with you as you make the 1.5 hour private road transfer together to Yen Duc Village. Whenever possible, our team loves to indulge in the slower pace, beautiful surroundings and activities this beautiful area has to offer.
On arrival at Viet House, your home away from home for tonight, settle in and enjoy a light lunch and some rest. Set out with your guide and family hosts to explore the area by bicycle, on foot, or by electric car, depending on your preference for today. Get to know the local community, it’s ancient homes, the communal house and perhaps join in with local people having fun and going about their evening routines. Return for dinner and evening with your local family hosts.
Day 6 Yen Duc to Noi Bai Airport
This morning relax over breakfast before your morning adventure. Local markets are the heart of the community and so you will start at the village market and continue to visit a dragon fruit farmer’s traditional home and orchard (seasonal). Have a go at mud-fishing, planting local vegetables and harvesting produce for your lunch. On the way back to Viet House stop by and learn broom making with some of the locals.
Freshen up and join in with preparing and eating lunch with your hosts.
Say goodbye to your hosts as you prepare for your 2.5 hour private road transfer to Noi Bai Airport for your connecting flight.
Arrive in Dong Hoi where you will be met at the airport and transferred to your hotel in Phong Nha around 1 hour away by road.
Day 7 Phong Nha: Full Day on Motorbike through Villages with Phong Nha “Wet” Cave
You will be met at your hotel in Phong Nha between 8am and 8:30am to transfer to the starting point for briefing and to review the rules on village roads.
Together by motorbike, follow along Son River to reach to Bong Lai village. Here you will have the opportunity to join in local farming activities in the rice paddies or peanut fields or learn how Vietnamese style popcorn is made. Stop at Gia Hung village, where there is a local rice wine shop which is known as the best in the area. Learn how to make rice wine and enjoy a taste if you wish. Leaving the village, you will take a local ferry to reach to the other side of Son River.
From here, continue along the unpaved road paths. After some uphill route, descend into Bong Lai valley where you will see the Bong Lai River. Visit a veteran at his local farm and gain an insight into daily farming life. Cross the river and stop at the Pub with cold beer. Take your cold beer, or soft drink, and enjoy the view from the hill in the fresh air. Lunch will either be roasted chicken and vegetable and peanut sauce at the “Pub with cold beer”, or “pork cooked in bamboo tree” at the Wild Boar Farm. At the Wild Boar Farm you will be welcomed and experience the farm with the local couple who own the farm. Enjoy some free time until it is time return to town via off the beaten path tracks, crossing many beautiful rice fields (Jan-Aug).
Arrive at the boat pier to board your private motorboat at around 2:30pm. Your motorboat transfer connection will bring you to the Phong Nha cave known as the longest wet cave in the world. When you reach to the cave mouth then the engine will be switched off and the boat roof will be opened up to enable you to fully experience the sights around you. The boat driver(s) will switch over to rowing to minimize noise. At a convenient point you will disembark for a short walk within the cave itself. Magnificent stalagmites and stalactites formations are found here. During the Vietnam War, this is one of the caves used as a military hospital.
Return back to your hotel for the evening.
Note: Helmets will be provided and you will be a passenger on your motorbike with your own personal driver.
Day 8 Phong Nha to Hue: Private Transfer and DMZ
Your guide and driver will meet you at 8am in the reception of your hotel in Phong Nha for your road trip this morning on to Hue. You will have the opportunity for stops along the way for photographs, historical insights and to stretch your legs. Highlights along the way you may wish to consider include the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the DMZ, the MacNamara line with its abandoned tank, Quang Tri Citadel, the Long Hung and La Vang churches. Your guide will discuss your personalized journey with you in advance. As a rough estimate you will arrive around 1:30-2pm in Hue in time for lunch allowing for 2 stops along the way from Phong Nha.
Day 9 Hue: Countryside Motorbike, Citadel & Tombs
Your guide will meet you at your hotel at 8am. Hue is a historical location with strong cultural ties to its heritage and former dynastic rulers. Relax as you sit behind your trusted driver on a motorbike for a journey where you will gain insight into both past and present cultural traditions. Chat with the locals you encounter on your journey – families making conical hats, sellers in the local markets, fishermen on the rivers, rice farmers and villagers tending their local gardens and family temples. Take a moment at the Thanh Toan wooden bridge, built in 1786. Continue by motorbike to Thuy Xuan to enjoy a vegetarian lunch around 1pm or 1:30pm cooked by the resident Buddhist nuns. You will be able to hear the same Buddhist nuns chanting at 2pm. On the return journey you have the option to either travel by a combination of boat and motorbike, or travel by motorbike for the full distance to take in the rural countryside. If you wish, you can stop to see the nearby Crying Elephant Temple where elephants were worshipped, and the Ho Quyen Arena where tigers and elephants once fought, gladiator style, to the death for the entertainment of royals, one or two tombs, Thien Mu Pagoda, the Citadel. Our guides are experts, and they will discuss the plan for today in advance with you so that you get the very best experience. Expect to be back to your hotel between 3pm and 4pm, depending on how your exploration goes today. Helmets will be provided.
Day 10 Hue to Hoi An Private Transfer with Guide and Wander the Ancient Town
Your guide will accompany you on your 3.5 hour, private road transfer to your next destination. The route will take you along the spectacular central coastline and the edges of the Annamite Mountain Range to where it finally meets the sea. During the drive, your guide will also run through the next phase of your itinerary.
Please note: If you transfer through the Hai Van area after 5pm, your driver will take the Hai Van Tunnel rather than the scenic Hai Van Pass for safety, as we do not recommend driving over the steep and twisting pass at night.
Your guide will meet you at your hotel and together you will head out on a walking tour of Hoi An for a few hours. Visit the Ancient Town, which is home to the beautiful Chua Cau, (roofed bridge), as well as Hoi Quan, the ancient meeting places, some ancestral family homes and some of the lovely hidden pagodas. Time permitting, you have the option to head outside the Ancient Town and learn more about the Hoi An of today. In the spirit of tradition, you’ll also have the chance to enjoy the famous cuisine of Central Vietnam in a local restaurant in the old part of town. You have up to 4 hours to explore with your guide today.
Day 11 Hoi An: Chu Lai and My Lai
Early morning you will set off from Hoi An towards Quang Ngai. The 3.5 hour journey takes you through stunning rice fields and past local villages, making you feel like you truly are in the heart of Vietnam.
Stop off at the former US base at Chu Lai, although now there is little evidence of the actual base apart from the old airport. Chu Lai was an important base for the American army, navy and air force during the war, and one which was heavily bombed by the North Vietnamese towards the end of the war. Almost all of the structures, and certainly all of the debris, have now been cleared away. All that remains is a landscape of bomb craters and airstrips, although in the far distance you can still make out some old airplane hangars to the east of the airstrip.
Continue on to Quang Ngai, where you will visit the Monument to the My Lai Massacre (16 March 1968). American troops set out on a mission to capture Viet Cong believed to be hiding in the local villages. Sadly, events escalated and depending on written sources, between 347 and 504 civilian people from the local villages were killed in the operation. Have lunch at a local restaurant before returning to Hoi An and your hotel, arriving back around 5pm.
Day 12 Danang: Day at Leisure
Have a free day to explore on your own.
Day 13 Danang to Saigon: Local Street Foodie Walking Adventure
Your guide will meet you at your hotel for your private transfer (up to 30 minutes) to the airport in Danang and will ensure that you arrive in time for your onward flight.
Arrive in Saigon where you will be met at the airport and transferred to your hotel.
Your guide is looking forward to taking you on a half day walking discovery of downtown Saigon and surrounding districts. On foot is a wonderful way to really get to experience all on offer. Meet and chat to local people, try special local cuisine at the different locations you stop by and learn about daily life. Our guides are the experts, and they will discuss the plan for the time with you in advance so that you get the very best experience designed just for you.
Day 14 Saigon: All Day City
Our guides are the experts so we leave you in their capable hands to discuss and decide what you want to see and do with your day. There are some great markets if you are in the mood to shop or you can visit some of the museums like the History Museum, or some pagodas, like Thien Hau Lady Goddess Pagoda and Jade Emperor Pagoda. If you are interested in the history of the Vietnam War, then we recommend that you take the time to visit the Reunification Palace, and the War Remnants Museum. The Vietnamese Traditional Medicine Museum gives another insight into Vietnamese culture. Chat with your guide and decide what suits you!
Day 15 Mekong: Villages and Markets of the Mekong Delta
The latest recommended time for your guide to meet you and set off this morning is 7:30am. The earlier the start the better, so as to catch the market in Cai Be when it is most active. This morning you will be driven to Phu Nhuan Bridge in Phu An village, located in the Mekong Delta approximately 2 hours away from Saigon. Here you will board a small private boat to explore this small shady river and begin with a short cruise. Take a break along the way at a unique village, where you can enjoy a walk around the area, meet some of the friendly locals and learn more about how they cultivate the many rice paddies in the area. Return to your boat and continue along the river for a further 50 minutes, until you reach colorful Cai Be. Continue on for a short distance until you reach Tan Phong Island, where you will step ashore for a short bike ride of about 40 minutes (longer or shorter depending on your preferences), taking in the island’s luscious gardens and peaceful village life. At the end of the bike ride, you will have lunch in a beautiful traditional garden house and be presented with local dishes, such as Elephant Ear Fish rolled and wrapped with rice paper, as well as different Vietnamese vegetables and fruits served with tamarind dipping sauce. After lunch, if time permits, you may then enjoy being rowed along in a traditional sampan boat alongside the banks of the fruit gardens and through the narrow shady canals. Enjoy the waterways a little longer as you cruise on back to Cai Be where your private transport will be waiting for you. Relax on the drive back to your hotel in Saigon (a drive of about 2 ½ hours), where you should arrive around 5:30pm.
Day 16 Saigon: Departure
You will be picked up at your hotel and taken to the airport for your onward flight.