Day 1: Arrival Hanoi
Upon arrival at Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport, our guide will accompany you to your hotel and assist you with check-in. Get intimately acquainted with the narrow and bustling guild streets of Hanoi 's Old Quarter, bursting with wares from medicinal herbs to luxurious silks. Or you may choose to relax around one of the many lakes and parks that make Hanoi one of the greenest cities in Asia. Those who want to hit the culinary trail immediately are invited to lunch with our tour leader at Soho, a charming bistro featuring traditional French bouillabaise with a spicy Vietnamese twist, and rich Vietnamese coffee served hot or cold. After lunch, we'll explore the Hom Market with its aromatic and visually stunning offerings of spices and herbs. This evening, our guide will escort you to dinner at Indochine, set in an authentic French Colonial villa. The inviting menu includes a not-to-be-missed banana flower salad, delicious nem, Hanoi-style spring rolls, and fried chicken with lemongrass and chili.
Day 2: Hanoi (B, L)
Mornings are a magical time in this elegant Red River Delta city, and most Hanoians are up early, stopping at their favorite pho (pronounced fuh) stand to breakfast on this most famous of Vietnamese dishes. Pho, served piping hot, is a broth with fresh rice noodles, chicken or beef, green onions and cilantro, enhanced by condiments such as lime and chilies. The day will be filled with exploration, and we'll begin with a morning cyclo tour of city sights, escorted by our guide. We'll take in the Ho Chi Minh Complex, which includes the Mausoleum, the One Pillar Pagoda, Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh's former stilt house residence. Next we'll visit the 11th century Temple of Literature, site of Vietnam's first university. Dedicated to Confucius, the Temple grounds are resplendent with pavilions and walkways invoking peace and contemplation. Our appetite leads us next to Hoa Sua for a very special luncheon experience. Set in a lovely courtyard, the restaurant is part of a training school where disadvantaged Vietnamese children and teens are educated in cooking and restaurant skills that will enable them to have successful careers in the hotel and restaurant industry. Be sure to save room for a luscious dessert from Hoa Sua's own French Patisserie next door. After lunch we'll make our way to Dinh Xuyen, about 16km outside the city, for a unique visit to a spice exporting facility. There, we'll observe the sorting and processing of spices such as Vietnamese cinnamon and star anise, some of which may end up in your teacup back home!
Back in Hanoi , we'll enjoy dinner and a wine tasting at the award-winning Press Club restaurant where international fare is laced with Asian influences and wines are selected to complement these tastes.
OR: Tonight we'll visit the famed Water Puppet Theater near Hoan Kiem lake. The theater's origins date back almost a thousand years to when the plays were performed on lakes and ponds. Accompanied by musicians who both play and sing, the puppeteers stand behind a screen, waist-deep in water, using rods and strings to move the wooden puppets as they enact scenes of daily rural life, ancient stories and legends.
Optional: Night owls are invited to hit Highway 4 with our guide for a taste of an exotic rice or fruit wine, or a cup of Vietnamese tea. Highway 4's brewed-on-site spirits, particularly enjoyable on the roof terrace, include traditional northern medicinal liquors and herbal potions
Day 3: Hanoi - Halong Bay (B, L)
We depart early today for the wonders of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site regaled with breathtaking limestone formations. We'll board our own private boat for a five-hour cruise around the secluded and majestic bay, which covers more than 1,500 square kilometers in the Gulf of Tonkin. As legend holds, the bay was created when a huge dragon fell to earth, and indeed, Halong means, “Where the dragon descends into the sea.” This is an ideal spot for unwinding from the pace of city life. The islands of the bay are filled with deserted beaches, enchanting grottos and enticing caves, one of which is thought to have been used to store the wooden stakes wielded against 13th century Mongol invaders. We'll have a chance to swim in the bay's tranquil emerald waters, and to visit one of the splendid caves. Onboard, we'll enjoy a fresh seafood lunch. After lunch, take another swim or lounge on the deck, soaking up the ambience of this exquisite place. We'll return to Hanoi in the early evening.
Optional: If you're up for a Continental dining experience, you may want to accompany our tour leader to one of the popular Italian restaurants in Hanoi, Luna D'Autunno. We'll chat with the chef and enjoy some homemade pasta and fresh tomato sauces made with local produce.
Day 4: Hanoi (B, L)
Let the cooking begin! After breakfast, we'll pay a visit to the Dec. 19 th Market; a cozy labyrinth of stalls that is a favorite for serious Hanoi cooks. The market is filled with all the freshest ingredients our chef will need for our cooking demonstration in the hotel's well-appointed kitchen. After class, lunch will be served at the Metropole's Spice Garden restaurant. The afternoon is ours for shopping and further exploration. Our farewell to Hanoi dinner will be held at The Emperor, one of the most beautiful restaurants in Hanoi, and a favorite of visiting dignitaries and celebrities. Following dinner, we'll board the Reunification Express for an overnight train to the ancient imperial capital of Hue.
Day 5: Hue (B, D)
We'll arrive in this serene city 09:30. and transfer directly to our hotel. We'll discuss our Hue itinerary over a delicious breakfast. Our exploration begins with a visit to the Linh Mu Pagoda where the monks will host us with a sumptuous vegetarian meal to sample some of the local delicacies: Regarded by many as the culinary capital of Vietnam, Hue takes its culinary cues from its royal heritage. Hue tables are typically covered with several small dishes of local delicacies such as diminutive Hue pancakes or tiny bowls of freshly cut vegetables. After lunch, we bid farewell to our hosts and continue our exploration with the Citadel, home to the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City. We'll also visit the Imperial Museum and the vibrant Dong Ba Riverside Market. There will be another culinary adventure this evening as we sup at the fine-dining establishment, Tropical Garden.
Day 6: Hue (B, L)
The morning begins with a hands-on cooking class at Tinh Gia Vien restaurant, highlighting the regal flavors of Hue cuisine as we prepare our own midday meal. After lunch, we'll take a cruise along the romantic Perfume River, passing opulent palaces and gardens of the 19th century Nguyen kings. We'll visit the ornate tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, set within beautifully landscaped gardens, and the tomb of the eccentric Tu Duc, known for his opulent lifestyle. On our way back to the city, we'll stop at the Thien Mu Pagoda, the unofficial symbol of Hue. This is an active Buddhist monastery dating back to 1601. One of its most poignant displays is a car belonging to a former monk, who in 1963, drove to Saigon and set himself alight to protest the South Vietnamese regime and its treatment of Buddhists. In the evening you may wish to stay at your hotel and attend an imperial dinner, wearing the traditional clothes of the emperors.
Day 7: Hue - Hoi An (B, L, D)
We'll continue south, going by road toward the riverside town of Hoi An. Our five-hour route, hugging the coastline along the East Sea, serves up breathtaking views that grow even more spectacular as we wind our way up Hai Van Pass (Pass of the Clouds). We'll pause to admire the stunning vistas of Lang Co beach to the north, and the city of Danang to the south. We'll continue on, passing East Sea, where many American GI's took their R&R (Rest and Relaxation!), and the Marble Mountains, home to the Cham legacy. In Hoi An, we'll grab some lunch at the Vinh Hung Café, where the coffee milkshakes are divine and the menu surprisingly extensive. In the afternoon, we'll take a walking tour around this once-thriving port and visit the famed old quarter, the Japanese Bridge, the old Assembly Halls, art galleries and many old houses once belonging to Chinese merchants. Come evening, we'll dine at the Café des Amis along the river.
Day 8: Hoi An (B, D)
Hoi An is a charming, small town which can be easily explored on foot. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, it was a thriving international trading port with a large Chinese and Japanese population. More than any other place in Vietnam, Hoi An exudes a feeling of centuries past and is a favorite with all travelers. You may choose to stroll, soaking up the atmosphere and exploring the many fascinating ancestral homes (some of which have been occupied by the same family for fifteen generations), or rent a bicycle for a scenic ride to Cua Dai beach, 4 km away. The town is also famous for its tailors who are revered for their fine (and fast) work. We'll meet for lunch at the Pho Cu restaurant. We'll shop at Hoi An's riverside market, always a hive of activity, for our dinner ingredients, before spending the afternoon in a cooking demonstration with Miss Vi of the White Lantern, where we'll dine. Hoi An is well suited for an after-dinner stroll, and we'll stop by the Tam Tam Café for a drink or coffee before turning in for the night.
Day 9: Hoi An - Ho Chi Minh City (B, L)
This morning we'll head for Da Nang airport about a 40-minute drive, to take our one-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)), where we transfer directly to our centrally located hotel. We then attend a cooking class followed by lunch. After lunch, we'll embark on a tour of this cosmopolitan city, visiting Cholon, the War Remnants Museum, and the Reunification Palace. Cholon, home to HCMC's substantial Chinese population, is also the site of the largest market in Vietnam, the Ben Thanh market. The War Remnants museum contains a wealth of images from Vietnam's wars, the most moving being a gallery entitled Requiem, dedicated to Vietnamese and foreign journalists and photographers who perished during the French and American conflicts. The Reunification Palace was the residence of the President of South Vietnam until April 30, 1975 , when North Vietnamese tanks came crashing through the front gates, bringing the Vietnam-U.S. War to a dramatic end. Close to the Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office represent prime examples of French Colonial architecture. The ornate Notre Dame dominates the city's business center. Built by the French between 1877 and 1883, it was constructed of stone imported from France. The Post Office, completed in 1891, is in perfect juxtaposition to the bustling urban city that is modern Hi Chi Minh City with its numerous shopping malls, cinemas, discotheques and a bewildering number of bars. This evening, we'll see what the fuss is all about as we go out on the town! (Optional dinner at Le Mekong).
Day 10: Mekong Delta (B, D)
Breakfast comes early this morning as we depart for Can Tho in the heart of the Mekong Delta. We'll stop in My Tho for coffee, and there, we'll have our first taste of life in this amazing Delta. We'll arrive in Can Tho in time for lunch.
After lunch, we'll drive to some of the orchards that give this region its allure, and we'll be able to see the many varieties of tropical plants native to this part of the world. We'll also visit a bird sanctuary, and stop in at the Song Hau Fram/Rice institute where we will be treated to a taste of some of the many products derived from rice. In the evening, we'll will make our way to the Victoria Hotel, our home for the night. At 7.00 pm, there will be a Vietnamese dinner. Some of the tantalizing dishes may include rich crabmeat soup with minced ham, steamed fish in Soya sauce and much more.
Day 11: Mekong to Ho Chi Minh City (B, D)
We'll depart the Victoria at 06:30 this morning from the jetty of the hotel. We'll enjoy a delectable breakfast buffet onboard the Lady Hau as we cruise the Mekong to visit the floating market of Cai Rang. Our cruise will take us along several channels of the Delta before we say goodbye to the mighty Mekong and begin our drive back to Ho Chi Minh City. The afternoon affords us free time for some last minute shopping or relaxing. We'll enjoy a deluxe farewell dinner at the Mandarin Restaurant.
Day 12: Saigon - Departure (B)
Today is departure day and time to bid your guide farewell. There will a transfer waiting to take you from the hotel to the airport for your flight home. We wish you a pleasant journey home and we know you will take away many wonderful memories of the sights and tastes you have savored.