I've been lucky enough to travel to lots of fascinating destinations during my time in travel, but my recent trip to vibrant Vietnam alongside my colleague Sarah, left me utterly inspired.
On a cold November afternoon, Sarah and myself headed to Manchester Airport with a group of our travel agent partners to board our flight to Hoi An, via Doha. We travelled with Qatar Airways who effortlessly hosted the whole group in their Business Class cabin. The cabin crew were attentive yet discreet throughout, the in-flight entertainment had never-ending options, the food was fresh and flavoursome and the Champagne perfectly chilled. If you're travelling long-haul, I'd highly recommend this ultra-comfy cabin; the onboard experience made the flight fly by - excuse the pun! Upon arrival in Hoi An, we were whisked through the airport and soon on our way to the first of our luxury destinations.
Hoi An: Four Nights at Four Seasons
On Vietnam's culturally rich central coast, Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An affords a spectacular setting, surrounded by swaying palms and plenty of tropical greenery. We all stayed in resort's beautiful Beachfront Villas on the powder-soft sands. We spent our first morning navigating the resort's incredible facilities, including the culturally inspired spa, where we couldn't resist booking in for a full body massage - so relaxing! In the evening, we were spoilt with a delicious dinner of contemporary cuisine and Vietnamese classics - a real treat for the senses - before we retired to prepare ourselves for our first full day of adventures.
The next morning it was time to explore Hoi An, a well-preserved former trading port that's now a fascinating heritage centre. With flat, quiet roads and lots of intriguing people to meet along the way, what better way to see the sights than by cycling tour? Led by our local guide, we hopped in our saddles and rode along quiet inland trails, where we witnessed locals making traditional basket boats and rice farmers hard at work. We stopped for a local lunch in Tra Que Village and even travelled by traditional boat down the river with our bikes, before heading back to dry land for our return journey to Four Seasons. After resting our legs and watching the sun slowly set, it was time to experience more of Hoi An. I'll never forget being greeted by a group of ten vintage Vespa scooters right outside our hotel! We wasted no time jumping on and heading into the town, racing through the bustling streets which truly come to life at night. Our tour took us to five different foodie venues in Hoi An, from street food stalls to lively local restaurants, where we enjoyed a variety of tantalisingly tasty delicacies, including seafood, barbecued meats and super-sweet crème caramel.
Once we had a taste for Vietnam's cuisine, we couldn't resist trying the art for ourselves! We rose early the next morning for a visit to the local markets alongside Chef Hien, who helped us pick out lots of fresh, authentic ingredients, before we ventured back to the resort for our interactive culinary masterclass at The Nam Hai Cooking Academy. Mixing the produce from the markets with fragrant herbs and vegetables picked in the resort's organic gardens, we cooked up four tasty local dishes, before sitting down to savour our gourmet creations - delicious! Later in the day, we made the journey back into Hoi An for a guided walking tour of the many atmospheric sights, including the 400-year-old Japanese Covered Bridge, the Assembly Hall of the Chaozhou Chinese Congregation and the colourful market with stalls brimming with local specialties. The town is mostly untouched by tourism, making for an honest and authentic experience, and the lovely local people we bumped into along the way were more than happy to see visitors exploring their village. We spent our last few hours in Hoi An the same way we'd spent our morning - eating! Vietnamese restaurants are in abundance in the town, so of course, we wanted to make sure we'd sampled as many as possible.
Hanoi: City Streets and Setting Sail
After a fantastic four days, it was time to head to Hanoi; Vietnam's compelling capital city and a complete contrast to lesser-travelled Hoi An. Following a short one-and-a-half-hour flight, we were soon immersed in another of the country's otherworldly locations. We dropped off our luggage and set off to explore the tangled streets with a 'City Highlights' tour. Along the way, we stopped to see the Temple of Literature and the Vietnamese Women's Museum, before driving back to central Hanoi for a walking tour through the photogenic Old Quarter, where each street is named after the goods originally sold there, from silk to silver. We enjoyed taking exploration into our own hands too, traversing small shops and boutiques where we purchased traditional souvenirs and beautiful handmade items.
Following a night staying at the heart of the city, we made the three-hour trip by road to the ethereal Ha Long Bay. The towering limestone karsts and tiny islands here are one of Vietnam's most popular natural attractions; once you arrive, it's easy to see why. Then it was time to make our way to our accommodation - by speedboat! We stayed aboard Heritage Line's gracious ship, Ginger Cruise. This luxurious, yet traditional vessel had everything we needed for a super-comfortable stay, while also taking us closer to the undeniable natural beauty of the area. After welcome drinks and a short briefing, we set sail through 300-or-so karst islands of Lan Ha Bay, admiring the surreal seascape from the comfort of the ship's sun deck. We also docked at Viet Hai Village on Cat Ba Island, where we toured the small paved roads by bicycle, leading us to a quiet village where we had the chance to meet and greet local villagers and learn more about their daily routines at home, school and work.
Back on board, we sampled some unforgettable food prepared by the chef every evening, who also hosted regular cookery classes whilst we cruised the bay's channel. Other activities included squid fishing, soothing massages, kayaking and swimming - we were utterly spoilt for choice! On our final morning, we ventured to the deck at sunrise for a gentle Tai Chi session, followed by fresh fruit and sweet-smelling pastries for breakfast in the dining room, fuelling us for the day. It was soon time to disembark and make the journey back to Hanoi for our homeward flight. To say this trip was special would be an understatement; Vietnam personally inspired us all, and I'd recommend this culture-packed country to any traveller in search of something new.