This was our 5th OAT trip, with the four previous being Namibia, Tanzania, Mongolia, and Iceland. Although we have traveled all over the world, by ourselves and with other tour companies, this trip cemented the fact that OAT provides the most activity, diversity, and interaction. This trip was exceptional, in that there were surprises every day, and we had a fabulous tour leader in Ethan. Talking about tour leaders is like talking about grandchildren. Everyone thinks theirs is the best. The trip itself is very well designed for maximum exposure to all types of activities. The cities visited each have a distinct personality and a variety of things to see and do. From north (HaNoi) to south (Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon) and everywhere in between, we saw different aspects of Vietnamese life and history. But Ethan added all the extras that made this trip so special. On National Women's day, he bought roses for each of the women on the tour. He bought candies from several cities to distribute in order to show the specialties of the area. He stopped at a street vendor who was selling small ceramic flutes in the shape of the animals representing the year people were born. He bought one for everyone based on their birth year. Whenever we showed a particular interest in something or someone, he tried to get more information about it. On our way to one of many different river trips, he stopped at a local's house to ask about using their "squatty potty" (be prepared for an occasional necessity like this). He saw that the woman was weaving palm leaves into roof thatch. We spent at least 20 minutes with the woman, while she showed us how to sew the fronds together and gave anyone interested a chance to try their hand at it. There was also a man taking his enormous water buffalo for a walk near the river. Ethan talked to him, and we all had the opportunity to have our pictures taken atop the water buffalo! (Been on horses, elephants, and camels, but this one was new.) On the river trip that day, we saw a fisherman throwing huge nets with a grace and skill that was very impressive. Ethan called him over, and he came onto our boat, where he demonstrated the net tossing to our group, then offered people the chance to try it themselves. My husband gave it a shot and immediately found out it was harder than it looks. By the way, hubby doesn't eat red meat, and Ethan made sure that even the eggrolls he was served were meatless. He often got dishes different that everyone else. We stopped at the home of an old woman (94 or so), who had chewed beetle nuts all her life. She had made some samples for us and offered us a try. Only one man on our tour took her up on it, and he said there was a slight buzz. Ethan tried to provide us with different food in each region to reflect local cuisine, so we had a lot of variety. Thank goodness we had a few meals on our own, as the meals provided were very generous. Each hotel had a buffet, some better than others, but always lots of food. And lunch or dinner provided by OAT was always multi-course. I don't mean to imply that other tour leaders do not provide the same kind of spontaneous effort, because we have been on other tours with OAT where similar things (but not as many) have happened. And I only mentioned some of our treats. Must include the fact that he offered to take any of us who were interested to exercise in the park at 6 a.m. in Hanoi. Only three of us took him up on it, and it was drizzly, so we ended up doing a form of Vietnamese Zumba under the archway of an office building with 15 Vietnamese women in sweatsuits. There are many surprises throughout Vietnam. We had never imagined the town of Dalat, high up in the mountains, overflowing with greenhouses, growing flowers and produce. Or the charm and beauty of historical Hoi An and Hue. Hoi An at night is not to be missed. The huge variety in the street markets. The friendliness of the people. The traffic (mostly scooters) in HaNoi is unbelievable (and I live in Los Angeles and have been to Beijing). Flows like a river, with no brake screeching, no swearing, no honking. As a pedestrian, you just have to start walking, and they will go around you. Really. And there are flower vendors everywhere. Learning about the war from the Vietnamese perspective was fascinating, including our lunch with three fomer VietCong. We are of the generation that either protested or participated, and that made it especially impressive to see first-hand what has changed and what has not. Ethan, who was from Saigon (his reference), was very open in discussing politics, history, the economy, the current Communist/Socialist ruling party, etc. We could ask him anything, including whether or not he was concerned about expressing his opinions. Not to us, he said. But he couldn't do it overtly to a group of Vietnamese. We took scooter rides in Hanoi and Saigon; cyclo rickshaws in Hanoi and Hoi An; a train out of Dalat, and boat rides on the Mekong and many of its tributaries. Spent half a day at a beach club on turquoise water near Nha Trang, a city reminiscent of Miami 30 years ago, but with a huge Russian tourist presence. Obviously, I could go on and on (and have). Hotels ranged from OK to very good. We had 7 different massages in 18 days. Even my husband, who never indulges at home, accompanied me. They are very reasonable, although there can be difficulty when tipping (see individual hotel reviews on TripAdvisor under Travelfan). (Speaking of tips, it is fabulous that OAT now includes all tips, except for your trip leader, in the price of the tour.There were so many activities involving service (riding on the motorcyle, bellmen, bus drivers, etc.), that tipping would have been a nightmare - and has been in the past. This is great move on their part.) We did not have clothes made in Hoi An, but I had an extra pair of prescription glasses made in 24 hours. Not cheap, but less expensive than at home, and very quick (with designer frames...). A little more about all the hands-on experiences. Before the trip, I had made myself a note that the visit to the ceramic village Bat Trang, outside of Hanoi, looked uninteresting. Wrong! We were each given a wheel, a lump of clay, and lesson in creating a vase. If you have never done this before, it is quite a challenge. We also went to a village where they make bamboo baskets and got a chance to try weaving the bamboo. My husband attempted to make chopsticks from bamboo at the chopstick village. We got to paddle in round basket boats near Nha Trang. We tried our hand at sifting "popped rice" at the building where they make the Vietnamese version of Rice Krispie treats (got to sample the outcome, too). Oh, the cooking lesson in Hoi An. Everyone got to try their hand with the chef, who taught us how to make three dishes. Some other thoughts: in the cities where the hotels are in main areas, there are usually local laundries on the same block or around the corner. Cheaper than the hotels, although the hotels are not expensive. We took two out of the three optional tours, skipping the one in Dalat because we were meeting a friend of a friend, but heard very good reports about it. So I would recommend all three optional tours. We went in early March, and the weather was generally overcast in the north (with a little drizzle occasionally) and got warmer as we went South. Not terrible. No problem with insects where we went, and I am a prime target. Visit to the Grand Circle sponsored orphanage was wonderful, where 18 nuns care for 130+ youngsters, including adults (up to age 30 when we were there) with disabilities. We also had a vegetarian lunch at a local nunnery. Cannot describe all the interesting things we did, because they were too numerous. Really enjoyed this trip.( Wanted to add one comment about the recommendation of a previous traveler who suggested that people get permanent make-up done in Vietnam. I cannot comment on the quality or cleanliness of the salons there, but in the U.S., permanent make-up requires two visits, two weeks apart, to finish the process. Not possible on this trip. If you have one step done, you will need another when you get home. My personal experience.) So, if you haven't taken this trip because it looked "tame", you are missing out. If you think it will be difficult visiting Vietnam because of a relationship with its history, I can only say that we had one member of our tour group who lost her brother during the war, and although it was emotional for her, she had a wonderful time. I know there have been plenty of vets who have taken the trip. When you see the country, and especially when you visit the Cu Chi tunnels, you will understand why everything there was so difficult for the Americans. But this is just part of the great learning experience you will have.
✔ Yes, I recommend this trip.