A tourist’s guide to loving Vietnam

I had some initial apprehension upon learning that I’d be checking into a ‘junk boat’ for the next two nights. But upon seeing my home on the water, I quickly discovered that unlike the sound of the name, it’s actually not a shabby way to spend the night. 

In fact, these sleeper ships, which range from basic bare bones boats to luxurious yachts, are the perfect gateway to experiencing Vietnam’s postcard-worthy Halong Bay, where 1,969 unusually shaped tree-covered limestone islands and islets jet out from the water.

After we stashed our luggage in our onboard rooms, tour guide John Tran began leading our small group of travellers on the Classic Vietnam itinerary with Canada-based tour operator, G Adventures. He describes it as a more “off-the-grid kayak excursion” to explore several remarkable caves along the UNESCO World Heritage site. With the job title of CEO — that’s Chief Experience Officer — he says he’s “in charge of facilitating life-changing experiences.”

Topping the list on today’s adventure are a visit to Trong Cave, where the ceiling is covered in stalactites and gives way to impressive views of the area’s famous towering limestone islands, and Trinh Nu Cave, which can best be described as an outer-worldly natural attraction. Although there were many other junk boats around our boat, we have these fascinating spots to ourselves. 

The next morning, we set out bright and early after a hearty breakfast on a mission to climb the nearby Ti Top island. Although all the islands in Halong Bay are uninhabited, Ti Top features a pagoda at the top offering visitors a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area. 

It’s a balmy 43°C out as we slowly conquer the 400 steps to reach the top, but the view surpassed my expectations. While I’d seen countless pictures taken from this exact spot, it didn’t prepare me for how vast the area is. Dripping in sweat and high on adrenaline for making it to the top, we take advantage of our own photo opportunities, before climbing down the steps for a refreshing reward: taking a swim at the sandy beach at the bottom of the island’s shore. 

Coffee and culture collide in Hanoi

Earlier in the week, we headed to Hanoi Food Culture for a lesson in making a local specialty known as egg coffee. The restaurant is a G Values Fund project, an initiative where former G Adventures tour leaders can open their own businesses with low interest loans through the tour operator.

“These are funds that we set up for former CEOs. When they’re tired of guiding our tours but they still want to be involved with the company, they can apply for a low interest loan and start up a business of their own as local suppliers,” explains Jenna English, global purpose specialist for British Columbia & Northern Territories at G Adventures. After interacting with travellers day in and day out, she says CEOs often see the need for what kind of businesses are lacking in an area through their tour experiences.

While setting up the egg coffee demonstration, co-owner Lap Nguyen explains how he shifted gears to launch the restaurant. “I used to be a CEO, running tours on the road,” Nguyen says. “One day, my wife called me when I was in Siem Reap and said that she had cancer so I decided to quit the job and come back here.”

Through access to funding from the G Values Fund, Hanoi Food Culture was born. While we’re here for a coffee demonstration, the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and hires students as its main staff. “The story of the egg coffee — it’s a Hanoi specialty. Hoi An and Saigon also have egg coffee, but they’re not the original, Hanoi is the place where the egg coffee came from. Egg in coffee, it seems very weird right?” he says, noting that the dish is indeed made with egg yolks. “It started over 100 years ago. If you go to any coffee shop and ask, ‘hey, what’s the recipe?’ They never want to share with you, but here we want to share it with you. It’s a million dollar business idea when you go home.”

This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of OFFSHORE. To read the full version, click here


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