July 20, 2024

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Navigating Travel Tales

How a Travel Agent Helped Turn My Family Vacation in Vietnam Into a Spectacular Trip

5 min read

I didn’t mean to hire a Vietnamese travel agency to plan our three-week family adventure. In fact, when the agency asked if they could create an itinerary for our trip to Vietnam beyond a single tour, I scoffed.

“No way, I always make my own arrangements,” I thought.

But I found myself agreeing anyway, curious to see what they thought an American family would like to do while visiting Vietnam. I considered taking their ideas and booking everything on my own, but when I saw the itinerary for the bespoke tour featuring private drivers and tour guides, visits to locals-only spots, and an all-inclusive price shockingly low to my North American wallet, they were hired. 

When I was initially beginning to plan a family trip to Vietnam, I texted my friend Andrea Fleming. Fleming, who lives in Hanoi and is a school counselor at the international school there, immediately replied with a 10-minute-long voice memo, emphatically telling me in February that I had to book our June cruise in Ha Long Bay immediately because the ships would sell out. She recommended Blue Asia Tours, the agency that all the local international teachers use for their travels. When I sent her the proposed itinerary for our entire trip before committing to it, Andrea reassured me that the price was fair and that we would see more of the country in three weeks than she had after living there for three years. 

Ariel Frager/Travel + Leisure

Between the time I put down the deposit and our flights, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself since our trip was already planned. I am fully aware of my control issues, so willingly giving up my power to direct our trip took restraint I didn’t know I had. 

My email correspondence with Quang Hòa, the owner of Blue Asia Tours, refined our itinerary. We wanted to trek through the highlands of Sapa, so Quang, who insisted I call him Mr. Lucas, added a few days in the far north. After talking to a friend who had honeymooned in Vietnam, we traded our time at party-central Nha Trang beach for the more family-friendly Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Thailand. I wanted to learn more about the Vietnam War, so we added tours of the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi tunnels in the south. Co-creating the trip with Blue Asia helped ease some of my anxiety. 

Ariel Frager/Travel + Leisure

Immediately after the last day of school, our family of three — me, my husband, and our 11-year-old son — landed in steamy, humid Hanoi. Slightly travel-delirious after 24 hours in motion, we stumbled out of the airport to find a well-dressed driver holding a sign with my name. I felt like a rock star. The driver grabbed our bags and whisked us through the moped-clogged city traffic to our four-star accommodations in the Old Quarter. Immediately upon connecting to Wi-Fi, my WhatsApp pinged, and our liaison, Hồng Nguyễn from Blue Asia, welcomed us to Vietnam and asked to meet with us to review the itinerary later that afternoon.

After quick showers, we walked through the Old Quarter. We felt the buzzy energy of the 5.2 million-strong population zipping through the busy streets. Introducing our son to Asia was a major impetus for our trip. He is a well-traveled kid, and I figured the summer before sixth grade was a perfect time for him to experience a culture very different than our own.

While he was excited to be there, my mama-radar told me that food was imperative. Our tour hadn’t started yet, so we were on our own for lunch. It was so hot, and we were all tired and just couldn’t decide where to eat. The bickering started slowly as we read menus, and though we were beckoned by plenty of servers, we just couldn’t decide. Finally, we noticed a cơm gà hải nam’ shop filled with local diners. We were familiar with the traditional chicken and rice dish, and our crankiness lessened with each bite. Our intrepid little family returned to the hotel just in time to meet Hồng, whose name in English translates to Rosie.

I shared with Rosie that when I first saw our packed-day itinerary, I was a bit worried we would be too busy to fully enjoy Vietnam. Rosie assured me we would have a great time and said I could text her anytime.

Ariel Frager/Travel + Leisure

I didn’t know what to expect from our trip. I had traveled in Southeast Asia before, but the nuances of understanding Vietnam after the American War (as the Vietnamese call it) and now the post-pandemic era were yet to be resolved. As I settled into the rhythm of being on the road, I found myself relaxing in the process of being cared for. By not consulting my phone all the time about what we should do next, I was more fully present for each delicious moment. 

Ariel Frager/Travel + Leisure

My son and I trekked through the rice fields in the northern highland region, my husband sidelined by a short-lived bout of food poisoning. Our H’mong guide Sung, a member of one of 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam who the agency had hired to teach us about her culture while introducing us to her homeland in the Hoang Lien Son mountains, nimbly guided us through steep and muddy terrain amid torrential rainstorms. I stopped frequently on our seven-mile hike, my jaw dropping as I drank in the beauty and precision of the terraced rice fields.

When we finally arrived at our homestay in the mountain village, my husband was waiting for us. He said the smiles on our faces, despite being drenched, lit up the rain-soaked sky.

Ariel Frager/Travel + Leisure

As we followed the well-worn traveler’s path from the North to the South, we did both heavily touristy activities, like taking in a water puppet show in Hanoi and setting free candle wishes on Thu Bon River in Hoi An, and less trendy things like mud bathing in a pitch-black cave in Phong Nha National Park. Hangry-fueled intra-family squabbling ceased because so many meals were included in our tour; no decisions were required. Private drivers minded our luggage on travel days that included en-route tours, complete with English-speaking guides. One Sunday, as we traveled from the imperial city of Hue to Hoi An, our driver brought us to Dream Spring, a locally known swimming hole. We were grateful to share the crystal-clear waters and secret Sunday picnic spot with the local families.

About two-thirds of the way through our trip, as the three of us were feasting on yet another tasty lunch, I realized why I was having the best trip ever: I didn’t have to make any decisions. Rosie texted me what time we had to meet our driver in the lobby every morning, and away we went. I didn’t have to do anything. No phone calls, no emails, no checking the status of our reservations. All we had to do was show up in our hotel lobby on time. We just flowed through Vietnam, trusting Blue Asia and enjoying the moments rather than controlling them. It turns out that not having to make any decisions was the best travel decision I have ever made.


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