I’ve had the incredible fortune to work at Zegrahm Expeditions for the last 13 years. During that time, I’ve embarked on a number of life-changing adventures from Antarctica to Zanzibar, and many places between. One of my favorite expeditions was a Vietnam cruise from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi; it was so memorable that I decided to recreate the Zegrahm trip in 2016, so my husband could share this phenomenal experience with me, albeit on our own and not with a group.
It turns out that Zegrahm’s itinerary was almost impossible to recreate on our own! Vietnam’s infrastructure is not well-developed, meaning long travel times and rather dubious forms of transportation to reach some of the more remote ports of call. With over 1,000 miles of coastline, traveling by small ship is still the best way to get around. And, the added bonus of a ship—unpack once, settle in to your cabin, and you won’t even have to look at your suitcase for two solid weeks—cannot be understated.
Here are some of the differences I experienced traveling as an individual versus traveling with Zegrahm:
Independent: Living in the Pacific Northwest, Vietnam’s climate can be a real shock to the system. We learned that you can’t count on air-conditioning, whether in a restaurant, shopping center, vehicle, or your own hotel room (power outages are not uncommon).
Traveling with Zegrahm: All vehicles were fully air-conditioned making for very comfortable drives. Returning to the ship after touring was such a treat. We were always greeted with chilled towels and a cold drink, most welcome after a long day of touring. And, all of the public areas and staterooms were as cool as could be.
Lines, Lines, Lines
Independent: Altogether, we probably spent at least an entire day waiting in lines—hotel check-in, airport, taxi queues, museums, food stalls, etc. And of course, most line-standing was without air conditioning; see above.
Traveling with Zegrahm: No lines! Or at least not for long. (Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum being an exception).
English vs. French vs. Vietnamese
Independent: Most local Vietnamese know enough English to communicate adequately, especially the younger people, but French is far more prevalent. And, most museums had little to no information in English describing the various works of art. Though everyone was friendly and many people went out of their way to help, we got lost quite a bit due to the language barrier.
Traveling with Zegrahm: Our amazing guides spoke fluent English and often had advanced degrees in history, art, politics, etc. It’s hard to fully appreciate something when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at; they were also wonderful at providing commentary on daily life and pointing out interesting cultural details while driving, walking around town, or chatting over lunch.
Independent: Traffic is INSANE, especially in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. While my husband and I had some pretty “thrilling” rides, I definitely earned some unwanted gray hairs in the process of getting from Point A to Point B.
Traveling with Zegrahm: The best (read: safe) drivers and comfortable, modern vehicles; ‘nuff said.
Independent: Hauling all of our luggage between the various hotels, taxis, and airports got old pretty fast.
Traveling with Zegrahm: Step One: Place bags in front of your room. Step Two: Porters! Luggage truck! Identify your bag and it magically appears in your cabin or the airport.
Shopping with Ease
Independent: Vietnam is truly a shopper’s delight. However, the sheer number of shops, markets, and street vendors makes it hard to know where to start. And then comes the haggling; while typically good-natured, a 15-minute interchange for every single item can be frustrating.
Traveling with Zegrahm: The expedition staff and local guides know where to get the best products and how to get the best deals. Having an experienced shopping buddy to show you the ropes is invaluable.
Sampling the Delicious Local Food
Independent: First off, I love Vietnamese food; my husband, however, is allergic to seafood. We found the language barrier to be quite challenging in this particular area, since many dishes contain shrimp paste, oyster sauce, or some other fishy ingredient as a base—like nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce), which is basically the Vietnamese version of ketchup. With so much coastline, seafood is ubiquitous and pops up in the strangest places—like a particularly hive-inducing omelet in Hanoi.
Traveling with Zegrahm: All restaurants on the Zegrahm voyage were prepared with special dishes for folks with allergies or restrictions. During cooking classes, everyone got to participate and make modifications according to taste. And, our local experts were on hand to speak with food stall and market vendors to help navigate the street food scene.
Independent: Even though we brought antihistamines with us, those aforementioned hives reared their ugly heads in the hot, humid weather. The language-barrier struck again at the pharmacy, with no actual conversation about our symptoms and/or how to solve them.
Traveling with Zegrahm: Onboard, we had an English-speaking doctor with a fully stocked pharmacy. So easy!
We had a great time! Despite the various hassles and delays, Vietnam is a beautiful country with loads of interesting sites and a long, multi-faceted history. The delicious food, the warm and welcoming people, and the feeling of being somewhere truly exotic make this one of my favorite destinations in the world.
If Vietnam is a place you’ve been considering, go for it! And though you can certainly go on your own, I would highly recommend that you get the most out of your trip by traveling the Zegrahm way.
For more information on our upcoming expedition, visit Vietnam: Culture & Cuisine.