One year ago I boarded a plane to Hanoi, Vietnam. This trip came about under very sudden and unusual circumstances, but there is no doubt in my mind that I was meant to go there. When I saw a photo contest on Intrepid Travel’s Instagram for a chance to win one of their Vietnam tours I entered on a whim (because really everywhere is on my bucket list). I was hopeful, but who actually wins contests like that? Well, I won. The news came right after my grandfather passed away and it was a welcome distraction from grieving. Pop had been an avid traveler and loved to tell stories about the places he’d been and the characters he’d met. He was always encouraging me to seize the day. In a way I felt like this unexpected opportunity to go to Vietnam was a sign from him to keep making the most out of life.
There is nothing quite like stepping off a plane by yourself halfway around the world where you don’t know a soul. It’s a kind of frightening, kind of freeing feeling and I highly recommend it. I spent the first five days of my adventure on my own (though often not alone because I met great people the whole way), exploring Hanoi and traveling up to the Lao Cai region. I knew I wanted to see this iconic area (think vibrant green mountains and rice paddies as far as the eye can see) where the ethnic minorities still live in their traditional way. Also, being the textile lover that I am, I had to make it to the famous Bac Ha market. I visited several fair trade cooperatives and artisan groups throughout the trip which resulted in a curated Vietnam Collection for Estrella de Mar.
Before I knew it, it was time to join my Intrepid Travel group. Their website states, “you’ll stay under the radar, travel the local way, eat the local way and sleep the local way. You’ll get as close to real life as possible (without actually moving in).” They also share core principals of mine such as respecting local culture and leaving a minimal environmental footprint. In certain past travels (England and Guatemala) I have been fortunate enough to take the approach of actually moving in. Vietnam was not going to be one of those experiences, so I was looking forward to my trip with Intrepid, but with a small degree of apprehension. I had never traveled on a group tour before.
Would our group mesh well? Would the itinerary be right for me? Would our guide feel like a chaperone? My worries soon dissipated. Traveling with our guide felt more like having a local friend who happened to be super knowledgable, helpful and organized. I quickly realized the joy of having transportation, accommodations and a few activities a day already sorted out. The freedom from having to focus on the logistics of all that allowed me to really be in the moment, appreciate my surroundings and take advantage of free time as well.
My group was a wonderful mix of people, of all ages, from all over the world and various backgrounds. This experience just reinforced the value of going into a new situation with an open mind and an open heart. Things have a way of working out and likeminded people have a way of crossing paths. Intrepid delivers on their promise of doing things the local way. I still felt like a traveler, not a tourist. Just with the amazing added advantage of Intrepid’s expert itinerary. In Hue, a picturesque Buddhist Nunnery hosted our group for an elaborate, delicious vegetarian lunch. This was just one of the unique opportunities that I wouldn’t have even thought to try and organize for myself. I highly recommend traveling with Intrepid to make the most of experiencing a new country in an authentic way, during a limited amount of time and with a set budget. The entire trip was one that I will never forget.