Hue Festival April 12-20th 2014

Festival1 Whether you have planned a trip to Vietnam, are considering planning a trip to Vietnam or had not even thought of planning a trip to Vietnam, this is an opportunity not to be missed.

Hue is in the centre of Vietnam and is the captial of the country when it was still ruled by the Emperor until the French left the country. Hue has much to offer including the Forbidden City of the Emperor, his family and entourage and the beautiful Perfume River.

featival3jpgHue is also the host of a bi annual Festival event that celebrates all that is Vietnam through music, song and culture, There are parades with people in colourful traditional dress, ethnic dancing from around Vietnam, spectacular firework displays, an International trade fair with stalls from around the world, dancing and music from Finland and Belgium as well as Vietnam. Many of the activities and displays are free with some special ticket only events organised. 

Hue is a great city to visit at any time of the year but this period offers that extra special bonus. festival2It also offers an extra special bonus in terms of special Festival offers. HGH Travel are delighted to offer a 10% discount on a 6 day tour to Hue and Hoi An between the 12th and the 20th April.

Don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy the very best that Hue and Vietnam can offer at a price not to be matched!

Visit the Authentic, Traditional Hue Within the Outer Walls of the Citadel

The Citadel in Hue was the home of the last Emperor of Vietnam and is a must to see when you visit this charming city in the centre of Vietnam. You enter through the gates of the Citadel and can visit some of the buildings in which the Emperor, his family and his entourage lived.

It is the Forbidden City of Vietnam where only the privileged were allowed to live or even visit. It Inside the Citadel in Huewas sadly the victim of serious bombing during the American/Vietnam war but there are still many of the original structures standing and there is now a great deal of sensitive restoration work being done.

Recently, however, I learnt a lot more about the Citadel in the wider sense. When you pay your Dong and enter the gates, you enter the Inner Citadel but there is also the Outer Citadel which was also a walled area. It would have been where the Mandarins lived, the educated me who served the government in one capacity or IMG_0655another. They did not live in the inner sanctum but in the outer area from where they could be called to service and support the system. And of course, this would also have been the area of the servants and the service providers of such exalted personnel.

Travelling by boat and cycle within the outer realms of the Citadel offers a unique and totally different view of the city of Hue. You can cycle along quiet roads where daily life reflects more of life in days gone by. Artisans create Votive money to burn as offerings to assist deceased relatives in their life in the other world. Specialist cooks create special rice dishes that are traditional food during the Vietnamese new year IMG_0742celebrations but are also given as offerings to the altars that all Vietnamese people have in their homes. And then there are the market gardeners who lease out land that buts up against the Citadel walls to grow produce that they sell in the local markets.

The difference in the speed of life and the relaxed attitude of people is tangible in this area of the city and the return to the busier, bustling centre is striking in its difference.IMG_0723

HGH Travel have developed a great half day tour using a boat and a bicycle to explore this area which makes a perfect addition to your tour inside the grand walls of the home of the last Emperor of Vietnam. You get to see some sights that you will not see and meet charming people who live well off the tourist track. Contact HGH for more information about the Citadel Tour or to see what else there is on offer at 

Tet in Vietnam

Tet in Vietnam:  February 3rd-8th 2014 

Tet in Vietnam is a bit like Christmas, New Year and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.There is even a replacement for Santa Claus in the figure of The Kitchen God, Ong Tao who, after being privy to the families doings throughout the year returns to Heaven to make his report on the 23rd day of the 12th month, just before the week of Tet. As with Santa Claus, Father Christmas and St Nicholas, there are many versions of what adds up to the same story of this mythical figure who watches over us in a friendly way and repays us for our ‘goodness’ throughout the year.

In the folklore and mythology of Vietnam, the local people are descended from the dragon and a fairy symbolising the essential balance of Yin and Yang, masculine and feminine energies. The Dragon Dances  represent this legend with groups in local communities  dressing up in elaborate Dragon Dance costumes parading around the streets with drums and dancing along with a young woman who offers special attention to the children of the village.

After Ong Tao has left, in the week before Tet (Tat Nien), preparations start in earnest. Families visit the graves of parents and grandparents to tend the graves, burn incense and invoke the souls of the dead to prepare for their annual visit the family home. Cleaning of house and home begins in earnest as only the essentials will be done during the week of Tet.

Trees and Plants

Throughout the year, flowers and plants are important in Vietnam but never more so than at Tet. Flowering plants of all types are also bought in vast amounts with special markets set up in towns and cities to meet the demands.

 But as in the Western culture of Christmas, every family has a tree.

Some families especially in the countryside set up a Tet tree called a ‘Cay Neu’. This is a bamboo pole stripped of most leaves except for a bunch at the very top. Talismanic objects are then hung to clang in the breeze to attract good spirits and repel evil ones. At the top, is placed a paper symbol of yin and yang, the principal forces of the universe. This is ceremoniously removed on the 7th day after Tet.  However, the majority of people in cities (especially northern cities)  buy a kumquat tree, the bigger the better. Throughout the streets and the countryside, bicycles of roving vendors sell flowers and trees all balancing precariously and impossibly on the vehicles.

In the south, the bright golden yellow branches of the mai apricot are seen everywhere.  In the north, the soft rose-colored dao peach flowers decorate homes and offices.


Pre Tet is the time for thorough sweeping, scrubbing and polishing. The whole house gets a thorough overall ready for the all important food preparation and to avoid having to do anything more than the essential basics during Tet.


As well as the regular stores and markets, new vendors pop up everywhere like mushrooms selling all the ingredients needed to produce the traditional food of Tet as well as selling finished products ready to eat. Prices increase but this is one time of the year when thriftiness is not considered (remind you again of Christmas?). And of course, as well as the traditional food of the season, food generally features highly on the agenda.

Traditional food:  Food during Tet is often served cold to reduce the amount of time spent in the kitchen. The most popular food is Banh chung and is found everywhere in Vietnam with slight variations in shape or content. Basically, they are patties made of shreds of fatty pork surrounded by a dense mixture of sticky rice and mashed green beans, wrapped in leaves and steamed.

Banh Ngot is a sweet version of the banh chung made without meat. Both can be served hot or cold.

Transport During Tet:

Again, here we have similarities to the Western traditions of Christmas and Thanksgiving, Tet is a time for families to get together. The massive migration of young people from the provinces to the cities to get better education and jobs means that there is a lot of traveling to do pre Tet. Many come from small villages where their parents still live and work as subsistence farmers and this is the only time of the year when the family is able to reconvene. Unlike the West, there is no debate about who travels where. The children and their families always travel to the house of the parents of the husband as the first priority. Planes, trains and buses get booked up well in advance and are VERY busy with people sitting and sleeping in the aisles of buses and trains for journeys up to 15 hours and even more. And everyone traveling has bags full of presents (mostly food and flowers) for their esteemed parents and families. Despite the crush, the friendly, holiday mood is infectious and very special to be part of.

The dates of Tet are January/February is dictated by the first full moon of the year. Transportation can be challenging and the focus in most areas is on family rather than tourists.But of course, the benefit of being in Vietnam during Tet is that it offers an opportunity for experiencing some of the local traditions of this very special period.

The Eve of Tet

As midnight approaches on the eve of Tet, all eyes maintain a close look at clocks and watches when there is the ritual of Giao Thua (pronounced ‘zow tua’). Giao Thua is seen as a very sacred time as the old year gives way to the new. At midnight, families whisper prayers as bells ring and drums beat in temples. The word Giao means ‘to give’ while Thua means ‘to receive’ so the moment of midnight means a passing on or giving of life to the new year.

Giao Thua is followed by the ‘Gia Tien’ ritual when deceased relatives are invited to  visit for the days of Tet into the world of the living family. Paper money and other paper gifts are then burned in the courtyard and everyone focuses on the blowing away of the ashes. This is seen as the ancestors accepting the invitation to return.

Although this may sound a little ghoulish to the western ear, honoring ancestors is central to the spiritual lives of most Vietnamese people. Every home has an altar  to honor the ancestors of the family and is adorned twice monthly with flowers and fruit with parties held to mark the death date of important members of the family. Honouring the ancestors in this way at the turn of the year is a way of bringing lost ones into current awareness.

A more recently introduced tradition is the socialising on the eve of Tet with friends (especially for those who cannot spend time with the family) and the setting off of community fireworks. This is usually accompanied by a lot of noise from the banging of cans, singing and electronic firecrackers.


Day 1: The first morning of Tet is reserved for the nuclear family, that is, the husband’s household. Immediate family members get together with the husbands parents, or if the parents are dead, with the family of the elder brother.

Not to be forgotten, there is a special ritual for children called Mung Tuoi, or ‘well wishing on achievements during the coming year’. Very formally,  they thank their grandparents for their birth and upbringing. The grandparents respond by offering words of advice and wisdom and encourage them to study well and live in harmony. The children accept small gifts, usually money given in little red envelopes. This is often called ‘lucky money’.

Children make verbal promises and adults make silent ones to improve their lives, habits and relationships much the same as the western tradition of new year’s resolutions. The family then make offerings to the altar table to welcome the ancestors on their return visit. This might include food, liquor, cigarettes, flowers and paper gold and silver, whatever the ancestors would have enjoyed in their lives. Three sticks of incense are lit and prayers offered while the names of up to 5 generations are whispered and invited to join the celebrations.

The family will then enjoy a meal typically made up of steamed chicken, bamboo shoot soup, banh chung and fresh fruits.

Day 2: The second day of Tet is for visiting the wife’s family and close friends. Some shops have opened and a few lottery stands are busy selling chances to people who feel lucky. Everyone is out on the street parading around in their new clothes.

Day 3: On the third day of Tet, the circle of connections becomes larger and is extended to the broader community outside the family by visits to teachers, bosses or revered physician. Fortune tellers are very busy at this time of year as are people who can interpret the first dream of the year.

The evening of the third day marks the departure of the ancestors by burning votive objects such as gold and silver, for them to take with them on their journey back to Heaven.

Now the connections spread even wider. The non-family member who will be the first visitor to the house is carefully chosen. The “first footer” is an auspicious guest who is considered to be good luck for the family for the coming year and is usually someone healthy, successful and prosperous. Some Vietnamese lock their doors to all chance visitors until after the visit of the chosen “first footer.”

4th Day: On the fourth day, careful attention is paid to the resumption of all activities with the first time in the New Year that a family leaves their home often being taken on the advice of fortune tellers. Banks, shops, offices reopen although everything might happen slower than normal.

15th Day: The fifteenth day of Tet (called Ram Thang Gieng), the first full moon, is considered the most auspicious day of the Buddhist year and there are ceremonies in all Buddhist temples. It is said that “paying homage to Buddha all year long is not as effective as praying on the 15th day of the first lunar month.”

The Vietnamese traditionally celebrated Tet from the fifteenth day of the twelfth month to the fifteenth day of the first month.  The Vietnamese greeting for new year is ‘Chúc mừng năm mới’ (pronounced ‘chuck mong nam moy’)

Chúc mừng năm mới

Holiday, Travel or Adventure?

Before booking any flights, hotels or tours, its important to consider what you really want from a break from work, the routine, regular life. Over the years of holidays, travel and adventure, I have come to realise that they are quite different in charactor and in nature.


Beach sceneThe average working person has X amount of days leave to take from their workplace and, again, the majority of people want to have a change of scenery and time to relax and chill out. For some that might be spending 2 weeks sitting by the pool, soaking up the sun and drinking margeritas and spending the evenings eating and drinking with friends new or old. For others, they might choose the security of the hotel and enjoy the pool at the end of an organised tours to one place of local interest or another. P1010647

Its a safe, organised, risk aversive, ‘don’t have to think to much’, relaxing period designed to re charge the batteries and indulge. It can also be a way of enjoying the sun without being thrown into the center of a totally different culture.

OK so let’s take this need for a holiday to somewhere different, let’s head for Vietnam. Vietnam offers the whole range of possibilities. You could go to stay in a hotel on the beautiful beaches of Da Nang. There is a wide range of hotels in this area where you can enjoy the very best of the best in Vietnam. And you can take a short trip to the delightful ancient town of Hoi An that has numerous restaurants and cafes. Everyone speaks excellent English. It is a beautifully preserved town that has a lot of architecture and history to share. It is on the river so trips are available after which you can relax with a drink at a bar by the river’s edge. And if shopping is your thing, it is Vietnam’s answer to your prayers. There is a wide array of tailors and dress makers who will put your ideas into reality. You can choose a pattern from a book or simply take a picture for them to work from. 24 hours later, you have your item created especially for you. And don’t forget the shoes. Cobblers will also create P1080743individually designed sandles, shoes or boots for you.

If culture is what you would like, you are very near the ancient Kymar ruins in the mountains overlooking Da Nang. And then there is the old city of Hue where you can visit the Citadel, take P1080652a boat trip along the Perfume River, visit the many Pagodas and Temples along the river side or enjoy the gentle buzz of this lovely little town.

Example of a Holiday Tour with HGH Travel (


Taking us from that option to the idea of Travel is a sliding scale of detials. I have certainly done holidays where I have had a package in a hotel with pool and flight. I have also booked organised tours from the hotel for the day and thoroughly enjoyed them. I then started organising my own tours to visit places that I wanted to see in the area. My next step was to book hotels and flights seperately to allow for more flexibility so I could do a two places trip moving from one area to another under my own steam.

P1010790So here I am beginning to move on that sliding scale from Holiday to Travel. It has the same purpose and outcome but it involves more planning, a more pro active and involved focus that taps into the independant nature. I started going to places on my own. While this is not in any way a pre-requisite to either Holiday or Travel, it certainly brings in the need for more decision making on the hoof and adds an element of the unknown, excitement and, at times, fear that tends to became more into focus as you move along the sliding scale to being the full out Traveller.

So being a Traveller is about independance, it is about making choices that are not pre ordained Camdodia foodby someone else. It is about taking risks, about a balance of planning and winging it with an overview of where you need to be when. It is about meeting people along the way who are doing the same sort of thing and taking advantage of maximum flexibility in your way of thinking, your plans and even your destination. Or you might map out your preset time more accurately moving from spot to spot as per plan but each time arriving at a new unknown place that is your territory to explore for the next 1, 2 or 5 days. But largely, being a traveler is about taking risks, about being independent, about going off grid (even if only a little bit) to see and experience life that is totally foreign (literally) and unwanted by the average Holiday maker.

So let’s stay in Vietnam and look at what the Traveler might do.

hanoi-old-quarterStarting earlier on the Holidaymaker-Traveler scale, someone who wants more than the comfort of staying in one place might opt for an organized tour that takes them to all of the hot spots in the country. That might take them from the capital city of Hanoi in the north to the magnificent Ha Long Bay down to Hue and Hoi An in the central area and then to Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta in the south. In this option, there is variety, there is an element of travel but it is all organized by the tour guide who is

Being every great man is a great woman!
Being every great man is a great woman!

also available for sorting out any issues that might arise. Hotels are booked, transport is taken care of, food is organized or restaurants will be suggested, tours are included. But it certainly brings in the adventure and the buzz of being on the move and having the opportunity of seeing and experiencing more places.  You might even want to add in a second country to the itinerary….. Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar are all easily accessible from Vietnam and can be included in a similar package.

OK so let’s move onto the Advernturer.

Ha Giang 044Let’s take the scenario above of travelling from north to south in Vietnam but now you are doing it alone. You are planning your own step by step progress. Accomodation might be anything from a room in a hotel to bunks in a hostel. Transport might be anything from flights to local trains to local buses or some combination of the three. Some people might arrive and hire a motorbike as their mode of transport. That is definitely at the top end of Adventure especially in Vietnam where the roads can be rather chaotic at times.

Example of a Holiday-Traveler Tour with HGH Travel (


The Traveler-Adventurer might search out the means to go to the less travelled parts of the country. Language barriers are seen as being less of a barrier, more of another aspect of the adventure to communicate effectively…or at all…. with someone from a completely different culture speaking a totally undecipherable language.

farmstay 067 IMG_0350 12th Nov 087The deeper into Adventure you go, the more risk is involved with the associated excitement and opportunities for things not going quite as planned and the more need there is for being able to go with the flow and simply dealing with stuff when it evolves. It’s often about meeting some really intriguing and interesting people who you would just never meet in an everyday world. You get to have experiences that would not be in your frame of understanding as you just have no concept of them even existing. On one of my Traveler-Adventures in SE Asia, I went to Laos and decided to stay in a homestay for a few days. I was on my own and decided that my little bit of security was to pre book a car to pick me up at the airport and take me to the homestay. After that, I was on my own. I booked into the dorm and headed down to the ‘restaurant’ which was basically a rather delicate looking raft floating on the river. The fading lights had the advantage of hiding the less glamorous aspects of the raft but proved rather a challenge when it came to finding one’s way OFF the raft and back to the dorm. As a 60 year old woman, I was from a Sapa homestay cookingdifferent world to the 20 something groups who were staying at the same place. But three charming young men were delightful and sort of accepted me into the brood for the few days that we were there. They did tentatively invite me (the sort of invitation where someone offers but obviously does not want you to say yes) to go out with them into town one evening which I declined with thanks. It was the start of a great visit to Laos which sadly ended with me losing my passport……but that’s another story!

And then of course you have the far end of the sliding scale where people go away to climb mountains, absail into caves, cycle 500 miles or something else equally exhausting to even write about.

Options for  Travel-Adventure with HGH Travel  ( For information on tailor made tours such as caving, email


And at the end of the day, this is a relatively short period into which you are putting a significant amount of hard earned cash and so it is important that you do your level best to get what YOU want from this time. There are no right or wrong ways of doing this. If risk sends your stress levels off the chart, it is important to take that into consideration. If risk=stress but you want more than a Holiday, then consider how to get the elements of Travel and Adventure that you want while staying within your comfort zone enough to get the buzz without the fear. Always remembering that excitement and fear are close buddies and it is only a short distance from one to the other.

If you are traveling alone, the decision is less complex as you only have to keep yourself happy. If Ha Long Bay 056you traveling with a companion or companions it is important to ask questions to clarify what you ALL want to get from time away from home. Maybe there is a need for a compromise of some sort to maximize comfort, relaxation, excitement and thrill for everyone. And remember, what is exciting for one is horror for another. If you need some help in deciding what sort of trip will suit your needs, feel free to talk to one of the consultants at HGH Travel in Vietnam. Alternatively, you can contact myself in the UK. I lived in Vietnam and now am based in the UK. I support HGH in their marketing and would be delighted to offer any insights and support that I can.

Have a great Holiday/Traveling/Adventure

Pat Sawyer

Zen House, Hue, Vietnam

So what is meditation? In the practical ‘what and how’ realm of reality, it means a lot of things to a lot of people but essentially whatever we do where ever we do and however we do it, the aim is to connect with spirit, to connect with the part of us that connects to the spiritual energies that exist in our belief systems.


Prayer is a type of meditation. Some people talk about communing with nature in all forms as being their path to meditation. Others honor their deity with ceremony, acknowledgement and gifts, others use complicated journeys to unlock doors and people to guide us into understanding more about ourselves and our lives. No-one is solely right or wrong. How can anything be wrong when people receive the joy and peace that is so connected with the art of meditation.

For me, the most impactful and probably the most challenging form of meditation is the art of Zen.

Zen uses no imagery, no ceremony, no ‘props’. Zen is about sitting in silence and through that silence reaching a connection with the universal energies to learn more about ourselves and about spirit in its purest form. So why is it so challenging? The aim is to sit quietly and to observe but not to get attached to our thoughts!…..that is why it is challenging. The aim is to still the mind, to become at one with pure energy. Hmm….. sounds so simple but as most simple things, it is not always simple to achieve!! It’s just not something that we are used to doing in the 21st Century of action and pro action, technology and worldwide communications. Which is precisely why it is so important and so relevant to modern living.

 Doing such meditation alone in one’s one space is refreshing, calming, at times disturbing but ultimately very holistic and healing. But as anyone who has done meditation in a group will know, whatever you can achieve (or rather NOT achieve) is multiplied exponentially when meditating in a group regardless of the surroundings. Take that group energy and place it in an environment designed for purpose and the experience takes on a whole new dimension.

Which brings me to the Zen House in Hue. Just looking at the pictures makes me smile and relax.

Path to Peace

The Zen House is situated just outside of Hue in Central Vietnam and is actually a complex with a number of buildings, gardens for beauty as well as for cultivating the organic ingredients that are used in cooking the vegetarian meals that are served. Locally it is called Cat Tuong Quan. Cat Tuong means ‘to bring joy or pleasure’. Quan means ‘gentleman’. So Cat Tuong Quan means ‘the gentleman who brings joy or pleasure’. It is the term used to describe the host of the House and is also the name given to the house itself.House

So what can you expect when visiting Cat Tuong Quan? That depends largely on how long you choose to stay for but the one thing that is always guaranteed whether you choose a half day visit or decide to stay over for 2 nights or longer is that you will have a warm and friendly greeting from


Quan, the gentle man host.

This is a spiritual center and any visitors are expected to respect the fact. People are asked to dress respectfully, speak softly, treat everything and everything with the gentle spirit of Buddhism. Meals are taken in the spirit of honoring the food and the gift that it affords us. And what do we get it return? As a visitor we get to experience that wonderful deep sense of calm and peace that abounds in such an environment. We get to allow ourselves to slow down and to connect with our sense of being in the present and embracing what that means. We get to step out of the hustle and bustle of daily life as we know it and to reconnect with the gentle manners and ways of those who embrace the Buddhist way of being. It is relaxing and invigorating at the same time. People staying at the house often report that they sleep better, enjoy their food and indeed, become more aware of themselves, others, their food, nature and everything around them.

You can see the range of visits and experiences that can be arranged for you at the house. Just make sure you book in advance with HGH Travel to reserve your place….this is one that you just do not want to miss for a short half day visit, a 2 night stay or to celebrate a special event.

The Charm of Mai Chau, Vietnam

Nestled in a valley of the mountainous area the North West of Vietnam, Mai Chau is a comfortable, easy, relaxing and totally charming place to visit. It’s in the Hoa Binh Province just 140 km from the capital city of Ha Noi. It’s a place to chill out with the local hospitality, a place to enjoy the planned and spontaneous local entertainment and to indulge in a little easy, not too energetic exploration.

The People and the Culture

The local people are primarily from the Thai ethnic minority groups which includes the White Thai and the Black Thai. In Vietnam, when a colour is given to the name of a tribe it denotes the primary colours used in their traditional dress. Other than in the dancers, you do not see many people wearing traditional clothes in this area (unlike Sapa and the more rural areas). However they do still live mainly in the very traditional stilt houses. 


Mau ChauThis picture is typical of the area….lush green foliage and crops surrounded by distant haunting mountains. The town of Mai Chau is a small busy local town with little other than the market to distinguish it from many other small towns. You will most than likely stay in the village of just outside of the town that has specialised in welcoming tourists into its midst. It does a wonderful job of retaining its charactor of being a rural village while offering first class accomodation, food and things to do.

There is one small boutique hotel in the village that is very comfortable. Food is excellent catering for the western taste of eastern food. Room are small but smart and the equally small but smart swimming pool brings a welcome relief on a hot day. There are also home stays that cater for the more adventurous traveller who wants to experience some of life in a stilt house. I have stayed in both. Loved both but for me, I would always veer towards the homestay end of things. True it is not as comfortable or as private. We slept in a large open space on mattresses on the floor with curtains dividing one sleeping space from another. And I slept like a log and woke feeling refreshed and ready to go.

The view from the dining area of the home stay.
The view from the dining area of the home stay.

The Thai people are generous and have a lovely sense of humour. English is widely spoken very well in the village but in the town, it is less likely to find many people who are fluent (unless they work in the village).  

Most of the locals are subsistence farmers owning and farming their own plot of land to grow rice and other crops to form their staple diet. If you are lucky and it is ‘that’ time of year, you might be invited to have a go at planting the rice crop. I tried it and it is surprisingly difficult to do properly.

Things to do in the Area

A gaggle of very amateur cyclists off for an adventure.
A gaggle of very amateur cyclists off for an adventure.

Cycling is a great favourite. The land is largely flat making cycling easy and fun for the most basic of amateurs. And if you get tired, there won’t be far to go before you reach a place of rest that proobably also serves some scrumptous local beer. But of course if you don’t trust yourself on the two wheels you can always stick to your two feet and take a walk.

Other activities that can be arranged in the area are rock climbing and scrambling into the depths of the local cave. This cave is a true adventure. Make sure you go prepared in good shoes. You start off in a huge cavernous entrance area that was used to store ammunition during the Vietnam/American war. You then leave this area and walk, then scramble then duck and dive through ever narrowing corriders. Lighting is minimal offering an amazing atmosphere. You eventually open out to another huge area at the bottom of which runs a river that, apparently, you can swim through to the open air. I hasten to say that there were no takers to prove the theory!!

There are the inevitable gift shops and the local ladies who weave lovely scarves that they sell andMai Chau 093 a ridiculously low price. Food is delicious, all made with local fresh produce. Drink is plentiful and you are surrounded by friendly faces. One afternoon, while strolling through the village, we entered into a game of pool with the local youth and a great time was had by all.

If you want to see more of the extended area, take a ride into the mountains and visit the Ethnic Minority market of the Flower H’mong people. This scene is a riot of colour with the locals not only selling brightly, multi coloured material but also wearing it in the traditional way.

These are a few more picture of this really lovely place. If you are in Vietnam and are in the North and have a couple of days spare, do not miss this area!!

If you planning to visit Vietnam and want to organise your complete trip with a travel agent or if you prefer to go it alone but would like some help in arranging short visits, go visit We have standard tours from half a day to 17 days and also arrange bespoke tours to match your individual needs. If you are in the UK and want to talk about Vietnam, give me a call on 0792 5300320.

Bon Voyage, Pat





Memories to Savor from IndoChina

Map of IndochinaA trip to any or all of the Indochina trio of countries will totally delight you and leave you with memories to last a lifetime..or at least until the next visit!

What is Indochina? It is an area in SE Asia made up of three countries, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It was in effect a colony of France, dominated and ruled from 1887. The Second World War saw a serious weakening of the power of France and they were indeed driven out of Vietnam but the famous leader, Ho Chi Minh. The federation of Indochina was finally officially disbanded on April 27th 1954 and the three countries were declared to be independent of outside rule.

And independent they truly are. They are akin to family members with some similarities but totally unique characters. To visit one is a wonderful experience, to visit all three is just the perfect adventure packed full of memories that will last you a lifetime. 

So what exciting delights await you among the smorgasbord of choices? Well, as I have used the analogy of food, we might as well continue in the same vein.

Laos food

Wine, beer are widely available in all three countries as is the spirits made from rice….delicious and potent. Although as a nation, the locals of the trio tend not to be regular drinkers themselves, alcohol is readily available as are the most delicious smoothies and fresh juices. Interestingly, there is little left of the legacy of food from the French reign other than baguettes and wine although you will Camdodia foodsee hints of the old influence when you see items like roasted frogs legs and snails on the menu. Laos and Cambodia are heavily influenced by Thailand as well as China in their cuisine. But both counties add their own unique flavor to the dishes that they create. And of course as with most countries, there are also regional differences.   Lots of rice dishes, noodles with sauces of fish, meat, tofu and vegetables. Vietnam 

Viet Foodhas more of a cuisine of its own. Meals are crafted with a balance of tastes, textures and content. A typical meal is made up of many dishes that complement each other many served with their own sauce on the side. Noodle soup and Hot Pots are firm also favorites in the area. 

Ok so that deal with the culinary needs. Now let’s move to the more spiritual.

P1010670 Whatever you own personal beliefs, you will be delighted with the many Pagodas that you will visit in your travels. All three countries are Buddhist but of differing styles of worship. The Vietnamese are Animist Buddhists which means that they worship the ancestors. They are deeply spiritual people many of whom pray daily at their altar at home and visit the Pagoda at certain times. There are people who serve the Pagodas but it is not in the way in which we think of Buddhism. For the orange clad Monks walking the streets with their begging bowls and spending many hours at quiet mediation in the temple, go to Cambodia and Laos. Both countries have beautiful Pagodas that have ornate decorations and a very active and evident community of Monks, young and old.

History abounds in all three countries from past history from the ancient and extensive Champa Cambodia 195dynasty, through the Chinese domination through the French region and finally into the more recent history of the Vietnamese/American war and the Khmer Rouge horror in Cambodia. All three countries have their stories to tell through their architecture, their way of life, their way of being and even their languages.

Let’s have a whistle stop of the highlights to visit. In Cambodia THE highlight has to be the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat National Park. Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. This is definitely one for the bucket list.Luang Prabang

Laos boasts spectacular countryside that links the two main most visited cities are the small but beautifully formed capital of Vientiane  and magnificently preserved Luang Prabang. Both snuggle up to rivers, both have some beautiful buildings to visit and both exude a laid back, gentle approach to hospitality.  If you are looking for more adventure, head North of Luang Prabang to the mountainous area, West along the stretch of the Mekong Delta that takes you into North Thailand or South to the exquisite 4000 Island area where you can get away from just about everything and enjoy the vistas and the simple lives of local people.

P1090043Vietnam is a treasure trove of many gems. Travelling south to north, you start off in the modern, busy and charismatic city of Ho Chi Minh. From here, short trips will take you to visit the river life of the Mekong Delta, the beaches of the south coast including a trip to the adorable island of Phu Quoc and the Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Khong not only fought but they lived in large communities during the war with America.

The central area of Hoi An and Hue offers you an Hoi Aninsight into past times when the country was influenced by the Chinese. Despite damage from the war, the area exudes charm and warmth (from the climate and the people alike). Travelling East takes you into the magnificent Central Highlands to visit the wonders of nature and man alike. The North of Vietnam is not without its own unique charm. Hanoi is arguably the most interesting of all the Indochina cities. It has ancient charm in its architecture but also in the way the locals live their lives. Street culture is huge here in the Old Quarter and you cannot but help be charmed by the vendors, cafe’s and family gatherings that happen in the narrow and hectic P1010343streets. Hanoi, as any good capital city should, can offer just about anything that you want, ancient, new, traditional. modern, beauty and innovation. Travel East to Ha Long Bay, another UNESCO world heritage center and this year voted as one of the 10 Natural Wonders of the World. Words belay the mystery and wonder of the Bay. It is unique and totally engaging. Travelling north brings you to the extensive area of the Sapa 9Northern Highlands, home of many of the 52 Ethnic Minority groups who live in Vietnam. Each province has a different character, different ethnic groups but all share the most majestic scenery that is rarely challenged.

Looking for something different? Want to guarantee a warm welcome in a charming, beautiful Ha Long Bay 056and varied setting? Indochina just cannot be beaten. It is somewhere you will either crave to revisit or it will live in  your memories for a lifetime.

A variety of tours are arranged by HGHTravel to the Indochina area. Visit the website and check out the options And if you don’t see exactly what you want, don’t hesitate, email or call HGH and the helpful staff will be more than happy to discuss options. As well as doing published tours, HGH also specialize in planning bespoke tours designed to match your exact profile. Don’t settle for less, make sure you go for the best!!!

I love Vietnam (starting in the North)

For the past four decades, I have been a serial traveler. I love to see other countries, cultures and to explore the ways of being of people from around the world. To that end, I have been fortunate enough to visit around 42 countries, some of them many times. I love the heat and so have mainly confined myself to climates that provide the capacity to get rid of extra layers of clothes and bask in the glory of blue skies and hot skin. I enjoy sitting in the sun…for about an hour…and then get restless for some adventure, some activity, getting out and about.

I had little to no desire to visit Vietnam. My focus was more on the Americas. And then I decided to enroll as a volunteer with VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) and ended up in Hanoi for 2 years and continue to spend as long as possible there. I forever thank my lucky stars for that opportunity as I totally fell in love with both Hanoi and Vietnam as a whole.

So what is so special about Vietnam? Here, I want to share some thoughts and insights……

Long and relatively narrow, Vietnam has just about every time of countryside you could want. Imagine that you are dropped into the country with the rugged and  glorious mountains, the home of many of the tribes of the 54 Ethnic Minority groups of Vietnam. Each district of the Mountainous area has its own unique character and countryside, some even more spectacular than the rest. Technically if you land at the most northerly point, you are in Ha Giang district and what a treat you have to wind along the mountain roads. You can head east towards the East Sea. west towards the famous town of SaPa, even further west to Son La. Or go south towards Hanoi and, for me, the jewel of Vietnam. 

Ha Giang     Sapa 9

Sapa 29       Sapa 12

OK, I am biased, living in Hanoi for 2 years, I was able to get to know the city very well. So what can you expect to see as a visitor staying for just a few days? Hanoi is something of an assault on the senses and for a few days, you can simply sit back and enjoy it. When you get hooked, you can explore more and more during future visits! The center of Hanoi is loud (too many bikes in many narrow streets), the variety of architecture, street vendors, changes of character from one district to another all fill the vision to the level of overload. There is a strong street culture that thrives in Hanoi much as it has done for centuries. People set up cafes and mini restaurants on the pavement (sidewalk) where you can get a drink or a full meal. The smells permeate the air. In all truth, there are sometimes some less pleasant smells that permeate the air but they are the ones to  hurry past. Hanoi is also of interest and, at times, a challenge to the kinesthetic sense of touch, That street culture and those ‘too many’ bikes on narrow streets, create something of a maze of obstacles to meet, greet and deal with. You cannot be in a rush in the center Hanoi but who cares about rushing when you are on holiday!


Other delights of the North of Vietnam include the famous Ha Long Bay. This has now been designated as being one of the 7 natural wonders of the world…and with good reason. The first time I went to the Bay it was at the end of January and day one saw a mist on the Bay. This all just added to the mysteriousness of this quite amazing place. After the chaos at the port, you arrive on your boat and relax while the crew take the boat out into the Bay. Its difficult to describe the impact that it made on me….I was just dumbstruck. I had seen pictures like you probably have but was not prepared for the atmosphere that is created as you sail around these magnificent mini mountains that emerge out of the sea like some sort of magical monster. Vietnamese lore does indeed describe the Karsts as being dragons that came down from heaven to save Vietnam from some ancient threat of invasion and they turned into stone to act as a protection against an invasion of the country by water. The whole experience is a total delight so much so that I went back twice more. If you have time, add in a trip to Cat Ba Island where you can enjoy a delightful old fashioned seaside town and glorious countryside. Just a few hours drive from Hanoi, this is a must for any traveler to the northern part of Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay    'Wate village' in Ha Long bay

The other jewel of the area that I would add to the ‘must do’ list is Ninh Binh. This area is packed full of treasures. You can see Tam Coc, nicknamed the ‘inland H aLong Bay’…..which is sort of true but belies that fact that the river that you travel down has its own unique flavor of rocks and water. There are also some beautiful old buildings in the area, an ancient palace and many pagodas including one of my favorites in the whole of the country, built into the rock face. And if you want some fresh air and fancy visiting one of the oldest forests in Vietnam, you can to to the Cuc Phuong National Park. In my opinion, the Ninh Binh area is worthy of as long as you can afford to stay there, it has so many hidden treasures to offer the visitor.

P1010647    P1010677

Coming back nearer to Hanoi, you have other areas of interest nearby, there are the craft villages, the Perfume Pagoda and Mai Chau, a delightful town nestling in the valley at the foot of the mountains. But I will come back to these places in more detail in further blogs.


A Day in Ha Noi

You have a free day in Ha Noi. What can you do? Wow, what a question. I always think the first response to a question is another question. What do you want to get out of the day? Do you want history, culture, ambiance, local color? The easiest way of course to get a little of everything is to organize a tour for the day. Of course you can do this in a group with a prearranged set of places to go or you can plan the day yourself with a driver and guide.

So let’s plan a day in Ha Noi that covers all bases, a sort of pick and mix approach.

Just driving around this vibrant city is an education in itself. The Old Quarter is a must (time allowing) to walk through but as an additional treat, drive down the narrow and frenetically busy streets. Progress will be slow as it always is when heavy traffic flow meets narrow roads. The good news is that this allows you to see and absorb sights and sounds as you crawl along.

Hoan Kiem Lake is the heart of Ha Noi and is a treasure to see and enjoy. Make sure you stop to visit the Ngoc Son (“Jade Mountain”) Temple. Parts of the temple date back to the fourteenth century, although the current buildings were probably built in the eighteenth century. The temple is dedicated to the hero Tran Hung Dao, who defeated a force of 300,000 sent to invade Vietnam by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. Oh and while you are at the Lake, keep a careful eye out for the ancient turtle that is said to live in the lake…..legend says that this will bring you a lot of luck.
Hoan Kiem Lake

Luck is often what you need to negotiate the Hanoi roads but a little skill also comes into play. The key thing is to walk slowly across the road and give clear indications to the motorbike riders what you are doing and then they will weave around you. The same strategy does NOT work for cars….cars you simply avoid!

After Hoan Kiem Lake, a drive through the French Quarter will show you the dramatic difference between the narrow roads and tiny houses of the Vietnamese and the wide tree lined streets and grand buildings of the French during their occupation of the country. The magnificent Opera House is worth a visit if you ever do have a spare evening and fancy a little culture.

opera house hanoi

Next stop?… of the best museums in Ha Noi is in the French quarter, the Museum of Women. It is a very well organized and presented insight into the lives of women in Vietnam past and present. Don’t miss it and don’t miss enjoying a drink in the cafe.

The Temple of Literature is a good option next. This was the first University in Vietnam. There are Temples to honor various scholars of the past, interesting artifacts from the era when it was very active all set within a walled area that exudes peace within this rather noisy and crazy city. it is well worth the trip.

Travelling back north of the city, you come to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum compound. This is a grand area snuggled in neatly next to the Presidents Palace. Depending on time, you can simply enjoy the outside environment with the splendid view of the Mausoleum set  . The Mausoleum itself is a very grand setting worthy of such a revered and respected leader. Go towards the museum and you will see the gardens and get to enjoy the shelter of the trees….very welcome on a hot day. If you are blessed with more time, the Museum is splendid, informative, fun and very quirky. Ho Chi Minh’s house has been reconstructed in the gardens to visit and if you choose to, you can also visit and pay respects to the man himself inside the Mausoleum. HCM1

A short drive further north takes you down a road of splendid government buildings to the southern edge of two lakes, on the left is West Lake (the largest of all the lakes in this lake rich city) and Chuc Bach Lake on your right. There are some good places to eat, grab an ice cream, drink or to just sit in this area. You can even take a ride on one of the lakes on a Swan peddalo  if the mood takes you. Whatever else you decide to do. don’t miss the oldest of the Pagodas in the city.  The Pagoda is called Trấn Quốc Pagoda which is Vietnamese for “Stabilizing the Nation.” It is on West Lake and accessed over a short bridge.

Ha Noi is a city full of hidden treasures which can engage you for years and still throw up surprises for you. It is a city of diversity and high energy with a vibrant street culture that at times enforces the pedestrian to walk in the street or to simply join the locals to have something to eat or drink on the roadside. Is one day enough? Well it’s enough to get a snapshot but if you are intrigued and fall in love with the city as so many people do, you can be assured of finding more and more treasures hidden away just around the corner waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

As they say in Vietnamese, Hen Gap Lai (see you again). P1090091

Pat Sawyer

Folk Painting in Hue, Vietnam.

In May 2013, I found myself in the lovely city of Hue, Vietnam. My partner and I wanted to do something different. We had been to the Citadel and taken the trip down the Perfume River to the Temples and Tombs and loved it all. But we wanted to see something of the ‘real’ Hue of old….how did the ordinary folk live in times gone by and what was left of that culture?

So we went to the village of Sinh where the ancient art of folk painting is still practiced.

The trip began with a short walk to the Perfume River where we boarded one of the Dragon boats. This time we went up river, in the opposite direction to the Tombs and Temples. The countryside was gentle and relaxing and all too soon we were ready to go ashore. However, our disappointment at leaving the river was soon replaced by the warm greeting that we received from Mr Ky Huu Phuoc and his charming wife.


Our guide explained that the village was once a bustling center of the production of the special folk paintings. Time and lack of interest from the younger generation leaves Mr Phuoc with the responsibility of being the last of the local artisans to carry on with the tradition. We felt very blessed to be able to share this time with such a warm hearted and talented man.


Through our interpreter, we learnt that Mr Phuoc, ably helped by his wife, makes his own paper. That in itself I found to be quite remarkable. They have no factory or industrial set up at all, just their home and garden space. To make the paper more sturdy and provide a sheen on the surface, they make a paste using shells taken from the river. In a hilarious few minutes of miming and playacting, I discovered directly from Mr Phuoc how they collect the shells and pound them into small pieces before mixing with water and making a paste. The effect is very pretty but in our industrial world where machines dominate, it was amazing to me that such a lot of effort was put into creating this lovely effect.

So we have the paper….all made and prepared with natural resources and ready to go. With this information tucked under my belt, I was invited to create an imprint using pre prepared, hand carved (of course) blocks of all of the animal symbols from the Vietnamese/Chinese horoscope. I chose my appropriate animal according to my birth year….the Tiger. But before we could start, I had a friendly disagreement when Mr Phuoc insisted that I was a Cat and not a Tiger. We finally agreed the dates lined up for the more demonstrative Tiger.

Creating a Masterpiece.
Creating a Masterpiece.

So having created my black outlined print, I was then invited to paint it. Recognizing my total absence of any artistic skills, Mrs Phuoc kindly gave me a finished product to copy. With great relief I set about creating my masterpiece.

Being every great man is a great woman!
Being every great man is a great woman!

I was offered a range of colors to use and a rather short and unusual paintbrush. Always curious, I asked about both. All of the paints were made using products from nature…. plants and flowers provided the nature and lovely range of colors. So this man not only creates his own paper and glaze, he also makes his own paint and colors, not to mention carving the printing blocks. (oh, forgot to mention, he built his own house and work area). So then I was intrigued with the paint brush to be told that the stem was made from bamboo and the bristles were taken from the wild papaya plant.

Engrossed in my creativity, I thought about the work and love that went into this life and creation and sent out a strong wish that someone was willing and interested in carrying on this wonderful set of skills.

Creativity over, we were offered tea (delicious) and fresh fruit from the tree (yummy) in the front garden. I bought some of the folk paintings created by the master and a bamboo casing to keep them safe in my travels. We then took our leave after having a wonderful time.

Instead of going back to Hue by river, we headed across country on the back of a couple of bikes. It was harvest time for the rice crops and so we were able to see many people hard at work in the fields. The landscape around Hue is flat but really beautiful in its clarity and simplicity.

En route back, we stopped off at the village where Ho Chi Minh lived in his adolescence. It is a small, humble home very well preserved and cared for and we loved it. As well as being a significant piece of Vietnamese history, it offered a perfect example of homes as they were built in the last centuries.


And back to Hue, exhausted and very happy after a truly lovely day of relaxation, creativity, friendship, excitement (it was certainly exciting on the back of the bike!) and history. Off for a shower, change and a drink at the local bar.