Northern Vietnam tailored to your needs
It was my first time in Vietnam. When traveling alone I normally like to explore a country on my own. I'm not a fan of tours. But on a recommendation, I reached out to Hop at Mercury Travel. He was incredibly responsive, as we traded emails for a few days, and I decided to use them. Great decision!
Hop asked what I liked and wanted to accomplish -- meeting people, culture, photography, food, getting off-the-beaten path. He tailored an itinerary to just that.
A driver picked me up at the airport and drove me to the Sheraton Hanoi, where Hop met me to review the plan. There was still time for a 3+ hour culinary tour of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, as Lam, my excellent guide for the trip, walked us around his city. We stopped at his favorite little places for everything from eel soup to spring rolls to pho, and finished the night by relaxing at "beer corner." There were many photo ops in lantern street, bamboo street, etc. Great start.
Day Two was spent around the villages at Ninh Binh. After a 2.5-hour drive we were in a different world. Our sampan boat lady took Lam and me for a river and cave cruise. In 2 hours we met one other boat. Then a delicious 9-course lunch overlooking the village. The afternoon featured a bicycle ride through the rice paddies out to a temple carved into the mountain. Unbelievable.
Day Three was more of the same, starting with Tho Ha village, where we were welcomed into a local home. I got to try my hand at making the rice paper from spring rolls on a traditional device. The wife can make 1,000 a day. I struggled to make about four. The husband shared rice wine and we sang and played traditional string instruments. Lam, driver and I had a simple, delicious pho lunch. There was still time to visit Dau and But Thap pagoda in Bac Ninh province before returning to Hanoi.
Days Four and Five were spent traveling to Halong Bay and sailing the Red Dragon junk overnight in the less crowded Bai Tu Long Bay. Great conversations with van-mates getting there and with my eight shipmates on the boat.
The last day was a drive back to the airport. All and all, an extraordinary trip, thanks to Custom Vietnam. Lam was a wealth of information, as he answered hours of questions from me, and I became quite the expert in everything from rice growing to Vietnamese culture.
I will definitely use these guys again when I explore other parts of Vietnam.