The Group Tour

Susan and I are pretty confident travelers and generally book our own holidays. But given the language difficulties we felt we'd encounter in VN, and encouraged by our neighbor Kristin who had taken a similar tour, we felt comfortable booking a group tour with an outfit called Intrepid Travel, based in Australia. They promised small groups (12 or fewer), knowledgable guides, and reasonable hotels.

Nine hundred dollars each covered 9 nights; internal travel, which encompassed plane, private buses, overnight train-- as well as an overnight boat in scenic Halong Bay; and numerous excursions along the way. It took the hassle and anxiety out of booking hotels and travel, and allowed us to focus on our experience. Though a little wary going in, we found the experience was overwhelmingly positive—no worries about hotels or transport, with enough optional activities planned to keep things interesting, but also with plenty of free time, where you could split into groups or fade off by yourself.

Our leader Hue was a spirited local young woman of 25, a two-year veteran of touring. She was a college graduate, very pretty with an engaging sense of humor and an attractive accent; her English was excellent.

Other group members included:

Alan and Cythnia, a married couple from Perth who were closest in age to us. They told us it was cheaper for them to fly to SE Asia than it was to get to Sydney. Very fun couple—she was a therapist, he was once a real jackeroo (sheep farmer)! They also told us that their family used to go through a “sheep a week.” And they’d eat everything. Cynthia would dice the offal fine, dredge it in flour and sauté it, apparently the kids loved it.

Tom and Hovia, brother and sister students also from Oz, both very friendly. Tom had a sharp sense of humor and was quite up on contemporary events. They were both exceptionally well-traveled and seemed to take every college holiday opportunity to nip off somewhere exotic. Tom was in the middle of a six- or eight week jaunt through SE Asia and India, and Hovia had joined him in VN.

Adrian and Amanda, a twenty-something couple from (yes) Oz—these two were bursting with life (well, they were accountants, what would you expect?), very good-looking and loved talking bookkeeping shop with Susan.

Gavin was our only solo traveler, a Yorkshireman. He’d been on the road a while—a sympathetic boss had urged him to take advantage of his time off and he was circling the globe. Like Irish co-workers June and Janice, our final group members, he’d been through Cambodia with Intrepid before meeting the rest of us in Saigon. The two lovely lasses June and Janice, both worked in the Irish prison system! Former wardens (!), they both now had desk jobs, and they were a riot.

It was really a fun group, and as I write about them I find I quite miss them. We formed a pretty tight bond. I suppose that people who are willing to take the time and effort to explore that part of the world are pretty adventurous, open-minded souls. That certainly seemed to be the case with our travel mates.

So, group tours. I suspect that the more unlikely or challenging the destination, the more engaging and interesting the participants. For travel to a developing country, I'd consider taking an arranged tour again. I have less patience now for the hotel-seeking that accompanies a lot of travel, and I found I was quite happy to have someone else do the work for me.

Now restaurants, that's a different matter, and I'm willing to do my share of research. However our guide Hue came through with great recommendations on multiple occasions. We were particularly fond of this restaurant in Hoi An. There's Susan, me, Hovia and Tom on the left. Continuing around is Gavin, Cynthia and Allen. We're all really enjoying spring rolls, grilled pork kebabs and pork sate, and crepes, all wrapped up in lettuce leaves and rice paper wrappers and dipped into delicous sauces. Here's a closeup:

Just a little hole-in-the-wall place, well off the beaten track in Hoi An. We loved it and gorged ourselves silly. With beer. Followed by a nap.

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