Escorted tours are structured group tours with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation.
Whether you want to ride an elephant through the jungle, trek among indigenous people, shake hands with a gibbon, swim beneath a waterfall, snorkel in a clear blue lagoon, lounge on a white-sand beach, or wander through exotic markets, there's a Vietnam tour packager for you, offering a wide range of travel options using the finest and most reliable travel services available in the region.
Among the most experienced and knowledgeable tour operators specializing in Vietnam and Southeast Asia are Absolute Asia and Asia Transpacific Journeys. In-country tour providers Diethelm and Exotissimo can do anything from arranging deluxe tours to just helping out with any small details or bookings. Most companies allow clients to design their own trips or deviate from exact schedules (often at a small cost). Companies like Intrepid, among others, offer unique itineraries for solo travelers. Here are the top outfitters:
Abercrombie & Kent -- Well-known luxury-tour operator Abercrombie & Kent offers Southeast Asia programs with numerous comprehensive itineraries, including expansive tours to Vietnam and Cambodia. A journey with A & K includes the best dining and luxury transport, as well as high-end stays at the finest hotels in Southeast Asia and Vietnam, such as the Metropole in Hanoi or the finer beach resorts near Nha Trang. In the United States: 1520 Kensington Rd., Ste. 212, Oakbrook, IL 60523-2141; tel. 800/323-7308; fax 630/954-3324; www.aandktours.com.
Absolute Asia -- Founded in 1989, Absolute Asia offers an array of innovative itineraries, specializing in individual or small-group tours customized to your interests, with experienced local guides and excellent accommodations. Talk to them about tours that feature art, cuisine, religion, antiques, photography, wildlife study, archaeology, and soft adventure -- they can plan a specialized trip to see just about anything you can dream up for any length of time. They can also book you on excellent coach programs in Vietnam or throughout Indochina. In the United States: 180 Varick St., 16 Floor, New York, NY 10014; tel. 800/736-8187; fax 212/627-4090; www.absoluteasia.com.
Asia Transpacific Journeys -- Coordinating tours to every corner of South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Asia Transpacific Journeys deals with small groups and custom programs that include luxury hotel accommodations. The flagship package, the 23-day Passage to Indochina tour, takes you through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia's major attractions with a well-planned itinerary that also promotes cultural understanding. A highly recommended choice. In the United States: 2995 Center Green Court, Boulder, CO 80301; tel. 800/642-2742 or 303/443-6789; fax 303/443-7078; www.asiatranspacific.com.
Backroads -- For those who want to explore Vietnam by bike, cycling and hiking specialist Backroads has a 12-day Vietnam tour, among others. Check out their website; they're always coming up with new innovative itineraries in the region. In the United States: 801 Cedar St., Berkeley, CA 94710-1800; tel. 800/462-2848 or 510/527-1555; fax 510/527-1444; www.backroads.com.
Exotissimo -- A French outfit and outbound (in-country) agency with offices in every major city in the region, Exotissimo has excellent guides on-site. Agents can arrange all-inclusive tours and help with all travel details, from ticketing to visas. In France: 40 bis, Rue du fg Poissonniére, 75010 Paris; tel. (33)149/490-360; fax (33)149/490-369. In Vietnam: Saigon Trade Center, 37 Ton Duc Thang, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City; tel. 08/825-1723; fax 08/828-2146; www.exotissimo.com.
Imaginative Traveller -- This U.K.-based firm gets rave reviews every time for organizing all sorts of cycling, trekking, and motorcycling adventures throughout the region, particularly in Vietnam and Cambodia. In the U.K.: 1 Betts Ave., Martlesham Heath, Suffolk IP5 3RH; tel. 0800/316-2717; www.imaginative-traveller.com.
Intrepid -- This popular Australian operator is a good choice for getting off the beaten track on a tour of Vietnam. Intrepid caters tours for the culturally discerning, those with humanitarian goals, adventurers, and people on a budget. Their motto is their name, and with some of the best guides in Asia, these folks will take you to the back of beyond safely, in style, and with lots of laughs. A fun, fraternal vibe pervades these tours; it's especially great for the hearty adventurer looking to join a group. In Australia: Fitzroy, DC VIC 3065, 11 Spring St., Fitzroy, Victoria; tel. 613/9473-2626; fax 613/9419-4426; www.intrepidtravel.com. In the U.S.: 877/448-1616.
Pros & Cons of Escorted Tours
Many people like the ease and security of escorted trips. Escorted tours -- whether by bus, motorcoach, train, or boat -- let travelers sit back and enjoy their trip without having to spend lots of time behind the wheel or worrying about details. You know your costs upfront, and there are few surprises. Escorted tours can take you to the maximum number of sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle -- you don't have to sweat over the plotting and planning of a vacation schedule. Escorted tours are particularly convenient for people with limited mobility. They can also be a great way to make new friends.
On the downside, an escorted tour often requires a big deposit upfront, and lodging and dining choices are predetermined. You'll get little opportunity for serendipitous interactions with locals. The tours can be jampacked with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure -- plus they also often focus only on the heavily visited sites, so you miss out on the lesser-known gems.
Before you invest in an escorted tour, ask about the cancellation policy: Is a deposit required? Can they cancel the trip if they don't get enough people? Do you get a refund if they cancel? If you cancel? How late can you cancel if you are unable to go? When do you pay in full?
Note: If you choose an escorted tour, think strongly about purchasing trip-cancellation insurance, especially if the tour operator asks you to pay upfront. (For information on traveler's insurance, trip cancellation insurance, and medical insurance while traveling, please visit www.frommers.com/planning.)
You'll also want to get a complete schedule of the trip to find out how much sightseeing is planned each day and whether enough time has been allotted for relaxing or wandering solo.
The size of the group is also important to know upfront. Generally, the smaller the group, the more flexible the itinerary, and the less time you'll spend waiting for people to get on and off the bus. Find out the demographics of the group as well. What is the age range? What is the gender breakdown? Is this mostly a trip for couples or singles?
Discuss what's included in the price. You may have to pay for transportation to and from the airport. A box lunch may be included in an excursion, but drinks might cost extra. Tips may not be included. Find out if you will be charged if you decide to opt out of certain activities or meals.
Before you invest in a package tour, get some answers. Ask about the accommodations choices and prices for each. Then look up the hotels' reviews in a Frommer's guide and check their rates online for your specific dates of travel. You'll also want to find out what type of room you get. If you need a certain type of room, ask for it; don't take whatever is thrown your way. Request a nonsmoking room, a quiet room, a room with a view, or whatever you fancy.
Finally, if you plan to travel alone, you'll need to know if a single supplement will be charged and if the company can match you up with a roommate.
For more information on escorted general-interest tours, including questions to ask before booking your trip, see www.frommers.com/planning.