Academic Trips & Language Classes
A visit just to Hanoi puts vast resources at your fingertips -- from museums to vestiges of architecture as far back as the 13th century. Walking tours of the Old Quarter, an area of the city that a curious traveler could literally pick apart block by block, are like a giant textbook. Here you'll learn about early Vietnamese commerce, the colonial administration of the French, early Vietnamese unrest, and eventual insurgency, not to mention the more heavy-handed legacy of a triumphant Vietnam under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh in the vestiges of his mausoleum and museum.
Asia Transpacific Journeys is quite typical of the many international tour agencies running trips to Vietnam. They offer specialized itineraries focused on Vietnamese culture -- such as the ancients, the Cham people, vestiges of the Chinese millennia, and the years under French colonialism.
Hanoi Language and Culture Tours (tel. 09/1352-2605; www.hanoilanguagetours.com) offers multiday courses that range from quick 2-day affairs to arm you with Vietnamese basics, to language and travel courses that that offer the opportunity to practice your newly learned linguistic skills in a Vietnamese homestay.
Adventure & Wellness Trips
If you like to get out into the countryside, you can find much to do in Vietnam. Consider first the kind of terrain you'd like to explore -- ranging from dense jungle to high mountains, coastal estuaries to inland rivers on flooded rice plains. Next, choose your weapon: kayak, mountain bike, motorcycle, jeep, hiking boots, or flip-flops.
The best areas for some good trekking are in the far north and Central Highlands of Vietnam; both regions have large populations of minority ethnic hilltribes, and the scenery -- rice terraces and spiked peaks -- is stunning. Highlights include visiting Halong Bay and the country's many national parks.
In the north of Vietnam, the folks at Handspan (tel. 04/3926-0581; www.handspan.com), as well as Buffalo Tours (tel. 04/3828-0702; www.buffalotours.com), put together exciting kayaking adventures in Halong Bay. In the far north, they offer good hiking trips to Sapa and by jeep up to Dien Bien Phu. In central Vietnam, the old French colonial hill station of Dalat plays host to a great outfitter, Phat Tire Ventures (tel. 063/3829-422; www.phattireventures.com), where you can rock-climb, mountain-bike, or trek with the most professional guides and experienced technicians.
Off-road adventures on motorbike and by jeep abound along the length of Vietnam. You can rent motorbikes and jeeps for touring north of Hanoi along the Dien Bien Phu Loop or up to Cao Bang. Small outfitters in Hanoi can help with rentals or guide hires.
In the Central Highlands, hiring an Easy Rider motorcycle guide out of Dalat is all the rage. Riding a big (for Vietnam) 125cc Honda Bonus -- you sit on the back -- the Easy Riders, most of whom retired from the South Vietnamese Army and speak English well, will take you across the ridge of the highlands all the way through Ban Ma Thuot and on toKontum, where the Ho Chi Minh Trail (now a major highway) leads as far as Danang or Hue. Easy Rider can make arrangements for groups and even rent motorbikes if some members of the group want to ride their own bikes alongside a guide. The same routes can also be done by jeep.
In Ho Chi Minh City, seek out Vietnam Vespa Adventure for a memorable trip on a lovingly restored vintage Vespa scooter. These guys will take you off the beaten track along the coast of Phan Thiet and Mui Ne, or up north to Nha Trang.
Food & Wine Trips
Sampling Vietnamese cuisine is a highlight of any trip, so why not learn to make it yourself? The Hanoi Cooking Centre (tel. 04/3715-0088; www.hanoicookingcentre.com) is a new and popular choice in the nation's capital. The city's first purpose-built cooking center runs hands-on classes out of a restored colonial building near Truc Bach Lake. In Hoi An, in central Vietnam, Ms. Vy at Morning Glory Restaurant and Cooking School (tel. 0510/324-1555; www.hoianhospitality.com) runs great programs of varying length.
Tours for Vietnam Veterans
A good percentage of visitors to Vietnam are American Vietnam War veterans. It's not unusual to run across groups or individuals as you make your way across the country, some simply seeing how the story ended or others on more somber missions, such as staging memorial services.
But why would a veteran want to return to Vietnam, the scene of such tragic events? Most say they seek closure and that only by finally crossing the 17th Parallel can they find that; many also say that a trip to Vietnam gives them a chance to truly experience Vietnamese culture this second time around and visit peaceful villages devoid of barbed wire, mines, and terror.
Tours of Peace (TOP), a nonprofit organization started by Jess DeVaney, a retired U.S. Marine, arranges tours of Vietnam for veterans not only to come to terms with their past, but also to participate in the future. DeVaney's tours bring friends and family to points of historical or personal significance, but what is unique here is their humanitarian focus: The folks at TOP believe that through helping others, we heal ourselves, so humanitarian-aid projects are part of every tour. TOP visits orphanages, homes for the elderly and the homeless, poor rural villages, and schools, providing food, medicines, and supplies that save lives and give hope. Participants have a chance to return again as jolly green giants of yore, only this time able to help and spread kindness. Trip participants say that the tour is a great step in their recovery and toward acceptance of the past.
According to a spokesperson, "TOP participants come home from Vietnam this time feeling whole and understood. Vietnam is no longer a secret and a source of nightmares for them. A Tour of Peace helps participants exorcise the demons of war and find peace of mind." TOP offers financial assistance for those who need it (an application is on its website) and organizes tours year-round.
Applications for a Tour of Peace can be printed from TOP's website, www.topvietnamveterans.org, or by writing to TOP Vietnam Veterans, 8000 S. Kolb Rd., Ste. 43, Tucson, AZ 85706.
Also consider Vets with a Mission, a large nonprofit that has been in business some 17 years and runs annual trips, for veterans only, to Vietnam. Like Tours of Peace, Vets with a Mission -- as their name suggests -- is a group out to make a difference on their trips, and they bring large medical donations and services. The group helps veterans cut through the outmoded notion of heavy remorse and gives vets a chance to weigh in with their actions. Go to www.vwam.com or contact the group by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by snail mail at: Vets with a Mission, P.O. Box 202, Newberry, SC 29108.
A few tour operators cater to veterans and can tailor individual tours to follow a division's history or customize travel for a returning veteran's wishes. Most groups visit general operating areas. An itinerary may start out in Saigon with an excursion to the Cu Chi Tunnels, going down to the Mekong Delta, then heading up to Qui Nhon and to the Central Highlands and Pleiku, and then moving on to Danang, China Beach, Hue, and, of course, the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Contact the Global Spectrum, 5683 Columbia Pike, Ste. 101, Falls Church, VA 22041 (tel. 800/419-4446 or 703/671-9619; fax 703/671-5747; www.asianpassages.com).