Going on a guided group tour has never been my idea of a fun holiday.
I mean, why would anyone willingly give up their underutilized autonomy to follow someone with a little silver badge and a funny accent's whim of what a good vacation entails? Not to mention the bit where you have to put up with the irrelevant requests and bucket list bullet points of the far-too-many-strangers taking up far too much of your personal space.
It just doesn't make sense!
At least, it didn't until I recently found myself slap-bang in the middle of a group tour to Vietnam... and actually kind of... well... enjoyed it.
I had braced myself for the scenario beforehand, deciding I would just grit my teeth and bear it in the name of wanderlust and new passport stamps.
However, as I met the members of my 10-piece travelling troupe at the Qatar check-in counter at OR Tambo International Airport and saw a similar sort of resolve in each of their eyes, a bit of my own started to crumble.
By the time we touched down at Noi Bai International Airport in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi some 20 hours later and met the small man with the big smile who would be our guide for the following ten days, I knew my well-nurtured, preconceived ideas about these sorts of trips were about to be challenged and challenged severely.
His name was Lee van Cuong - Cuong (pronounced Kong) for short - and the value he added to our Vietnam experience was priceless. As a born and bred Hanoian and a Viet Cong veteran (which would make him a ‘bad guy' in our American movie reference framework) to boot, the insights he provided about his beautiful country and its tumultuous history were far more substantial than any guidebook could ever offer. Not to mention humorous, and perhaps best of all, painfully honest.
So, here are my top 5 reasons why a guided tour isn't all that bad.
1. Less responsibility, more fun
While travelling by yourself has its obvious perks, there is one major drawback: responsibility. Everything from visa applications to flight times to wake-up calls and following directions on unknown roads are all up to you and if you get something wrong, there's nothing to fall back on (and no one to blame).
A guided tour, on the other hand, requires only two major responsibilities: getting to breakfast on time and making sure your camera is in working order. Okay, three, if you include keeping an eye on your passport.
Because of this, a guided tour actually offers you a lot more time and energy to soak up your surrounds.
2. Insight a guide book can't give
Photo: Lee van Cuong at Vietnam's father of communism, Ho Chi Minh's tomb in Hanoi.
I had, of course, heard about the Vietnam war, seen movies like Forest Gump and admired the large scale protest movements that it sparked - Woodstock 69 and all that. But the ugly, ugly reality of that long-ago (like before my time) and far away war would probably never have hit me, had I not met Cuong. During long hours on the bus (the speed limit is really low in Vietnam, so it takes about twice as long to get anywhere there as it does here) he would regale us with tales from the years (YEARS!!) he spent fighting for the communist cause in the tropical jungles in the south of the country. While many were light-hearted, they would inevitably end with a shake of his head and the oft-repeated line: "but it was awful (which he'd pronounce something like 'awfuw'). War is awful. Communism is awful."
When we asked him what he thought about the fact that Vietnam had been named the second happiest country on the Happy Planet Index, he agreed quite heartily, saying: "Right now we're very happy. For the longest time we were living in hell. At one point we used to get 100g of meat per person per month and 4 meters of cloth per person per year for clothing. So, while we're definitely not living in heaven right now, we're finally on earth."
So, I ask you, would a guide book ever be able to give such poignant insights into the socio-political realities of a country? I think not.
3. Local knowledge at your disposal
There were a number of times I couldn't help but wonder if we were the first tourists ever to set foot in Vietnam. It wasn't that people looked at us strangely or treated us in a peculiar manner, it was just that we hardly ever encountered any others like us.
There was one experience in particular that stood out in this regard. We were staying in the soulful city of Hue, had just taken a dragon boat cruise down the Perfume River and stopped along the way to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the oldest and most beautiful Buddhist sites in the country. It was late afternoon, the sun slanted through the tall trees, casting latticework shadows on the grass and there wasn't a soul in sight. We eventually spotted the monks having a frugal supper in one of the low buildings, but the rest of the area was practically deserted, leaving us to wander around and soak up the magic like we belonged there.
Afterwards I asked Cuong why it was that more tourists didn't visit that beautiful place. As it turns out they do, and if you go in the morning you're bound to fight your way through the crowds just to get a decent photograph. Since he realised this, he's reverted to taking his groups in the late afternoon.
4. You have a reliable translator
Communication can be a bit of a nightmare if you're travelling through a country where the language is completely unfamiliar. Simple things like street signs don't even make sense and bartering in a market is twice as hard.
However, when you have a local guide who speaks proficient English (most of them do), it's much easier to navigate the space and also to understand what's going on around you.
5. Making new friends
Photo: By day two of these kinds of trips, the group photo pose comes naturally.
The thing with guided tours is that, well, you kind of get attached. Yup, spending every waking moment of a multi-day journey with a bunch of (very diverse) strangers has a funny way of turning them into fondly remembered acquaintances, if not friends. Well, mostly.
And the thing with friends in other parts of the world is that it gives you a better sense of place and a broader understanding of the world. Which is always, always an asset.
Price includes: Airport arr/dep transfers, 7 nights 4 star hotels, 1 night deluxe junk boat, 1 overnight sleeper train, breakfast daily, 4 lunches & 1 dinner, all transportation and guided sightseeing with local Vietnamese tour guide.
Qatar Airways serve Vietnam daily from JHB with economy flights starting at R7550 and business flights from R36 250
Contact 0877 40 50 15 to book this tour now!