• By: Edward Piegza

    3/21/2013

  • It’s been said that my idea of “roughing it” is a hotel with no mint on the pillow. But if that’s my first rule of travel, my second is never to let Rule #1 prevent me from experiencing a region’s authentic personality and culture. I found the perfect sweet spot where culture and comfort come together while I was scouting our adventure tour of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

    On the one hand, I knew I couldn’t be content if I didn’t go out walking in Vietnamese farm villages and rice paddies to meet the locals and see their way of life. I wouldn’t even consider visiting Laos without spending time with a mahout and riding an elephant into the river for a bath. There was never any question I’d spend every possible minute exploring the ruins at Angkor Wat and soaking in the beauty of that magical place.

    Angkor Wat
     

    But just as it’s local transportation etiquette to yield right of way to a water buffalo in the street, extreme hospitality and elegant service are time-honored traditions too. I adapted quickly to the breakfast tray that materialized on the deck of our luxury junk as we watched the day begin on Halong Bay. Even air travel is totally civilized. On a short-hop flight from Saigon to Danang, the airports are sleekly modern, boarding passes appear almost magically, and the planes are state-of-the-art. I found myself enjoying travel in a way that’s kind of retro and really satisfying. There really wasn’t a moment when I didn’t feel well-tended and relaxed.

    Our dear friends like Mai, Toubee and Roath are to thank. As three of our favorite local guides, they elevated the experience infinitely beyond my mint-on-the-pillow hopes. Mai and her family were among Vietnam’s boat people, and she offers a personal, candid perspective on her homeland. A former student in a Laotian monastery, Toubee instructs us gently in how to participate in the alms ritual. Roath is literally Cambodia’s most experienced guide, an alumnus of the first post-Khmer Rouge training program. All three are alert and gracious hosts who are wizards at making travel mechanics seamless and virtually invisible.

    And the hotels? What can I say but “Wow.” Saigon’s Park Hyatt, the Metropole in Hanoi and Raffles in Siem Reap are all piece-of-paradise retreats where I would gladly unpack and never leave. After the hubbub of the streets and markets, a hostess greets you with a cool towel in an orchid-scented reception area. You’re checked in privately as you sip something citrusy. The pools are perfect, the thread-counts are stratospheric, and the locations are stellar.

    Raffles Grand Hotel
     

    In all three countries, the contrasts were just perfect. By day I got into the rhythm of local life and all it has to offer. At night I settled into outrageously fine hotels. That blend of adventure and luxurious escapism is everything I want when I travel.

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    For more information on Classic Journeys 10-day adventure tour of Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia, visit www.classicjourneys.com/vietnam or call 1-800-200-3887 to speak with a Guest Services Coordinator.

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