I have been wanting to take my boys somewhere extraordinary for ages. We have previously traveled as a family well worn routes through North America and Australia but now my wife and I thought it was time to challenge everything they thought they knew about the world. We decided on Vietnam in the hope it would provide a physical, emotional and sensory experience the boys would never forget. Our journey would take us firstly to Singapore for a gentle introduction to Asia then from the north of Vietnam near the Chinese border south to the Mekong Delta.
Arrival in Singapore is seamless. Our bags had been checked through to Hanoi so we didn't have to hang around the carousels. Through immigration and on to the SIA Holidays counter we quickly completed formalities before heading down the impressive Parisian style boulevard with Asian flair to our hotel for the evening at the Peninsula Excelsior. The sheer joy of travelling with kids revealed itself as they spent time exploring every nook and cranny of our rooms, Alex declaring "can we just stay here?" while searching the multiple channels for any vestige of a football game. The boys had spotted the pool at reception so as they soon tired of the exoticism of our rooms, water was their next target. I wouldn't have considered a swim if they hadn't but thoroughly enjoyed the early evening excursion.
Singapore really is a gentle introduction to Asia. Kath and I weren't really concerned at all about the boys well being here. We were only here for a short time so after the swim we headed out for a quick stroll around one of my favourite buildings anywhere, Raffles. I am a sucker for understated colonial elegance and this place has it in bucket loads. We hadn't packed for a more formal visit so headed into the Raffles City food court where the boys eyes soon locked onto a couple of cooked ducks strung up. Add some rice and that was dinner sorted. By now we were seriously flagging so made our way back to the hotel.
There was a bit of drama overnight as Liam's troublesome nose let loose a red flow again. However this was nothing to events the following morning when a small voice rose from the back of the transfer bus in a state of extreme agitation ... "Dad I've left my iPod in the room". For a dependent 10 year old this was truly a serious state of affairs. So to prevent frequent questioning over the course of the holiday as to the likelihood of a replacement I made a dash with Liam in tow back up the stairs to reception, regathering our key and recovered the much loved device. Besides Liam is a much valued member of the clan, how could we leave him with no form of defence (Clash of Clans aficionados will understand).
Retracing our steps of the previous evening to the airport the seamless nature of our visit continued through immigration and on to our flight to Hanoi. Had an interesting chat about the different dialects of English with a Vietnamese chap on the plane. He started trying to explain why different peoples use ISIS and ISIL which worried me a bit before delving into the current dispute between Vietnam and China. He pressed me for an opinion but I honestly didn't know too much about it so I sat on the fence and hoped it would be sorted peacefully.
I was a touch nervous on arrival into Hanoi hoping the visa on arrival letter we had procured would work, it did. The process for acquiring the visa isn't difficult just long winded and generally humourless. It took us about an hour to get the visa and make our way through immigration. The airport itself fits with the generic nature of international airports, it could literally have been anywhere.
Thong our guide for Hanoi was on hand to greet us and we were soon on our way on a surprisingly clutterless dual lane highway towards Hanoi. The road gradually narrowed as we neared the old quarter with the traffic becoming more what I expected but without the chaos. Honestly everyone knows what is going on and it is all conducted at a fairly sedate pace, nothing to get too excited about here.
The hotel May De Ville flatters to deceive, looks great but like so many it's the little things that count or in this case don't, the lights that don't work, the odd shower arrangements etc... Never mind the room was big enough, most things worked and the rooftop restaurant and pool had views over the lake. Located in the centre of the old quarter the hotel provides an ideal base. We spent the afternoon exploring this area as we prised the boys away from every Adidas and Nike shop they could find. Alex described it as "the craziest city he has ever seen" while Liam was a little more reticent, "a wee bit scared". Liam was visibly flagging when we came across a classy craft and furniture centre, Bang Da. More importantly it had a nice cafe and a mango smoothie restored Liam to working order. We then made our way to the lake. Now this is no picture postcard lake but it does serve as a focal point for the people of Hanoi. Liam was forced to have a conversation with a kid of similar age as their mothers thought it would be a good idea to connect. The boys didn't seem to think so. They didn't have a football for a start, how were they supposed to connect? Thong recommended the Oriental Restaurant for dinner. It was quite posh but the food was a little bland.
Today we discovered 'Pho', can there be a more delicious revitalising concoction known to man? Chicken broth (I think), noodles, spring onions, chicken or beef, red chillies for a touch of heat and the coup de grace, a splash of lime. We could happily have this for breakfast for the rest of our lives. Today's events centred around a city tour of Hanoi with Thong. First up was the Temple of Literature reconstructed after being bombed out of existence by the French. Liam liked the turtles and there were enough analogies to be drawn with The Last Airbender to keep them happy. However the highlight of the day for me was always going to be a visit to the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. I have been fascinated by 'Uncle Ho' for decades and it is not too often you get to see iconic historical figures literally in the flesh. Ho Chi Minh's body is on display and exceptionally well preserved. The reverence in which he is held is on display with the queue at least a kilometre long when we arrived. The boys and possibly Kath gave me that imploring look saying do we have to? Yes! The queue was kept in order by the meticulously strict Hanoi police force and moved along at a good pace with pigs on a spit and street vendors selling pastries keeping us entertained. Arrival at the tomb itself is precipitated by the onset of white uniformed army personnel taking over from the police to keep us all in good order. For some reason they seemed to like making Alex get back in line, take off his hat, remove sunglasses etc ... We finally made it into the tomb and some welcome air conditioning. The face of the great man resembled all his pictures. The crowd filed around the tomb, there was no time to pause and reflect, it was all over after a minute or so. As I said before I have never seen anyone like Ho Chi Minh in the flesh so it was quite a bizarre experience. I really liked the fact that the people he fought for still hold him in such high regard not only for the battles he fought but the way he conducted his life. Further this is no circus. There is no paraphernalia for sale, no token key rings or t-shirts, the people are there out of respect.
We had lunch in a restaurant called the Cloud with views over the old quarter. Liam was looking a bit pale and tired so the waitress decided he needed the medicinal 'Pho' instead of the set menu. Great call as the wee man started getting cheeky again. We were all tired so spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out at the hotel before our transfer to the train station.
Thong saw us safely on the train and into our cabin. It was snug but fine and like any small boys the monkeys were delighted to be on the top bunk of a train, I don't think life could have been any better for them at that time. On takeoff it was immediately apparent this was going to be a noisey, bumpy old journey. Having said that we arrived in Sapa in a decent state. Thinking back I am amazed that we then trekked for 5 hours. Nevertheless we did. Hai and a driver were there to greet us and we set off up hill to over 1500 metres and the town of Sapa where we had breakfast at the very nice Victoria Hotel. More 'Pho' and possibly the lightest croissant I have ever had. This was a welcome and rejuvenating respite from our time on the train.
After breakfast we went to the H'Mong Sapa hotel where we deposited our bags and set off to Cat Cat down a steep path lined with vendors. To be honest it was a bit of a circus. It was a great relief to exit this area and begin some proper trekking in the company of a couple of Black H'Mong women. I really had no idea what to expect but I was soon entranced in the area we were traversing. Rice paddy upon rice paddy dominated the scenery through the narrow, steep and twisty paths we took. The people were generally indifferent to our presence along with the buffalo, pigs, dogs and chickens. This suited me fine as it felt we were just floating along on the periphery of their clearly hard but seemingly ok lives. There were no requests for anything from us as we passed through. Of course we had our little dramas most notably Alex veering off the path only to be sucked into some thick clay. Hai had to dig him out, while I held him and Kath documented the incident. Lunch and some cleaning followed in Lo Cai where we also farewelled our Black H'Mong 'friends' from Sapa with the purchase of a couple of very desirable travel wallets. The terrain eased after Lo Cai towards our destination of Ta Van. However the scenery continued to be absorbing as we scrambled through several rice paddies. On arrival in Ta Van we began to see other tourists for the first time and some hostelly type buildings dressed up as home stays. I really didn't feel like sharing accommodation so it was with great relief we arrived at a genuine home stay where we were warmly greeted and ushered to our, at the time, luxurious accommodation on the second story of a stilted house.
Handily located across the road a local entrepreneur had set up a massage parlour. After several cups of green tea supplied with some gusto and a fair bit of humour I couldn't take it any more. My body was aching and the thought of a full body massage was too much to bear. I headed over to look at the prices, informed Mrs Boomer of my intentions and it was only seconds later that the 4 of us made ourselves scarce and entered the parlour. Myself and Kath went for the full Swedish while the boys experienced a foot massage for the first time. They found having a stick stuck in the foot a generally pleasant experience. For my part I felt it was required to get me through the next day. The kitchen in the home stay was spacious but seemed to me to lack the basic requirements of cooking, i.e. oven, stove etc... How wrong was I! Dinner was fabulous, 8 dishes appeared on the table along with a teapot full of rice wine. Kath and I have previous with rice wine but this stuff was ok. The meal consisted of beans, pork, chicken and tofu dishes. No idea what the various dishes were called but they were really good. Satiated we headed off to bed for a very early night ... or so we thought. The village itself was very, very quiet without a breath of wind ... that was until the Chinese airforce launched a surprise attack beyond the speed of sound right above our house ... no, it was thunder and plenty of it at a decibel level I have never experienced and don't hope to again, it was literally deafening. Thor was genuinely annoyed this night.
Shell shocked we awoke to another culinary miracle given the facilities, crepes with a variety of fruits and coffee complete with condensed milk, a Vietnamese staple. Unfortunately the day dawned overcast and wet so Hai made the call to avoid the bamboo forest as it would have been too treacherous. Instead we crossed the Muong Hoa River and headed up the other side. While disappointed to miss the forest the day turned out OK if less compelling than the previous. We saw how genuinely hard these people work to provide themselves with enough rice to get them through the year. None of it is sold, it is for their own consumption so a successful crop is essential. We saw another school and it's inmates and the inside of a Red Dao house. While it is great to see inside these places, it's a dire way to live. Having said that we were at no point hassled by kids for anything, there were schools dotted around everywhere and everyone seemed well nourished. Obviously this is only a superficial view but I had the sense most were satisfied with their lot. A steep climb back across the river ensued with lunch in a nondescript restaurant on the side of a road leading back to Sapa.
Back in Sapa we gingerly scaled the 2 sets of steps to our rooms at the H'Mong Sapa Hotel. Like the May de Ville first impressions were great until closer inspection. We didn't really care, hot showers, for the most part were on offer and slightly softer beds. Gladly we spent the rest of the afternoon here. Slightly recovered I decided the Hilltop Station Signature Restaurant specialising in locally produced ingredients and recipes would be the place to go. Situated on Franzipani Street the restaurant has views across the valley below, at least it does when the regularly ebbing and flowing mist rolls out. The food was good, the fresh trout spring rolls were amazing.
We had all all of the following day to spend in Sapa before rejoining the train in the evening. Shopping was on the cards in the morning but heavy rain dampened any enthusiasm we had for that. By lunchtime the weather had cleared and we ventured into the streets around Sapa lined with shops featuring several ranges of well known adventure outfitters. Liam made our first significant purchase, a North 'Fake' bag to replace his fading school bag and I bought a pair of Colombia shorts after a minor repair. The boys decided lunch was to be had at the Roma restaurant and launched into a couple of Pizzas. If you travelling in Vietnam on a budget just stay away from Pizza, these were four times the cost of a bowl of Pho. We had arranged to meet Hai to take us shopping for something a bit unique. These things are never fully realised until you get them home and see them in the actual context of your living room. We settled on a wall hanging which we think will be good, fingers crossed. We set off back down the hill to Lao Cai and settled in for dinner, 'Pho', before making our way back to the train station. A far better carriage and room awaited us this time so the journey back to Hanoi was slightly more pleasant. Again we were rough when we got there but not as bad as I thought we were going to be.
Thong and our driver met us at the station and we made our way through the dark streets of Hanoi as the first of its denizens were rising. Breakfast again at the May de Ville then Jenny swept into our lives. Our Swan cruise guide was exceptional in every way, great English and she would go above and beyond to ensure we had a great time, especially the kids. There is nothing remarkable to say about the 4 hour journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay. By now we were used to the traffic so nothing that occurred on the road surprised us.
One thing to note about the traffic amid all of the horror stories is that no-one wants to have an accident and you are not specifically targeted by motorists when crossing the road. The pace is all very sedate, drivers and pedestrians just need to know what your intentions are so the rule of thumb of maintaining your pace as you cross the road is important. The motorists will adjust so you and they arrive safely.
We stopped mid-journey at what I thought was a bizarre shopping complex of huge statues which are apparently shipped all over the world. I can't for the life of me believe they sell some of this stuff but apparently they do as they display pictures of beamingly proud purchasers alongside there things. We boarded our boat with another family from New Zealand who it would transpire lived just around the corner from my brother and his family, daughters were best friends, involved in football etc., etc ... Just how often does this happen! I had also ran into another House of Travel colleague in the Hanoi train station! I felt the boat itself was a bit run down and the rooms very tight but once we set off and Halong Bay unfolded it didn't really matter. I had heard that this area was again a bit of a circus, on the mainland it would appear this is what is being achieved. However our experience was far removed from the developments occurring landside. The areas we visited fulfilled my expectations. We spent the afternoon kayaking among the rocks and taking time out to play on one of the many small inlet beaches. Alex is really in his element in places like this.
The area was beautiful and serene. We had the odd incursion from buffoons but not enough to ruin the experience. Safely back aboard the boat there was only one thing on Liam Boomer's mind ... squid fishing, he had been yammering on about it since he found out about it. Things started off with a torrent of squid flying into the boat, three arrived in a matter of minutes, alas not for Liam. As the hours drew by I will be forever grateful to Jenny's persistence to ensure that our little monkey realised his ambition. If a picture can say a thousand words then the photo of Liam displaying his prized catch says a million. By this time we were really exhausted and flopped into our beds.
The following day dawned wet and misty and I didn't much care, I felt as though we had experienced a good deal of the area at its best the day previous. Kath opened the day with some Tai Chi with Jenny then we visited some caves. I'm not normally into caves but the kids love them and they particularly liked this one because Jenny took them and a reluctant me where others weren't shown. There is actually a really good reason for this as the entrance had me wondering if I was going to make it through. Of course the kids just flew through giggling! En route back to port we amazed Jenny with our spring roll folding skills and in turn she delighted by turning vegetables into works of art … her contribution was the more impressive! A real storm had been brewing all morning and timed its arrival to coincide with our tender from the boat into the port. Some nifty driving by the captain saw the tender tethered to the boat which kept us protected from the elements until we were released and basically fired at the port from around 200 metres. Worked like a charm. The bus journey towards Hanoi was much like the outbound journey with another stop at a statue store. En route we were informed we were being met at a gas station on the outskirts of Hanoi to save us going all the way in. Dodgy as this sounds our van was awaiting at the assigned point and off we went to the airport for our flight to Hue or so we thought …
The less said about the next few hours the better. As it transpired we ended up flying to Danang amid fork lightening and one particularly memorable piece of turbulence before embarking on a 2 hour journey to Hue. We arrived around 10pm, were absolutely delighted with our connecting rooms at the Asia Hotel, had a good dinner at the Carambole Restaurant next store and crashed.
Hue was an indulgence for me on this journey. I love exploring the historical context of countries so Hue was an important stop as the cultural heart of Vietnam. To make it interesting for Kath and the kids our mode of transport for the day was riding pillion on motorbikes. This day would delight everyone and explore my emotional depths in ways I hadn’t expected. Essential to this was our guide, Tam. I cannot praise this man highly enough. A freelance journalist and son of a Vietnam war correspondent he added contemporary relevance to ancient structures. We started our journey riding across the river and through the market, boys faces beaming with delight, before making our first stop at the imposing Hue Citadel. An impressive structure in itself, our visit coincided with the changing of the guard adding a lot of colour to the experience. Tam took us through the history of the Citadel and its place in Vietnamese history but it was his recollections of the ‘American’ (as the Vietnamese call it) War that drew me in. The Citadel saw some of the heaviest ground fighting through the pivotal Tet offensive and was subjected to heavy aerial bombardment destroying many of the buildings. The structures are being replaced slowly but physical and emotional reminders remain. Particularly memorable was Tam’s description of how they packed up their house during offensives and hid the house and themselves underground. Offensive over the houses went back up, it must have been very confusing for strategists.
More time followed negotiating the backstreets of Hue on motorbike before we arrived at the Thien Mu Pagoda on the Perfume River. There were several Buddhist devotees in attendance worshipping. I felt that this was a genuinely spiritual place. Sometimes its the place or buildings that evoke this feeling, in this case it was the people. We had a look at the kitchens where novice monks younger than Alex and Liam were preparing lunch for the other monks. They end up here largely out of familial financial hardship, the family can’t afford to maintain them so the monastery takes them in. Tam then went on to explain the story of the monk, Thich Quang Duc who drove from this place to Saigon in 1963 and burnt himself to death in opposition to the regime of the time. A bit of off piste riding followed to some fortifications originally erected by the French overlooking the Perfume River to the Tu Duc tomb. By now I was absolutely loving Hue. The tomb and surrounding area were fine but to be honest it was light relief after the previous places and their all too relevant association with events in my lifetime. A vegan lunch followed in a Buddhist Nunnery, this was hard sell for the boys, “what do you mean there is no meat?” It was with a great deal of sadness we bid farewell to Tam and his riders, the day had and still does give me a great deal to reflect on.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering along the riverbank before returning to the hotel and having dinner at Ushi. There were several visiting US veterans also eating there, clearly with close connections to some of the locals. I can’t even begin to understand what it must be like for them to return here. This was something I could never get a handle on during our visit. Our guides were very capable of explaining what happened but not so much of what they thought about what had occurred. Tam came closest and later Bien in Ho Chi Minh City when he reflected that his country had paid a very heavy price just to get back to a market economy that “we” (the South Vietnamese) had before the war.
The following morning May and our driver were ready to collect us to take us through Danang and over the Hai Van Pass to Hoi An. May provided a really nice insight into the hearts of young Vietnamese which are in reality universal. The Hai Van pass is picturesque enough with the summit dotted with fortifications from the mid 18th to the late 20th century emphasizing the routes importance. Danang is a modern city set on the former China Beach. We interrupted our journey to visit Marble Mountain, site of several Buddhist shrines built into the mountain’s caves. One was vast enough to house a Viet Cong field hospital for a period of time. The outskirts of Hoi An are being rapidly developed with huge resort hotels, one of which, the Palm Garden, would be our home for the next three nights. To this point our journey was full on so we thought a break here would be a good idea. The resort was as you would expect of a five star resort anywhere in the world … this was the holiday bit! We decided to pay a visit to the historic centre of Hoi An in the late afternoon but really wish we hadn’t, the place was completely overrun with some of the selling methods prevalent in other places but which we hadn’t struck thus far in Vietnam. Walking through Hoi An, Kath made the comment it made her miss Hue. I couldn't have agreed more.
The following morning we had a bicycle tour organised through the countryside around Hoi An with our guide Lin. It didn’t get off to a great start mechanically but once we were going it was a great experience wheeling by shrimp farms, rice paddies and water palms. We also experienced quite a humorous time in the round boats the locals created to avoid French boat taxes in times past. We indulged in a bit of crab fishing which could have gone for hours, some skill involved in this. Lunch was had in a restaurant bordering an organic community herb farm. This was a government initiative to attract people away from less sustainable occupations. Highlight was the distinctive Hoi An spring roll unencumbered by rice paper but held together with a spring onion. This journey was only made taxing by the heat so it was with a great deal of relief we returned to the hotel. For the first time, I think ever, I found myself poolside on a lounger fast asleep … and enjoying it!
We had heard so many great things about Hoi An it had to be given another chance so we decided to pay a visit at 6am. Best decision we could have made. The town was deserted but for the hardy marketeers. This was a perfect time to visit, the streets were clear of much of the merchandise from the previous evening returning the city back to how it must have looked in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a genuine pleasure to wonder around at this time and a great opportunity for photographers as the light was perfectly positioned on the mustard coloured walls. Faith restored we returned to the resort where the boys spent the rest of the day in the pool. We nipped back in to town later in the day to pick up some leather goods and to be fair the town wasn’t as challenging as the night before, think we just struck it on a bad day.
Another flight day taking us to our final destination Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as most Vietnamese seem to call it. We were frustrated by a 2 hour delay removing the possibility of visiting a museum I had hankered after that afternoon … such is travel. We were met in Ho Chi Minh by our driver for the next few days. I love visiting iconic bars and Saigon has a couple, Saigon Saigon in the Caravelle Hotel and the Rex Hotel. This night we visited the 9th story Saigon Saigon Bar. We thought the beers were expensive at VND98000 but when you consider this is a touch less than NZD5 and you were receiving exemplary service in five star surroundings it was extraordinarily cheap. This was a really nice introduction to Saigon as was the walk to get there past the municipal chambers and opera house. On our return to the hotel the boys had eyed up a Japanese Yakinuku restaurant so we spent the rest of the evening roasting small pieces of meat over embers set in the middle of the table.
Our penultimate day in Vietnam had the potential to be fairly sobering starting with the famed Cu Chi Tunnels, a couple of hours drive from the city. It’s not right to say this place is fun but the boys had a complete blast rummaging through the microscopic tunnels, I did not. The Viet Cong never designed these for 6 foot 2 Anglo Saxon males. Before the boys got to experience the tunnels we were shown how the Viet Cong booby trapped this area. Fair to say my stomach churned and I went slightly weak at the knees on a couple of occasions. The traps were as ingenious as they were macabre. I can completely understand how the forces opposing the Viet Cong here would have been stretched to and beyond their mental capacity to cope. The air around the tunnels is punctuated by violence with the sound of automatic gunfire emanating from the firing range. I really wanted the boys to understand that this wasn’t an unusual theme park, I received confirmation when I gave them the opportunity to handle the weapons at the firing range. They expressed no interest after prattling on how cool it would be for ages. As it transpired they wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway as they were well under 18. Kath and I declined the opportunity, I had nearly dislocated my shoulder firing an AK47 in Pakistan several years earlier and had no desire to repeat the experience.
Another multi course lunch followed before we had a look at the Presidential Palace which is now basically a museum. Quite keen on this as it was the subject of several iconic images of the war. Nothing too entrancing inside but if only the walls could talk! Much of the planning and decisions were made in these rooms during the war. The War Remnants Museum followed. Room 1 provides a brief schematic of the war’s evolution and conclusion accompanied by a selection of photo journalists images. You have to be careful here with the kids as some of the images depicting torture, imprisonment, the effects of Agent Orange, and massacres are graphic in the extreme. This is a powerful place and should not be missed. I was less interested in the French contribution to the city’s architecture so we only paid a fleeting visit to the cathedral and post office.
Our final day included a trip to the Mekong Delta but it would be our nocturnal pursuits that would be the highlight. My Tho, 2 hours from Saigon is the staging point for trips to the Delta. En route we visited a Cao Dai Temple which was of little interest. We boarded our super comfortable boat in My Tho and set off across the river to explore how people survived and prospered here. Initially the tour was very interesting observing many of the exotic fruits that grow here before sampling them accompanied by a breezy local musical ensemble. However the real highlight was coming across a chap wandering through one of the canals plucking prawns from the riverbank for his lunch. The ease that this was achieved was something to behold, the boys were fascinated. At the same time an elderly lady joined the chap with a net and started plucking fish out of the water. The boys delighted in doing some spotting for her as the local fish gasped for air in the mud laden canal.
The rest of the day was unremarkable until we returned to the super cool boat and began our journey back to Ho Chi Minh City. We decided a shopping spree was in order so headed for the department stores, Diamond Plaza and Viacom. We weren’t after local specialties just football boots and some clothes. Important lesson to be learnt here. The Viet Cong didn’t design the tunnels for me and Vietnamese department stores don’t cater for me either! Kath and the boys were of course delighted with their purchases. Wanting to complete our visit on a high we decided a drink at the Rex Hotel was in order. While it is a roof top bar it is only 5 stories high. However this is absolutely ideal to observe events below in the central pedestrian only area. This was the eve of Independence Day so there was plenty going on. Bien our guide had booked us in the Lemon Grass Restaurant for our final dinner. This is to be thoroughly recommended, the prawns I had in a lemongrass sauce were the best I consumed on the entire journey. Kath and the boys were equally impressed with their choices. This was a great way to conclude our action packed journey.
Regards logistics we flew with Singapore Airlines to and from Vietnam. Our private tour was created by Wide Eyed Tours based on our preferences. This included a couple of internal flights on Vietnam Airlines, all ground arrangements, transfers, tours and hotels. I can’t recommend this way of travelling highly enough. The journey was based on what we wanted to do with the help of Wide Eye’s local staff. We were met and transferred at all points but still retained the independence to do what we wished when we weren’t on organised sightseeing excursions. The guides we had on all occasions were exceptional human beings who went way beyond our expectations.