Overall, the trip was awesome. My wife and I had a great experience in Thailand and Vietnam. The travel company put together and executed a good itinerary. They were able to find a way to schedule everything we asked for with great accommodations along the way.
There were specific things on the itinerary that were not pleasant that I must mention in spirit of full transparency:
1) Lots of transit time. I think we spread ourselves too thin in that we spent a lot of time in the car between destinations. Sometimes we spent a 1/2 day total in the car: 2-3 hours there and 2-3 hours coming back. It was exhausting to do this and then get up early the next day for another activity. We agreed to this when we reviewed the plan with the travel company, but it would be good for them to be conscious of how much transit time they were creating in consecutive days and in total.
2) Some of the individual stops were very touristy without much cultural value. For example - Mai Chau in Vietnam was not a great experience. Long drive (3 hours each way) to spend 2 hours looking at booths all selling the same items. Our tour guide did not have a "plan" so we ended up walking just outside the tourist stalls looking for a house that would let us in to "see how poor they were". Would recommend excluding this one in the future.
Also, when visiting Khao Yai national park, we stopped at a place that gave elephant rides. It was an hour stop riding an elephant in a basket that looked like it had been mistreated (blood behind ears were the "trainer" had been kicking it). This was after we had a wonderful elephant experience in Chiang Mai where they told us all the signs of elephant abuse and how some operations still followed these practices. I strongly recommend that you need to remove this from the itinerary and follow-up with officials if this is possible.
This was the minority in an overall wonderfully planned trip, but I want to be completely transparent that there were some portions that were not enjoyable.
3) Tour guides without sufficient English skills. Our tour guide that took us to Khao Yai was a very nice person but there was a sizable communication barrier. We could not communicate with her that we did not want to visit the elephant operation mentioned above. She simple nodded and pushed forward. This was frustrating as we felt we were forced into it. Please work with the tour operators to ensure that the guides' English is sufficient. (This is why we request guides to begin with - to bridge the language gap.)
Again, we really enjoyed the vast majority of the trip and appreciate this travel company's planning and also checking in with us a couple times throughout the trip to make sure things were going well.
The Elephant Farm outside of Chiang Mai was very enjoyable. We really enjoyed spending time with the elephants and learning about how to responsibly interact with these beautiful animals.
We also really enjoyed the cooking class in Chiang Mai. Excellent class that was a lot of fun.
We enjoyed spending time in the markets in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Hanoi. Really wish we would have scheduled more time to just walk the city and explore without as much structure.
Also enjoyed the boat cruise on Halong Bay. It was cold, but we had a great time. Beautiful surroundings.
See Question #1 above. I think we would have scheduled more free time for ourselves to explore the cities we were in. Sometimes the itinerary felt too structured and too compact. Also would have more closely looked at how much driving we were doing between sites. It felt like we spent 1/3 of our time in a car during the trip. We should have paid more attention to this during our planning.
[TRAVEL COMPANY'S COMMENTS]
Thank you for your positive feedback. I’m glad we were able to put together an itinerary that you enjoyed and that you found the accommodations pleasant. Thank you for letting me know that the elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai and the cooking class were highlights of your trip as well as the Halong Bay cruise!
I also appreciate you bringing to my attention the points you raised about transit time. We are reviewing our proposal process to make sure that, going forward, all transit times are listed when the transfer is an hour or more. Your second point of feedback about Mai Chau is something we are reviewing and thank you for bringing this up. I have discussed with our local office in Hanoi on how we can address this going forward. It seems that, at this point, Mai Chau has been getting more inundated with travelers, so we are looking into other alternatives for our guests. Lastly, the point regarding the elephant riding in Khao Yai – thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. The original itinerary did not include this – as we only support places which support animal rights and rehabilitation - like the place we had in the itinerary in Chiang Mai and that you enjoyed. I have investigated with our local office in Bangkok into how this happened. We’ve arranged this itinerary in the past and this is the first time we have had a guest taken to an elephant ride during this itinerary. What I discovered was that a newer staff member there who came from another company thought that with the word “jungle trekking”, we meant “elephant jungle trekking” as this was how they arranged in her previous company. Additionally, upon review by our operation team, this small change in the confirmed itinerary went unnoticed. I have since taken this opportunity to have a heartfelt conversation with our operation team about the importance of being on the lookout for these kinds of mistakes and took the time to share with them the differences between an ethical elephant sanctuary and elephant riding, so all newer staff members are aware, and how we should not arrange the latter for our guests. Also, we are adding some additional checks during the operation process to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. We have also met with the guide involved to emphasize that the customer is always right and to follow the customer if they wish to not participate in an activity.
Thank you for your input and bringing these things to my attention so we can make improvements going forward for our future guests. We hope that we can have the opportunity to assist you again when you are traveling in Asia!
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