Featured Traveler: Sam, from Chicago

As we mentioned last month, Sam and his husband Lou have been on several Zoom Vacations tours over the past many years, and since they were booked on our Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia tours, we decided to change things up by interviewing Sam both before and after the trip!

Zoom: Did this trip live up to your expectations.

Sam: Absolutely! My husband and I both agree that the Laos-Vietnam-Cambodia tour was one of the best trips of our lives.

Zoom: Was there anything that you think we should change for future tours?

Sam: Halong Bay is a natural wonder and incredibly beautiful, and thus, a not-to-be-missed destination while visiting Vietnam. This is the reason that the Bay is flooded with fellow tourists and their boats. Consequently, to me, Halong Bay loses some of it’s luster as an attraction due to overcrowding. Also, although the service on the Halong Bay boat was very good, the boat itself is showing signs of age and our bathroom definitely could use a thorough scrubbing.  Zoom might investigate whether there are any newer boats to tour Halong Bay, and whether it is possible to head to parts of the Bay which are less heavily visited. I realize, though, that with a Zoom tour group of less than a dozen people, choices and flexibility necessarily are limited.

Zoom: Yeah, I hear you.  Halong Bay is an incredible place, and our boat is the best option available at the moment, but we are constantly keeping our eyes and ears open for a newer boat.  

So, how do you think the trip would have been different for you had you not come with Zoom Vacations?

Sam: I can’t even imagine this trip without having used Zoom Vacations. Apart from the various Zoom signature events (which are a blast), I doubt we would have found all the luxurious accommodations on our own, and I’m certain we never would have retained such excellent local guides in the various destinations. I really have to give Zoom credit for the friendly, knowledgable and helpful local guides throughout the entire tour. Indochina is a fascinating travel destination, but one I would hesitate to plan and navigate on my own…especially if you prefer top notch hotel and dining experiences. All in all, I don’t think we could have done better than booking this trip with Zoom.

Zoom: Did the hotels live up to their expectations?

Sam: The hotels were terrific. The styles varied somewhat from property to property, but all were excellent and offered first rate service. It was interesting and fun to move from a Laotian luxury hotel built from and extensively decorated with teak wood, to a new modern business hotel, to a French colonial style property, to a beach-side resort/spa, and then to a preserved art deco gem. All these were followed by an over-the-top six star hotel in Saigon (which offers an unbelievable breakfast that you can easily make last 2-1/2 hours, and useful bathroom fixtures I will not discuss). We ended the tour at a small luxury hideaway with great meal service and an opulent salt water pool that is just perfect for hanging out and having cocktails with friends.

Zoom: What was your highlight or highlights of the trip?

Sam: For me, several highlights stand out. I’ll always remember our visit to the elephant sanctuary outside Luang Prabang, where we fed them sugar cane and bananas. It was fun to tour the densely populated Old Quarter of Hanoi in cyclos, a traditional form of Vietnamese transport which is like a pedicab for one. Watching sunrise over Angkor Wat with Buddhist monks chanting in the distance was unforgettable. But, surprisingly, I think my favorite memory of the entire tour was when we hopped on Vespa motor scooters driven by local drivers and tackled Saigon traffic during the height of evening rush hour. Our Vespas dropped us off at a Vietnamese cooking class that was a great ending to the evening.

Zoom: How were we received by the people of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia?   What were they like?

Sam: The people of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia were uniformly warm and welcoming. Many spoke some English, but even if they didn’t, you could still communicate and laugh together. You can see why Vietnam has a rapidly growing economy, despite the country officially being communist. The country is intensely capitalist, with businesses operating out of every doorway you peer into. In Vietnam, if you own a sewing machine, you have a business. Laotian and Cambodian people also seem to be hard workers; however, both countries are noticeably poorer than Vietnam. Residents of all three countries are supportive of their growing tourism industries, which is a plus for foreign travelers.

Zoom: How was the food throughout the trip?

Sam: I have always liked Vietnamese cuisine, so naturally I was pleased with our meals there. Laotian food was just as tasty and seemed like a blend of both Vietnamese and Thai cooking. We had enjoyable cooking classes in both Laos and Vietnam. Now I know how to make sticky rice! Our goodbye dinner in Siem Reap was very memorable, since it was prepared and hosted by young Cambodian hospitality students. They did a wonderful job!

Zoom: You have a serious gluten allergy. Was this an issue for you throughout the trip? Did you  ever get sick?

Sam: Everywhere we went, servers were notified of my allergy and accommodations were made for me. They understood my problem and either warned me to stay away from certain menu items, or told me that the kitchen could alter the recipe so that the dish would be gluten-free. I did have one small episode of illness, but I’m not sure whether it was due to gluten, or just the variety of different spices used in the cooking. I felt better within one day.

Zoom: We create many special surprises on this tour. Which was your favorite?

Sam: Hands down, the Vespa tour of Saigon was my favorite!

Zoom: Did it make a difference having a dedicated Zoom concierge tour leader throughout the trip?

Sam: I’m thankful we had a dedicated tour concierge on our tour. Whenever an unexpected issue arose, Bryan was there to handle it. Plus, it was nice that our group had an immediate rapport with the various local guides since they already all knew you.

Zoom: Did you make new friends on this trip? Did you strengthen old friendships?

Sam: By the end of the tour, I truly felt that we were friends with everyone in the group, even those we met for the first time. As for the people we already knew, this experience definitely strengthened our friendships. There is something about the adventure of sharing a travel experience with friends that always seems to deepen a preexisting friendship.

Zoom: This year we added Hue to the itinerary. What did you think of that Imperial city

Sam: I was happy that Hue was added as a destination. The imperial city in Hue was a longtime seat of Vietnamese government, and the citadel was the scene of brutal fighting between Viet Cong soldiers and US Marines during the Offensive in 1968. Extensive destruction is still evident, but restoration work proceeds. Our hotel in Hue was an art deco gem from the French colonial period and was a great place to stay. Finally, in Hue we had an opportunity to dine in a hundred year-old Vietnamese home with the meal prepared by a Vietnamese family. That was a special experience. Hue was definitely a plus in the itinerary.

Zoom: How were the other experiences we provided where we got to interact with local people in their authentic, actual villages?

Sam: Our last evening in Cambodia involved a guided walking tour through a typical village. It was an eye-opening experience. Kids were playing outdoors while mothers were cooking dinner over propane stoves in homes made either of wood or corrugated metal. The streets were dirt, as were some of the floors in the homes. The people who lived in this village were quite poor. The kids would say “hello” over and over, and ask our names. At first, I felt like we were invading their privacy. However, the mothers would speak with us and smile, and tell us how many children they had. One woman had four little girls, and the youngest was just three months old. She coaxed here three older ones to come out of their house and greet us, and then she spoke to us, using very good English. She actually thanked us for visiting the village, because some of the money we paid would be used to buy drinking water filters for the residents. Over the past few years, child mortality from water borne illness in this village has been cut in half through the use of such filters. What a surprise to hear gratitude from a resident when I felt like maybe we were intruding.

Zoom: Definitely can understand feeling that way, since we were so clearly outsiders. Rest assured, Zoom Vacations only organizes events that positively impact local communities or environments.

Where would you like to go next with Zoom Vacations?

Sam: India, China, Sri Lanka and Morocco currently rank high on our list.

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