Tim’s Adventure By Disney Southeast Asia trip (May 2013)

Adventures By Disney Southeast Asia trip

May 2013

by Tim Larison, co-owner Family Travel Gurus/Larison Travel LLP

It was the trip of a lifetime!  In late May 2013 I was fortunate to go on an Adventures By Disney (ABD) tour of Southeast Asia with a group of 17 other travel agents.  I had never been to this part of the World before and I looked forward to exploring new cultures and new lands.  I kept a daily log of our trip which I have copied below.  The activities described were just some of the sights we saw.  After my daily log I will give my impressions of Adventures By Disney as a whole and why ABD is a great choice for tours around the World.

Day 1 – Long day of birthday flying

saigon sunrise
sunrise over ho chi minh city


I am now settled in my hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam after a long day of flying on May 19th – my birthday! I left Denver at 9 am, connected through LAX where I boarded a Korean Air flight to Seoul, South Korea. This flight was a long one, made easier by the excellent service of Korean Air. The flight attendants were all immaculately dressed and active throughout the flight. The two meals I had on the 13 hour flight were excellent (for airline food). I would fly Korean Air again!

korean air flight attendants
korean air flight attendants

I connected to another flight in Seoul to Ho Chi Minh City, this time a 5 hour flight that arrived at my final destination shortly before midnight. There my Adventures By Disney tour company host was waiting to take me by shuttle to my Sheraton hotel, 30 minutes from the airport. I was surprised with the amount of activity past Midnight on the streets of the city. I saw lots of people on small mopeds navigating the busy city streets.

I shared with my host that I had a special connection to Ho Chi Minh. Growing up in the late 60’s when it was my birthday (may 19th) the news always reported celebrations in Vietnam for this date was also Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. Why did my birthday have to be the same day as the chief enemy of the U.S., I wondered at the time! Those hostilities have long since ended and Vietnam now welcomes U.S. tourists like myself.

Unfortunate for my roommate but fortunate for me, he was a last minute cancellation for this trip. So I have a room to myself for our 10 day tour! That’s better for me as I have unusual sleeping patterns. This morning I was up early to take the picture of the sunrise shown above. I am looking forward to an active day of touring, including a river cruise. I plan to blog about my journey here as I experience Vietnam and Cambodia over the next few days.

Day 2 – Visiting Mekong (the mother of all rivers)

 mekong riverOn day two of my Southeast Asia trip I visited the Mekong River near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Life on the river is quite different than what the average American like me experiences. Above is a picture of an open market on the river with merchants selling their goods on floating stores. On the banks of the river are houses and a number of business establishments.

I am pictured below ready to enter our open air river cruise boat. Temperatures were hot and humid but a breeze off the river, my straw chinese hat, and the covered overhang helped keep us cool.


And snacks were readily available during our tour, like this coconut milk I sampled (it was good!)



We visited a family factory. This worker popped rice for us. Eating rice krispies will never be the same after seeing this interesting demonstration:


Another product of the factory was “snake wine”. Some in my travel party were bold enough to try a shot of this potent elixir:


After a delicious lunch at an open air restaurant overlooking the river we drove back to our hotel. Like the night of my arrival, I noticed many vietnam citizens use motorcycles as their primary means of transportation:


Many wore masks like the woman pictured above. Was this to avoid germs? No, our guide said. She explained that in Asian culture white skin is valued, so the masks are used to keep the elements from damaging the riders’ faces. As someone who hasn’t had a decent tan since the 1980’s my light skin tone would fit right in – many vietnamese do not want a tan!


The vietnamese pack as much onto these motor bikes as they can, as the above rider shows. We saw several families all on one bike – our guide said she once saw a motorbike with 6 family members on it!

For dinner we ate at an open air restaurant in a garden setting. The food was plentiful and excellent!


At the end our meal we were greeted by these Vietnamese dancers, welcoming us to their homeland:


I enjoyed this glimpse into Vietnamese culture very much! While life on the river seems primitive by American standards our guide said Vietnam ranks #2 in the happy planet index of all countries measured.

Tomorrow we look at a dark period in the history of Southeast Asia – the Vietnam War of the 60’s and early 70’s.

Day 3 – The Vietnam War Remembered

tunnelsClimbing in tunnels used by the Viet Cong was part of a day reflecting on the Vietnam War for me. The Chu Chi tunnels were navigated by North Vietnamese fighters to outsmart U.S. troops. These tunnels, which stretched for 120 miles near the South Vietnam capital of Saigon, showed me how the Viet Cong could defeat the better equipped U.S. troops by using guerrilla warfare techniques. Bomb craters were still evident around the tunnel complex.

Earlier in the day I toured the War Remnants Museum. Most sobering here were the pictures of the innocent victims of the war – the civilians. One gallery showed the effects of Agent Orange which the U.S. military used to defoliate forests, denying the Viet Cong cover. The herbicide caused many birth defects among the vietnamese children. Our Adventure By Disney hosts said they did not want to sugar coat this dark period in U.S. history. We were given the option to skip the museum but all 18 members of my tour group attended and were moved by the graphic images presented. What I will remember most from this day were the present day vietnamese children on a school field trip greeting us warmly. Museums like this send an important message to the next generation to avoid the senseless violence of war.

war remnants museum

As we drove to the airport for a late afternoon flight to Da Nang the traffic was an incredible sight – I’ve never seen so many motor bikes in my life!

vietnam motor bikes

At the end of the day we left the disturbing war images behind as we are staying in the beautiful Sunrise Hoi An Beach Resort. Tomorrow we shop at a local market in preparation for a cooking class to make authentic vietnamese dishes.

Day 4 – Visit to a market, cooking, and lantern making

farmers1aToday I got a real taste of Vietnamese culture in an active day of touring. We started by visiting a farmers market in the town of Hoi An. The streets were bustling with activity as we strolled down the streets of the market.

We saw the locals bartering to take home the freshest produce for their families.


Our group of American travel agents were a curiosity to the merchants – they readily allowed us to handle their produce and engage in bartering for goods.


The motorcycle culture I observed in Ho Chi Minh City was present again in Hoi An – this time I had an up close and personal view as we dodged the cycles when walking the streets of the market.


This little girl on the back of her Mom’s cycle wondered who these strange looking American tourists were.


Our tour of the market was to prepare us for a cooking class at Brother’s Cafe. Here a local chef instructed us in how to cook a 3 course meal.


For an American whose cooking skills back home consists mainly of microwaving frozen dinners, this was a challenge! You can tell by the look on my face, “can you believe I’m doing this?”


Under the guidance of our veteran vietnamese chef my lunch actually turned out to be good! Pictured below is me with my spring roll creation. I also cooked a vietnamese pancake and an eggplant dish. I was a bit apprehensive about this cooking lesson but it turned out much better than I thought, and gave me a new appreciation for the vietnamese cuisine.


After lunch we had some free time to explore the town, before heading to another active project – lantern making! A visit to a lantern factory where we each put together a lantern to take home was fun (the picture below shows my lantern creation)


It was a hot day with temperatures close to 100 degrees. The coastal town of Hoi An also had its share of humidity. While the active day of outside touring was stimulating, it was a relief to return to the beauty of our hotel – the Sunrise Hoi An Resort on the shores of the East China Sea – for a quiet evening. I loved the view out my window:


Tomorrow we take a morning flight to Hanoi for another day of touring. I continue to enjoy this trip and the impressions of another culture it is giving me far different than my own.

Day 5 – Hanoi

green1My Southeast Asia tour continued today with a visit to Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi. I was surprised at how green the city was with many trees and parks.

We drove past Truc Bach Lake where U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain crashed his plane during the Vietnam War. I knew that McCain’s plane had been shot down during the war but I didn’t realize he crashed right in the middle of Hanoi. For those of you in Denver it would be equivalent to crashing a plane into Sloans Lake.


The motorcycles were out again in Hanoi as in my previous stops in Vietnam. This cyclist shows the Vietnam version of air conditioning – with a working fan mounted on the back of his bike!


I saw several large karaoke places like this one – visiting a karaoke bar is a favorite past time of many Hanoi citizens according to our guide.


We visited the Museum of Ethnology where Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorites are recognized. These minorities make up 10% of the population. Xin chao means “hello” in Vietnamese:


Before retiring to our Hanoi Hotel we saw the famous water puppet show



Water puppetry goes back to the 11th century in this region. In its day water puppetry was the equivalent of Star Trek in special effects – complete with a live orchestra, narrator, and singers in addition to the skilled puppeteers behind the scenes. I liked how at the end of the show the puppeteers came out and showed how they maneuvered the puppets in the water – very creative.

Tomorrow we tour more of Hanoi before heading to Cambodia to finish our trip.

Day 6 – Up close with Ho Chi Minh, Tai Chi, and more

Day 6 of my Southeast Asia tour featured a full day of touring in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. We started bright and early with tai chi in a downtown park. Our travel agent group, clad in our tai chi outfits, were led by a tai chi master in different poses. This one was easy – hand in the fist:


Keeping my leg in the air while maintaining my balance was a bit more challenging!


Badminton was a popular early morning activity in this downtown Hanoi park.


The highlight of the day for me was a tour of the busy streets of hanoi in this electric car:


We were right in the middle of the action as we navigated the downtown streets of Hanoi. It was interesting to see everyday life in the city from this vantage point.


Next we were taken to the Ho Chi Minh memorial where the remains of this Vietnamese leader are preserved for public display.


The lines were long this Saturday morning. We waited over an hour for the opportunity to enter the mausoleum. No pictures were allowed inside and security was strict. The Vietnamese soldiers guarding the monument reminded me of a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier back home in Washington DC. Though Ho Chi Minh died long ago (1969) his impact on vietnamese society was evident from the huge crowds that still come every day to view his memorial.


Even though it was a Saturday we saw many school children groups. A number of kids came up to us to practice their english. “Hello Sir, glad to see you here today!” said one boy to me.


We then visited the “Hanoi Hilton” – the prison where captured American pilots were kept during the war in downtown Hanoi.


Former U.S. Presidential candidate and war pilot John McCain was highlighted here with several photos. Here is McCain with other pilots on the day of his release. The displays showed how the pilots were well treated during the captivity – pictures showed the prisoners celebrating Christmas, playing basketball, and in other activities. I’m sure the actual conditions were worse than the idealized pictures shown in the displays, but the pilots did look to be in much better shape than photos I’ve seen of World War II prisoners in German concentration camps.


We returned to our hotel, the historic Metropole, in the afternoon. This hotel has hosted a number of celebrities over the years. Jane Fonda lived here for two months during the war. The Clintons have stayed here as well as Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It was a great place to stay as the base camp for our two days in Hanoi. I found the hotel’s historic tour very interesting, featuring a tour of their bomb shelter used during the war.


I could imagine the terror people felt as they huddled into this shelter. Our guide said up to 40 people crowded into the shelter at any one time as they heard the bombs outside. The hotel was spared during the war.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to Hanoi and travel to Cambodia to finish our tour.


Day 7 – Temple of Literature


Today we finished up our tour of Hanoi, Vietnam with a visit to the Confucius Temple of Literature. Dating back to the 11th century, followers of Confucius still visit the temple to pray.


Similar to our visit to the Ho Chi Minh memorial yesterday, we found our American travel agent group a curiosity with the Vietnamese children. Here are a few kids taking our picture:


Here I am in front of an open courtyard that was featured on the Amazing Race Season 22. Teams setup a human chess board in this courtyard.


After an excellent lunch at the Pots and Pans restaurant in downtown Hanoi we were off to the airport for an hour and a half flight to Cambodia. We arrived in Seam Reap after dark. The staff at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra hotel had a welcome party for us as our bus pulled up after 8 pm.


Tomorrow is my last day of the tour as we visit the temples of the Angkor Archaeological Park.

Day 8 – Angkor Archaeological Park and elephant ride

The final day of my Southeast Asia adventure was a good one! We started by visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia. We were transported to the park in these open air “tuk tuk” vehicles – the cool breeze while driving felt good on this hot day:


We first toured Angkor Wat – the largest religious structure in the World. This temple was built in the 12th century, first a Hindu temple then later converted to a Buddhist one. The temple towered over the Cambodian countryside this day:


We took a closer look inside. The temple had three levels – we visited the first two. This staircase was a challenge to navigate to get up to the second level, and the third level was even steeper:


The stonework of the temple had many intricate carvings:


After visiting Angkor Wat my tour group played a fun “Amazing Race” type of game where we were given puzzles to solve in the Angkor temple complex:


Here my teammate Bill shows a picture puzzle we pieced together as part of the challenge, then we had to find the location of the picture somewhere in the temple complex. We could only ask the locals for help. It was a fun way to see more of the temple complex – different from a straight tour. The game had two challenges and took about an hour to complete.


The highlight of the day for me was the opportunity to ride an elephant! Here I am petting my large friend before my ride:


Me and one other rider sat in the basket behind the driver on our elephant for a 25 minute ride. Here’s a picture I took from atop the elephant of others in my tour group:


It was a great way to conclude my interesting eight day tour of Vietnam and Cambodia. I have a late night flight departing from Cambodia at 11:30 pm tonight. After two connections and 30+ hours of travel time I’ll be back in Colorado on Tuesday night. It’s not often that you get to ride an elephant and a jumbo jet in the same day!

The Adventures By Disney Difference

I cannot imagine a better company to tour Southeast Asia with than Adventures By Disney.  The advantages of taking this organized tour compared to touring on my own or with another company were numerous:


Two Adventure Guides.  Our guides Tony and Jennae were wonderful the whole trip, from meeting me at the airport and hotel just before midnight on my arrival, answering my many questions during the tour, making sure I was comfortable in the hot Asia heat with plenty of water and snacks provided, taking pictures of me whenever I asked (like some of the ones above), and generally providing a positive, upbeat attitude in keeping our travel agent group healthy and happy.  I have been on other organized tours with only one guide, and those solo guide tours didn’t compare in the level of service and personal attention I received from Tony and Jennae.


Smooth transportation.  Once I arrived in Vietnam Disney arranged all of our transportation: bus rides, inter-country flights, electric cars, tuk tuks, and elephants!  The transportation was well coordinating without me having to worry about it – much easier than trying to navigate around a foreign land on my own.  I was especially impressed with how Disney took care of our visas, passports, and custom forms when we flew to Cambodia at the end of our tour.  We just walked off the plane without having to worry about any of these details.


Mask Painting In Hanoi
Mask Painting In Hanoi

Wide variety of activities.  I was pleasantly surprised by the variety activities we experienced.  It wasn’t just touring museums and historic sites.  Disney mixed in fun activities, like the lantern making, cooking class, mask painting, the amazing race like challenge in Cambodia, and more.  Though our tour was adults only activities like this are sure to appeal to families traveling with children – the activities keep the kids engaged.

Tables waiting for us at many restaurants
Tables waiting for us at many restaurants

The food.  During our tour we often dined at a top local restaurant in each city we visited.  At the welcome dinner we had in Ho Chi Minh City on our first full day I was treated to the best won ton soup I had ever tasted, and also loved the yummy shrimp sticks.  Our meals were generally excellent throughout the whole trip.  Most meals were included in the price of the tour, including breakfast every morning.  On the nights where meals weren’t included our guides had helpful suggestions on good places to eat on our own.  Also to keep the tour running smoothly our guides would take our food orders in advance for many of the restaurants we visited, so when we arrived our meals were served quickly.

Sunrise Hoi An Beach Resort
Sunrise Hoi An Beach Resort

The resorts.  At each stop we stayed at a highly rated hotel.  In Hanoi, for example, we stayed at the historic Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel.  This property has hosted the Clintons, Jane Fonda, and other celebrities over the years.


The surprises.  Disney had a surprise for us in each day of touring.  One fun touch was giving us Disney pins for our lanyards to commemorate special moments during our trip.  Disney pin traders will love this.  Other surprises included our elephant ride on the last day in Cambodia.

This special travel agent trip we took was a slightly condensed tour compared to the Southeast Asia tour offered by Disney to the public.  We did not visit Laos, for example, which is included on the regular Adventures By Disney Southeast Asia tour.

Adventures by Disney provides expertly planned and guided family vacations all over the globe.  We can help with your next ABD vacation!  In addition to experiencing this Adventures by Disney Southeast Asia tour, we have booked clients on other ABD trips for the past three years.  Every client has returned with glowing reviews, like this comment from Janice on her family’s ABD California Backstage Magic tour earlier this year: “The trip was AMAZING!!!!!! We had quite a few young to middle teens on the trip and the kids all got along so well. We saw lots of behind the scenes things that were terrific. I highly recommend this to any TRUE Walt fans.”

Are you a Disney Vacation Club owner?  No problem!  We can book your Adventures By Disney trip as long as you are not using DVC points, and you are guaranteed to get the lowest price.  Contact us for a price quote or for more information on your future Adventures by Disney trip today!


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