Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

Photo of Angkor Wat temple complex taken by the traveler.

Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex is filled with intricate carvings. Photo: Traveler Joe McBrine

Ethan and Sandy put together our 2.5-week trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. Without them we would have been hard pressed to have the amazing variety and depth of experiences which allowed us to really experience Vietnamese and Cambodian culture. In Vietnam we watched a water puppet show in Hanoi, biked on Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay, took a speedboat along the Mekong Delta to a remote village where we biked again, dined with a welcoming Vietnamese family in Hue, and had a private nighttime Vespa food tour of Ho Chi Minh City. Each experience forced us out of our comfort zone as passive tourists and made us engage in the best possible way. We travel to see the world, experience other cultures, and meet those who live like us but only differently. Sandy and Ethan provided us with the opportunities to do that. And from these experiences the best type of memories are made.

As far as unique experiences there were too many to count. Two stand out. The Vespa tour of Ho Chi Minh City was beyond. At first I was a bit anxious at the thought of getting on a Vespa. It was hot and I was worried we might have a collision—or worse—I’d fall off. However the drivers were expert and put us instantly at ease. Once we set off and felt the breeze against our skin, took in the beautiful twinkling lights, and smelled the aromas of this city—including all the delicious food we tried at the three different restaurants we stopped at—we were in heaven. One particularly memorable moment occurred as we zipped down a small alleyway passing by residents cooking their evening meals, eating, and socializing—a site familiar no matter where one is in the world. Amazing. Additionally the flower market was also especially beautiful at night. After the food we stopped at an intimate bar for wonderful live music, and then capped the evening with a visit to famed local chocolatier Maison Marou for probably the richest and most delicious hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

In Cambodia one of the highlights of our trip was getting up before dawn and being able to enjoy sunrise at the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat. Seeing this beautiful and immense temple complex appear out of the mist as the sun rises is an experience too ethereal and intense for words. Along those lines we visited a Cambodian Buddhist monastery for blessings and prayers with a young Buddhist monk. Our guide in Cambodia, Thuy Silen, was beyond lovely and informative during our travels there. I won’t forget her smile and laugh.

Truly a trip to remember and we owe that to Sandy and Ethan. Bravo.

In my 85 years, I have seen a lot of the world. This trip to Vietnam was among the most wonderful journeys I have undertaken. It was eventful, enlightening, and altogether happy. I am very grateful to Wendy for referring me to Ethan Crowley and Sandy Ferguson. They meticulously coordinated every detail of a packed agenda. They had wonderful ideas about how an older person like me could get the most out of the trip. As a result, it went off without a hitch—smooth sailing all the way. The hotels were all excellent, with an array of amenities. The food was an adventure in and of itself. It varied slightly from region to region but was pretty phenomenal everywhere. The weather was hot but tolerable, with almost no rain.

All my guides were great. Each brought their own perspectives and personal style to the job, which made things interesting; but they were uniformly competent, knowledgeable, accommodating, resourceful—even funny. From them, I learned things I did not know about Vietnam. For example, I did not realize that Vietnam is in some ways still a divided nation. I was very glad that my guides were candid about the contradictions and tensions between North and South. It was important to learn from them both how far the country has come in its long struggle for peace and independence and how much still needs to be done. I came away richer for that knowledge.

The beauty of the country is simply astonishing—water everywhere; flowers in abundance; the grandeur of Ha Long Bay; the backdrop of mountains and the natural grace of the landscape. The richness and diversity of Vietnamese culture and its history were evident everywhere, from the old city of Hanoi to Chinatown in Saigon. Bustling markets, temple after beautiful temple. And then the Maison Centrale (aka the Hanoi Hilton), a quaint name given by the French to a horribly brutal prison. On the other end of the spectrum, Ho’s tomb was uplifting. Though it was closed for renovation, it was moving to see the changing of the guard and the grounds surrounding the tomb where Ho lived and worked.

In the beautiful city of Hue, my guide did a good job of keeping the WOW Moment secret until we arrived at the home of Bon and Tchi (I’m sure I am misspelling their names—doing it from phonetic memory). Their hospitality was amazing, and the meal we shared was really good! Their grandson proved to be an excellent waiter; and their son was a pleasure to talk to. I very much enjoyed exploring their overgrown backyard, which contained everything from chickens to the elaborate tomb of Bon’s father. What a trip, in the 60s sense of the word. Thanks a million for setting that up!

There were unexpected “off-road” moments. In Hanoi, a visit to a gallery of (very impressive) contemporary Vietnamese painting; in Hoi An, a dinner at home with my guide, his wife and two boys; in Saigon, a serendipitous trip through back alleys to an orthodox Jewish Chabad, on the sabbath no less. Though I was not able to do any daredevil Vespa-riding, I did have a spin on the back of a bike in small villages on the Mekong. I even managed to cross the street all by myself—six times if my recollection is correct.

These are just some of the most memorable experiences I had. I have bored many friends and colleagues with reams of detail. I have also sung your praises. Again, my thanks to Wendy, Ethan and Sandy for a memorable trip. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Jeannie Mullen

Aerial view of temple ruins by helicopter. Photo: Jeannie Mullen

On a lark, and with spot-on advice and counsel from Wendy about where to go on short notice, I booked a three-week trip to Southeast Asia. Most of my travel is solo and private, so I rely on travel planners to make everything seamless and as problem-free as possible. I also like a lot of detail in advance. Wendy put me in touch with Sandy and Ethan, and just as she said they would, they were able to turn on a dime. They put together a very detailed, interesting and diverse trip for me with just a little over three weeks’ notice (and that included securing expedited travel visas). I don’t think I’ve been to that many UNESCO sites in one single trip, ever. I cannot say enough about this part of the world, the food, the people and the culture. So different than what I am used to and so very interesting. Every planning detail, including Fast Track airport service (where available) for arrivals and departures, was taken care of with great care and attention. There was also an extended layover in Seoul, South Korea at the beginning and end of the trip for which they helped arrange hotel and transport. And I can say the same thing for the guides, drivers and logistics while in each of the three countries … there was always great attention to detail, a willingness to be flexible, and prompt responses to each and every request.

Vietnam was so special and different … Hanoi and Saigon such busy, eclectic places with great food, shopping, museums and live evening performances … lots of war history, which I found fascinating. I got the biggest kick out of enjoying a street-food tour on the back of a Vespa scooter in rush-hour traffic … being at street level and driving through the backstreets, alleys and neighborhoods added an entire new level to the experience … Contrast these experiences with very different low-key rural locations and experiences in areas like Ninh Minh (a hike and a relaxing float trip), a relaxing one-night cruise on Halong Bay among gorgeous limestone islands, several nights in the provincial town of Hue to explore the Citadel, garden houses and quiet streets and a boat ride on the Perfume River, followed by several days in the ancient town of Hoi An to discover the distinctive blend of cultures and architecture in the old quarter.

Siem Reap, Cambodia … the place around which the entire trip was planned … was phenomenal … traipsing in and around the temple complexes and experiencing sunrise at Ankor Wat was a major bucket-list item. Major shout out to Silen, my guide and Ethan’s friend, for her attention to every detail and working our way into and out of the temple complexes in such a way as to avoid other tourists. She was also a master at pacing the day so as to provide relief from the heat and humidity. Surpassing those experiences was the day that I flew by helicopter to the even more remote and off-the-radar locations of Preah Vihear and Prasat Banteay Chhmar with Po-Thai Khan, a renowned Cambodian archaeologist. Walking these temple complexes with Thai was one of those pinch-me experiences … he was so interesting, engaging and affirming. And the temples were totally without tourists. Something I will never forget. On the way back to Siem Reap, as we skirted a massive thunderstorm, we flew through a full-circle rainbow … how did Wendy manage THAT WOW moment? I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention an idyllic outdoor candlelit dinner that I enjoyed that same evening at Villa Chandara.

Luang Prabang, Laos … another UNESCO site … was its own kind of special. My guide, Ek, who considers Sandy family, was born and raised in the community and was known by everyone we encountered. In addition to knowing Luang Prabang like the back of his hand, he is also a wonderful cook who puts homemade sweets in your hand every time you turn around. Highlights of this portion of the trip included communing with elephants at Mandalao Sanctuary, visiting ethnic minority villages on the outskirts of town, wandering through the many local morning markets, being hosted at Ek’s home with his extended family for a baci ceremony and giving alms the following morning at Ek’s local temple.

These were just some of the highlights. Looking back, I cannot believe that I did so many things and saw so many sights in three weeks. Thank you so much to Sandy and Ethan, and all of their family and friends in SE Asia, for turning a spur-of-the-moment trip idea into a reality for this solo wanderer.

My husband and I traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia from May 3 to 21 with the help of trip planners Sandy and Ethan. This was our first trip through Wendy so we are not eligible for a “WOW Moment,” yet we felt like we had one amazing moment after another on this trip. Traveling so far was stepping out of the box for us and Sandy and Ethan really made us feel comfortable. They helped us plan where we might want to visit. The hotels they suggested we choose from were all amazing, so we knew we couldn’t go wrong. They let you pick what level hotel room in each hotel but I said to them, you know our budget, so can you please pick the appropriate room to fit that. All of our hotel rooms were amazing and perfect. The Zoom meeting we had with them shortly before our trip made us feel very confident. We were able to ask all of our questions and they gave us great advice.

We chose to go in a shoulder season, so it was not crowded but it was very hot. Our guides, who spoke very highly of Sandy and how he takes care them, always made sure we had cold water and the air-conditioned cars were wonderful. Though it was hot and humid we thought this was the perfect time to be there, because nothing was crowded and our pictures are tourist-free. Some of our favorite memories are visiting Train Street and walking around the Old Quarter sampling amazing food in Hanoi with our guide. Kayaking and having lunch, just the two of us, on a floating “pirates club” in Halong Bay. Having lunch cooked for us by a lovely family in Hue and enjoying rice wine with Mr. Bo. Riding on the back of a Vespa in Saigon. Riding through alleys and seeing families sitting outside enjoying the night. Sitting in a boat in Cambodia and our guide making us gin and tonics. On our last day in Siem Reap we walked through a village and talked with an 82 yr old woman making a basket. She was so sweet and interesting to talk with. We were blessed by a monk in a pagoda, we rode a boat across a reservoir as the sun went down, and then we ate dinner at a beautiful farm with candles burning all around us. Don’t these all sound like WOW Moments?

I can’t leave out the food. The food we ate everywhere was amazing. Our guides made sure we tried all of the area specialties and we ate at some amazing restaurants. We really enjoyed when our guides took us to different street-food places. We also liked when they gave us a name of a restaurant and we made our way there on our own. Our guides were all available to us at any time. Sandy makes sure he has the best guides and they are able to pivot and change things to fit what you want to do. We told our guide in Saigon that we didn’t want to go to the War Remnants museum and she understood and ended up taking us to a natural medicine museum because we are both in science, and it was great. In Siem Reap we were supposed to go to Angkor Wat for the sunrise but I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t sleep enough to be up at 5. We let our guide know at 4:30 am and decided we would meet at 8. We still were able to see everything and we had an amazing day. We highly recommend Sandy and Ethan. We hope to go back someday and we will be calling them.

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