We recently tried something new. Gohagan & Co., a tour operator specializing in chartering small luxury ships, offered a complimentary Vietnam cruise to the Andrew Harper editorial team. Ordinarily we don’t entertain such proposals. But with encouragement from our long-suffering accountant, I accepted the offer with the caveat that I would not hold back from criticism in my review. The Gohagan office was aware of my identity, but as far as the other passengers, local guides and cruise staff were concerned, my traveling companion and I were ordinary guests.
Once we arrived in Asia, the tour went beautifully. We started with a stay at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, a longtime favorite hotel of mine, followed by a cruise down Vietnam’s magnificent coast aboard Ponant’s Le Lapérouse (see our review). Gohagan chartered the entire plush 92-cabin vessel (though our sociable group numbered fewer than 80 people), which gave it full control of shore excursions. We hit major highlights of Vietnam — Ha Long Bay, Hue, Danang, Hoi An — on well-organized outings ideal for first-time visitors to the country. The small size of our ship allowed us to sail up the Saigon River and dock in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, where we all disembarked. We separated here from the rest of the group, which continued on to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to explore Angkor Wat and other nearby temples.
The itinerary was lovely, but what set it apart were the several special guests Gohagan arranged to have accompany the group. Phan Thi Kim Phuc, famously photographed as a child running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, gave deeply moving talks about her journey from resentment and rage to forgiveness and hope. Nick Ut, who captured that Pulitzer Prize-winning image, spoke about how his older brother, a photographer killed in the war, inspired him to pick up a camera himself. Journalist Jim Laurie told us about his time as a young reporter, covering the fall of Saigon and beyond. Professor Reiko Ohnuma, chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth, gave fascinating lectures about Buddhism. And award-winning photographer Mark Edward Harris taught helpful classes about making our vacation shots more compelling.