Sunday, February 2, 2020

Our Family-Friendly Trip to Vietnam

This picture is one of my favorites from last year.  It was a total scam, one that we knew about before we even took off on our week-long trip to Vietnam last April, and still we were somehow suckered into it.  But I think we’d all agree it was some of the best two dollars we spent.

Here’s the deal: a “fruit vendor” comes up with her hanging baskets and asks if you want a picture.  We (being educated about this scam) say, “No, no, that’s okay,” and she says, “Free! Just take picture! Try!”  And we’re still protesting as she hangs her wares on Skyler’s shoulder and plops her hat on her head. And at that point, we say, “Wellllll... okay, I guess....” and she takes my phone and snaps this picture and then asks for equivalent of two dollars.  I think the only thing we could have done differently was to run the other way, but we had found a rare quiet spot in Hoi An to enjoy some gelato.  So we are two dollars poorer, but we have this amazing picture.

Last week, I hit “purchase” on our plane tickets for spring break this year, and it occurred to me that I never wrote about one of my favorite things we did last year, which was our trip to Vietnam.  Normally I would not do a post about a trip I took nine months ago, but it was so much fun.  Since I’m spending a good chunk of my time daydreaming about warmer climes and making plans and chatting with local friends about their spring break plans, I am pretty sure others are as well.  So I thought that I’d do this long overdue post just to have all the information in one place.

Our itinerary:

Two nights in Hanoi followed by five nights in Hoi An (with day trips to Da Nang).


Our hotel in Hanoi was the Serene Boutique Hotel in the Old Quarter.  

I cannot recommend this place enough.  It was everything I wanted — an intimate atmosphere brimming with personal touches, impeccably clean, beautiful décor, fantastic location, gracious staff, and an incredibly delicious breakfast included in the rooftop restaurant.  One of our favorite touches was that our rooms came with bowls of fresh fruit that were refilled every day.  We had passion fruit, mangos, guava, rambutan, and mangosteen, all perfectly ripe and delicious.

I had arranged an airport pick-up through the hotel, and after a somewhat frustrating and tiresome experience in the passport line at the airport, it was so nice to walk out and see our van driver waiting for us while others from our flight were still waiting for their rides.  We arrived at the hotel and were greeted by the staff with juice and snacks.  They asked us our names and used them in all our conversations during our time there.  They were incredibly helpful, providing maps and recommendations (which we should have listened to more).  The only problem with our stay is that it kind of ruined our expectations for all hotels since.
Our first night there we walked to dinner through the Old Quarter, which is an experience in and of itself.  There were motor scooters EVERYWHERE.  I mean, I have traveled a lot in my life, and I know the prevalence of scooters in most countries outside the United States, but I can’t think of a time I’ve seen anything like this.  We also passed several small streetside restaurants with short stools pulled up to low tables and the locals gathered around these.  By the time we found the vegetarian restaurant we were looking for (delicious but I don’t remember the name of it) and finished dinner, we were fairly tired so returned to the hotels for baths and bed.

The next day, we were up early thanks to the two-hour time difference.  We headed to the infamous prison Hoa Lo, aka The Hanoi Hilton.  To be honest, I have mixed feelings about taking my young kids there.  I did because I felt like it was educational.  I mean, Matt and I remember how when we were kids (born in the 70’s), Vietnam was almost a bad word.  We didn’t want to dwell on the pain and turmoil of the past, but at the same time, we felt like it was important for context, and it would be the one place directly related to the war that we would see.

There was an almost palpable darkness, though, for lack of a better word.  Some of the displays were a lot to take in, like a guillotine that was used for several years and some photographs and testimonies I don’t even want to describe here because they still turn my stomach.  I mention this because I’ve been asked several times since if I would take the kids there again, and... I’m not sure.  I don’t think it scarred the kids, but they unanimously say it was the worst part of the trip.  If you do plan a trip, just know it will be an extremely heavy experience, and that might be too much for young children.

We spent the rest of the day around the Old Quarter, visiting the beautiful St. Joseph’s cathedral 
and strolling around Hoan Kiem lake, taking in the atmosphere.  Skyler and I got massages in the spa of our hotel, and they were wonderful.  Then I took Skyler, Lilly, and Wyatt to the amazing Bamboo Circus while Matt took Annalee on a rickshaw tour of the Old Quarter since she was below the recommended age for the show.

The next day we got up and walked around some more before heading back to the airport to fly to Da Nang, just taking in the sights, sounds, and atmosphere.  We loved the architectural style, especially around the Old Quarter.  But I have to admit that two days in Hanoi with the bajillion or so scooters 
felt hectic and stressful to navigate especially with the younger contingent of our family.  By the time we left, we were ready for some beach time and a change of pace.

Da Nang/ Hoi An:

We arrived in Da Nang after a short flight that afternoon, and once again, I had pre-arranged a driver to the hotel, which was outside Hoi An but about 45 minutes from Da Nang.  We stayed at the Ally Beach Boutique Hotel.  It had a very different vibe about it, and while still nice, it was a little more basic.  We found an amazing place for dinner, Baby Mustard,
a farm-to-table kind of outdoor restaurant with the most charming garden.  

The next day I met with Tommy Dao of Tommy Dao Tours who had come recommended to me by a friend and was able to arrange two tours for the week.  This was one of the best things I did for our trip.  Our hotel had a tour as well to the same places, but it cost more and meant a longer day with lots of people.  I just couldn’t see doing that with my kids.  Tommy put together itineraries to exactly the places we wanted to visit with a private van for less money.

After spending the rest of the day at the beach, 
we headed to town in the evening.  Hoi An was a bustling and colorful city.  We loved all the lanterns.  This was the night of the photo scam, but honestly, it made us laugh.  We ate dinner at Phi Banh Mi.  It was incredible.  The sandwiches were so good, and our entire dinner cost less than $7!   
Matt headed back to the hotel with the younger kids while Skyler and I stayed in town to shop and explore.

The next day was our first tour.  We visited Ba Na Hills, which is an amusement park with the famous Hands of God bridge.  We were advised to go very early in the day, and while we were waking up early thanks to jet lag, breakfast at the hotel wasn’t served early enough.  I didn’t want to take my kids out on empty stomachs because I knew how tiring and stressful it is to look for food, so we went later than recommended though still quite early.  It was very crowded as you can see from the pictures, but we still got some decent pictures, thanks to our amazing guide.

From there we went to lunch in Da Nang.  Our tour guide took to a vegetarian restaurant with incredible food.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get the name of it.  The price was also low based on the menu, but our lunch was included in our tour price. Da Nang has a very different vibe than that of Hoi An, in spite of the proximity to each other.  Da Nang feels more like Miami Beach (in fact, some call it the Miami Beach of Vietnam) while Hoi An feels older and seems to have more cultural charm.  Both are good in their own ways.

We went to the Marble Mountains and visited a temple and a Buddha in a cave.  It was really beautiful.  I loved the use of broken blue-and-white ceramics, for instance, and the green tile roofs.
Dinner was again at Baby Mustard (why mess with success?), and the next morning, Matt took a quiet day with the younger kids while I went with Skyler on an all-day snorkeling tour to the Cham Islands.  This was the one tour I booked through the hotel, at the recommendation of Tommy.  The younger kids could have come along, but they wanted to stay at the hotel pool and go to the beach.  I think they were nervous about our any boat rides after our terrifying return trip from Fukuoka the year before. (Hahaha!)

I was honestly a little nervous about that too, especially when we arrived at the pier and everyone was loaded into small speedboats with two long benches.  But suddenly, the guide said, “You two!” (motioning to Skyler and I) “This boat over here!” And we were taken to a huge boat that kind of looked like a pirate ship.  It was slower than the others, but much more comfortable.  There were drinks included (we opted for just bottled water), and a sun deck with an awning stretched over it.  I’m still not clear how this happened, if it was a fluke or what we’d paid for, but gosh. It was nice. 

We stopped at one small island after about 1.5 hours on the boat and snorkeled for 45 minutes, went to another island and snorkeled again.  Then we went to another island for lunch. Vegetarian options were provided as well as water (and alcohol if desired, but I don’t really drink), and hammocks where we could watch monkeys scampering around the trees. 

Our last day, we took another tour to a traditional Vietnamese farm,
 rode in a basket boat (I told Matt I felt like baby Moses), 
and then went to lunch at another charming restaurant in town called the Blue Gecko.  That night we girls got mani/ pedis in the hotel spa, then swam.  We biked to Mate Cafe, a little cafe/ restaurant run by our tour guide to Bana Hills.  We were absolutely delighted by the waffles and coconut coffee we had, plus the lime sodas and mango milkshakes. We wished we’d gone there sooner in our trip.

We flew back to Korea the next day, all having loved our time in Vietnam.  My only regrets are that Jayna wasn’t with us (she was at university stateside and couldn’t join us) and that we didn’t hire a driver for a tour in Hanoi, but other than that, I just wish we’d had more time.  It felt like we were going and doing things every day and a busier itinerary would have been more stressful, but we still missed so much — like going to Ha Long Bay.  While we aren’t spending this Spring Break there, we had to fight ourselves to decide to go anywhere else.  We’d go back in a heartbeat.

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