Vietnam, Pho Sure: Ha Long Bay and Hanoi

Right after landing in Hanoi, we meet cool weather! Its overcast and the air gives an element of fall.  After sweating for nine days in Cambodia, we’ve never been so happy to wear coats.

Our trip to Northern Vietnam was a bit of a spur of the moment endeavor.  Several weeks before Vietnam, we realized we would be here during the Lunar New Year, known as Tet. We heard about most of the businesses shutting down during this holiday.  Locals sweep their homes, clean out the old and travel to their hometowns to spend a week eating and visiting with their families.

Nervous that we would be stuck with few food options and things to do, I reached out to a travel agent to see if we could do a Ha Long Bay cruise since all activities and food would be organized for us during Tet.  It was a luxury to arrive in Hanoi and know that for the next week James nor I had to do any planning!  It was the best to sit back and enjoy as all of our transportation and lodging had been organized beforehand.  A welcome respite after having planned eight months of travel so far!

Our first night in Hanoi we stayed at the Golden Holiday Hotel in the Old Quarter.  It was New Year’s Day and the owner was dressed in her festive red attire for the event.  Exhausted from our day of travel, we ventured out to find a quick dinner and immediately noticed the crazy traffic! I can’t imagine what Hanoi is like when the city is booming! There is absolutely no yielding for pedestrians.  You simply throw your hand in the air (and say a quiet prayer) signifying you’re walking across the road as motorbikes and cars weave around you.  It feels a bit like the arcade game Frogger!

Hanoi beer for James!

The next morning we had breakfast in our hotel, which was lovely; however, it was our first taste of Vietnamese coffee.  A shock to the system, I’m not sure if you could ever get used to the taste.  They use a bean called Robusta and for James and me, it was the worst coffee we’d ever had.  We choked it down in hopes we’d find a more suitable coffee shop later and picked up our bags to travel via bus to the Ha Long Bay port. A three hour drive later, we boarded a small boat which took us to our cruise ship for the next few days. 

Delighted by the views from our boat

Te He, our Cruise Director, greeted as as we arrived and all of the staff were so welcoming.  He was an adorable twenty-something man no taller than Goose, but was so friendly and welcoming towards our family.  The beautiful limestone mountain islands surrounding us were so captivating as we sat down for a buffet lunch.  The food was traditional Vietnamese, mainly noodle and rice dishes.  We all found something we enjoyed and then made our way to our rooms for some rest time.  As we rested on the balcony, we noticed a lady in a small boat paddling alongside the cruise ship selling snacks and beer/wine.  She’d simply hold up a long pole to exchange the goods for money.  The ingenuity of people never ceases to amaze me.

With our amazing cruise director, TeHe

That afternoon, we went kayaking in the bay and the boys and James went for a swim in the frigid waters.  The verdict was in–definitely colder than the Med Sea, but not quite as cold as Norway.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay

We made it back to enjoy happy hour on the top deck and a cooking lesson on Vietnamese spring rolls.  The kids made friends with the only other child on the ship, a 6-year old little girl from India and enjoyed playing a game of hide and seek on the top deck.  It was quite funny to watch because as they ran around playing, there was a group of half a dozen Muslim men on their knees practicing their call to prayer.  They didn’t seem too bothered though.

The following day we took a small boat to the fishing village of Viet Hai on Cat Ba Island.  We rented bikes and rode through the island to the village where Te He took us on a walking tour. 

Biking in Viet Hai

The village had once lived entirely on the water, but now because of so much tourism, they moved inland and have a beautiful town set up.  We meandered the streets and all got to try fish massage.

Ticklish feet from the fish massage

Then, James and I had some rice wine.  James chose to drink the snake infused wine and I chose the lychee.  Both were difficult to swallow!

So much rice wine to choose from. Notice the snake in the far right jar?

Several local women prepared our lunch against the backdrop of a small pond.  A thin bamboo bridge went over the pond, which required a lot of balance to make across.  The kids kept walking across it over and over again.  In my mind, I thought, “at some point, someone’s going to fall.” Well, about 15 minutes later we all heard a big splash and a wail from Bingo who let out, “MOOOOOOMMMM!!!!” Thankfully, the water was only a few feet deep and other than being cold and wet, she was fine!

It was all fun and games until Bingo fell in!

As we sat and enjoyed our lunch a British lady on our tour proclaimed, “I don’t find much food challenging, but I have to admit I’ve been quite challenged on this trip.”  We all let out a chuckle because we very much felt the same way.  Fish balls, prawn mash, and insects all take an acquired taste!

We spent the afternoon kayaking and swimming, once again. Another cooking class, this time making fried spring rolls.  Goose was anxious to finish dinner that evening so he could try his hand at squid fishing.  He was unsuccessful, but enjoyed the attempt.  The rest of us fell into bed and were asleep before our heads hit the pillows.  Not even the blaring speakers from the karaoke singers above us could keep us from a good night sleep!

Our final morning on the boat, we were up early to take a bamboo boat through caves in the bay.  We were all exhausted at this point, but grateful for the beautiful weather and scenery.  As we made our way back to port, we were looking forward to exploring Hanoi for a day before heading south.

Hanoi

We arrived back in Hanoi to spend one more night before we took the overnight train to Da Nang.  We didn’t have much on our list to do in Hanoi other than walk around and check out the train street. Several homes back up to one area of the train tracks in Hanoi.  The train is close to the buildings that everyone has to make sure they are inside as it passes.  Several years ago one coffee shop opened, offering customers an up close experience and since then the entire street has been lined with cafes. 

We stopped by to have an early lunch in hopes we would catch the train passing through.  We sat on the balcony overlooking the railway since I wanted to make sure we didn’t have to worry about kids keeping clear! Next, we watched as two men feverishly blew their whistles and yelled at everyone to stand clear.  They weren’t kidding when they said that the train came inches from the storefronts! It blows right by! After, we took the opportunity to do our own mini photo shoot on the train tracks.  Like everywhere in Southeast Asia, it seemed prime for Instagram!

Smoochy kiss on train street (this was all Goose’s idea!)

Later, we walked to the lake and just did some people watching.  It was the last day of the New Year holiday for everyone and families were dressed in their nicest clothes taking pictures and enjoying the day.  We stopped on the water and found several artists hand drawing portraits that were beautiful.  We had one make a picture of the kids. He was very detailed and nailed the picture of Bingo, but the boys looked a little too youthful compared to their sister.  It was a fun activity, though, and nice to support the artist. 

Portrait by a local artist

We had one group of teenage boys come up to us and they all wanted a picture with James.  I guess his height was an anomaly to them!

James and the boys

We also had a mother and daughter stop to talk to us for a long time about our thoughts on visiting Vietnam during Tet.  The mother was a linguistics professor and the daughter had a school project that she needed to complete.  The daughter interviewed Goose and then they exchanged emails, hoping to be digital pen pals in the future.

We had an early dinner and then went to the train station for our overnight trip to Da Nang.  We were all SO excited for this experience! All the train conductors were dressed just like in the Polar Express and I desperately wanted to get a photo of them checking our tickets as we boarded.  Unfortunately, the conductor didn’t cooperate and hurried us on the train.  The beauty of our little room was such a surprise!  The walls were decorated with the most gorgeous wallpaper and we found a welcome basket of chips and muffins! With a botched reservation, James even slept in an adjacent cabin, with two strangers. It only added to the adventure! And, our travel agent even met us to refund the extra ticket and leave some lucky money for the New Year!

The kids had a great night’s sleep and we awoke to sunrise as we travelled past rice fields.  As we headed to the café car for breakfast, it all felt like a movie! Stunning scenery, terrible coffee, and pho soup for breakfast, an incredible experience!

Enjoying the sights on the overnight train

The final highlight of our train ride was all the Vietnamese kids who kept showing up at our cabin.  The parents did not speak English well and would push their kids into our cabin to interact with our kids.  Goose and Manji did a great job teaching them how to play UNO. And, they were especially patient when they wanted to climb all over their beds! At last, we arrived in Da Nang ready to take on central Vietnam!

New friends on the train

First impressions of Vietnam—we had a few friends who warned us that they didn’t receive the warmest welcome from locals while they were travelling. However, we have felt the complete opposite! Everyone has been so kind and open about their culture, willing to share their experiences with us.  As travelers, this feeling is one we hope to repay to those visiting us in the future.  To be in a foreign country and feel completely welcomed by others is one of the greatest gifts!

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