Xin chao! So, I said I’d put down a few words about our trip to Vietnam and I’ve been a bit lazy so in the style of James Joyce; here comes a stream of consciousness. I know I’m not the first person to have gone to Vietnam, so please indulge me! It’s also not great England so I may update this (or not) when I get chance but the 80% solution will do today. Also, apologies for format – I will turn this into a photo book at some point which may help me edit. I will confess though “it is not good enough for me” to quote a former boss and mentor. Pictures on FB for friends and @ZorroUK Instagram
Expectations. Reading back my notes in my journal from the trip I had low expectations. I expected we’d get ill from the food even with our Travel Lan and Travel Bug for the kids. The weather in winter in the north could be cold with rain. I was hoping we’d not get ripped off, robbed or run over. How wrong could I have been! It’s amazing. I’m not sure writing this now is healthy as I just want to go back.
Guide. We used the Best of Vietnam Lonely Planet which is a nicely presented distilled guide suitable for a 2-4 week trip. It had enough ideas without overloading and we tried to tick off everything that it recommended. We never had a terrible experience at a recommended restaurant.
Flights. We flew with Scoot via Singapore to Hanoi which included an 8 hour stop over. Pre-book food if you want it. It’s cheap and cheerful but was fine, as in we didn’t crash! The kids got a hot dog and we had Nasi Goreng which was a little spicy. For the stop over try to get into the airside nap hotel – we only got into the lounge (where you’re not meant to sleep). We booked late so ended up on poor flights 2 weeks later Singapore air had better flights at $1000 less. You know your own budget.
Visa. We spent 28 Dec 17 – 12 Jan 18 travelling with 14 days in Vietnam. For Brits and Europeans there’s a 15-day free just turn up visa scheme but it gets renewed this year and no one knows if it will be. Do your research. The scheme is to promote tourism and whilst it wasn’t a factor in us choosing Vietnam, in fact we thought we needed a Visa, it made it all very easy. At the border we asked an official before joining the immigration queues which we should join as it wasn’t obvious, he directed us to the empty VIP queue! So simple, stamp and in.
Health. We had to have some vaccines – check. We took anti-malarials (Doxycycline) and a stomach bug protector called Travel Lan. There is a child version called Travel Bug. We were never badly ill.
Day 1. Hanoi 29 Dec. Arrived AM, hotel car was waiting although I had to call via Wifi at airport to find the driver. It cost about $20-30 to hotel. We always took pre-booked hotel cars from airports. Yes, it was more expensive, but we wanted piece of mind with the kids that we’d have a decent vehicle for these longer trips to get into the city. Wifi is everywhere – tour buses, hotels, restaurants, streets, trains… and free. Sure, they’re unlocked and hoovering your data but who isn’t? (post note – we had $1200 taken out of our account 20 days after return – possible scan as I’m not sure we even used the card it came from). I bought a Viettel sim which cost US$13 for 10GB, data only. I bought it from the tourist information booth at the airport – had no issues and worked the entire time.
The first thing that hits your senses is the traffic density and the noise. Horns honk all day and thankfully all the rooms booked were quiet. Crossing the road is an interesting adventure. There are some traffic lights but it doesn’t mean anyone stops! There are humorous t-shirts that joke green -go, amber – still go, red – I can still go! The traffic will avoid you if you pick your moment and walk at a steady pace. We put the kids on the non-traffic side and tried to find a local to cross with initially but soon got the hang of it. There are specific blogs on this if you need more detail but it’s fine, honestly!
We stayed at the Grand Silk Queen Hotel on Lo Su Street near Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi. It had good views of the lake and New Year’s Eve show held in a nearby square from the roof restaurant and bar. The restaurant and bar are not great or a reason to stay there but the food was okay, reasonably priced and clean. We ate there on arrival as it was lunch time and then went for a walk. It was pretty much the walk detailed in the Lonely Planet we used. We walked around the lake to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. There are Buddhist pagodas hidden in small squares off streets, it’s worth exploring. We walked through the market stall lined streets back to the hotel via the main square where the New Year’s Party was to be held. We had a rest and shower before heading out to dinner.
We had dinner at Highway 4. It was okay, but it was probably the worst meal of the trip. Some misunderstandings of menu items (in English) meant we were probably partly to blame. The rice liquor was very strong. The fried rice cakes were brilliant, but the mountain stew had a lot of bones and little ‘stew’. We were all in bed by 1900.
Day 2. Halong Bay 30 Dec. I slept quite well but dozed from 0410. At 0545 I cut my losses and went for a run around the lake (it’s on Strava). A loop is exactly a mile which is nice for OCD. During weekends and holidays there is no traffic which was a luxury. People do Tai Chi, aerobics, walk, run, cycle, play badminton or a type of football badminton during the morning and there were markets in the afternoon. It’s as if there’s a socialist poster saying – exercise makes Vietnam strong. Breakfast was a standard hotel buffet with more traditional Vietnamese offerings. I could never face fried rice for breakfast!
We had pre-booked a day trip to Halong bay, leaving at 0900. The bus was bigger than they advertise but was still comfortable. The tour host was funny and engaging and gave us some insights which stayed with us for the whole trip – learning Vietnamese tonals was great fun. We were also given some top tips on where to eat.
It was about 3hrs to the bay with a short stop at an expensive stop for tourist buses. The traffic lanes are purely advisory even with traffic coming the other way! Out of the city, we saw buffalo in the fields which we didn’t expect. We got on a Vietnamese tourist ‘junk’ at 1pm and were seated for lunch on arrival. There was plenty of food and watermelon dessert.
You get 5 hours in the boat with lunch and tour of the islands including the famous ‘kissing chicken rock’ and the rock on the 200k VND note. We also had the chance to kayak or go in a traditional bamboo boat through caves via a floating ‘village’, which is really just a pontoon rather than one of the larger ones which people live on. There is also a massive cave system which was amazing. We got what we wanted from the trip. You can do overnight boat trips, private charters etc but for a quick taste of the area our tour was great. Then it’s another 3 hours in the bus back via an identical bus shop where we bought some chips. The kids were great! We got back at about 2100 and went straight to bed.
Day 3. Hanoi 31 Dec. This was our last full day in Hanoi as we were checking out the next day to catch the sleeper train to Sapa. I went for another run around the lake enjoying the Tai chi and aerobics as I enjoyed the cool start to the day. We had breakfast and went straight out to see the sights of Hanoi. We got a taxi to the area near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. There was a massive queue and we knew the kids wouldn’t be interested so didn’t enter. You can’t get near the square either which is huge without doing the queue to get into the square. The impressive presidential palace is nearby but you can’t go in. We ended up in a park near the Army Museum (which is closed around midday) where we paid for the kids to go in battery toy cars. As we walked back, we accidently found the train track through the city which went viral recently. It’s a train that runs right between the houses.
For lunch we went to the Green Tangerine which had delicious great value French food in an old Indochina house from 1928. You get a free cocktail with the flyer they give away on the door.
We had a rest before going to a water puppet show in the afternoon. This is a traditional Vietnamese puppet show they used to put on in the rice fields and are now in the cities for tourists. We went to the one by Hoan Kiem lake and it was good lasting about 40 minutes. The kids kept focused for about 20 before getting restless but stuck it out. I didn’t curb their enthusiasm laughing and cheering at the snakes, dragons, turtles and unicorns battling in the water stage. Enca bought a North Face jacket for our imminent return to England at a shop near the market. There’s so many and they’re all very similar. We sat in the square to make plasticine dragons and figures at the market which the boys enjoyed. We ate dinner at the hotel. They had a ‘posh’ dinner including ‘Italian wine’ both of which were pretty poor, but we didn’t complain as it really obvious they were trying really hard to impress on their big night and they were lovely people who took great care of us during the stay. I’d bought a cigar (Cuban, probably, if not fake) from the Hanoi Cigar shop by the lake. There are not many places to buy cigars in Vietnam. We had cocktails on the roof listening to the amazing Heineken sponsored dance music show and then watched a rather short 30 sec of New Year’s fireworks which was a bit of a let-down after Sydney 2017!
Day 4. Hanoi 1 Jan. I bagged a final run including a bit of tourism to see the Hanoi Hilton (prisoner of war prison). We checked out leaving the bags in the hotel store and completed the walking tour we started the other day. We walked to Dong Xuan market. It’s pretty big and has everything but I thought it looked pretty tacky. We had lunch at New Day which is a genuine local place recommended by the tour guide in Halong Bay and Lonely Planet. After we went for coffee and rest at Cong caphe, a Viet Cong inspired coffee chain all across Vietnam. Then we went to the Army Museum. There are loads of planes, jeeps and tanks in the grounds. The parts of the B52 bomber which crashed in the lake in Hanoi is also there. The boys went on the electric cars again before we walked to the Chinese literature pagoda – this was a real surprise. Chinese architecture and walled patios with Koi ponds. We underestimated how good this would be although it didn’t take long to visit. We had dinner at a hot plate self-cook BBQ place called Avalon above the square which was being cleaned up after NYE. The best thing about this place is the amazing view out over Lake Hoan Kiem. The bridge over the lake is lit up red at night.
After dinner it was time to collect our main rucksack to take to Sapa and got a taxi to the station. There is a specific ticket office you must go to for the Sapa Train, be warned – it sounded from our agent like people had been caught out! We knew there isn’t much room on the train and our hotel let you leave bags to collect later. As we’d bought our tickets from an agent you must meet the agent and they then give you the train ticket on production of a receipt ticket that a different agent had given me the day before when I paid at the hotel – easy! The agent’s website we used for the train looked professional so it’s an easy mistake to mistake it but I think the official one is chapaexpress.vn. There are lots of companies’ carriages all hooked up as one train. They range from seated, through basic 2 or 4 berths to more ornate carriages with cushions and ‘free’ water and snacks. You can board about 50 minutes before hand. In Hanoi, we had to walk across the tracks to the platform. Once onboard we got ready for bed. There was a wash basin and toilet at one end of the carriage. There are charging points and aircon in the cabin with WiFi throughout the train although it did sometimes lose signal and they warn you of this. It’s quite cool to watch the train leave through the streets of the city before drifting off to sleep.
Day 5. Sapa 2 Jan. Thirty minutes before arrival (0605) you get a morning call accompanied with an offer of coffee or Milo (20,000VND). We paid for a private transfer to Sapa from Lao Cai which takes about an hour winding up mountain roads. It reminded me of Travelez or other European mountain towns. At 1500m above sea level it can get very cold and as such there are loads of North Fake shops. Some people will tell you that they’re seconds or that North Face deliberately put real ones in the area for some reason, I’m not convinced. Arriving early, we dumped our bags and went next door for breakfast which was edible, but we should have gone to the café in the Lonely Planet – Baguette and Chocolate. We explored the town and went to the Tourist Information to try to get some local knowledge about the weather, how to get to Cat Cat, waterfalls or Fansipan cable car. They weren’t that helpful except telling us the price the taxis should charge to several places and to be fair to the drivers they didn’t try to rip us off.
We went to Cat Cat – this is proper VietDisney. It’s like visiting Ironbridge or a similar mock traditional town. Whilst the people there are traditional folk who live and work there and other towns won’t have tourists it feels very un-natural and that their main way of making a living is basically tourism. I enjoyed it although there was a fair bit of walking on steep mountain sides for the boys. There’s a nice waterfall and the coffee shop was basic but gave us a chance to recharge. We weren’t sure which way to walk back – the route carries on and eventually gets back to the upper town by looping round. Once onto the road again motorbike taxis offer to take you back – we declined and got our previous friendly taxi man to pick us up. We could have gone back uphill though the lower town. This would have been quicker and shorter, but it was nice to explore the quieter path and there’s a nice bridge to cross too.
We got back to Sapa to check in to the Luong Thuy Hotel which promised valley views but the low cloud sadly didn’t allow us to see them. I went for a muddy run around the lake while Theo had a sleep. We went to the Mountain Bar (LP recommend) for some lunch and a happy hour which lasts all after noon with 2 for 1 on Lao Cai beer which was pretty terrible 3.5% and may have given me an upset tummy the next day. Enca and I had a nice typical fried rice and the kids had a pizza. The family which run the bar are friendly with a small cat and young children. It has a log fire and a football table.
I checked Instagram and Twitter for recent #Fansipan photos. I saw it was clear on the summit and, so we set off to the cable car 10 minutes away in taxi. It’s expensive by even western standards but very impressive. The longest 3 wire cable car takes you 6km across the valley and up 1500m to just below the summit of Fansipan the highest peak in Indochina. There is a funicular railway to get to the summit from the station or you can walk 600 steps. We paid for the train up and to walk down. The view from the top was great. The day was perfect, and we had the clouds below us. We took some photos before heading back down.
For dinner we went to an Italian restaurant – I know very Vietnamese – basically Andrew had been asking for lasagne for about 3 days and we’d not really found any yet, so we seized the opportunity. We also had the chance to sample Vang Dalat, the table wine of Vietnam. There are some funny blogs about this wine if you have a look.
Day 6. Sapa 3 Jan. The next day I went for another run around the lake, very muddy on one section but stayed on my feet. We had an easy day as the weather was awful and we were tired. I went shopping for table runners and wall hangings. I didn’t haggle here as the prices we good, very nice pieces and good quality. Also it was not a market environment but a gentrified shop which wouldn’t look out of place in Fremantle or Southsea!
- We went to the market and bought some cheap and noisy toys. There wasn’t anything else we thought was worth buying but the food market is good, not for eating but looking around and leaves you in no doubt where your food comes from!
- There is a café/deli called something mountain station deli?? where we took shelter and had a deli plank (nowhere is safe from planks) before heading over to the Mountain Bar. Before long it was time to get the train but our driver had already left! A quick call and 10 minutes later he was back. Top tip – get there early to not miss buses etc which leave at the time stated (even for a private hire)!
- Same routine as before although we were there quite early and there’s a little station cafe for a drink and snacks. In bed before the train left and asleep soon after. It was very early 0530 when we arrived in Hanoi but we went straight to hotel and bought the hotel breakfast before getting a taxi to the airport. It takes about 40 minutes and traffic is chaos.
- No issues with the internal flight although it was delayed about an hour. Another 40 minute taxi trip towards Hoi An from Danang. Apart from the signs saying the APEC summit was in Danang in 2017 and the Dragon Bridge I’m not sure there’s anything to see. It’s not in the guide book.
- We arrived in the afternoon and our villa at Le Belhamy was ready. I quite liked it except the reason we chose that resort was for the Kids’ club which was not available due to another building losing its roof in a recent storm. A little disappointing as we’d hoped to enjoy some time at the beach without rugrats. Anyway the weather wasn’t exactly beach weather! We headed into town on the free hotel transfer (with our washing) which I took to Mrs Anh while the boys had more Italian! Mrs Anh was quite expensive and I managed to get her down by 50% but wished we’d managed to have time to go to the place outside the hotel which was cheaper. Going rate is about $1-2 a kilo according to some blogs.
- With full children we started to explore the magical city of Hoi An. Paper lanterns line the streets, the roads are closed and it’s full of tourists! It’s definitely worth the visit. I got some leather Chelsea boots made which was fun. We had dinner at Mango Mango owned by a Michelin star celebrity chef. Amazing 3 course menu each, 4 cocktails, 50GBP total. The cocktail, La Mango Guapa, is probably the best I’ve ever had! We launched a wishing lantern on the water and took some photos before saying good night to Hoi An.
- The next day we needed a lie in but I’d booked a taxi for 0800 to take us to My Son Cham ruins approximately 1:30 drive from Hoi An. I’d agreed 800k VND with a driver the day before which seemed a good price as it was 1.2mil VND by meter (which I watched nervously hoping this driver wouldn’t renege the agreement. My Son was excellent. It was a VC hideout during the war and was heavily desecrated by the US bombardment until Nixon personally told them to stop.
- We arrived in Hoi An by 1300 and walked the streets. We tried to eat in the amazing Nu Eatery but it’s not very kid friendly – was delicious though.
- For dinner we had a disappointing meal in the hotel and didn’t mind telling them. They were receptive to feedback and removed the offending items from the bill.
- The last day brought the best weather and apart from collecting my boots from Hoi An we spent it by the pool and beach. For dinner we got a cab to the Soul Kitchen which is within a collection of beachside restaurants and bars just before sundown. An Bang is the name of the beach. It has a view over to the Cham Islands which have great diving in the better seasons. We watched a lovely red sky as the sun went down even if being on the east coast we never saw the event! The food was lovely local seafood with great cocktails and a funky live band.
- We left Hoi An by private transfer to Danang and got the flight to HCMC – again no issues, again about a 1 hour delay on the runway due to weather. C’est la vie.
- It was a short 20 minute transfer from the airport to our hotel in the centre. We dumped the bags and went to the closest restaurant in the Lonely Planet. Cyclo Resto. Family run, 5 dishes split between the family, there’s no menu, crazy cheap, amazing food. It’s down an alley with more aesthetically appealing options so you’d never know it’s there without the guide – although they are on trip advisor!
- After lunch ???? not a clue and want to publish now and don’t have that diary with me!
- We did a self-led walking tour similar to the one in the guide heading through the parks to the Reunification Palace which is a very grand building with Austin Powers/Doctor Strangelove style long tables and a secret bunker from the war. It’s where the tanks broke through the gates in the final day before the fall of Saigon. It was getting rather warm and sticky so we had a break in a Starbucks (we came for the aircon rather than the coffee)! From there we passed the Notre Dame church and went into the Post Office. The route then heads past a grand palace and down to the Opera House which had a traditional cirque du solei style show on. Flanking the Opera House is the Hotel Continental and Caravelle. The Hotel Continental was the favoured hotel of Graham Greene and wrote The Quiet American from a room there. His table is one by a window and the staff are happy to answer questions. Tired children made this a perfect stop so we had the lunch menu which was classic French and as expected from a 4/5 star place. They do not have a children’s menu!
- After lunch with tired eyes Enca and the boys got a cab back to the hotel for a break and a play in the pool. I headed up to the rooftop bar of the Caravelle. Note: the new modern and tall hotel of the same name is not the famous one. Hotel caravelle is a 10 storey hotel on the corner. It was from here the journalists monitored the war as the disinformation and propaganda came out of the official channels. I imagined what it must have been like. Rivers of time by Jon Swain is a good starting point for a journalist’s experience during the mid 70s in Indochina.
- Dinner in the hotel – not very adventurous. We booked a tour to Cu Chi tunnels.
- Standard hotel breakfast and the bus collected us to head off to Cu Chi. We went by boat which takes about 75 min (plus bus to river). It’s a nice trip and meant when we didn’t go to the Mekong delta we felt we’d seen something similar. Cu Chi was good. A guided tour around the tunnels and camps. It’s quite claustrophobic and these tunnels have been enlarged for westerners. I got to shoot an AK47 for 600k VND – Andrew was devastated to be told he was too young, I didn’t point out the hypocrisy… Lunch was included and was pretty good.
- Bus journey back to Saigon, tried to scare us with time it would take etc… and how we could take the quicker boat. In the end we were back by 1530
- Final day we had to take it easy as we were pretty fatigued (evident by my cough I’d picked up and left bed ridden 24 hours later once home). I went to the War Remnants Museum which was okay and very shocking but not as bad as I thought it would have been after how much people had been telling me. I think that because I’d read a fair bit before I went I wasn’t shocked by the images which were just horrible.
- We then walked to get a coffee before getting a cab to the Emperor Pagoda which is a hidden treasure. Tucked away in the north of the city it is off the street and hard to see the appeal. Inside it is amazing.
- We found an even more hidden gem for lunch – the secret garden is a roof top bar recommended by the Lonely Planet, my friend Joe and now me! Down an alley and up a stairwell (we chose the wrong one and just ended up of the roof of an apartment block! Good exercise though. The guide, Joe and us all comment on the unlikely location of the restaurant. It was frequented by locals and tourists alike and the food was excellent. We tried some green been and black bean desserts which were an acquired taste!
- After lunch we walked back to the hotel, the boys did great and must have had calves of steel after pounding the streets. We had a relax in the pool although I was starting to feel unwell. For dinner we went to the street market which is very tourist focused and fairly safe. It’s hardly street food at all and could have been in Fremantle.
- We had an early breakfast before getting the pre-booked hotel car to the airport. After a scare with Enca’s passport and visa we were allowed back into the country.
- No issue with the flights and we were home by 0200. I then was bedridden for 24 hours with a terrible cough.
The verdict: Vietnam is western middle class friendly… what do I mean… I mean it is now gentrified in some areas to a degree that you could easily think you’re not in Vietnam. I mean, it’s not some parts of Africa. There are parts of Africa can be scary for a strong male who has his wits about him (not sure who he is) and certainly with kids I’d be pretty nervous. Our experience in Vietnam was so pleasant – we had no ‘scares’, I never felt too harassed, threatened or intimidated. I think Enca saw a road accident but if so it was the only one despite crazy traffic. I do refer to our experience as Viet-Disney. We didn’t live with local families that ‘all’ the blogs will tell you that you must do to have a truly authentic experience!
What an experience. Amazing country. We loved it and the boys did too I think. Very experimental and adventurous. People will say – “you don’t know Vietnam unless you do a home stay” – of course every time you go to France you stay round someone’s house do you?! Do what you want, how you want. We could have got more buses, trains and interacted more but we also wanted to enjoy it, relax and not worry about little things. Remember it’s meant to be a holiday and fun! I’m off out for Pho in Melbourne now – Tam biet!