After what seemed like a lifetime in the air (16 hours from Auckland, New Zealand), we touched down in Hanoi at around lunchtime. At first sight Hanoi seemed clean, green and not particularly chaotic - the airport was certainly a lot nicer than we expected and the visa process a lot simpler than we had imagined. For us, it was a good start, and the fact that our 9-year old had also made it out of the airport without getting us arrested for taking photos of the soldiers/doing cartwheels in the airport terminal/chatting to the customs officers/trying to go for a ride on the luggage belt was the icing on the cake.
If there was one word to describe Hanoi on our first day it would be soggy. And mad. That's two words but too bad. The maddest part were the roads - however a bit of homework about how to cross the road made all the difference. We not only strode out confidently, we OWNED crossing the street. Unsure what I'm talking about? Well here are some nice photos of a typical street.
I'm hoping these pics are demonstrating just how chaotic the streets are. Probably not, but let's move on. The secret, it seemed, to owning the streets was simply one of perception. Once we'd decided that we would pretend that any car/truck/motorbike/bus who came up behind us and blasted their horn was saying "yoohoo, just letting you know I'm behind you" and not "GET OUT OF THE WAY YOU IDIOT TOURIST" it became a lot more manageable.
For those who want to practice their own role play - here is what you do. Step out onto the street (or you're probably already there because the footpaths are full of motorbikes). Keep walking, with a steady pace. Think of yourself as a rock, and the motorbikes like water. They will just flow around you. Don't panic and run or stop in the middle of the road, it just confuses everyone. And whatever you do don't expect anyone to stop on a pedestrian crossing. Think of these as pretty road decorations, nothing else.
Hanoi - information
Where we stayed: Hanoi Guest House Royal NZD$52 per room per night including breakfast - total for two rooms, two nights NZD$208/US$145.50
We did it. We found shoe street. Last night we tried to navigate to shoe street - or Hang Dao street - somehow turned right instead of left and ended up in Hang Dau street. The distinction may seem petty, but it was an important one as the two streets are a) miles away from each other and b) one is a street of shoes and the other is a street full of undies, cheap t shirts and enough hello kitty wallets for the entire world's population.
And because this is supposed to be a cultural experience - not a shopping trip, we then dragged the kids around the Museum of Ethnology, Hoam Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Son temple. The temple was incredible - peaceful and green. It was also teeming with tourists - but then other tourists probably say the same thing about us. One of the nicest thing about walking around the lake was being able to walk without the fear of being run over by a motor scooter. So far the footpaths around the lake have been the only paths in Hanoi we have found that are actually reserved for feet, rather than scooters.
Speaking of footpaths, one of my favourite things here are the street sellers - you can buy anything from books to flowers to balloons to fruit. And they make fun photos...
After our temple visit it was time for coffee. We've quickly become converts to Vietnamese iced coffee, which is drip-coffee served over ice with condensed milk. We turned our noses up when this was first described to us, but it only took one sip to convince us that coffee with condensed milk is as lemon & sugar is to pancakes. I tried to get a photo of my coffee but Dylan had other ideas, going for one of his legendary 'pop up' photo bombs and messing up the focus and the shot all in one go
I hate to go all Dickensian, but Halong Bay was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. The best - we spent a night in one of the most incredibly beautiful places on earth. UNESCO recognises Ha Long Bay as a site of 'natural world heritage' and has also recognised it as one of the new 'wonders of nature'. Wonderful doesn't even begin to describe it. We slept with the curtains and window open and woke up to a scene of the most breathtaking beauty:
We took a lot of photos of this wonder of nature:
Our kids were awed by the beauty of Ha Long Bay, and were very excited about staying on the boat overnight.
For their parents, however, it was a different story. Whilst we marvelled at the beauty of the environment we found ourselves in, it was hard to shake the pervading feeling that we, as tourists, were complicit in an act of ongoing environmental destruction.
The scariest thing about this is that we didn't even need to try, the rubbish simply floated past the boat as we were anchored and snagged in our fishing lines.
It wasn't rocket science to work out what caused this. The view of the sunrise we posted at the top of this blog was what we saw when we looked to the right of our window. Below was our view to the left:
So, let's count. 500 boats heading into the Bay everyday with 20-50 people on each boat - maths is not my strong point but even I can work this one out (actually I can't, but luckily I have a calculator on my phone). That's between 10 and 25 thousand people every day. All drinking bottled water (at least 4 each day), many flicking cigarette butts into the water (ick), some accidentally losing plastic bags over the side. It's no wonder we didn't need to try when we were fishing - there is plenty of rubbish to go around.
Ha Long Bay - one of the most beautiful and saddest places we have ever seen. What we need to do now is work out how to bring our money to a developing country whilst trying to ensure that our presence doesn't eventually destroy the things we came here to see.
Ha Long Bay - information
Where we stayed: Imperial Classic Cruise NZ$574 (USD388) for 2 days, 1 night; 2 double rooms. Included breakfast, dinner, two lunches, cooking class, cave tour, pearl farm tour, and transfers to and from our hotel.
And - it appears as though the development of the tourist industry has been transformational to the locals and their ways of life. For a start, they are now connected to the world - previously it took up to 6 hours to make the 53km journey from the nearest town of Dong Hoi over rutted roads - now it is 40 mins by highway. Previously, all the young people left town to find jobs (in the cities, in poorly paid construction, on Chinese fishing boats) - leaving just the old and the young to plant and harvest the crops - now many work in the tourist industry (there are currently more jobs than people to fill them). Lastly - work for many consisted of illegal logging and hunting jungle meat, which was not only destructive it was also low paid and insecure.
Most of all, however, and the thing that made us feel as though we'd died and gone to tourist heaven - was that the development of the park and the local tourism industry is being done as a partnership between the local communities and the government, which means tourism decisions are based on what is best for the community and the environment, not the commercial tourist operators.
Day 1 in Phong Nha was an adventure tour of Paradise Cave (believe me, with an outside temp of 38, it really was paradise inside the cave at a steady 18 degrees). Paradise Cave is 31km long - we only got to see the first km but what we saw was amazing.
And yes - in case you're wondering - the lights did go off (this is Vietnam after all) and yes it was scary but just for a couple of seconds.
After the cave walk it was lunch and then adventure time - we ziplined across the river and took a 1km walk through a mud cave to a mud pool which felt - as the 13-year-old aptly described - like bathing in cake batter. Didn't taste like it, though. Sadly, because of the mud and the water and me in swimming togs and the non-waterproof camera thing we didn't get any photos of the mud pool. But we did manage to snap some of the river.
We thought ziplining and a mudpool was going to be hard to beat - and then on day 2 in Phong Nha we went on Hai's Eco Conservation Tour. Our day started by being picked up on motorbikes and taken to a animal rehabilitation shelter, where the 9-year-old got to make friends with the primates.
After that it was back on the motorbikes for a 4 hour jungle trek along part of the old Ho Chi Minh trail.
Lunch was BBQ pork spring rolls, cooked in the cave and eaten outside under the shelter of a beautifully cool limestone rock. Then there was another trek to the top of the hill, followed by a swim at the end and a motorbike ride home.
And I just want to finish this post by saluting Hai, our Eco hero. Hai set up the conservation tour 18 months ago as a way to raise funds for the conservation centre (when much of your population are subsistence farmers living below the poverty line, conservation is not high on the government priority list) and also to employ locals - many of whom would otherwise have to turn to poaching and illegal logging to earn money. Over the course of the day we learned that Hai is also one of the area's most successful entrepreneurs, owning both the towns most popular hostel (Easy Tiger) and the excellent Bamboo cafe. He uses the income from his businesses to support his full time (and mostly unpaid) work on the conservation tour. What a dude.
Phong Nha-Kebang information
How we got there: Overnight train from Hanoi - Dong Hoi approx $250 for 3 adults & 1 child tickets, 'soft' sleeper (booked through our hotel in Hanoi).
Where we stayed: Phong Nha Farmstay NZ$90 per night for 1x poolside family room (including breakfast).
What we did: National Park Tour, NZ$90pp; Hai's Eco Conservation Tour NZ$87pp (both booked through the Farmstay).
The traffic is crazy in Hanoi. We struggled to get around. Our bus driver was crazy. He cutted around about 17 motorbikes and two cars. This is how kids get to school:
We went on the boat in ha long bay and stayed the night. I got the signatures of everyone on the boat. Everyone on the boat was very kind. I made a new friend from Taiwan called Paul and one called Janna from Ukraine, near my old friend Mr Skolopov.
Today we are in Phong Nha Kebang which has the biggest caves in the world. We went for a bike ride but it was so hot I nearly fainted. It was 37 degrees Celsius. There is a pool where we are staying. I have had four swims today and I will probably have another one soon.
When we first arrived this very nice man took us to see his puppies. There are four. The parents are called salt and pepper. The puppies do a lot of playfighting. I'm not supposed to pat animals because mum says I'll get rabies but I still did. They feel soft.
Of all the cities on our itinerary I was looking forward to Hue the least. It kind of felt like planning a holiday in Hamilton.* On the surface it's not an entirely unfair comparison - Hue is intersected by a large river and ... well that's probably it. Anyway, there is nothing better than a city that exceeds expectations and given that ours weren't that high to start with, Hue certainly did that.
Our trip began with a sobering drive through the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a 5km strip of land on either side of the Ben Hai River. Call me naive but I'd always assumed a Demilitarized zone to be a bit like Switzerland - a peaceful buffer zone. Not so - the DMZ and nearby areas experienced some of the most intense fighting of the American/Vietnam war. We had experienced some of this in our jungle trek with Hai - where we came across bomb craters and bullets, and where we learned that the areas around Phong Nha Kebang were still heavily infested with unexploded ordnance, which has killed over 40,000 Vietnamese since the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Why just a quick visit? Well - our kids were too scared to spend much time underground, and at 40 degrees, we were too hot to spend much time above it. (I'll also admit to having to rush through things due to a slightly dodgy tummy from the previous day's eco tour. It seems I have yet to master the art of doing a cannonball into the river whilst keeping my mouth shut. Believe me, swallowing a bucketful of jungle water before a long car trip is not that much fun.**)
Another couple of museums and about 4 hours later and we hit the big town - Hue. And the kids' reward for a days worth of visiting museums in the blistering heat? The flashest hotel we've stayed at so far, complete with rooftop pool, air conditioning and restaurant.
So why did we like Hue? Mostly it was like a cruisier version of Hanoi, with enough shops to be interesting, lots of nice parks, fantastic restaurants, street tailors and lots of character buildings, but without all the people or motorbikes or pushy street vendors. I was also able to get a couple of inexpensive cotton dresses made in less than half a day - trust me, when you are unaccustomed to the type of heat and humidity we encountered in Hue, being able to change from drill shorts into a light cotton dress was brilliant (not to mention the fact that I always felt so under-dressed when compared to the beautifully groomed Vietnamese women).
Our time in Hue was extra special for the kids as we managed to hit it right on festival time, when the city was lit up all beautifully and parades of people and dragons wandered the streets at dinner time. At least Dylan could pat these guys without fear of rabies.
The real reason we visited Hue, though, was to see the Citadel. The Citadel is a massive walled fortress in the centre of the city, and was the political, cultural and religious centre of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last royal dynasty of Vietnamese history, from 1802 to 1945.
Much of the citadel was destroyed by American bombs in 1968, but the parts that were left were incredible and intact enough to help us imagine what life in the Citadel must have been like.
Finally - one last reason to love Hue - it brought the most magnificent thunderstorm which managed to break the heatwave. Goodbye horrible 40, hello lovely 30 degrees.
Hue - information
Where we stayed: Midtown Hotel. NZD$214 (US$144) for two rooms, two nights including breakfast (later voted "best breakfast of the whole trip").
Food highlights: Les Jardins de La Carambole, Elegant restaurant
Sightseeing: Hue Imperial City (the Citadel).
*Sorry Hamilton. We know you're the only true city of the future. Or fountains. Or something.
Occasionally, the journey and the destination are equally as fun as each other, and this was certainly true of our trip from Hue to Hoi An. There was oodles to see between the two cities, including the magnificent Hai Van pass (we got to stop for coffee at the top), My Khe Beach ("China beach") and Marble mountain. While it was technically possible to fly between the two cities, we are glad we chose the slower option - it was great way to combine transfer and tour all into the one day (and it also worked out cost-wise - to private transfer was USD$75 which is well worth a day of sightseeing).
It was love at first sight for us when we arrived in Hoi An. Our expectations had been slightly tempered by a drive through the city of Denang - a charmless place littered with flash coastal resorts that are mostly under construction. Bleh. Luckily just 10km out of Denang we entered the lovely town of Hoi An - and fell in love.
Hoi An was a major trading post in the 16th and 17th centuries. What this means is that the ancient town is a hodge-podge of Chinese, Japanese, and French influences. Rather than making one big crazy mess, the mix of East and West is completely charming.
Our first stop was a visit to a local tailor - there are 500 of them in Hoi An so it wasn't hard to find one. Paul had done his research and led us through the town to a little tailors shop called Five Seasons, where we duly ordered 5 shirts & a suit for Paul, 2 shirts for Dylan, a pair of shorts and a jumpsuit for Scout and a dress for me. Scout and I went around the corner to another tailor and purchased two more dresses and jacket for Paul. Oh, and some (actually lots of) shoes. And Paul also got new glasses and sunglasses. And the cost? Well - lets just say it was cheaper than dinner at the French Cafe.
Lucky we bought that extra bag...
While it would have been easy to spend 4 days shopping, we needed to do something while we waited for our clothes to be made, so we went on an 'Ecococonut tour' which involved a long bike ride through the Rice paddies, a trip to the local market herb gardens (aka Nadine nirvana), and an up-close and personal water buffalo encounter...
We also did some fishing - at which both Scout and Dylan were very successful. This was lucky, or we wouldn't have eaten dinner otherwise....
We finished the day with a ride in two bamboo boats - paddled by us alongside Nana and Aunty Nana. Dylan nearly capsized us a few times but by some miracle we all managed to stay afloat (which was lucky, as the Vietnamese seem to feel the same way about life jackets then they do for cycle helmets - nice to look at but ultimately unnecessary).
We had some of the best meals we've eaten so far - or perhaps ever - in Hoi An. From teeny little banh mi stands to great Cafes to lovely restaurants, Hoi An had it all. It's probably lucky we spent most of each day walking, or we wouldn't have fit into our new clothes. Our meal on our last night, at the Secret Garden restaurant*, was one of the nicest meals we've had yet, in the most amazing setting. Best of all - we stumbled upon it by accident when we tried to take a shortcut up an alleyway. How could you not love a place that has incredible restaurants at the end of a dark alleyway?
Hoi An - Information
Where we stayed: Banana Garden Villa NZD$416 for two rooms for four nights including breakfast (later voted 1= "best place we stayed".)
How we got there: Tour from Hue (USD$75).
What we did: Ate and shopped, mainly. Our favourites were Secret Garden Restaurant, Five Seasons Tailor, Hoi An Roastery. We also did the Eco coconut countryside tour, which included dinner (USD$35 pp). Spent half a day on An Bang Beach.
*We thought we were the most incredibly intrepid travellers who magically stumbled on a secret place until we caught sight of a giant billboard advertising the Secret Garden as we were leaving for the airport. Oh. Not so secret after all...
Often, when life gets a bit stressful, I imagine myself on a beach lounger, a book in one hand, a cocktail on the table next to me, listening to the waves on the shore and keeping a lazy eye on the kids in the water. In my imagination, the beach looks something like Nha Trang:
But all this couldn't make up for the fact that we became anonymous wallets in a dirty, sad city. And that, for us, is the worst part about being a tourist; when our only value is in our economic activity. Nowhere else have we experienced this more acutely than in Nha Trang.
Here is a tiny story for you. Whilst in Hoi An we visited a souvenir shop. The young owner was chatty, and we got to talking about our kids. Later that night whilst we were in a different part of town, he came looking for us to introduce us to his baby son. Those of you who have experienced Vietnam might think it was a ploy to get us back into his shop - but it wasn't. He genuinely wanted us to meet his baby and we were genuinely pleased and honoured to do so.
We've had tiny encounters like this nearly everywhere on our journey. They have given our holiday meaning and have brought us joy. And when this type of connection is missing it's very noticeable. A place with no soul is no fun at all. But we did get nice tans. And the cocktails were pretty awesome (Wait - it's Vietnam, the cocktails are ALWAYS awesome!)
My best week is this week because we went to Vinpearl island. The island is basically Rainbows End except with a beach right outside and three hotels. I enjoyed the roller coaster and the swing carousel - it was like a swing except it spins round and round and you relax the whole way.
I met a monkey. He was a pig tail. He had beautiful red hands which felt like rubbing your hands on grass, just not cutty grass. He checked for nits in my hair. He tugged my hair like he was trying to pull the nits out. After we patted the monkeys we started the Eco tour. Hai took us. We got to see how monkeys get trapped. I'm really disappointed that people trap monkeys but the Eco trip was the best thing that's ever happened to me.
Fireflys are very rare around Vietnam. You can't walk into a jungle and say Oh, firefly, oh look another firefly. You should try saying firefly 10 times. It's hard. But I caught one and it went on my arm. It tickled so much I nearly wet myself.
The food here is very unique. They add a truckload of sugar to everything even the toast. I like the toast it's better than tip top. We went to this place called the secret garden in Hoi An. It was hidden behind all the shops. Dinner was amazing. I got awesome special chicken nuggets, and they were nothing like nuggets in NZ. Next week I will talk about inflatable land because it's 4.30 and me and Dad are going for a swim.
At Cong Caphe in Hanoi (which we then stumbled on again in Ho Chi Minh) coffee was made with coconut and coffee and ice........ We will be making one last dash for a final fix.
But to top it off - today in Can Tho we visited the floating markets and and had our coffee delivered via motorised canoe. After 2 cups of that pungent sweet cold concoction (yep, we called her back for 2nds!) we were charged and ready to go! (Imagine coffee delivery on the Auckland motorway..........)
With access to an array of fresh fruit, it is little wonder that the kids have been enjoying a wide range of juices and smoothies. Mango or banana smoothies are common fare, but a peach iced tea with mint went down a treat! Limes (lemons here) made into an ice slurry with mint have also a great find.
The price for juices range from Vnd40000 - Vnd80000 ($1.20-$2.40) so the kids have been enjoying a few.
As we ventured into Ho Chi Min the local beer is Bia Saigon. My first bottle of this didn't go so well - I suspect it was loaded with sulphites which left my eyes and nose running........
Never one to be daunted by a challenge, we stepped up to Bia Saigon "Special" This was a distinct step up in beer qualify and taste and we've been enjoying a few of these.
So what's the cost been? I mentioned that the kids drinks have been Vnd40,000. Well, beers are around Vnd25,000 ($1.25) but I did find Hudas at one place for Vnd15,000......($0.95)
What I have struggled with (in the loosest sense....) is the cost of beer vs. a smoothie. They're half the price!!!!!! So yes, we've enjoyed a few beers at the end (and to be fair, sometimes earlier - but not before mid day I'm proud to say) of a long day.
Btw - the cocktails have also been cracking. Particularly mojitos with access to lime and mint. And the price? As you'd expect - less than $5 for a tall glass of Limey goodness.
So there you have it. The beer in Vietnam is in good hands - just not in my good hands for much longer as we only have 2 days left now. Guess I'll need to make the most of it!
Our trip to Can Tho was very nearly a no can do. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) tired, dirty, and hot, and the thought of staying put somewhere for 6 nights was quite appealing. Plus the process to get there was going to be tricky, plus we didn't know anything about the city and couldn't remember why we'd booked there, plus our Homestay was only accessible by boat which meant we had to work out what to do with our luggage, plus the kids were getting a bit over it etc etc.
The thing about excuses is that we when we try and come up with reasons not to do something, we forget about the very reasons why we wanted to do them in the first place. Luckily for us we brought a very wise 13 year old with us on this adventure, who said - once we'd finished outlining our reasons not to go to Can Tho - "but I thought the whole point of this trip was to actually do things, not stay in one place and go shopping." And that is how we found ourselves on a boat on the Mekong Delta, heading towards our Homestay and what turned out to be one of the fun-est days of our adventure.
Rather than the sleepy backwater we had expected, Can Tho is a city of 1.2m people and the largest city on the Mekong Delta. Our Homestay, however, was away from the hustle and bustle of the city and gave us more of a taste of 'real' Vietnamese life than we'd had in the bigger tourist destinations.
We kept Dylan going through most of the morning with a promise of a visit to a chocolate farm in the afternoon. We aren't quite sure what we were expecting here - but what we certainly weren't expecting was to meet Mr Diamond ("just call me Diamond") and his boutique chocolate operation. Diamond is the epitome of everything we've come to love about Vienamese people: resourceful, resilient, generous and highly entrepreneurial. In 1961, when he was 12, Diamond's Dad brought back some Cacao seeds from a trip to Malaysia.
He also brought back a book about how to cultivate and process the cacao into chocolate. It was written in French. So 12 year old Diamond and his sister learned French so they could read the book. 55 years later he is a boutique chocolatier who exports cacao beans around the world and who makes his own chocolate and an incredible chocolate wine (made from the liquor from fermented cacao beans).
Our time in Can Tho was a brilliant way to (nearly) finish our tour of Vietnam,and a great reminder that sometimes our best experiences can happen when we least expect them to - and that if we don't make an effort then we will find it hard to have any fun at all.
*I realise that on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is dreadful and 10 is amazing that this title is about a minus 100, but with only 2 days left in Vietnam I'm running out of time to think up excellent headlines. So you'll just have to deal with it.
Days 22-25 & 28-30
We weren't quite sure what to expect in Ho Chi Minh City - we were also a bit sad to arrive there as it was the last stop on our trip. We were weary, slightly fed up and looking foward to going home and not looking forward to going home all at the same time.
To put it mildly, HCMC had a big job ahead of itself if it wanted to impress us.
First up, we didn't expect Vietnam's most cosmopolitan city to be so green. I guess that was pretty dumb of us, considering we were in a tropical environment, but there were parks and gardens everywhere.
The green spaces provided a nice interlude from the city - which was busier and yet appeared to be slightly less chaotic than other cities we had visited. Some of this might be due to the amount of traffic lights - which most people used and (hallelujah!) they had CROSS SIGNALS! Sometimes we crossed the same road three or four times simply because we could.
When we weren't wandering through the parks, we shopped (we had a ginormous new suitcase we needed to fill) and ate. We also deemed it appropriate, given our experiences through the rest of the country, that we visited the War Museum. Thankfully we had looked it up on Trip Advisor first, because some of the stuff in there is truly horrific and really not suitable for kids. We would "sweep" each area first and then decide if it was kid suitable or not. Most of it wasn't. Never before have I felt the need to sit down and put my head between my knees in a museum. However awful it was, though, we needed to see it, if just to remind us how inhumane humans can be.
Once the icky stuff was over, it was time to do more shopping. HCMC was the most interesting mix of high-end malls and crusty, but hip, spaces. Take this amazing souvenir shop as an example:
And the food. Oh, the food! The possibilities in HCMC were endless, and we had some of our nicest, and most fun meals in the city.By the time we got to HCMC, we considered ourselves Vietnamese food veterans. We'd eaten in caves, we'd eaten food we'd picked and caught only minutes before, we'd eaten on the side of the road and in some pretty flash restaurants. And we learned, above all else, that when in Vietnam, it pays to eat Vietnamese food.
And the food. HCMC was a gastromic delight. Tex-Mex, burgers, sushi, German beer gardens, French provincial - you name it, in HCMC you can eat it. We were overwhelmed by the food choices. So much so, that we consulted Trip Advisor - something we had tried to avoid doing in our travels (it made us feel just that little bit more intrepid). And Trip Advisor did not put us wrong. In fact, there were a couple of times where we wish we'd listened a bit harder, like when we spent one million dong on three ice creams, a dessert and a cup of tea at the cafe up the Bitexco Tower. Yes, that's right, NZD$65. All for a free ride in the lift.
So that's it really, our last days in Vietnam were spent in a hedonistic flurry of eating and shopping. We couldn't think of a better way to end our holiday. Tam Biet Vietnam. See you next time!