Hue in the rain and Hoi An

Overnight train to Hue

After Hanoi, we decided to take the overnight train to Hue. It was an experience! Two three-bunk beds crammed into a tiny space, one toilet per 7 cabins and paper-thin walls. Still, it was pretty clean and we were so thankful the toilet was a western one. Before we left though, the toilet door wouldn’t open. A Japanese couple and I were highly concerned about this (and managed to have a worried conversation about it despite no shared language) but the Vietnamese train conductor just kept waving us away when we tried to talk to him about it. Luckily the door opened once we were flying along. It was a rattly sleep, and Bookworm has written his thoughts about it at campbellwhale.wordpress.com (I can’t include the link because the internet connection won’t let me!). When we arrived in Hue we were all tired and cranky, and so Souljourneyboy and I decided to splash out on two interconnecting rooms instead of just one room, which was a good idea after a solid week of us all in each other’s company 24/7.

Hue

Hue was a city I’m glad I visited, but I probably wouldn’t go to again. It just felt like we were on the point of being rorted all the time, and I haven’t felt like that in other places. Picasso got scammed out of some money by some sweet-looking Vietnamese women who did a currency exchange trick on him, which really pissed me off. He’s a 9-year-old boy for crying out loud. The cyclo peddlers and street hawkers are way too persistent and the prices are jacked up ridiculously high for tourists, which forces you to haggle vehemently, which I don’t like. Also it rained a lot and it was cold to boot, which made sightseeing difficult. Still, these were the highlights:

Imperial City

I think the kids would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been raining. Also, it looked close to our hotel on the map but the map was oddly scaled and it was actually quite a long walk away, which Little Miss got over towards the end. But it was pretty amazing seeing where the Emperors had lived.

Cyclo tour

This is one place I would recommend a cyclo tour as there are hidden sights to see that are quite spread out. Our drivers took us to the house where Ho Chi Minh had lived, and a spot looking out high over the city that had been bombed in the war, and a garden house with bonsais that were hundreds of years old.

Dong Ba markets

The haggling is exhausting but the markets are the largest in Central Vietnam and absolutely amazing. The kids loved them and Bookworm learned to bargain like a pro – Picasso and Little Miss are too softhearted 🙂

Hai Van Pass and Marble Mountains  

Three days was enough for Hue, and we had booked a driver to take us to Hoi An and see some of the sights on the way. It was a beautifully scenic trip, although we got a bit car sic”k with the hair pin turns. Hai Van means “Sea Clouds and it is an approximately 21 km long mountain pass. Its name refers to the mists that rise from the South China Sea, reducing visibility. The pass forms an obvious boundary between North and South Vietnam, and you can stop and see the fortifications built by the French and then later used by the South Vietnamese and the Americans. The kids found climbing down into the bullet-ridden bunkers very interesting. The Marble Mountains were also very interesting but we’d run a little late on our taxi ride and didn’t have enough time to explore properly. I’d recommend an overnight stay in Danang to give them enough time.

Hoi An

Then it was onto Hoi An. We just loved this place. We stayed in Rock An Villa which was a little out of town, so quiet and peaceful, and such good value – two big rooms, our own bathroom with 2 showers and a bath, and full breakfast daily for about $90 per night. The villa also had a pool, a yard with swings for the kids to play on and bikes and scooters available for free. The kids enjoyed riding the bikes along the streets around the villa, and we all rode together to the beach. This was slightly hair-raising – after all, you’re sharing your road with cars, motorbikes, bicycles and buffalo) and there are no helmets or road rules in particular. Picasso did accidentally crash into a motorbike at one stage but was OK. You’ve got to take a deep breath ad go with it 😉 Hoi An’s old city was too far away to ride to, so we ordered taxis when we wanted to go in, which was easy enough. I can’t express how beautiful the old city is. It’s Asia’s answer to Venice and I think I enjoyed it even slightly more. I spent a fortune on lanterns, and we also got shoes made – I got knee-high handmade leather boots for $60. The kids loved this – you pick your own style and colours. There were plenty of day trips and things to see in Hoi An but we took it easy, strolling around the old city and taking a boat ride up the river, enjoying the lanterns and the markets at night. We had a rainy day where we chilled in the villa which was nice too. We found a great place called Cargo Club to eat and enjoyed my first good coffee in 2 weeks.

This is what I really loved about Hoi An: IMG_2075

Its definitely a place I would love to visit again 🙂

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Things to do in Hanoi the whole family will love

So I’ve decided to do some travel blog type posts to inspire you to visit Vietnam 🙂 We really loved Hanoi and I think it’s a great city to get your feet wet in this very large and complex country. Here are some of the activities and sights we really enjoyed.

The Old Quarter

Definitely stay in the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake. Here you get the best atmosphere and streets – crazy traffic, sidewalks cluttered with people selling food, cooking, washing, riding bikes, welding metal – tons of market stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine. Some streets are dedicated solely to one type of item and are aptly named – for example, “shoe” or “toy” street. Lots of fun to look around, although the manic pace will get tiring for young kids after a while. We found a great cafe and sat on a second-storey balcony sipping passionfruit juice just watching it all go by.

The Water Puppet Theatre

The kids LOVED this. We went to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (located at the Hoan Kiem Lake) which is probably pricey, seeing how you can see it for free at various places including the Museum of Ethnology. But I think it was worth it because the show we saw was inside and they could do more with fireworks and lights and other effects. And anyway the tickets were less than $6 each – so cheap as chips really.

Hoan Kiem Lake

This is a beautiful lake and has the Temple of the Jade Mountain (worth a visit) and the Turtle Tower. Its nice to just walk around as well, especially at night when it’s all lit up.

Museum of Ethnology

It might sound dry as dust but this is a fascinating place as it contains both indoor and outdoor exhibits detailing the history and culture of the 54 ethnic groups which comprise Vietnam. The kids really enjoyed the outdoor exhibits – reconstructions of the types of houses various ethnic groups lived in, like this one:

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Truly fascinating. And right over the road is…

Cong Vien Nghia Do Park

A fantastic park in Hanoi. The kids loved it here. It has a beautiful lake, a clean and huge play area with lots of equipment, including a zipline, and motorised cars for hire for less than $1 each. It was a good way to spend a few hours and let the kids burn off some energy.

Thu Le Park 

We drove by this park on our way elsewhere and hilariously could not find out how to get back there for some time. We initially thought it was Lenin Park and went there (much to the surprise of the taxi driver), but that was pretty disappointing as it was just a square with a statue of Lenin (although it did lead to some fascinating conversations with the kids about Communism). Anyway we finally found the right place and it was great, although I will say I found the zoo a little sub-standard, which I guess is to be expected (it was hard seeing the tigers in such a small cage). Loads of rides, roller coasters, paddle boats etc etc all for about a dollar each. Little Miss was asked to pose for photos with tourists everywhere she went and one Chinese couple asked Souljourneyboy if he would hold their baby for a photograph! Oddly, we saw hardly any western tourists.

Hoa Lo prison

Nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs during the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is called in Vietnam), the prison was initially used by French colonists for Vietnamese political prisoners, and is now a museum.

It details the lives, torture methods and barbaric practices of the French against the Vietnamese and is probably not for young kids. Ours were OK, although I did keep Little Miss out of the room which houses the guillotine used for executions. Picasso and Bookworm were old enough to handle it and again, the visit lead to interesting and important conversations. There is one room dedicated to explaining how the Vietnamese treated their American prisoners which is propaganda at its finest. If you believed the DVD that was playing it would be hard to see why any Americans wanted to go home, as they were treated so well as POWs 🙂

Night Markets

To be honest you can probably get better souvenir type items at the regular day shops but nothing beats the atmosphere of a night market. The kids absolutely loved it and Souljourneyboy even tried some street food.

Halong Bay

Even though this is some hours from Hanoi, most people visit Halong from Hanoi as a two-day one night or two-night side-trip. Absolutely spectacular. The limestone caves were amazing, as was sailing around the floating fishing villages in bamboo boats. The cruise ship we were on also had fun things like a cooking class where the kids learned to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and a spa where I had a massage – winner. We were glad though we just did the one-night trip, I think with the kids that was enough. And we also made some really nice friends – a couple of fellow Aussies who were travelling from Melbourne.

All in all, we really enjoyed Hanoi. I think I really liked that it was a nice way to start – you don’t get hassled so much by people trying to sell you things, so you can ease into it slowly. Souljourneyboy and I would have liked to have seen the The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but travelling with kids sometimes means you have to choose the park over the museum 🙂

If anyone else has travelled to Hanoi, I’d love to hear your favourite spots!

Taking flight and first impressions of Hanoi

We’re here in Hanoi!

After two train rides, two plane trips, a 6-hour layover in an airport in the middle of the night and a hair-raising taxi ride, we are here in Hanoi. And we love it.

The kids coped so well with the travel and the crazy airport queues. I did laugh when Picasso bounded into our first plane and into the business class area and said, in awe of the large and spacious seats – “can we just sit anywhere Mum?”

Um, sadly not. We eventually found our seats and Little Miss asked – “is this third class, Mum?”

We took an overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur and then did this for a couple of hours:

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One aerotrain ride and a flight later, we were in Hanoi. While they’d been amazing, the kids were exhausted, and I think I underestimated the impact of cultural shock on them. We came to our hotel – clean and comfortable but pretty basic –  and took our first walk through the Old Quarter. The traffic really is as manic as everyone says. No one stops. To cross the road you just have to walk out in front of bicycles, cars, and motorbikes and trust that they will swerve around you. And footpaths are not for walking – they’re for eating and cooking and selling and sitting and parking.

Little Miss was absolutely terrified of the traffic and the boys were worried about the pollution. They were concerned that the food looked so different and they didn’t understand what it was. Bookworm, his lip trembling, told me he felt “out of control”. That night we had some money stolen from Souljourneyboy’s wallet and the kids were understandably scared and worried. I fell asleep knowing  we had done the right thing in choosing a holiday that would stretch and challenge them – but wondered how they would go.

I needn’t have worried. The wonderful thing about kids is how they just acclimatize. They’re so resilient. We spend our first full day exploring beautiful Hanoi – such a city of contradictions. In the middle of the chaos is the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, where it is said the Golden Turtle God took a sword from invading Chinese to save the Vietnamese people. Tourists scams abound, and yet most Vietnamese are such beautiful people. They kept coming up to us and bringing their children to meet Little Miss. Within a couple of hours the kids were crossing roads like they were locals. We visited the water puppet theatre, a truly wonderful experience, and the kids adored it.

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Then we hit the night markets – an absolute must-do if you are ever in Hanoi. The atmosphere is incredible. Everyone is out and about and the city and lake are lit up with lights. We had a wonderful time and on the way home, Picasso announced, “this is way better than Australia, Mum!”

A pretty good end to our second day 🙂