|Hanoi and Halong Bay May 16 – May 21
The flight from Vientiane to Hanoi went exceptionally well. We left 20 min before schedule and thus arrived earlier than planned. Next, before we new, we were on our way to a hotel located in the old quarter of Hanoi. At least that’s what we thought. We got to the old quarter ok, but the driver kept taking us to different hotels, saying that this was the Sunshine hotel (the one we asked the driver to take us to), where we were immediately met up by a smooth talking Vietnamese guys explaining to us that the Sunshine hotel was fully booked, but that they could help us out with another good hotel. We had read about this trick, and refused to leave the car. The driver got more and more agitated, and we as well by the way. Finally arrived at our requested hotel (there was space) we got into a big argument about the fee. Jan-Rene was ready for his first heated Asian argument and even more...., but thankfully we managed to get our change back and the driver left very angry. The whole thing was quite shocking compared to what we had experienced the past 5 weeks.
After a day of strolling around and seeing the wonderful water puppet show, we decided to leave for Halong Bay a bit sooner. Hanoi was just too many scooters, with non-stop honking, a truly buzzing environment, but too much for us to enjoy. Traffic is a total chaos. And, after 36 hours of Hanoi, we also new we had to be very careful about who to trust. We decided to travel independently to Cat Ba, the island from where the excursions around the bay are being arranged. We managed to get there quite smoothly, but in a different way we had thought. Some knowledge of the Vietnamese language would have been handy at some point, because communication problems were more than few. We again experienced a famous Asian bus drive/race (I am now convinced flying IS safer than the bus…) and arrived at Cat Ba Town, a fishing village that has been turned into a sort of Costa del Sol during the past decade, where many inhabitants of Hanoi retreat for week-end and/or short holiday. It’s funny place: a long boulevard with hotels (mainly budget places) and restaurants (no star restaurants either) and establishment is empty because of low season. We cycled around and spend a nice afternoon on one of the islands nice beaches, something the children had really been looking forward to.
The next day we took a private boat tour around Halong Bay. It was magnificent. We had a large boat to ourselves and cruised around through the countless numbers of islands rising from the water and it felt like magic. We had a few stops along the way, rowed into a cave and greeted thousands of bats (and a nest of small bats), looked for coral and pretty shelves and had lots of diving/jumping of the boat. Icing on the cake for the children was when our guide/boat owner let them steer the boat completely on their own for quite a while. We had an unforgettable day.
Sapa May 22 -25
We travelled back to Hanoi, where we filled up our supplies ( you never want to leave to remote places with children without peanut butter!), boosted our caffeine level (we'll gladly pay 1-2$ for a good expresso....) and next boarded the night train to Lao Cai ( a few km from the Chinese border), where we arrived at 6 am. One more hour by minibus, and we arrived in Sapa. We are high up in the mountains, it is a lot cooler cooler here, which is quite enjoyable, even if it is a bit rainyand foggy. At least we didn't pack our fleeces and shoes needlessly after all. Sapa is more touristic than we thought, but still lovely. The scenery is spectacular: beautiful valleys with cascading rice terraces spread over the mountain heights. Tomorrow we are going on a hiking tour to visit some nearby hill tribe villages; today the children need to catch-up some sleep and do nothing for a day. They are quite exhausted.
The view from our hotel window:
The first day we walked down from Sapa into the valley and visited a Hmong (one of the largest ethnic hill tribe groups) village called Cat Cat, all together a 6 km round trip. Although very touristy, it was still nice. The children as always liked the animals best, especially baby pigs, puppies, and baby goats. Around 50% of the total Vietnamese Hmong population lives in the area of Sapa. Which is very noticeable, by the way. To meet them, you do not need to hike up to their villages; the streets of Sapa are full of Hmong women and girls, trying to sell their embroidered merchandise. Walking the streets here, you are permanently surrounded by at least 4-6 of them. The younger girls speak remarkably well English (much better then the average Vietnamese in this village) and are very cheerful and even funny, beautifully dressed in their traditional clothes. They all won’t stop hugging our children, and are chatting with Saskia and saying: "you my sister, I take you home with me".
The next day we made a 12 km hike through the surrounding mountains and visited 3 villages inhabited by different minority hill tribes. We walked through the rice fields and bamboo forest and enjoyed the stunning views from various heights. Our guide did not hide his concern about whether the children would be able to do the whole trek, but they beat the odds: they never complained and just had a great time. We were constantly accompanied by 4-8 hill tribe women and girls, who liked the children very much, but were mainly hoping to sell us some of their embroidered handicrafts (which we of course could not resist completely). During the walk Jan-Rene got emotional, started to feel very homesick about the mountains and now wants to find a job in Switzerland again… but I guess just holidays will have to do for now...
That evening we boarded the night train back to Hanoi, which was not easy to book by the way. You would think you just purchase the way back for the same price, but we should have known by now that logic doesn’t work when travelling in Asia. We paid more money for a much lower comfort level. At 05.45 am we arrived in Hanoi (we are turning into early birds, who would have thought that!), and waited until the ticket office opened, where we found out that the train we had planned to take was full. We considered our options and decided to fly to Danang. After hearing many views of other travellers, we will skip Hue in favour of spending more time around Hoi An. Finally, after 6 hrs hike + 24 hours of travel/waiting time, we have arrived in Hoi An. What a joy a shower can be, by the way!
It is amazing to see how easily children adapt to new routines: hanging around at a trainstation for more then 2 hours doesn't seemto bother them anymore...
Hoi An May 26 - 29
Of course, no way to sleep in for once with Michiel on board, so we took of on our rented bikes to the beach. It is very, very hot here, and very humid as well. At 5 km of the town center we found a lovely beach area, with large stretches of white sandy beaches, clear water and palm trees. We had a great day and just relaxed
Hoi An is a very nice town with many (small) historical buildings and houses. A truly charming place, many good and nicely located restaurants to choose from, and the people are somewhat softer than in the North. The centre is quite small and can be walked or biked through. A part is closed for cars, but they forgot to exclude the motorbikes as well, and since they outnumber the cars by a ratio of at least 100 to 1, even here traffic is chaotic. But we have gotten used to that by now and don’t even blink anymore by the sound of honks. We enjoyed walking around, despite the heat and humidity and …. we caught the “tailor made” fever. Tailor made clothing is one of Hoi An’s specialties; hundreds of tailor shops are scattered around the city and you can have anything made in 24 hrs for next to nothing. The only problem is how to choose the right tailor and decide on the design you want, which in our case was a bit more complicated because of 3 children who were getting increasingly bored after several shops and kept asking (demanding?) about the beach, pool and ice cream ….
But we managed to have a few things made, and overall were quite satisfied with the results: a cashmere/wool suit, a jacket, 4 shirts, boots for both the girls, shoes for both of us, dresses for the girls, shirt for Michiel and a few more things, all for 250 euros! The goods are on their way to Holland by sea shipment and will (hopefully) arrive in there in 3 months time. It was JIT- management, because 10 minutes after shipping the goods, we hopped on the night bus for Nha-Trang, 550 km to the south of Hoi An.
On our last day, between the ordering and fitting sessions, we also took a half day tour to My Son, Vietnams’ most important centre of ancient kingdom of Champa. To be honest, we were slightly disappointed by the site, it was smaller than what we had expected, also in relation to the time it took us to get there and return again.
Mui Ne Beach, May 30 - June 2
The bus departed at 18.30 and arrived in Nha Trang at 06.00 hrs. The bus was full, so space for us was limited. The children managed to get some sleep (basically they took all our seats by laying down across of them), we however didn’t. When arriving at Nhatrang we didn’t like the looks of it (a small Vietnamese version of Nice), whilst we were looking for a more tranquil place. We found out we could take a connecting bus leaving one hour later (just enough time for a quick breakfast) to Mui Ne, a very nice and quiet beach resort 230 km further south, where we finally arrived at 12.30 hrs.
During the bus trip the children had another interesting experience. Seated on the row in front of were 3 very cheerful deaf-mute American students. It was very nice to meet them, and to exchange experiences by writing with them. They taught the children some basic sign language, which they continued practicing the rest of the afternoon.
Now we are going to have some nice beach time here, the setting is just lovely here. Our room is 20 m away from the beach, and so is the pool ... Sounds nice?
The next morning we took a ride by jeep to the fishing area of the beach. Great smells just after breakfast … very interesting to see how they unload kilos of many different kinds of fish, and quickly pack them in bags with crunched ice.
A bit further down the road we stopped at the sand dunes. It looks just like the desert, and it felt just as hot as the desert. The kids around that area rent out pieces of hard plastic, which you can use as a sledge. So we had our first experience of sand sledging. It was fun, but very hot, especially walking up the hill again was excruciating. The children concluded that they prefer sledging in the snow …
We stayed another day and enjoyed the sun, beach and pool. There were quite strong winds, so the kite-surfers had a ball; it was spectacular to watch some of them. The see was also a bit wild, which was good fun. At dinnertime we met Mme Cuc, who runs several hotels in HCMC. We agreed to book a room at her place; she made a sales pitch we couldn’t resist.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) June 2 – 6
We took the train to Saigon on June 2nd. We turned out to have tickets for another (slower and older) train than we had paid for, but we had a great ride. I walked through the whole train, which was almost fully booked, and I only saw 2 other travellers (I am still wondering on what train the other tourists were on?). In our wagon we (I really should say: the children) received a lot of attention: they received a lot of snacks, which of course they didn’t like, and we had to finish. They were constantly looked at and patted. A lady who spoke some English was translating for the rest of the cabin, they were all so curious about us.
5 hours later we arrived at HCMC train station, and to our big surprise: a pick-up (with name card) had been arranged by Mme Cuc! While driving to the hotel we were impressed by our first views of this buzzing city, and we received a heartedly welcome with a fresh fruit juice at her hotel. Mme Cuc understands how to compete within the 20$ hotel range by adding just these little extras for her guests.
Saigon (as most locals call it) is a truly grand city with beautiful avenues and sites to be seen. We actually like it much better then we had expected. The traffic manic here is of course incredible, but at least they (mostly) stop at red lights. We enjoyed walking around, doing some shopping, and sipping great espressos and fruit juices. The hassle from the Vietnamese here also is much less than in Hanoi. We do still receive the same questions over and over again, so we thought about making a big piece of paper on our backs with: “ Yes, yes, 1,2,3 babies! They are 4, 6 and 9. We are from Holland. Yes very nice, two girls and a boy. No, not buying anything, thank you! No taxi, no motorbike, we walking.”
We decided to surprise the children with a visit to one of the city’s big water parks. They loved it; we however (especially me, Monique, I just hate these places) just barely managed to get through the morning. The place was packed with people; I didn’t know that so many people could fit together in one pool area. And, just as the adults here, neither the Vietnamese children have heard of proper queuing behaviour. Well, at least the children had a ball, and it was a refreshing morning.
We booked an organised tour to the famous Cu Chi tunnels and a CoaDai temple. We prefer doing these trips independently, but in this case it would have cost so much more otherwise. An organised tour means that the first hour in the bus you spend picking up all the other people at their hotels, then you have to listen to a loud (barely understandable) talking Vietnamese guide, after which you get rushed through the sites you wanted to spend more time at and have useless stps at commercial sites you didn’t ask for. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that it was a very long drive, both sites were very worth while. The Cao Dai temple was really something very different, very colourful and light, with many different symbols. The Cao Dai religion is a fusion of 7 different religions.
The Cu Chi tunnels were impressive (not meant for anybody suffering from claustrophobia). This time the children were our guides, it being much easier for them to walk through the 80cm x 120 cm tunnels. The whole site gave a very good impression of the VC and the guerrilla way of fighting and living. Saskia and Nadine were full of questions about the war, sometimes not all so easy to answer.
On our last day in Saigon we visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chinese) and the Independent Palace. Again a lot about the war, from the Vietnamese point of view of course, with many recognisable elements from movies etc.
Saskia sees it like this: in Thailand they are crazy about their King, in Laos they killed their royal family and in Vietnam (why didn’t they have a King?) they killed their President and each other. What were the Americans doing here, anyway?
Now we are on our way to Cambodia. There certainly will be more questions raised by her over there …
Mekong Delta 7 - 9 June
We decided that we would like to finish our Vietnam tour by exploring the Mekong Delta a bit, and we found out that this could be quite easily combined with an “exit” by boat to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. We booked a backpackers tour for 3 days, since this journey is difficult to do independently. The tour turned out to be quite an exhausting exercise, with long travel time, lots of changing from one cramped bus and/or boat into another, and with very basic accommodation. But nevertheless quite an experience, and we met some nice people along the trip (even a couple that had seen us before in Luang Prabang!)
On the first day we stopped at MyTho, a city 80 km from Saigon. From there we continued by boat to visit several islands, where the main source of living are coconuts and tropical fruits. We visited a coconut candy factory and enjoyed a rowing boat trip through the canals of the islands. We continued by bus, got on the ferry by foot (without the bus, apparently cars and busses take a different one), and arrived at Can Tho at 18.30 hrs. There we discovered that our passports were still with our hotel in Saigon. PANIC, STRESS!! But thankfully our tour guide was very efficient; he made some phone calls and assured us that they would be brought to the hotel where we would be staying at the next night. Pff ….. We had dinner, a shower and were in bed by 21.30. But then children were afraid of going to sleep after having seen a spider of the size a hand in our hotel room. The worst thing about it is, that when it’s gone, you don’t know where it is, and it could be anywhere …! And it was so so hot ….
The second day we got up at 06.00, walked to the harbour and got on a boat and visited two floating markets, a house where they make rice noodles, and a village. Then we continued by bus again, stopped at a crocodile farm, saw a hundreds of crocodiles, all just waiting to be turned into handbags, boots and belts after being sold to the Chinese. Quite sad actually. We ended the day at Sam Mountain, near Chau Doc, where we visited the Caved Pagoda and Lady Chua Xu Temple. There was a big local festivity going on and many people from the villages in the area had gathered here. On our way up to the temple, people who wanted to take pictures of our children stopped us continuously. Jan-Rene walked up to the top of the mountain with Nadine and Michiel. There it got even worse. It was as if he had 2 movie stars with him. Their picture must have been taken about 20-30 times. By the time we arrived at our hotel it was 18.45 hrs. Thank god our passports were there. We had a better night, but it was once more very late for the children.
The third day we got up at 06.00 again. We boarded a boat in the harbour and visited a fish farm and a Cham minority village. At this village there was a mother and 2-day-old baby lying in a house I went in. I was told that the first month neither the mother nor the baby leaves the house; the mother is not supposed to move or wash herself during that time either. This is considered to be the best in terms of hygiene …
We continued our journey on a small and very noisy boat to the border, which we crossed at 13.00 hrs. We changed boats, and continued on Mekong River for another 4 hours. It was a long, and a very hot but nice trip, with a lot to be seen. There is so much activity along the Mekong river, quite fascinating to see.
The last part we did by bus, and we finally arrived at Phnom Penh at 19.00hrs. By the time we got to the guesthouse at which we had made a room reservation, we were two hours late, and they had given away our room. There we were: 19.30 hrs, 3 very hungry and exhausted kids, and no place to stay. I nearly could have killed the guesthouse manager! He felt guilty, and arranged free transportation for us to another hotel, where we checked in after dinner at almost 10 o’clock.
The children have amazed us these past few days. Their flexibility in handling all the moves, coping with lack of sleep, and at times also decent food, was better than we ever would have thought. Of course they got cranky at times, or fought a lot more, but to be honest, we were also very very tired.
We say goodbye to Vietnam, a truly beautiful country, with so many different things to offer: mountains, beaches, ancient cities and sites, shopping, rich culture and history. We just had to get used to the people a bit, but that came quite easily along the way.