On our trip to Vietnam, my stepdaughter (Scott’s daughter Aidan) joined us. It was also the Christmas holidays, so instead of “going it alone” in terms of trip planning, as usual, I enlisted the help of a travel agent to arrange everything: booking accommodation, planning and scheduling tours, ensuring rides to and from locations, etc. — basically everything except determining where we would eat a few lunches and dinners.
This decision was a glorious gift I gave myself (and Scott and Aidan) for Christmas. I didn’t have to do a thing, and it was totally worth it. For $1,800, the three of us got 10 days of worry-free travel and were able to do a lot of fun stuff. We were in the country from December 18 – 27, 2018.
We met Aidan at the Hanoi airport, she having flown in from Toronto, Canada, via Hong Kong, and we came from Siem Reap, Cambodia. After going through the visa process, we met up and got escorted to our hotel by a nice driver who greeted us with a sign with my name on it. 🙂
That first night, we checked into the hotel that would serve as our home-base for our various overnight trips out of Hanoi. It was late already, and most restaurants were closed. We found a sort of dirty, sketchy little place and sat at a small, low table with equally low stools and had some authentic Vietnamese food.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts about our earlier travels in other parts of Southeast Asia, this was not your typical Vietnamese food that you find at most ethnic Western restaurants… we had boiled quail, transparent rice dumplings, and a sort of thin spring roll with pork and bits of raw shrimp. It was okay, but not the best food. But then, based on the look of the place and the lateness of the evening, we hadn’t expected too much.
The next day, we went on a fabulous private food tour that, surprisingly, started at the same food stall. During this three-hour tour, we ate some absolutely delicious local food, including desserts, that we probably would never have tried if we hadn’t been told what to order (and just as importantly, how to eat it properly). In Vietnam, restaurants typically include several sauces, fruits, and spices on the tables, so it can be hard to know which sauce or spice to put on what dish. Having a guide to show us was a real help, and her tips proved useful throughout the rest of the trip.
One of the big highlights of this food tour was the dessert: coconut ice cream with sticky rice and coconut sprinkles. We were all in heaven! We also had fish soup, made our own spring rolls, and ate dry noodle soup. Fantastic! Afterward, our guide sent us an email with a list and description of all we had eaten, plus the locations in case we wanted to go back, along with a few additional recommendations. Again, we used her guidance throughout our stay. We loved most of the food we tried in Vietnam. 😉
The following day, we went on a tour to see the major sites of Hanoi, including the Ho Chi Minh Complex that honors the former president (his body is very well-preserved and is on display just like Joseph Stalin, another Communist leader); the Ngoc Son Temple; a lacquer workshop (did you know that lacquer comes from trees? I didn’t…); and a pottery workshop, where we learned that Vietnam is a leading producer of pottery.
We ran late, and the tour was dragging on a bit, so we left the last stop early. It happened to be close to our hotel, so we walked back to pick-up the tickets for our next activity: a water-puppet show! This whole experience was so great! There was a live band that played traditional Vietnamese music to accompany the elaborate scenes that took place, with all of the puppets performing in a pool of water.
Water puppets are an old Vietnamese art form, and the show was very entertaining and beautiful. We were all mesmerized. The stories were easy to understand, and the puppetry was outstanding. We highly recommend seeing this type of show if you ever get the chance.
Later that night, we took an overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa, which is in the mountains of Northern Vietnam. We didn’t sleep a wink, but the ride was worth it. Then, after about a 90-minute drive through the mountains, we arrived at our hotel in Sapa. There we found absolutely breathtaking views of the surrounding mist-covered mountains and the stepped rice fields below — like, this place offered truly postcard-worthy views. We were so high up that we were looking down at the clouds. Amazing!
After a nap, we met up with our sweet guide, who was nine months (yes, nine months!!) pregnant and only about a week away from her due date. This lithe little woman led us on a trek through the nearby Cat Cat Village, home to some Hmong people (the same community of people we saw in Lao). The trek wasn’t terribly hard, admittedly; it entailed basically just a very long and steep set of stairs that wove through a gauntlet of stalls selling handmade local (and some Chinese) products.
In fact, Sapa was filled with Hmong women selling their handicrafts, all of which I really loved. It inspired me so much that I have been considering starting an online retail store to sell their lovely work, but we will see….
When we reached the end of the steps on the valley floor, there was a little tourist park of sorts; it included a waterfall, windmills made of bamboo, more shops, a restaurant, and a theater with people doing traditional Hmong dances. Aidan was pulled on stage to join in but wasn’t super-enthused. (Actually, neither were the dancers, to be honest.) We then had lunch at a local place and finally got a ride back to our hotel, where we took another nap.
Afterward, we walked around town in the evening and grabbed a late dinner.
We had an early start the next day, with more trekking. Since we aren’t mountain climbers, we chose the “easy” route, which really was easy. The other half of our group, who chose the harder trek, had a much more difficult time, we learned later. But our little group walked along paved roads for maybe 90 minutes, and that was that.
We were accompanied by a group of Hmong women who, at the end of this portion of our trip, harassed us into buying some of their handicrafts. That was a bit disappointing, as they were quite aggressive. Then, once they left, we had to wait for 2.5 hours for the other part of our tour group (the ones who took the hard route) to show up for lunch. The wait was annoying, but the view of the rice fields was gorgeous, so we thought better of complaining.
Once we finally ate, we set off as one big group to the second and longest part of the trek; this section was great. We walked through several small villages that, despite being right next to one another, each had different languages, cultures, traditions, and clothing. The Hmong people often inter-marry between villages, so the lines do blur, but overall, each remains true to their individual tribe.
Oh! During the last bit of the trek, our (very pregnant) tour guide took me to a shop stall of a women from her village where I bought a hand-dyed, hand-woven blanket. I love it and was able to ship it back to my sister in the US before we left Vietnam. Fingers crossed that it arrives safely!
We were exhausted after our treks, but we powered through since we had another overnight train back to Hanoi that night. Once we arrived, after another mostly sleepless night on the train, we stopped back again at our home-base hotel for a rest before getting on a tour bus to Halong Bay. Also, this was December 23rd, Scott’s birthday!
This portion of our visit was very regimented, to say the least. Our guide was good at his job, but very strict about the timeline and activities, with no room for variation. It was still fun, though. The drive was about three hours long to the bay, and after we boarded our cruise boat with the 15 or so other passengers, we checked into our fabulous room. As a group, we all ate a big lunch, and then we had the choice either to take kayaks out or to visit an oyster farm. We chose kayaks.
After that, the three of us decided to hang out on the boat for happy hour rather than going back out for another (regimented!) excursion.
Later, we had another delicious meal and then partook in what became an impromptu dance party with the other guests. (#thiswasawesome) Our poor, schedule-driven tour guide was a bit miffed that no one seemed interested in night-time squid fishing, but everyone was just having too much fun. There were two families from India, so the music was a mix of Bollywood and American favorites. We danced, laughed, and joked around, and a few folks, including Aidan, sang songs for the group. Aidan was asked to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which brought a few tears to the room as well as and many compliments; she was a big hit.
We had a super early wake-up the next day for a hike through a gigantic cave. It was one of the largest caves we’ve been in, and we really were awestruck. In one chamber, there was a stalagmite shaped like a penis, all lit up, and many people — including, hilariously, one of the very matronly middle-aged Indian women — took amusing selfies with it. (I’ll leave those to your imagination.) We were then whisked back to the boat for another big lunch before cruising back to port, where we disembarked and were driven back to Hanoi.
That night, Aidan decided she wanted a custom-made suit (which is a A Thing in Hanoi, as in many places we’d been in Asia). We walked around and found the perfect tailor. She picked her fabric and accents, showed the woman a picture of the style she wanted, and then had her measurements taken.
In addition, I also ordered a new purse, which I had customized with a zipper and black leather shoulder strap. Very simple and quick, and both Aidan and I were giddy with excitement to see the final products in a few more days!
Ninh Binh and Tam Coc
The next morning, we were again picked up by a driver and driven to a small city called Ninh Binh. There, our hotel manager was also our very gracious tour guide (who spoke perfect English). He took us hiking to reach the top of Tam Coc Cave and to see beautiful views of Ngo Dong River. To get to the base of the cave/mountain, we walked through a well-manicured, pretty little park that had statues and koi ponds. This place was a highlight and a bit of a relief after the very active, lively, but also dirty city of Hanoi (there’s trash everywhere and lots of unpleasant smells). The walk up was exhausting and extremely hot, with many worn, uneven stone steps, but the view was worth it.
Later, we took a small row boat, called a sampan, that was manned by a guy who rowed with his feet along the Ngo River, through its “Three Caves.” There were a lot of other sampans filled with tourists, which is never enjoyable, but we had a good time anyway. The caves were cool and quite low, so we had to duck down a few times, which was fun but uncomfortable.
Our guide then took us to a small hidden gem, a new restaurant where he had never eaten before either. It turned out to be, all three of us afterward agreed, the most delicious meal we had in Vietnam. There was a set menu, and all the food was brought out at once, including fruit for desert. There were various dishes: rice, fried chicken, both fried and grilled fish, sautéed veggies, etc., and all were substantial portions. We tried our best but couldn’t finish everything, however much we wanted to. It’s such a shame, too, because it was SOOOO good and we couldn’t take a doggy bag. 😦
That night, we walked around Ninh Binh, which turned out to be a pretty unremarkable city. We had just a small dinner since we were all still stuffed from lunch.
The next day, we got up early and took yet another boat ride along Tam Coc. This one was longer than the one the prior day — and there weren’t any others on the river! We loved it!! Just the four of us, alone in nature, with the soft wind, smooth water, warm sun, and gentle sounds of a small row boat and a few animals to keep us company. The limestone karsts, the ancient hoa lua temple along the river, and the nine caves we passed through were all amazing. Mother Nature is queen! It’s was a gorgeous day, sunny, and early enough that we weren’t hot yet, so we were all very happy.
Later that same day, we also visited Bái Đính Temple, the largest temple complex in Vietnam, comprising numerous structures including a bell tower, a prayer tower, and Tam Teh Hall, which holds the largest Buddha in the country. It was very impressive, to say the least.
We ended this leg of our trip in and around Ninh Binh with another substantial lunch of traditional Vietnamese food before going back to Hanoi.
We got back to Hanoi in just enough time to go for Aidan’s suit fitting. It was mesmerizing watching the tailor work. She had Aidan try the jacket and proceeded to rip the pieces apart by hand, re-sowing it on the spot to better fit Aidan’s form. It was so fun to watch. When the tailor was sure she had the right shape, we left and met Scott (who was at the hotel checking some work email) for our festive Christmas dinner: pizza.
Merry (belated) Christmas, everyone!
December 27th was a free day for us, so we hung out at the hotel for a bit and then did some shopping. I got the custom-made clothing bug too, so I had a linen dress made; for just $40, I got to pick my fabric, and was ready by 6 PM. I love it and wear it all the time now. Aidan also picked up her finished suit, which is fabulous and fits her perfectly, and she was really pleased. Vietnam is a great place for getting clothing made! (So is Thailand.)
That night, we took an overnight flight to Japan — another sleepless night. Aidan was extremely excited about this trip, for she’s wanted to go to Japan since she was quite small. The Japan leg of our trip was her surprise Christmas gift. It’ll also be the topic of our next blog. 🙂
Connie, Scott, and Aidan