Alec (15) had it right when he was telling people “this isn’t going to be a piña colada and beach vacation– we’re going to Vietnam to explore the culture.”
For me, Vietnam was a mystery that I was hoping to unravel. I was a kid when the Vietnam War was nearing the end in 1973 and the Paris Peace Accords were signed. I didn’t understand much about it. In 1985, President Clinton re-established diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Soon after, people started vacationing in Vietnam to gasps of horror for some, and expressions of exoticism to others. This was always perplexing to me. I was eager to see Vietnam, meet the people, learn perspectives and develop my own voice on the subject. I was also excited to experience the cuisine!
Our 2-week journey:
I was also excited about our anticipated flight path that would take us across the north pole and over Russia into Hong Kong. Here’s a photo from the in-flight entertainment system! So glad I didn’t sleep thru this portion of the flight!
Touch down 7am from Boston. Wheels up again 6pm to fly to Hanoi. That means — 6 hours of fun in Hong Kong!
In this order: Get cash (Hong Kong dollars) at airport ATM. Find day luggage storage in Terminal 2. Buy airport express roundtrip train tickets (machine only accepts Hong Kong dollars). Off we go.
Well worth it, these were our highlights:
Victoria Peak – we went first thing, to avoid the crowds, and although it was too hazy to see much up top we enjoyed the Circle Walk which was beautiful and allowed us to stretch our legs after the 16-hour flight from Boston.
We ended our adventure with lunch at the Wu Kong Shangai on Nathan Road where we were able to deliver on our promise to Alec for authentic shumai.
Back to the airport. We all fell asleep instantly on the plane.
Our Vietnam adventure started in Hanoi. Tree-lined boulevards, centuries-old architecture, a mix of Chinese, French and Southeast Asian influences. It’s a mix of modern and ancient, was the HQ for the North Vietnamese army and is the capital of the country.
Seemed like the right place to start our trip!
Highlights of our time in Hanoi:
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (photo above) – There was an incredibly long line to get in on a Sunday morning. Reminded me of the line to get into the Vatican. It seems everyone wants to pay their respects to Uncle Ho. And unless you’re truly a VIP there’s no way around waiting. Once inside, a very strict “2×2” walking formation as we entered the Mausoleum with lots of guards to ensure it. I have to say, Ho Chi Minh was very well preserved! No photos allowed inside you might imagine. Once outside, the rest of the site was beautiful and relaxed – the presidential palace where he greeted important visitors, his everyday workplace (much more low key), his earlier and then later-life home, all in a beautiful garden setting.
Temple of Literature – Vietnam’s first university and a shrine for Confucian worship. It’s a beautiful place and very lively.
We loved the ambiance at Hoan Kiem Lake, a short walk from the Hotel de l’Opera in the old quarter where we stayed – http://hoteldelopera.com. It was beautifully lit at night and on the weekend when the streets are closed to traffic is a great family, strolling, and relaxing place. We must have walked around the lake 4 or 5 times during our stay in Hanoi! I’d highly recommend staying near the Lake and luckily there is no shortage of nice hotels to pick from.
Probably the most important lesson we learned in Hanoi was how to cross the street. I’d never seen anything quite like it – cars and motorbikes (lots of them!) going in every direction everywhere. 8 million people and 3.5 million motorbikes. How do you cross the street? — Avoid cars, they can’t slow down fast enough. Don’t worry about the motorbikes they’ll swerve around you. Just go.
I had loved the photos I’d seen of Sapa’s mountains and rice terraces when researching this trip. It was clear I had to go! Three days of trekking and cycling in cool air and in the presence of beautiful terrain and minority hill tribes sounded great!
I’d also read it’s an area that’s growing out of control with backpackers and booming tourism. It’s true. So glad we went. In 10 years it will be a very different place. Better roads will be a win, but that’s about it I think.
We took the overnight Victoria Express train from Hanoi. It was a family adventure! It also maximized our trip in that we didn’t lose a day traveling to and from Hanoi by car. Booking on a Victoria Express train car requires you stay at the Victoria Express hotel. But so worth it because the hotel is a short walk uphill out of town where it’s QUIET away from the Sapa town. A great hotel with great views, and a pool table in the lobby that we enjoyed during happy hour. Also, I can confirm the 2 Victoria Express cars have the thickest mattresses of all the train cars — I looked in the windows as we were walking by to get to our train car!
A short flight from Hanoi landed us in Huế for the start of the South Vietnam portion of our trip, situated just south of the DMZ (17th parallel).
Huế was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty and the national capital from 1802 to 1945. I had viewed Huế as a mandatory stop on our way to Hoi An, thinking it was going to be more heavy lifting than delightful. I was very wrong — we loved Hue! The Imperial Citadel (photo above) and the Forbidden Purple City were amazing to see. The Emporer’s Tombs and the Thien Mu Pagoda were impressive. The old city had a great vibe. Cycling in the countryside was wonderful.
We also got a glimpse into political differences in different parts of the country. We learned that the “war” went by a few names depending on where you were located:
In the north – The Vietnam War (Ho Chi Minh’s-led fight for a unified Vietnam)
In the south central (Huế, Hoi An) – The American War
In the south (Saigon) – The Civil War (their fight for independence)
In Hanoi, we often saw communist flags flown beside the Vietnam flag. Not so in Hue.
We also loved our bicycling adventure in the countryside. By now you should know that a hallmark of Zipster’s Travel is a bicycle trip in every city we visit. It wasn’t possible in Hanoi (much too crazy) and Cambodia (much too hot), but we cycled in Sapa, Hue, and Hoi An.
Dong Ba Market: We made an early morning visit to Dong Ba Market – the main local market in Hue. Very colorful and quite large!
Our hotel is worth a mention
We stayed at the La Residence hotel which was a real treat – https://www.azerai.com/la-residence-hue. It’s a beautiful hotel on the Perfume River with a gorgeous pool (we loved), table tennis (which we played) and a basketball court (which Alec used for hours one day!). It’s located within walking distance of the old quarter and the bustling night market and restaurants. The walk to the old quarter was along a beautiful river path with a few street crossings. We felt fortunate we had gained our street crossing skills in Hanoi or it could have turned out not so good for us!
We loved Huế and could have stayed here longer.
We left Huế with a drive across the scenic Hai Van Pass and down through Da Nang & China Beach (My Khe).
I was really looking forward to Hoi An – Vietnam’s ancient and most significant trading port during the 16th century – a UNESCO world heritage site, full of ambiance and nearly perfectly preserved. This was going to be the “lay low” portion of the trip and we weren’t going to want to leave — minimal historic sites, minimal guide assistance, recharge, bike to the beach.
It turned out partly true.
Hoi An is one of those places that Rick Steves (the Europe guide book guy) would have said: “sometimes places are touristy for a good reason.” Ah, true. Unfortunately, during a good part of the day and night, Hoi An is soooo crowded, you can’t see the beautiful buildings thru the mobs of crowds.
Getting past this we discovered that later in the evening the crowds are low and you can experience the magical ambiance, actually see the beautiful buildings in the narrow streets, and sit out with a beer at a pub on the river and take it in.
We really enjoyed our cycling trips to the countryside. Rice fields, vegetable villages, a pottery village. Very, very nice. Our cycling trip to An Bang beach was scenic until we arrived at the actual beach. Nothing to recommend about their most popular beach.
How could we travel halfway around the world to Vietnam and NOT make a stop in Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, one of the largest and most awe-inspiring religious monuments in the world?
We’re so glad we did.
We spent only 2 days in Cambodia. On the first day, we visited the 3 most famous temples that were the heart of the Khmer empire: Angkor Wat (the most famous one), Ta Prohm (the Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider temple), and the Bayon in Angkor Thom. Each was unique and spectacular.
We started our day at 5am to see Angkor Wat at sunrise (photo above.) We weren’t alone!
On our 2nd day, we headed out into the countryside. We visited the Beng Melea temple which was the primary Tomb Raider filming site. Beng Melea is in the thick of the jungle and was only recently cleared of land mines.
Also out in the countryside, we visited an NGO site that is a partnership between the Dutch and Cambodian governments consisting of a health care center and school. I can’t say enough about this experience. One reads about health care centers and schools established in remote and rural areas for underserved populations in developing countries. It’s another thing to see one in person. At the health care center – 2 nurses delivering vaccinations, examining sick patients (70 cents), mid-wife baby deliveries ($15), and transportation to the hospital in the city for more critical needs. A doctor visits weekly as well.
At the school, they teach the children a traditional curriculum in the morning, and in the afternoon they teach them English. With a command of English, the children can grow up to work in the city of Siem Reap or Phnom Penh in the Tourism industry and achieve a better economic outcome.
We spent time in a classroom with a group of 90 children ages 6-12, playing a game that helped them learn English. Working with these kids was a wonderful experience – a highlight of our trip.
In Siem Reap we stayed in a wonderful hotel that I’d recommend (Shinta Mani Shack – https://www.shintamani.com/shack/), within walking distance to great restaurants and the popular Pub Street and night market. We ended the trip with dinner at Belmiro’s Pizza pub in Siem Reap that was owned by a former Boston guy. Fun talking with him! As much as we loved the Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine throughout the trip, we’d had enough and a comfort food night was in order. The pizza was excellent and a walk along Pub street afterward provided a great ending to a great trip.
Next stop – back home to Boston!
Our trip was great! It was cultural, culinary, educational and inspirational. And as with any great trip, it helped us grow as individuals and connect more strongly as a family.
A big shout-out to the folks at ATJ who put together this custom journey for us and provided great guides and logistical support along the way. https://www.atj.com
And as with every trip, we depart with fond memories, a renewed sense of adventure and an eagerness to share what we’ve learned with others. Thanks for reading.