Since we returned from our trip to Vietnam I’ve been asked over and again to write down our itinerary as friends who followed along on Facebook were impressed by how much we managed to see in just over 2 weeks and others just want to know where we went. I won’t go into how we felt returning after 20 years or what the kids felt about their first experience of Asia, nor any reflections or descriptions here, just the basics of our itinerary (with the odd adjective thrown in for good measure). So here it is: 16 days of family travel in Vietnam.
We landed at Noi Bai airport in the afternoon and were met by a friend’s driver who swiftly negotiated Hanoi’s crazy traffic and deposited us in Gia Lam, a district of Hanoi unknown to us 20 years ago. We were staying with an old university friend of JF’s who arrived in Hanoi in 1991 and never left. In his quest to remain as local as possible he now lives in an area with very few foreigners, across the Red River from the centre of town. We’ll call him Phong Xoa (the way his housekeeper spells his name) or PX for short. PX wasn’t back from work when we arrived so not really knowing where we were nor being able to access the wifi to check Google Maps we just decided to go for a wander in the local lanes and find a beer. Once this was achieved and PX returned we made the most of his beautiful house and pool and spent a rather hazy evening with him and his 2 boys (jet lag and copious amounts of wine….)
After a late start (owing to the things I referred to last night…jet lag and wine) and with a bowl of delicious homemade pho in our bellies we headed into the Old Quarter of Hanoi to explore and reconnect with the city we knew. We explored some of the 36 old trade streets, wandered around Hoan Kiem Lake, visited the Ngoc Son Temple, dodged crazy traffic, took sanctuary in the Bamboo bar of the Metropole Hotel, passed by St Joseph’s Cathedral and the Opera House before meeting up with another old friend from back in the day. In stark contrast to PX, American Amy (AA) lives bang in the centre of Hanoi in a beautifully decorated apartment (full of antique curios, paintings and fabrics from her own company). Naturally further copious quantities of wine were consumed that evening….
photo courtesy of Chez M’Lain
Up early for a 2 day, 1 night trip to Ha Long Bay. We booked this through Handspan Travel and were very impressed with their service and the cruise itself. The actual day panned out like this: departure from Hanoi at 8 am, arrival at Ha Long city at midday. The rest of the day was spent on the comfortable junk, eating delicious food, cruising through the limestone karsts, sunbathing, kayaking, swimming, sipping cocktails watching the sunset and squid fishing (“squidding”?) in the peace of this sublime UNESCO World Heritage and New 7 wonders of Nature site.
Up early for Tai Chi on the deck at sunrise followed by a light breakfast, then transfer by rowing boat to a pearl farm. Once back on the junk we were treated to a full-blown delicious Western-Vietnamese mixed brunch while cruising back to port. And back to Hanoi for another fun evening with PX.
Up early AGAAAAIN (much to the teen’s horror) for departure by private minibus with PX and family to the mountains near the Chinese border north of Hanoi. Initially when planning our trip I looked at going to Sapa, the renowned trekking, hill tribe town, but thanks to the lucky chance of a gang of old friends organising their own school holiday trip we got to explore Pan Hou, a much quieter, lesser-known part of the beautiful northern highlands. We were 5 families in total, a multicultural, multilingual mix of French, Vietnamese, Italian and English, 22 people in all. The journey took nearly 6 hours getting hairier and hairier as we got higher and higher into the mountains. In the afternoon we all trekked off to a nearby waterfall for a swim. In the evening we were joined by Michel and Phuong, the French-Vietnamese owners of Pan Hou Eco Lodge, for rounds and rounds of icy cold beers and crisp white wine to accompany a delicious meal.
The day started with a visit to the local market where we (our group of 22) were the only foreigners/non-locals. The locals were a mix of Vietnamese and ethnic Tay, Lu Mien and Dao minorities who were going about their business and couldn’t have cared less about our presence. Next up it was time for the trek. We hiked for about 6 hours up steep rice paddies in the baking sun, surrounded by stunning scenery. Lunch was a rice-wine fueled feast of fried noodles in a local home at the top of the mountain and then it was back down via a cooling dip in the river. That evening Michel arranged suckling pigs on the spit for dinner which we had after a traditional herbal bath and full body massage. Once again I highly recommend where we stayed, Pan Hou Eco-Lodge, Ha Giang Province.
This day was mostly spent travelling. We left Pan Hou after a late start (guess who was happy about that?) and stopped for lunch on the drive back to Hanoi. In the evening we met up with yet more lovely old friends, an Aussie-Vietnamese family. They are wine buffs and we were treated to an apéro in their amazing private wine cellar. Yet more wonderful hospitality from generous friends.
We flew down to Danang and transferred to Hoi An, arriving mid-afternoon at the Golden Lantern Homestay, a delightful family-run guest house worthy of recommendation. We spent the afternoon and evening exploring Hoi An, getting our bearings, taking in the colourful streets, sizing up tailors, eating and drinking of course and shopping at the night market.
A day comprising a more thorough exploration of Hoi An, this time with tickets to the UNESCO World Heritage sites followed by relaxing and swimming on the lovely An Bang beach just outside Hoi An. We also chose a tailor and started the process of having some clothes made. Hoi An deserves its reputation as the gastronomic capital of Vietnam, we ate and snacked on some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had. In the evening we dined with the family at our guest house which was a convivial occasion.
Read more about Hoi An here: Hoi An: the very best of Vietnam?
Another of those dreaded early starts for a trip to the My Son UNESCO World Heritage Cham religious complex 50 kms (ish) from Hoi An. We booked the trip through our guest house and the bus picked us up at the door. The journey took about an hour, followed by a couple of hours visiting the temples with a hysterical guide. Quite a character! We returned to Hoi An by boat stopping off at an island known for boat building and wood carving. In the afternoon we had the first fitting for our new clothes and that evening we feasted at an utterly wonderful restaurant, Morning Glory.
After checking out from the Golden Lantern and another visit to the tailor we checked into a little slice of heaven, for 24 hours of luxury, at the Victoria Beach Resort and Spa. Everywhere we stayed in Vietnam was great, and authentic which is very important to us, however this trip was not just about returning after 20 years but to celebrate some big birthdays and our 20th wedding anniversary too. A little luxury was called for and we found it for 24 hours of pampering and indulgence at the Victoria. Once installed, we didn’t leave, making the most of the facilities: pool, private beach, spa, room service, billiards, bars and restaurants.
After possibly the Best Breakfast Ever and another swim in the South China Sea we made our way to Danang for the 17 hour train journey back to Hanoi. We chose to travel by train for the experience and “fun” not the convenience or cost (it was double the price of flying). It goes without saying the rest of the day was spent on the not-so-express Reunification Express looking out of the window, reading, eating and very little sleeping.
On arrival back in Hanoi we transferred to AA’s flat. AA was away but very generously lent us her home for the rest of our time in Vietnam. We spent the day further exploring Hanoi, checking out old haunts. JF and the Teen had a street shave before catching up for a drink with English friends from the old days who left around the same time as us but were back working in Hanoi again, followed by a barbecue with Franco-Italian friends on West Lake. Such a busy social life, who’d have thought!
On the road again. We took the local bus to Ninh Binh (2 hours from Hanoi) to visit the area known as the terrestrial Ha Long Bay. We stayed in a sideless bamboo bungalow on stilts over the river in an absurdly scenic setting but dammit the sun refused to shine! We visited some nearby caves and pagodas and got bitten to death by the most ferocious mosquitoes ever. Despite this I’d happily recommend the very charming Nguyen Shack.
The morning was spent local-style on motorbikes and bicycles exploring the countryside, cruising through sleepy villages and paddy fields. The boys adored it! After lunch we went back to Hanoi for some souvenir shopping and (yet another) wonderful meal, and our last night in Vietnam.
There were still plenty of places we hadn’t seen in Hanoi so we made a big day of serious sightseeing, visiting the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (outside), Truc Bach and West lake, a quick touristy but fun cyclo ride and Dong Xuan market before a final social engagement at the Metropole Hotel. An old Hanoi friend now based in Paris had just arrived in town for a film festival, so we couldn’t resist a quick catch up before heading out to the airport and flying home.
So there we have it. Sixteen marvellous fun-filled days in North and Central Vietnam. What a blast it was! All recommendations are purely based on loving what we experienced, there’s no commercial interest involved. Please feel free to contact me if you want more information on anything. I will be writing in more detail soon.
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