Posted by: mariabro | September 19, 2011

17 days, 2 kids, Vietnam and Cambodia

The fragrant smell of cilantro, lemon basil and mint. The bright red chilies and purplish hue of the aubergine in the markets.  The taste of fresh prawns sautéed in garlic and fish sauce.  Vietnam is a delight for the senses.  The essences, tastes and sights are still very vivid in my memory.

Our 17-day journey was a combination of exploration, adventure and relaxation.  From overnight trips on the Victoria “Orient Express” train to misty cruises on teak junks in Halong Bay, to adventures in Angkor Wat, it was a well-planned mix of sightseeing, shopping, beaches and temples.  And food.  Wonderful food. Vietnam is a gourmet paradise well known for its fabulous, exotic cuisine that differs throughout various regions of the country.

We tried to be sure to find a balance between fun things for the kids and for the grown-ups.  For example, when we toured the temples in Angkor Wat we came back to the hotel at lunch, let the boys go for a swim and have lunch to break up a long day of touring temples.

The adventure began in Hanoi.  I’ve heard a lot about the city but the one thing I hadn’t heard about was the traffic.  It is chaotic.   The endless stream of speeding motorcycles and careening cars, honking incessantly, can be overwhelming at first but you do get used to it.

We began our tour of Hanoi at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum or as the boys referred to it as “the dead body place”.  Our guide was quite insistent about teaching the kids the history and culture of Vietnam, even quizzing them afterwards on what he taught them.

We chose to visit the Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous Hanoi Hilton.  One of the most memorable things for me was seeing John McCain’s flight suit and a photo of him being rescued after being shot down.  History made tangible.

Next we moved on to a delicious 8-course lunch at an old colonial French restaurant.  The meal included Hanoi spring rolls, fragrant beef salad with herbs, roast duck with mandarin, soft shell crab, stir fried prawns and rice.

After lunch (and a few glasses of wine thankfully) we went on a “cyclo” tour. A Cyclo is one of the most typical vehicles in Hanoi, a tricycle with a seat at the front for passengers and the driver seated behind.

We ended the day at the Water Puppet Theatre.  I highly recommend this for families. It is charming, entertaining and unlike any theatre I have seen.

After a few days in Hanoi we headed for Sapa on the overnight train.  Sapa is about 400km north of Hanoi in the mountains so it was almost 20 degrees colder than it was in Hanoi.  Take a sweater, even in the summer and bring good walking shoes and a rain jacket.

The Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa runs its own luxury sleeper cabins on the train.  There are less luxurious cars available at a fraction of the price but this was worth doing at least one way.  Sleeping on the train was a great adventure for the boys.  Plan to have dinner in the dining car, which is renowned for its cuisine.  The Victoria Sapa Resort is great for kids.  They have a large indoor pool, kids club, billiards in the lobby, tennis and babysitting available at $4/hr.

We spent two days in Sapa.  We took a half-day tour of the valley and walked between several of the local villages around emerald green rice paddy fields.  We met members of several ethnic minority tribes including the black Hmong and Red Dao. The peddlers can be quite persistent but they actually have some lovely, very inexpensive local crafts which you will not regret purchasing.

The next stage of our adventure was a trip to Halong Bay.  It is a 4-hour, slightly hair-raising drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Remember to bring some treats, wipes and motion sick bags for the kids.

But as we reached Halong Bay and the famous limestone islands came into view, I knew the drive was worth it. Halong Bay, with its outcropping of 2000 islands, is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

There are many cruise options available but we selected the overnight cruise on the Red Dragon.  It was an exquisite, antique junk with only five cabins.  It books up quickly so reserve early.  We also requested two cabins, further from the engine room to reduce the noise.

We enjoyed spelunking in the Thien Canh Son cave, kayaking and swimming in the crystal water.

Waking up in Halong Bay amid the rock formations surrounded by mist was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  We enjoyed a coffee on deck before heading to Vung Vien fishing village on a rustic rowboat with a toothless, friendly guide.

From here we moved on to historic Hue.  We took a riverboat cruise on the Perfume River, visited the Thein Mu Pagoda and took pictures of our boys with young, novice monks.  Then we toured the Citadel, the King’s Tomb and the summer palace.  It was just enough culture for the boys.  However, if you are short on time I think you could skip Hue.

From Hue we took a scenic 3-hour drive to the beach town of Hoi An.  We stayed at the beautiful Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort.  Hoi An was our stop for rest and relaxation after being on the move for the last week.  We stayed four nights in Hoi An and could have stayed longer. The resort was very kid-friendly with a large pool, a kids club, tennis courts outside our door, a spa and a games room.

One of the highlights for me was the Vietnamese cooking class.  My younger son and I were taken to the market in the morning to select fresh ingredients for our menu of Banana Flowers salad with prawn, and sautéed eggplant in a clay pot. Then we went to a spectacular outdoor, riverside restaurant and were given a private cooking class by the chef.  Afterwards, we sat at a table on the deck beside the river and enjoyed the fruits of our labor.

Hoi An is a quaint little town, with many restaurants and boutiques.  There are many tailors and shoe stores where you can have clothing or shoes made in a day or two.  Bring a picture of what you want made and choose your fabric.  Take a stroll along the river, illuminated by silk lanterns hanging along the path.  Go for dinner at Cargo and sit on the patio.

After our R&R stop in Hoi An we flew to Siem Reap for more culture. Angkor  Wat is one of the most magnificent wonders of the world and a site of immense archaeological significance according to many travel guides.  We arranged a two-day tour with van, driver and English-speaking guide ($165USD).

The highlight for us was a visit to the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia.  We cruised on a small wooden boat along a narrow straight and passed slowly through the floating village of Chong Kneas.  While the area can be touristy with many boats cruising up and down the river to the lake, I still felt a real sense of community between the villagers. Though life seemed harsh it also appeared congenial and community oriented.

We saw and did a lot in 17 days.  But it seemed to be a great combination of both adventure and relaxation.  The boys learned a great deal, from hearing stories from our Cambodian guide of his life – to seeing the great sense of community at the floating village in Tone Le Sap Lake.

published in Tokyo Families Magazine

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