Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Travelogue: Ha Long Bay and a little of Hanoi

We've moved to Ho Chi Minh City, but between getting boys settled, trying to unpack our last boxes (always the hardest: office and art supplies and papers), and figuring out what exactly our jobs are, I've had no time to write.  Stay tuned for something about the city we live in eventually. For now, I want to document a bit of the travelogue before I forget.

We took advantage of the Columbus Day weekend to visit Ha Long Bay. Greg had taken some trips for work, and we had all taken one day trip to the Mekong Delta, but mostly it was the first time the boys and I had been out of the city since our arrival.  I admit, it was great to hear them ask, "when do we go home?" with "home" meaning HCMC.  A sign of settling into the new place.

But back to the travelogue.

We opted for a three day, two night trip, at the recommendation of friends.  It was a wise decision!   Ha Long Bay is beautiful, but it does take a long time to travel to from Hanoi: 4-5 hours in the car, depending on traffic.  You can fly into Hai Phong and then the trip is shorter, I think, but since Greg and I each had work in Hanoi on either end, that wasn't a good option for us.

Because travel with three kids is a little grueling, we broke up the trip with a night in Hanoi's old quarter on either end.  Again, a good decision!  Except, taking a 7pm flight out of SGN was a poor decision.  Domestic flights are often delayed, apparently, so we didn't actually take off until 8:30, which means we didn't land in HAN until 11pm.  Ian fell asleep on the luggage cart while going to the car to the hotel. 

A single friend at work had some time on her hands and kindly offered to research hotels in Hanoi's old quarter that are family friendly.  Apparently she enjoys travel research, even for other people!  At her recommendation, we ended up at the Essence d'Orient, which was fantastic.  Rare to find a mid-level budget hotel with connecting rooms (we booked in advance for about $50/night/room, inclusive of full breakfast buffet.  Airport transfer for minivan at $22/one way extra very reasonable.  In about an hour, I'm going to try the hotel spa :)  ).  Rooms were clean, bathrooms had modern fixtures, and staff super friendly.  Plus a laptop in each room, so I can actually write this blog post right now!!  If this friend has more time for research for future trips, I'm going to have to set her to work :)

For our cruise, I went through the Kangaroo Café.  I read a number of blogs and opted to go with the "flashpacker" category (ie, a step above backpacker, but not quite mid-level).  For our price point ($169/person for full trip) we got almost exactly what was promised, so no complaints.  While the boat the café runs was unavailable (I had picked that boat because it had one cabin with three beds, the only such boat I found like that), the substitute boat was ok (two rooms very close to each other).  The other small hiccup was that the bicycle tour of Cat Ba National Park didn't happen because the bike rental place didn't have any kid size bikes (though the café operator said they did).  It was unclear to us if they didn't have any kid-size bikes ever, or if they were already rented, or if they were saving them for the expensive cruise ship that was coming in behind our tiny boat.  But, whatever the reason, when Wm started fighting back tears (poor kid had been looking forward to the bike ride since we started talking about this trip), our tour guide thought quickly and opted to substitute a trip to the beach at Monkey Island instead, for more swimming.

That meant we had three swimming stops on the trip: Titop Island (many boats stop there and it might actually be the only place in Ha Long Bay proper where you can swim); a secluded beach on a small island (highlight of the trip!  Technically it was in the Hai Phong area.  Imagine swimming with the tiny limestone islands all around you and just your family, a small beach (sadly had trash washed up), and jumping off a boat into the emerald green sea.  Pretty amazing); and Monkey Island (so named because of the macaque monkeys along the beach.  Other benefit is this island was closer to the ocean proper, so boys also enjoyed waves).  Frequent swimming turned out to be key for happiness of boys.  

Food was tasty for us -- lots of fresh seafood! -- but fairly miserable for the boys.  Thus, non-seafood eaters should probably scope out the food options ahead of time.  If we go again, we need to bring snacks and peanut butter. 

The second night was at a hotel on Cat Ba Island.  Because we were traveling between the two tourist seasons (domestic season is June-August and international is November-January), the hotel was deserted.  In a 100+ room hotel, only 12 people were at breakfast.  Greg and I found this very spooky!  Were we to go again, we would have paid to upgrade to the Nam Cat Island Resort, which had individual huts over the water.  Apparently only backpakers stay there right now, but our tour guide said that as they just got a powerline and from a few months ago are now able to have air conditioning in the rooms at night, we expect it will soon become more popular with the "flashpackers" and mid-level clients.  Caveat: boys were happy at the creepy hotel because the restaurant options nearby meant they could have pasta and pizza.

Coming home the last day was long for traveling with kids: 2 hours on a boat and 4.5 hours in a car.  Adults enjoyed the scenery, but with no active time for the boys, they were CRAZY in the van.  Absolutely nuts.  Even the return of ipads (which had been hidden away during the majority of the trip) couldn't distract them.  Hence, again, good decision to spend one more night back in Hanoi before the plane ride home the next morning. 

Before I write about Hanoi, documenting for the blog some boats that looked nice in the harbor.  Again, for our budget for this trip, the Kangaroo Café was great.  I liked that our boat was small (max 16 people) and had a lot of outdoor covered space.  The decks get really hot in the direct sun, so having shade on the top deck is key, in my opinion!  I also liked the fresh sea air, so personally I would shun away from ships with aircon-only spaces, but I know others might prefer more climate control.

These ships looked a bit nicer (I'd estimate about $250+/person): Syrena, Bahya, Heritage Line, Emeraude, Pelican Line

These ships we know are luxury ($400/person): Au Co, Indochina Junk

In Hanoi, with our limited time, we walked around by the hotel and by Hoan Kiem Lake.  Two out of three boys enjoyed the water puppet show (tickets $5/person, so not a waste).  They were quite tired in the evenings, so an electric car ride (while horrible for Greg who prefers to walk everywhere), was great compromise (in my opinion) - I got to see the sights while Ian slept and Patch fell asleep!  ($10 for 30 minutes).  The road around the lake is closed to traffic on the weekends, which gave Wm, especially, some space to blow off energy while Ian napped in my lap.

We had grand plans for dinner, but tired boys meant a few sticks of grilled pork + bread, followed by smoothies, was sufficient.  The frozen coconut coffee smoothie at Cong Café lived up to the hype!

The second late afternoon and evening we walked half way around the lake.  We thought there was a playground by a statue of a king, but turns out it is only a square where kids skate and use scooters.  Except we have none of those with us, too bad!  So, we headed to 4Ps Pizza for dinner - a local chain, which started in HCMC.  Tasty, as always!  Again, Greg and I would have preferred to try something local to Hanoi, but with so much new after 5 days of travel, the boys appreciated something they knew already.  Ice cream at Kem Trang Tien (a Hanoi spot since 1958) added a little of a local component.

With totally tired boys, we paid a cyclo driver (bicycle rickshaw) an exorbitant price to take us back from the south side of the lake to our hotel.  Not something we would EVER do without kids, but those little legs couldn't walk anymore ... and they enjoyed the novelty of it.  I'm surprised Greg survived the trip - the things parents do for their children, ha ha ha. 

So, that about sums up three days/two nights for the Ha Long Bay trip and two not-even-half days in Hanoi.  

Things we need to remember when traveling with kids: bring playing cards and Spot It; bring markers/paper; bring a small bag of playdough and newspaper to play on; research where playgrounds are; pack a tennis ball or two for tossing around; pack more extra clothes for sweaty boys (or stay at a place to order room service in pjs).