Some people say that I’ve been traveling with my kids for so long that I don’t know how truly exhausting it is traveling with them compared to traveling without them. Fair point. While I do actually enjoy traveling with my children, when I was presented with the opportunity to accompany my husband on his business trip to Vietnam while my children stayed home with my in-laws, I jumped at the chance! Now, my lovely husband has always made time over the last few years to watch our kids so that I could enjoy a short “girls trip” every now and then, but they were usually to places I was already quite familiar with. So this was going to be an adventure!
Part of the mission for the trip was to see if Vietnam was some place we felt we could bring the kids back to and at what age would likely be best. While I was leaving Seattle on a Sunday morning, I wasn’t going to get into Hanoi until 10:00 p.m. local time on Monday night. Which was going to give me 4 full days in Vietnam, before departing to go back home at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night. While this might seem too short of a trip to travel so far, flying to Asia from the U.S. has minimum jet lag if you can get a flight that leaves your home in the morning and arrives in Asia at night. When we fly to Europe, it’s at least 2 days before we time zone adjust. But in Asia, we land at their night time after being up all day and during most of the 10+ hour flights and are ready to go to bed when we arrive. Then the next morning we wake up with everyone else and are ready to start the day!
On day 1 of my 4 full days that I would be in Vietnam, I got to have breakfast with my husband and only had to dish up a single plate, for myself. I leisurely looked around at recommendations for sights to see without someone asking me “can we going yet?” And later, after my husband’s morning meetings, he and I walked at our pleasure and pace through Hanoi without worrying about a kid getting hit by one of the millions of motorcycles whizzing through the streets and sidewalks. After visiting the famous island shrine in Hoan Kiem Lake, and doing some shopping, we capped off day one with a nice dinner at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant with his co-workers and no one refused to eat their food!
On my 2nd day, I had booked a tour to Hoa Lu (an ancient former Capital of Vietnam) and Tam Coc. Since my husband had warned me that the conference center was a great deal outside of the heart of Hanoi and all the popular sights, I had just planned to spend one day in the city. On my first morning in Hanoi, while I had been waiting for my husband to get done with his morning meetings, I took to the travel desk at the hotel. I held my breath and prayed that the tours wouldn’t be too outrageously priced given that I was booking at the hotel. My first inquiry was about Ha Long Bay, based on basically everyone’s recommendation that I should go there. The reasonably priced 2 day, 1 night cruise I wanted was book for the Wednesday/Thursday date but was available for Thursday/Friday. Lucky for me, that option got my back to Hanoi at 4:00 p.m. and our plane didn’t leave until 11:00 p.m. So I booked it. That left me with Wednesday still open. I had seen this rather nice picture of people floating along this river stream that looked like there was rice or plants growing on either side of the passageway, heading towards some beautiful mountains. I asked about it and made arrangements to take a day trip to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc for Wednesday, the next morning.
Waking up that Wednesday morning was a little harder than expected but I made it downstairs to the lobby with plenty of time to spare before the tour bus picked me up from my hotel. I knew I was their last stop so I was surprised to find only 3 other people inside. All were older than I and from Australia, though not all traveling together. The bus was air conditioned, which was nice given the 86 degrees outside and 70% humidity, however the seats benches were not spaced well and my knees would scrunch up against the seat in front of me. But I made the most of our 2 and a half hour drive by snapping pictures out the window and taking in the countryside and other smaller towns we passed through on the way to Hoa Lu. We made a stop at a warehouse midway to Hoa Lu so we could use the bathroom, and then they hoped we would shop for the remaining 30 minutes of our bus break. It was convenient to have all of the different traditional items in one spot, but the prices were 2 to 3 times higher than what I had just seen in Hanoi city center the day before. I bought nothing but dropped a few dollars into the donation bin for the orphanage.
Once we got to Hoa Lu, as we got off the bus we were of course immediately swarmed by people wanting to sell you bottled water or a hat. We acrossed the street to the sight we had come to see and from there were left in peace to enjoy the two temples that now sit on the sight that was once a great fortress. They were interesting enough temples to look at in honor of past Emperors of Vietnam, but nothing too spectacular. I did enjoy hearing more about the history of Vietnam from our guide. It was hard to believe that the sight had once been a great fortress and capital city. There were no signs of ruins but we were told that all of the stones transferred to Hanoi for the new fortress.
After about an hour at the temple sights, we got back into the bus and drove to Tam Coc where we were slated for a bike ride through the village and countryside followed by lunch and then a river boat tour. We arrived in what looked like a storybook Vietnamese village with a man made harbor. Small mountains sprung up along the outline of the town with a river that flowed around the edge. We took a nice bike ride outside the village to an area that had some caves. Several people who seemed to be on a longer tour ventured into the caves, but we were told we only have a few minutes so I didn’t risk going in. Along the way on our bike ride, we noticed men or women taking pictures of us. One very boldly insisted that we stop and that three of us ladies pose for a picture. As it turns out, they follow you out to take pictures on your way to your sight, then they hurry back to the village to get them printed before you return for lunch so that they can sell them to you. However, unlike cruise ship photos, these didn’t cost you your first born son, I got 5 photos for $1.
Once back in the village we had a lunch buffet that was included in the price of my tour. My whole day was only costing me $75. After lunch, we split in groups of 2 and boarded our 3 person (counting the “driver”) little “bamboo” boats that are nowadays made of metal. I watched in amazement how the drivers rowed the two oars with their feet as they began to steer us down the river, through a trail of water with river grass floating along side us. Once again people followed us, this time in their own boats, to take pictures on our journey to the end of the river. As we moved along the water, I loved seeing some of the different houses perched up along the bank. Before we got too far away from the village, you could see children coming down to play and cool off in the water. The river cut beneath several little mountains so we traversed through 3 or 4 cave tunnels in all. Finally, we came to the end of the road. A small inlet just on the other side of one of the cave tunnels. There we would turn around and go back along the same route, BUT, not without first being greeted by several women in boats stocked with snacks and beverages, all beckoning us to buy something for either ourselves, or our boat driver. Here’s the great dilemma right? Do you buy or don’t you buy? How much of this money will they actually get to keep? Do you re-enforce this annoying practice of bombarding tourist for a buck? Or do I accept that this is someone’s livelihood and at the end of the day, is still only setting me back 1/4 of the cost of a Starbucks coffee back home. Plus, how do you refuse the suggestion that I buy something to drink or eat for my female boat driver who is “working very hard.” I bought her a bag of chips of her choosing and a cold green tea, all of which cost me around $1.50. The reality is, everything I was going to do in Vietnam for 4 days was still going to cost less than taking the whole family to Disneyland for a single day! So if I was going to get something that was already 50-75% less than what I would pay for it in the US, why not?
As we sailed back, I took just as many pictures as on the way in. I must have snapped 200 pictures on the river alone. It was quite beautiful and at the same time, humbling. When I saw all the children in front of their shack of a home, jumping in the water, splashing and playing and smiling, I immediately wished that my children were there with me. I wished that they were experiencing the beauty of the natural scenery that surrounded me and I wished that they could see these children, these fiscally poor youth, having the time of their life playing by the river as if they didn’t have a care in the world. It’s those moments that I want to show my children through travel. Life is life, and ever so precious and that there is joy to be found in it no matter how much money you have or don’t have. I definitely want them to come back with me.
The river boat journey was the last activity of the day. We boarded the bus, after I purchased a few of my river photos, and headed back to Hanoi. We made a similar warehouse stop, to a different one of course, on the way back but the 2nd leg of the journey did not sit well with my stomach. I was not sure if it was the food or the fact that I had just spent 5 hours out in the sun and then an hour staring out a bus window with the scenery flying by that made me dizzy and sick to my stomach. I soon couldn’t tolerate to look at anything, let alone out the window. I spent the last hour of the drive with my knees pulled up to my chest and my head between my legs trying with every fiber of my being not to puke on the bus! It felt like forever before we got back to the hotel and after rushing a thank you and some tips to our guide and driver, I ran to my hotel room and immediately got sick.
Thankfully, the emptying of my stomach helped and I started to recover quickly. Good thing because that night we were dining again with my husband’s colleagues and we were trying out a French style restaurant at the hotel. I made it through a glorious meal full of adult conversations with no unwelcomed interruptions and then eagerly collapsed into bed. The next morning was going to be an early one, I was going to take another bus out to Ha Long Bay for a 2 day, 1 night cruise to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World! All by myself! Stay tuned as that amazing trip deserves a post all of its own!