Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Morning, Vietnam!

(The title of this blog is our small tribute to Robin Williams, a comic genius.)

Mary’s parents, Vicki and Gil, planned their trip to visit us in Malaysia almost a year ago. Gil requested two things of this trip. He wanted to 1) go somewhere south of the equator, and 2) ride an elephant. We had originally planned to go back to Bali to kill two birds with one stone... but... as we learned that we were running out of time to explore new places in Southeast Asia, we decided to make alternative plans (AKA - we didn't listen to our parents). Although it is north of the equator and does not have a sizeable ridable elephant population, Gil and Vicki love to experience new foods and cultures so Vietnam seemed like an otherwise ideal country to visit. Inspired by Ethan and Robin’s experiences in Hanoi and Halong Bay, we decided to focus on the northern part of the country for our trip.

Gil and Violet wandering the alleys in Old Quarter
To say that we fell in love with Hanoi is a criminal understatement. Mary (with the help of the awesome team at Custom Vietnam Travel chose a higher-end hotel in the center of the “Old Quarter.” ( Immediately on arrival from our AirAsia flight, we set out to explore the city. We had heard great tales of the street food in Hanoi and we were not disappointed. We stopped at a stall on a small alleyway by our hotel and had delicious Pho Bo and a couple of the famously inexpensive Hanoi beers.

My dad took this picture.
Before leaving KL we'd decided a Hanoi tour the first afternoon of our arrival would provide us some orientation. Trusty TripAdvisor recommended we contact "Hanoi Kids" for a tour. Hanoi Kids is a 300-person strong group of volunteer students from local universities offering FREE walking tours of Hanoi ( The students use the tours as an opportunity to practice their english language skills and tourists receive a lovely tour while chatting about the life of a Hanoi resident. Two university students met us at our hotel the afternoon of our arrival. While the kids (and Vicki) were hot and tired and opted to spend the afternoon drinking hotel cocktails from room service, Brian, Mary, and Gil joined Trang and Hoa -- two university students -- to walk around the Old Quarter and French Quarter. They gave us a nice history of the area and oriented us around Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake ("The Lake of the Returned Sword"). As we chatted we learned about each of their childhoods and studies and got to ask questions that we'd never ask on a normal tour -- "Does everyone in Hanoi own a motor scooter" (It's pretty normal to have one for everyone in the family.) "Is it just tourists that shop in Old Quarter?" (A lot of the shops are for tourists, but then there are places like that one that repair appliance motors. Not many tourists bring along their broken blenders.) "Is it this clean everywhere in Hanoi?" (There is extra street cleaning here for tourists.) "Are the sidewalk badminton courts used?" (YES!) We ended the tour with a "fresh beer" (draught beer) and fried fermented pork (AMAZING, despite the name).

Hanoi Kids tour guides
Because of zoning restrictions, the architecture in the Old Quarter is essentially the same as it was over 50 years ago. There are endless narrow streets and alleyways of 2-3 story buildings with stores below and apartments and balconies above. It is very similar in both appearance and feel to the French Quarter of New Orleans. The main streets in the Old Quarter were originally organized based on trade. For example, Silk Road housed all of the silk traders and fabric dealers. Many of the streets still retain that identity. We spent a lot of time on Silk Street but also walked through “electrical street,” “locksmith street,” “shoe street,” “toilet bowl street” "beer street"(we clearly had some fun coming up with our own names based on what we saw). Thank you to Trang and Hoa! These ladies were so awesome. They accepted no tip or donation for their time and they even emailed us later that evening with the names of must eat street food places around the Old Quarter.

Riding in style in Custom Vietnam Travel's
brand new touring van
The morning after our arrival in Vietnam, we headed out for Ninh Bihn and Halong Bay. As we left town, we were already looking forward to the two days we'd spend in Hanoi on the back end of our visit.

The landscape of northeastern Vietnam is dotted with limestone karst towers. Karsts are what's left behind after rainwater dissolves limestone cliffs. In Vietnam, the karsts are giant, isolated limestone formations. Our first stop outside Halong was in Ninh Binh, often called the inland Halong Bay. We stopped at a small town to take a river tour of the landscape. While a gentle rain fell, two women paddled our boats through isolated rices fields and agricultural lands. We saw villagers fishing and crabbing and we even paddled through some caves! Pretty cool. After a delicious lunch, we started out on bicycles. Tyler learned to bike just one week before this trip and we were all super proud that he kept up even with the rain and the gravel road (although there were a few moments when he almost went unintentionally off-roading through the rice paddies). We decided to skip hiking up the cliff and instead checked in at the Emeralda Resort (, which turned out to be as beautiful as it looks online. 

We're on a boat named "Dang"
Enjoying the giant karaoke room at the Emeralda. 
We were up early for the 4 hour drive to Halong Bay. Halong Bay was the real reason for this trip. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is the landscape of dreams. ( We opted for the three day - two night cruise which is a day longer than most tours and takes visitors out to the isolated areas in the far east of Halong Bay. We sailed on the Dragon Pearl II by IndoChina Junk, a boat which carries up to 20 guests. The beauty of the landscape is difficult to put into words, so we're going to put in a bunch of pictures! Our only disappointment in Halong was the tremendous amount of trash in the water near the major tourist routes. On our first kayak trip, we picked up plastic bag after plastic bag. What would otherwise be beautiful beaches were spoiled by the rubbish. Our second day took us far east. The sea and beaches here were free of trash and our 1-hour kayak trip was stunning! 

Our ship towed the kayaks along as we sailed.

Oh, the food! IndoChina Junk is known for amazing food, especially seafood. Each meal brought us course after course of deliciousness. Violet is now a big fan of prawn (Tyler confirmed that he, indeed, likes only white rice, meaning Brian and Gil got extra helpings from his rations). The rain confined us to eating indoors most of the trip, but our favorite meal was our first lunch after setting sail when we sat at a table on the bow's upper deck and watched the limestone formations go by. For our last dinner, we ate BBQ in a cave (it was awesome except for the smoke - they actually did the cooking in the cave as well)!!! For friends heading to Vietnam, we recommend you check out IndoChina Junk.

Tyler helped cruise the ship!

Super cool in-cave dining!

After our Halong Bay time, we were excited to return to Hanoi. We spent two days wandering around the Old Quarter and we could have easily spent 2 or 3 more. For Brian, music was the highlight of Hanoi part 2. We went to a traditional Ca Tru performance in a beautiful old house in the Old Quarter and Brian got to go onstage to try out one of the Vietnamese lutes used in the performance. It was a surreal experience since the show was in the covered courtyard of the house and an intense rain storm began about halfway through the show. With the rain pounding on the tarp covering, it was at times impossible to hear the singing. We were also nearly flooded out by the torrential downpour. At one point one of the audience members had to reach his hand into the courtyard's drain and pull out a handful of weeds to prevent the entire show from going underwater! 


The performance cemented Brian's desire to buy a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument so the next day Gil and Brian went on a mission to find actual non-souvenir grade lutes. They came home with not one but two - a Dan Nguyet and a Dan Ty Ba. They are amazingly beautiful with mother-of-pearl inlay and sound great. Later that evening we went to a water puppet show and the band featured a Dan Nguyet as one of the main instruments. During the show Brian fell in love with a Dan Bau, a single-stringed instrument that is played by creating harmonics and then bending the string to get all of the notes of the scale. With his trusty instrument hunter Gil, they ran out of the show back to the music store and got one of those as well! You can probably tell that we are in full-on binge shopping mode before we head back to the U.S. Mary splurged on a couple (ok, three) paintings, and even Violet got into the act and got herself a traditional tea set. 

Strangest shopping experience. To enter "The Big C" (Tesco/Walmat-like store),
we had to have our purses shrouded and sealed in plastic.
A dike wall covered in beautiful mosaic mural runs 4 km through Hanoi
Water puppet theater

Mary also spent the days hunting down the best pho soup -- we had to get her this shirt...

We are so glad that we were able to get to Vietnam before heading home and we feel blessed that we were able to share our last trip in Southeast Asia with Gil and Vicki.  

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