Updated: Feb 20, 2021
by Adam Snyder
As I said in Part I of this blog about our week in Cambodia, in addition to providing insights about how to live life untethered, we also want to share our travel experiences -- both our hits and misses -- which we hope will help in your own planning. This is the second half of a definite hit -- two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, traveling with our two grown kids (Lili & Kasey) and our daughter’s fiancé, Stewart. This blog is about our week in Vietnam.
The hotels and tourist ideas we mention are at the end of this blog.
Vietnam: Smart Planning & Spontaneity
Planning our week in Vietnam was more complicated than the first week we spent in Cambodia. Lili, who has a stressful job back in the States, didn’t want to run from place to place, while Kasey’s first priority was touring the beautiful countryside by motorcycle. Stewart wanted to go with the flow. Pat’s and my main priority was just having fun with family.
So we decided to hone in on the mid and northern part of Vietnam, with stops in Hoi An, Huế, Hải Phòng, Halong Bay and Hanoi. We used a combination of Airbnb, Expedia and Halong Bay Tours for our accommodations, listed at the end of this blog. Our Airbnb in Hoi An and hotels in the other cities made arrangements for our taxis and motorcycles.
Every day in Vietnam was memorable, beginning with our three nights in the great Airbnb in Hoi An – a two-story, 3 bedroom, 3 bath home for $163 a night. Every room had air conditioning (a must), and we had access to the nearby Christina's Hotel where a bountiful breakfast was included in our Airbnb fee. To get there, we walked through a neighborhood of water buffalo, a large community organic garden, rice paddies and a river.
Our Airbnb and surrounding community in Hoi An
We all fell in love with Hoi An, a UNESCO heritage town. It is beautiful, has great food, and is known for its galleries and expert tailors, a tradition that dates back to its past as a trading port on the Silk Road. Lili and Stewart had clothes made at Yaly Couture, and Kasey, an art collector, bought a painting. Being vagabonds is a great prescription for not buying things, so Pat and I kept our cash in our pockets, but enjoyed watching the others spend money on terrific purchases.
Downtown Hoi An and Kasey contemplating a piece of art
Pat's highlight was the cooking class at the Tra Water Wheel Cooking School and Restaurant. It began with a motorcycle ride to Hoi An’s central market, where her instructor described and purchased the many ingredients they’d be using. Back at the school (next door to our Airbnb), Pat and Aya, a "foodie" from Japan learned how to cook five courses, including a lemongrass, shrimp and noodles dish. Pat even had her "I Love Lucy" moment!
Pat at the Tra Water Wheel Cooking School
While Pat was honing in on Vietnamese cuisine, the rest of us explored the countryside by motorcycle, with Kasey as leader of the pack. Stewart and Kasey travelled to My Son Sanctuary, but they never would have made it there and back if the slowpokes -- Lili and I -- hadn’t decided to turn back. Instead, we spent a wonderful day exploring the farms that dot Hoi An, ending up at the Tranh Ha Terracotta Park. This remarkable "find" is 3 km outside of Hoi An, and which has truly unique terracotta replicas of world wonders like the Taj Mahal.
My Son Sanctuary and Tranh Ha Terracotta Park
The next day we traveled 122 km (75 miles) to a luxurious, although not crazily- priced, resort in Huế, where Lili got her best R and R of the trip. Pat, Lili and I traveled via a comfortable minivan, winding through narrow mountain passes, inches from the cliff’s edge. At every sharp turn, meaning every few seconds, all we could think of was Kasey and Stewart taking the same route by motorcycle, particularly since Stewart’s lifetime experience on a cycle was exactly one day – the day before in Hoi An. But they had a blast, including stopping at the beach for lunch.
Stewart, Lili, Kasey, Pat and me traveling from Hoi An to Huế
Much of the ride was along the Bay of Tonkin. Pat and I grew up protesting the War in Vietnam, and were familiar with the names of the cities and towns, like Da Nang. It was remarkable to see these places at peace. When the war ended, the North and South were united with a single communist government, and its economy has boomed, especially in Hanoi, once the North Vietnamese capital.
On the drive to Huế, Lili, Pat and I got to observe the best of communism in action when we had a wrench literally thrown into the trip. It happened about 10 minutes from the resort, well after we had traveled over the mountain pass when our minivan had a blowout, miraculously in front of a tire repair shop.
A wrench thrown into our trip!
As you can see by the photograph, a wrench was sticking out of the back right tire. One after another, Vietnamese men appeared out of nowhere to help. Soon the bad tire was removed and replaced, but not before we used Google translator to communicate with the crowd who had gathered and were just as curious about us as we were about them.
Huế and Hải Phòng
We then spent a relaxing 48 hours at the Huế Ana Madara resort, and again treated ourselves to massages, something we all tried to get at every turn with the hot and humid weather. The sunrise was beautiful.
After Huế, we flew north to Hải Phòng so we could hook up with our cruise the next day on Halong Bay. In some ways, Hải Phòng was our most interesting stop in Vietnam, because it's virtually untouched by tourism. Although there are remnants of the city's French Colonial history, including our terrific restored hotel, Manoir Des Arts, we met very few English speakers. We had dinner at Nha Hang Nam Giao Restaurant, and sitting on couches with a coffee table between us, we shared unique tapas-like Vietnamese dishes.
Hải Phòng back in the 1950's, our hotel and Lili and Kasey at dinner
The next morning we took a taxi to our boat on Halong Bay. In Vietnamese, Halong means “descending dragon,” which is exactly what its thousands of limestones look like. Pat and I visited Halong Bay in 2010 and tourism has tripled, which unfortunately means a lot more boats trying to find a private place to anchor. Nevertheless, Halong Bay is serene and peaceful, like a scene out of a movie. In fact it was the backdrop for Kong: Skull Island and the James Bond flick, Tomorrow Never Dies.
We reserved our 2-day Peony Cruise through Halong Bay Tours, and the process was seamless (including paying in advance, which we were nervous about but was no problem). Our reservation included accommodations, 4 meals and snacks (some alcohol was extra), a tai chi class, a cooking demonstration, kayaking, hiking to an island cave, swimming, transportation to and from Hanoi (we only went one way) and a free massage also in Hanoi.
Our boat on Halong Bay
At the last minute, our reservation was changed to a more deluxe boat with promises for free upgrades. Lili and Stewart, in fact, were given the private honeymoon suite, and the rest of us were moved to a higher floor with better outside decks. It was a 24-hour indulgence of eating, swimming, hiking, kayaking, laughing and relaxing.
Lili and Stewart's Honeymoon Suite
Our trip in ended in Hanoi. Pat and I had fond memories of our 2010 visit there, and we weren’t disappointed this time either. All five of us we went to the Hanoi Hilton where Senator John McCain had been imprisoned, and our kids visited Ho Chi Mien’s Tomb and the War Museum, which we had seen previously.
Other Hanoi highlights were the iconic Binh Minh Jazz Club, delicious street food (especially bánh mì baguettes) more art purchases, a tattoo and of course, more massages.
It was a rainy day when we went our separate ways, which fit our mood, as we all immediately felt that emotional hole which comes when you’ve had an unforgettable time together. It was a dream traveling to these exotic places and having one-of-a-kind experiences with our grown children.
Recommended accommodations, restaurants and tourist places in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Hoi An: Our Airbnb
Hotels in Vietnam:
Hoi An: Christina's
Huế: Ana Madara Resort
Hải Phòng (Agoda): Manoir Des Arts
Hanoi (Booking) : Marvellous Hotel
Siem Reap: Meric Khchei Khmer Cuisine
Hải Phòng: Nha Hang Nam Giao
Siem Reap: Focus Angkor Guide
Siem Reap: Memoria Spa
Siem Reap: Volunteering at CFC Schools
Hoi An: Yaly Couture
Hoi An: Tranh Ha Terracotta Park
Halong Bay: Halong Bay Tours
Hanoi: Binh Minh Jazz Club