With Singapore’s air quality crisis spilling into its fourth month, when fall break came around it was time to get out of town for as long as possible. Vietnam, a favorite among Singapore expats, is only a 2-3 hour flight away. We were all a little fed up with Singapore and were looking forward to some fresh air, in more ways than one.
We started our vacation in Hanoi at the JW Marriott (yay hotel points!) with our friends Mike and Gia and their daughter, Marissa. The Marriott is enormous, new, and a testament to the rapidly-growing Vietnamese economy. We celebrated Mia’s 13th birthday on the first night at the beautiful hotel restaurant. In the morning we toured downtown with Wan, our guide. We saw the Temple of Literature, where students go to pray for good grades and good fortunes, we saw a wet market (which was REALLY wet, and not in a hygienic way), and a harrowing trip down train tracks where people literally live a foot away from the passing trains.
The most remarkable thing about downtown Hanoi is the traffic. Motor scooters are the preferred mode of transportation, with millions of them jammed bumper to bumper, loaded with 4-5 family members, and transporting all means of goods from mattresses to crates of pigs. If that weren’t chaotic enough, most traffic signals, lane dividers, and crosswalks appear to be mere suggestions. We witnessed two accidents in two days — once a scooter driver slammed into the side of our van! Fortunately, the scooter driver was shaken up, but not seriously hurt.
Despite all this, we all went on a street food tour on the back of motor scooters. Yes, it was a bit crazy, but it was a highlight of the trip. Riding down back alleys and stopping at out-of-the-way restaurants – many of which were no more than a burner in a large tin can on the sidewalk – we got to see the real Hanoi beyond the tour van. Even Andie, our harshest travel critic, enjoyed it. She didn’t eat much of anything but thought the trip was really fun. And incredibly, no one got food poisoning.
After Hanoi, both families traveled to Halong Bay for a two-night trip on board a Chinese junk-style boat. Halong Bay has over 2,000 islands rising dramatically out of the water, with hidden limestone caves, fantastic kayaking, and gorgeous sunsets. On board the kids enjoyed cooking demonstrations, trying their hand at rice paper rolls and fruit and vegetable carving.
After the cruise, we said goodbye to our friends and flew to the south to spend four nights at the Hyatt hotel in Danang (for free – all of Marc’s travel has perks for us!). Finally, a nice beach in Southeast Asia! So many are, tragically, choked with trash, vendors, and seaweed that finding a beautiful white-sand, clean-water beach was a real treat. Plus the hammocks, water slide, and amazing pool at the Hyatt also helped.
From Danang, we day-tripped to Hoi An, a jewel of a town. The pedestrian-only section was great for a stroll among local artisan shops and restaurants, and at night traditional lanterns lit the entire town. Once out of the large pedestrian section it was typical Asian-style motor scooter chaos, but Hoi An was a scenic, relaxing contrast from Hanoi. We bought items in many stores run by non-profits, some art, and Marc indulged in Vietnam’s fastest-growing service for tourists: tailoring. For the price of one suit in the US, Marc got five shirts, two jackets, and three pairs of pants. Custom made. Andie got her Halloween costume made too – it was much cheaper than buying one in Singapore!
Oh, about that whole Vietnam war thing. It was a little strange at first being an American in Vietnam. The Vietnam war is a searing moment in American history, but the “American War,” as it is known here, seems to be but one of a series of conflicts with Vietnam invaders that include the Chinese, Khmer (Cambodian), Japanese, French, and Americans. Americans are actually quite welcome here, and most prices are listed in both Vietnamese Dong and US Dollar. In Vietnam, the war seems a very long time ago indeed.
For visitors and expats, Vietnam is what many places in Southeast Asia used to be – relatively inexpensive, not totally overrun by tourists, yet. But that is rapidly changing, hence the ginormous Marriott and the hundreds of tour boats in Halong Bay. As a family, Marc and I could finally see the girls relaxing and enjoying travel to a less-developed country for the first time. And we all loved the blue skies and cleaner air.
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