5 Must-Dos in Three Days
After our whirlwind exploration of breathtaking Halong Bay, we returned to absorb the culture in the gritty city of Hanoi. There is no easy way to get from A to B. The Vietnamese countryside is crazy back and forth, back and forth. We also shared a van with a few other random travelers with no air conditioning and a manual stick drive.
As you can imagine, it took a lot for us to stomach the 4 hour ride back to Hanoi. But we made it. There are other more efficient (albeit more expensive) ways to reach Hanoi from Halong Bay, but we are notorious for making a dollar stretch as far as possible and still mostly travel like backpacking college kids. The situations can be tough with little ones sometimes, but we keep our cool and make it work.
"It's all part of the adventure!"
Speaking of making the dollar stretch as far as possible, we generally stay at AirBnBs or similar type properties we find on Booking. We discovered The Golden Sun Suites Hotel on Trip Advisor and it also included breakfast. Such a gem in the heart of the city.
Your morning will also melt into magic when you can walk out of your door and buy fruit off the back of a bike or head down the street for a delicious food cart...why would you want to stay at a boring resort?
By the way, these people aren’t homeless. Every alleyway has pop-up food stalls and stools/benches beside them, so patrons can have a place to sit and enjoy their meal. The next two photos are streets. Perfectly normal humans- sitting, chatting, eating away. That would not be possible if they reopened.
"Genius, if you ask me!"
~A Few Things To Do In Hanoi~
1.) Engage With The Locals!
Whether it is waiting on food to cook or stopping by a souvenir stall, strike up a conversation as best as you can. You will be fascinated walking away. This lady adored the boys, and even though we aren't huge on collecting souvenirs, we each bought a hat from her.
(see end picture)
The pictures below depict a very valuable lesson to teach your children at a young age - treating everyone with respect, even if you cannot understand them. Don't shy away or whisper talk about them. Respect them, their culture, and language. Even try saying something to them. This has happened in a few foreign cities. But I watched from a safe distance and let Jack mingle with the local kids. In this example- they were playing a game, and he wanted to join in. It took about 2.5 seconds for all the kids to realize they didn't speak the same language. But that didn't stop them from figuring out how to communicate and play together. It's a heart-warming thing to witness.
2.) Hoàn Kiếm Lake-
Travel days are always exhausting, and the previous day had us zonked. After our super calculated trip in Halong Bay, we were craving some relaxation. No tours. No deadlines. Much needed free time to explore at our own pace. We meandered a few blocks over to this gorgeous lake near our hotel. The little fella could toddle around, and the big fella could burn his ball of energy. Perfect! There is also a temple on a small island reached via a wooden bridge & a tower on another island. Visible behind the little guy.
Find this lake, though, especially if you have kids with you! There is a plethora of simple things to keep them busy. No playgrounds, but they can run, watch birds, pick flowers, play hide and seek, climb benches, etc. The walking path is massive, wide, and outlines the entire lake. I say this because in our western mindset, it's easy to get trapped in thinking our kids need a specific "thing" to entertain them. They don't. They need space. Lots of space.
3.) Water Puppet Show at Thang Long Theatre-
One thing I recommend you pay to do in Hanoi is the water puppet show. It's a cultural must if you want to experience a local thing! This tradition has been going on for over 1,000 years. Be aware that some kids might not do well with it, though. I had to take the little fella out towards the end, because he got scared. I recommend going, but be mentally prepared for it. The flashing lights, live music, and foreign language can be a bit much for a little one. The big fella was fully entranced though. I think it's the age, but also depends on the child as well.
4.) Vietnamese Coffee-
Even if you are not a big coffee drinker, I will still tell you to put it high on the list. You will not find coffee quite like this anywhere else in the world. It's strong, sweet, and delicious! I'm typically not big about having sweetener in my coffee, but this...this is different. The mixture of flavors is indescribable. I mean, the concoction includes sweetened condensed milk!
In case you return home with a hankering for the good stuff, here is a recipe I highly recommend from MokaBees!
5.) Visit a Temple-
If you are in Asia, there will be a temple. Lots of temples. Everywhere you turn, there will be a temple. The ones in the city center are smaller but still loaded with culture. Great lesson for the kids and easy sight-seeing stop for the adults.
#1 Tip: Bring a shawl or scarf. As is typical upon entering temples, you must cover your shoulders. Some are stricter and require full-length coverage, even for guys. Josh and I both had to purchase flowy pants and borrow a robe to gain access to the Golden Buddha Temple in Bangkok. Be prepared to fork over the funds for entrance into the temples if you aren't carrying adequate accessories for coverage.
#2 Tip: Keep your head up always. If it is your first time visiting southeast Asia, a major heads up would be to keep your head up and be aware at all times. The most affordable (and therefore widely used) mode of transportation is the motor bike. Not a motorcycle...don't call it that. Ha! It's a motorbike through and through. These things will whiz around a corner and take you out if you are not careful.
Hanoi is an incredible city!
I hope you can fit it into your travels one day. I'm definitely glad we took a few days to absorb a bit of city life in Vietnam instead of passing through only to explore Halong Bay. The culture, food, and historical ruins all A+. Hanoi is a great city to ease into southeast Asia if you've never visited. It's not overwhelmingly massive, yet not too far from the countryside either. Great location and enough to keep you busy for a few days.
Be sure to read about our glorious time in Halong Bay just days before this. It is packed with information on what to do and the best time to visit as a tourist!
I’ll close with these thoughts...
1.) As American passport holders, Josh and I were both warned of traveling to Vietnam for pleasure. These fears solely stemmed from the Vietnam war, which fueled all through the 1960s and came to a halt entering the 70s. Historically, this wasn’t very long ago. Many men lost their lives and tensions ran high for years following the war. In our experience, we were never threatened and didn’t have any negative reactions when people asked where we were from. Actually, a lot of folks were intrigued and were full of curiosity about the US.
2.) We also experienced the same warnings about traveling with our sons. Foreigners, in general, are an anomaly in most of Asia, especially when traveling through rural areas. Most residents have never seen blonde-headed/blue- eyed human beings. Oh cool...wrong! It makes you feel somewhere between an alien and a celebrity. It’s VERY common for people to stare, take pictures, and touch your children (on the head or cheeks). Although, I had a few friends warn me of taking my fair-skinned, little blondie/redheaded babies to Vietnam due to the high risk of kidnapping. One lady even told me they would fetch a high price tag for child trafficking. Say what?!? Why would you tell someone that?? Of course, I was on guard the entire time but not once did we ever feel threatened. I've felt uneasy in other countries before but felt okay here. There are certainly countries I wouldn’t step foot in for obvious reasons and I’m not naive to bad people being in the world, but I’m also not going to stay in my regional bubble for the rest of my life. There is a great, big ol world out there, and I want my children to experience the beauty of different cultures and landscapes. Wherever you travel (even in the US), you have to be vigilant and keep an eye on your kids.
In the end, I am incredibly thankful we didn’t listen to the nay-sayers. We would’ve missed out on many incredible experiences. We also met other fellow Americans while in Hanoi and Halong Bay. One family was from California and traversing several cities in Vietnam with their three young kids in tow. All little blondies and the youngest around Evan’s age. My momma advice– don’t be naive, but also don’t live in fear. YOU know best! Listen to your instincts, and you will be just fine.
Have you been to Hanoi? Is it on your future list?
Looking for future travel tips?
With children? On a budget?
Join me below!
One of our most favorite and involved trips from Singapore was to Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam.
First, we flew 3 hours to Hanoi, spent one night there, then 4 hours on a bumpy shuttle bus through winding roads of Vietnamese terrain to spend two nights aboard this beauty (the Paloma) exploring a little further into Bai Tu Long Bay in the South China Sea. It was a lot... especially with one and two year olds, but it was worth it. Always is.
Based on our experience, I have compiled a few things you can (and should) do if you visit one of the bay areas and the best times to plan for a comfortable atmosphere.
WHEN TO VISIT
The best time to visit either Bai Tu Long or Ha Long Bay is from October-January. We went in April, which was cheaper but there was a constant misty drizzle of rain. You can expect that February-April. I would avoid May-September due to the heavy rains and tropical storms.
We reserved a family room, because it allowed us to spread out and comfortably house Evan's crib. So glad we did; look at that view!
Tip: if you are traveling with little littles, then be sure to call ahead and ask them to have a crib/cot set up for you. Most accommodations have them and will assemble for free. Toting around a Pack N Play is the last thing you want to include in your luggage, especially if you are backpacking around a region. The kids are enough to tote around.
These cute cabins had little balconies attached, and I'm so glad they did. Because without them, I wouldn't have been able to snap this incredible picture on Easter Sunday!
Overview of our Adventurous Two Days:
- Fishing Village
- Pearl Farm
I’ll splice together Hanoi in the next post. But for now...here’s a recap of our two night/two-ish day experience in breathtaking Halong Bay!
We settled in, tossed on some long sleeves, and quickly hopped on a smaller fishing-type boat to have a mini hike. We could've stayed on the Paloma, but opted to take full advantage of our situation. I recommend you do the same! We were zonked tired, but one can always rest when they return home. You don't take time off work to sit in your bed the entire time, do you? GO see what you came to see! For us, it was a crazy hike to watch the sunset.
We conquered three sets of these stairs. Super proud of the big fella for walking the whole way! He was two years old and bursting with energy, but be mentally prepared to carry your little to the top just in case.
Finally made it!
The inside was filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Parts were slippery and tricky to traverse while wearing the little fella. I had a few people give me strange looks because of the baby wearing.
One gal even said she was amazed that we brought them to Vietnam at all. I gave her a smile and just said, "awe, thanks!"
You never know the reaction you will receive from folks while traveling with kids. Some are snooty about it, and others will adore your offspring and treat them like cherubs.
We played on the beach and watched the sunset before taking the wooden fishing boat back to our ship for the night.
Fun Fact: Legend has it, the gods sent a family of dragons to protect the Vietnamese against invaders. After a battle victory, the mother dragon settled in Halong Bay and her children attended to her from Bai Tu Long Bay.
The Golden Hour - completely unedited
Today’s adventures started upon this teeny boat. I won’t lie; I was quite uneasy getting into this haphazard thing. Once everyone had boarded, the edge of the boat was seriously close to the water level. I had a humbling glimpse of what refugees experience. I can’t even fathom the reality. And later found out the little bitty thing was double capacity!
Viewpoint of the cave at the entrance...deep and dark, it was!
The big fella absolutely LOVED this! Our guide gave him a head lamp and mentioned bats lived in here and might fly by while we were inside. He constantly talked about finding Batman and enjoyed playing in the sand and rocks. It was supremely precious...
The stalactites (top-down) were hollow if you banged on them. Of course, every kid enjoyed the echo noise. The stalagmites (bottom-up) sparkled unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Glitter seemed to be poured over them. I was in awe!
"Alone in the cave with a baby!"
I stayed behind at one point since I was wearing the little guy, because the hike up inside was too steep and slippery. My momma bear instincts reared their head. Although, I didn’t realize staying behind would leave me in the pitch.black.dark with a baby!! Hello?! I was deep inside a cave! I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. Nothing! I sang to the little guy while we stood alone for a solid 20 minutes. I kept telling myself I was doing it to keep him calm, when in all reality I was doing it to keep myself from freaking out. Ahhhhh
We gathered our things to head back out for a few beach hours. The tour guide used a little charcoal grill and fed us lunch on the beach before heading back.
We left our swimsuits on the boat, but that didn't stop a certain someone from fishing around in his clothes... We made the most of it. The little fella toddled around the kayaks and threw sand, while the big fella made friends with older kids on our boat and let their imaginations run wild building and playing in the sand.
Back on the Paloma, we did another quick change for dinner before calling it a night. Whew! What a lovely, yet exhausting day.
Almost forgot...! I took the little fella back to the room to get settled for the night, while hubby took the big fella squid fishing off the back of the boat. Super cool experience for the memory books. Highly recommend this if you get the opportunity.
Curious about exploring Thailand with a baby and one year old? Check out our whirlwind journey to Krabi!
Good morning- ready to conquer day two!
Our last day in Bai Tu Long Bay was super packed. The picture below is worth a thousand words and a good indication of our day ahead!
Remote Fishing Village-
After breakfast, we took a 7am boat ride to a remote fishing village. I had zero idea what this really meant. Come to find out, around 1,600 people live in four floating fishing villages in the bay area. It was something else to witness with my own eyes.
"It felt like a living, breathing, National Geographic article."
We found ourselves on another small, row boat. They said it was only big enough for our family of four. Welllllll, I wanted to tell them about squeezing ten people aboard to the cave yesterday. I knew the capacity shouldn’t have been that much! Yikes.
I know it’s nerdy, but I love how you can see the rock erosion from over the years. One of the fishing villages can be seen below. Tiny shacks hovered above water.
"Only recently have kids been boated out of the villages to school. Teachers were once brought into the remote communities to educate the kids. Mind blowing to process."
There are few very, vivid moments I have of travel which stop me in my tracks, and this was one of them. Paddling through the floating villages and waving to kids on the "porches," I had so many questions...
- What do they do for food besides fish? How often do they get fresh fruits and veggies?
- What is the bathroom situation like?
- These villages being close knit communities, how do they have privacy?
- Where do the kids play since there is no land?
- And the dogs sitting on the docks...I had so many concerns
- With no insulation and protection from the elements, how do they survive in the dead of winter and intense summer months?
- What about monsoon rains? They are real in southeast Asia!
I've never been able to bring myself to take pictures of locals in their natural surroundings. No matter the country, it feels invasive and disrespectful. So- I wave, smile, and move along. The pictures I do take are from a distance. I like to capture a bit of the memory, but try my best to file it away in my mind when it comes to people.
The Pearl Farm-
Paddling to the other side of these remote neighborhoods brought us to a community of pearl villagers.
We were able to witness a worker cracking one open, removing the stinky, soft tissue, and letting us touch the pearl inside. The perfect ones are used for jewelry, and imperfect pearls are ground into powder for cosmetic use. Most of these pearls take 4-8 years to reach maturity. Fascinating...and smelly!
By the way, the lady in the striped shirt would not stop singing our praises of traveling with the boys. She originally moved to Hong Kong with her husband’s job nearly 40 years ago. Her sons are now 32 and 35 and grew up traveling around southeast Asia. She thought what we were doing was magnificent and would have a tremendous impact on the boys, even at such a young age. She understood. She knew the struggles and joys that come with living so far from home, and also raising children in a vastly different culture. I couldn’t thank her enough for the uplifting compliments.
People, be this lady!
Halong Bay is an incredible, natural wonder on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is comprised of 1,600 islets and 775 limestone formations.
A few glory shots taken on our rowing boat going back to the main boat...
“Here is the unfinished works of the Beings… here is the stones which the Giant played and threw away." -Vietnamese poet, Xuân Dieu
Such beauty surrounded us for three days and two nights. Bai Tu Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin of the South China Sea is where we floated and explored. I didn’t know this until we neared the end of our trip, but Bai Tu Long Bay has only been opened to the public since 2012. The emerald waters and fairly untouched lush limestone along the beaches and caves were some pretty amazing eye-candy.
We were thankful for our the incredible, albeit ambitious, time in this corner of the world. Our crew is all packed up and ready for the crazy adventure back to Hanoi.
So long Bai Tu Long Bay!
Curious of the other bays, national parks, and top attractions on the main land? I recommend checking out Lonely Planet.
STAY TUNED - The saga continues back in the gritty city of Hanoi, Vietnam!
Want more travel tips and ideas for kids?