Vietnam and Cambodia Trip Part One: Hoi An
Vietnam has been high on my travel list ever since I lived with several Australians in Tanzania who all raved about it. I’d initially planned this trip for last year but it got swapped for Beijing and Seoul when we thought Mike had to spend last March in South Korea. I’d rebooked all our hotels for multi-week chunks that I could cut-back (or cancel) when I knew exactly when we could go. I just needed the green light from Mike’s command to book our flights. We kept waiting and waiting, and I was getting very nervous that we were not going to go to the two countries I most wanted to visit. About a month ago, Mike finally got his leave approved for two whole weeks. I was ecstatic! I’d been planning this trip forever, researching and wanted time to balance relaxation and sight-seeing.
I have learned that too much moving between places is not great for either of my “boys”. With so many wonderful places in Vietnam, I needed to narrow it down to just two locations. Hoi An was a major trading port from the fourteen to nineteenth century, and the international trading center in southern Vietnam during the 16th and 17th centuries. Its architecture and influence expand beyond Vietnam to include Japan, China, India, France and other European countries. As boats got larger, the importance of the port diminished, and many people living in Hoi An became very poor. Despite multiple wars, the original town remained preserved and intact so the city began exploring tourism and earned its place as a World Heritage site. Hoi An has flourished ever since. Lonely Planet calls Hoi An “Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town”. It was an easy choice to begin our journey here.
We arrived early morning after our red-eye. I’d obtained e-visas so we got to skip the long visa on arrival line. Even with the 50 minute drive to Hoi An from Danang we arrived at the hotel at 9 am. I’d wisely booked our room the night before so we could check in and hopefully arrive before breakfast ended. The staff at Lantana Boutique Hotel greeted us warmly and told us we could wait to check in and enjoy our breakfast first. There was an impressive and yummy spread of Vietnamese food and western breakfast items. We decided we’d get settled, have a swim in the hotel pool then take the mid-day shuttle to the hotel beach. The fifteen minute ride to the beach passed through rice paddies where we saw water buffalo grazing. The shuttle dropped us off at a private restaurant and beach on Tan Thanh Beach.
I was pleased to see free lounges and umbrellas for guests from our hotel. I dipped my feet in the water, but it was pretty chilly. Both Mike and Will had a swim. Then Will passed out on one of the giant comfy bean bag mattresses. Mike and I ordered some spring rolls, and I tried a Vietnamese white wine (off-dry and not bad). It was a relaxing way to enter vacation.
We took the 4:15 shuttle back to the hotel. Will begged to go to the pool so we took a quick dip before getting ready for the Lantern Festival. The Hoi An Lantern Festival occurs on each full moon in Hoi An. The full moon is a sacred day in Buddhism as it when Buddha reached enlightenment. In Hoi An, this is celebrated by placing a lantern in the water to make a wish, say a blessing for family, or to worship ancestors. Although we would learn one can release a lantern into the water any night of the year in Hoi An, I am still glad we were there for the official event. It was packed, as most nights in Hoi An were, but the guests were 90% locals taking advantage of the lunar calendar to pay their respects and increase their good fortune. The strong presence of the Vietnamese that first night decreased the “too touristy” vibe that some may feel in Hoi An. Festive characters milled around, and many locals participated in contests and games. The sheer number of floating lanterns at the festival far exceeded the other nights and was magical.
Hungry and wanting a good view of the water, we quickly chose a restaurant with prime riverfront real estate. The food was tasty but not as good as future restaurants that we researched or were recommended. Mike ate fish wrapped in banana leaf, and I had chicken with lemon grass and chilies. The highlight was a bottle of Shiraz and watching the festival. After dinner we paid a few dollars to take a boat ride and put a lantern in the water. It was relaxing and beautiful, and this was Will’s absolute favorite part of our trip. He was delighted when the pilot of our boat gave him a second lantern.
We wandered the town for awhile. Besides the lanterns on the water, the entire town is draped with beautiful, colorful lanterns. They are everywhere and absolutely gorgeous. We stopped a lot for Will to spin fight spinners as his travel goal is “to spin ALL the fidget spinets in ALL the counties”. We took lots of photos and soaked in the atmosphere. I was so happy and excited to finally be in Vietnam.
We began Saturday with another delicious breakfast and another day focusing on relaxation. Mike got a massage while I took Will swimming. We headed into town for an early lunch and loved our meal at Cargo Club: homemade chicken nuggets for Will and sea bass for Mike. I tried beef Banh Mi which may be my favorite Vietnamese food: Vietnamese seasoned steak, fresh herbs, cucumber and carrot, and a flavorful subtle curry dressing on a French baguette. I also drank a great glass of Sauvignon Blanc too. The views of the river were relaxing, and we spent more time than planned missing the mid-day shuttle to the beach. A cheap taxi ride deposited us there later. The boys swam, and Will dozed again. I got a massage. It was perfect.
Back at the hotel Will had an early dinner of a burger and fries, and Mike and I tried another local white wine with the 2 for 1 Happy Hour. Will played with another little boy from Taiwan then he and I grabbed a taxi for the Water Puppet Show. Mike would explore on his own, and we would meet him for a late dinner after. Water Puppets are a traditional form of entertainment in Vietnam and unique to the country. The forty-five minute show was Will’s second favorite thing we did. The unicorn battle complete with some pyrotechnics being the highlight. It was a cute show but probably best that Mike skipped it as I think he would’ve been bored.
We met Mike at the nearby White Rose, a Hoi An institution. They only serve two dishes so we ordered one of each: the White Rose Dumpling and Fried Wonton, also called the Hoi An Pizza. The shrimp dumpling with lots of garlic chips was certainly the better of the two, but we were underwhelmed. The fried wonton was covered in shrimp and a tomato roulade and was kind of weird. This was our least favorite meal of the trip. Mike was still hungry so we walked back into ancient town to the White Marble Wine Bar. We chose the sofa, and Will immediately fell asleep. I ordered a Viognier and Mike got a Bordeaux. We also got some fresh spring rolls and pork wraps. I ate a little more but mostly enjoyed the wine. My original goal in Hoi Am was to eat ALL the food I could but I realized with the great wine lists I wanted to drink ALL the wine too. These were definitely the best wine selections I have found in Asia, and I credit the French influence. We sipped wine then slipped Will in the ergo and successfully transferred him to bed at the hotel.
On Sunday morning, we ate breakfast and took a cheap taxi to a local coffee shop. The owner also runs Hoi An Mates, an organization providing donation based tours for university students who want to enhance their English and professional development. We met Sam, an English student at Danang College of Foreign Languages, and our tour guide for the day. Sam welcomed us and finished putting a proper child seat on the back of the bicycle. Mike and I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d only seen children on bicycles that had an additional flat padded seat to sit on and did not want to do this with Will. We agreed to only proceed with the tour if we knew Will was secure. When the helmet was a little too big, Sam threw her hat on Will’s head to tighen it up.
Our first destination was not part of the regular tour. When looking at their website I had noticed the organization worked with a local orphanage and wrote inquiring if it was possible to visit. I’ve begun talking with Will about my time at the orphanage in Tanzania and thought it would be nice for him to have a visual experience and to understand more about what it means to be an orphan (as well as to be a privileged child). I also always look for opportunities for him to play with local children. In addition, I knew that the children at the orphanage in Tanzania often got bored. I hoped a visit and some additional people to play with may break up the monotony. They kindly arranged to have us visit the orphanage as part of their bicycle tour. I’d brought pen, pencils and crayons as well as a cash donation for the orphanage but Mike had the great idea of picking up a soccer ball in case it was really awkward and we needed an ice breaker game. Sam cycled us to a sporting goods store where we quickly purchased one.
The city streets were a bit tricky. Motorbikes are the most popular form of transportation for singles, families and moving of goods. We saw just about everything on the back of the motorbike at some point. Whole families often rode together with young children sitting or standing between the parents. We even saw a dog perched on the back of one. I was a bit nervous but also amazed at how all the drivers, motorbikes, bicycles and cars navigated the intersections. And we made it the orphanage safely and more easily than I anticipated.
We met the director, and he explained that 67 children lived there and all were attending school. We were led through the grounds walking by the boy’s dorm and the kitchen then were brought into a room with about twenty disabled children. These children have been placed in the home as it was too difficult for their parents to care for them. Although there were many different kinds of disabilities, many of the children suffered from cerebral palsy and other birth defects that are a result of birth trauma, brain injury, complications of illness, and exposure to Agent Orange. We knew we wouldn’t be playing traditional soccer with these children but I was happier that we came. Beside school, I wondered how often they left this room. Several strong older boys with cerebral palsy used their arms to drag themselves around the room and were able to roll the ball with Will and Mike. Mike also spent some time talking with the oldest boys whose English was quite good. I chatted with blind twins and listened to them sing. I also spent a lot of time with a girl with Down Syndrome. She soon commandeered my phone. She certainly knew how to use an iPhone and was upset I had no internet service. She recovered by finding pictures and unknown to me managed to dump a lot into a shared folder with a friend that promptly uploaded as soon as we got back to our hotel. She stealthily managed to get into the gifts we’d brought for the orphanage too. She was super sweet and cute, hugging and kissing us all goodbye when we left.
We re-boarded our bikes and followed Sam through Hoi An. We passed our hotel, crossed a bridge and all of sudden when we were in the countryside. Riding in the city was a bit stressful but riding in the country side was awesome. The streets were mainly utilized by bikes, and it was much more relaxing. We rode across another bridge past rice paddies, cattle and water buffalo.
We stopped at the Kim Bong family temple and learned about the family as well as Vietnamese culture and symbols. The four sacred animals and their corresponding symbols are dragon (power), unicorn (intellect), tortoise (longevity) and the phoenix (nobility). These animals adorn many temples and buildings throughout Vietnam. The red on the Vietnamese flag symbolizes the blood of the people in Vietnam during the revolutionary struggle and yellow, the color of their skin. Red and yellow also stand for other ideas. Sam further explained that red can signify or bring happiness and luck and yellow may represent wealth or longevity. Will’s take away from this lesson was that the Vietnamese flag colors mean happiness and luck. Although incorrect, he continued to cite this “fact” throughout our trip and chose a t-shirt of the Vietnamese flag as his souvenir.
We next cycled to a local home where two women showed us how to weave traditional sleeping mats. Will got really into making this and contributed many rows to the project. From there it was a short ride to learn about making traditional rice noodles. Making the sleeping mat and noodles were Will’s third favorite things in Hoi An which surprised me that it beat the pool and the beach. Sam and Mike demonstrated how to use an old grinder which turned the rice into a paste. Now electronic grinders are used. Will then helped Sam pour the paste onto a hot griddle. This cooked for a couple minutes until another layer was added. After a couple minutes it was peeled off and put on a drying rack. Will made several noodles, and Sam also showed us how biowaste was used to fuel the fire. We were served a bowl of noodles with a crispy cracker on the exterior. We dipped this popular Vietnamese snack in soy sauce.
Our final stop was supposed to be a carpentry workshop but it is closed on Sundays. It was hot, so we didn’t not mind missing this activity. Sam did bring us behind the studio and showed us where the boats were made. Then we loaded our boats on a ferry and rode across the Hoi An River. The breeze felt amazing, and Will fell asleep on the short ride. We woke him up and buckled him in his seat. His head kept bobbing as he fought to stay awake on the back of the bicycle.
The heat was really getting to us, and the air conditioning of the coffee shop felt wonderful. We were given cold water, and Mike and I got tiramisu blended ice coffees. We visited more with Sam. As a former college teacher, I really enjoyed spending the morning with this young, energetic, intelligent and optimistic university student. Sam generously gifted Will her hat that had been holding up his helmet all day. Despite the high temperatures, it had been a very pleasant morning and riding bikes through the countryside was Mike’s favorite Hoi An experience. One of my favorite memories is Will reaching across from the back of his bike to join hands with a little Vietnamese boy on the back of his father’s motorbike.
The heat was suppressing Mike’s and my appetites, but Will was starving. We stopped in Old Town and got Will a pizza. Once it was delivered, we all ate some. And after some food and lots of water, we felt better. We returned to the hotel and swam for a bit before having a rest in the room. Will ate French fries for dinner which sadly became his staple the entire time in Vietnam. Ironically the country with my favorite food was the hardest to feed Will; he didn’t care for many of the Vietnamese versions of western food. Mike and I cleaned up; we had booked a babysitter for the evening. Nancy, who also works reception at the hotel came armed with art supplies for Will. He greeted her with a big hug.
Mike and I had a dinner reservation at the Hoianian, a Vietnamese and western fusion restaurant with a lenghty wine list. We were welcomed with a taste of sparkling wine. Mike started with a passion fruit mojito and a got a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. We shared some amazing mango summer rolls. For dinner, Mike got a glass of Cab and duck with cashews. His was good but he wasn’t sure he actually got duck; perhaps they misunderstood his order. The waiter had recommended the orange salmon. I loved it and my glass of Shiraz. After dinner we walked around the old town, popped in shops then strolled around the night market. We returned to the hotel surprised and slightly annoyed to find Will wide awake at 10 pm. I think Nancy was having so much fun with him that she didn’t put him to bed. He excitedly showed me the book he made and the jar full of paper cranes they folded. Luckily, he fell asleep quickly as we had an early morning the next day.
Dway, from Xuan Tu tours, picked us up at 7:30 am Monday morning. I strapped Will in the car seat I’d requested and began the three hour drive to Hue, the original capital of Vietnam. An hour into the drive, we stopped at an old mountain pass marking the boundary between Danang and Hue. There were remains ofan old fortress, a small temple and views of mountains and ocean.
The remaining drive was uneventful with the exception of our driving frequently honking the horn to warn a motorbike that he was approaching. We entered Hue, a bigger city than I anticipated. We were dropped off on the shores of the Perfume River. We boarded a dragon boat which interestingly had a family living in the back. We rode upstream to the Thuen Mu Pagoda, a seven story pagoda towering above the river. We also got to see the car from which the monk, Thich Quang Duc, exited before setting himself on fire in then Saigon in 1963. The grounds around the pagoda were pretty but it was so hot that it wasn’t that enjoyable for Mike and I. Will still had fun playing with sticks and finding snakeskin.
We next drove into the old walled city to Y Thao Garden for lunch. Located in a beautiful historic building, it specializes in making creative, artsy dishes with traditional food. Mike ordered one of their fancy lunch sets but I needed something simple and dined on garlic shrimp and rice. The restaurant was beautiful and cool, and Will and I enjoyed watching Mike eat his decorated courses.
After lunch we toured the highlights of the large Imperial Citadel and learned more about Vietnam’s kings. The grounds were lovely, and Dway helped keep us in the shade so it was nice to stroll around. We finished the day at Emperor Khai Dinh’s majestic tomb. Built by the French, it’s an unusual Vietnamese tomb as it is made of concrete and mosaic both imported from France at an exorbitant cost. Built on the side of the mountain, we climbed the steep steps to the tomb at top. Inside the decor reminded me of the Palace of Versailles outside Paris.
I didn’t personally mind the long drive to Hue from Hoi An as I got to see more of the Vietnamese countryside. I was pleased with the quality of our tour, and Hue was a highly recommended destination. However, unless one is really interested in the royal history of Vietnam I am not sure it is worth the long trip from Hoi An. I think everyone in our family would’ve been just as happy, if not happier, at the pool and beach. Will passed out on the way home and didn’t wake up until the next morning. Nancy helped me pick out a yummy noodle entrée from the hotel restaurant and nicely delivered me a couple glasses of wine as Mike went out for a night on the town by himself.
Tuesday morning was overcast, and Mike’s inbox was overloaded with work drama. I decided Will and I would walk around Ancient Town while Mike caught up and hopefully squeezed in a massage. We’d meet back up and hop the 12:30 shuttle to the beach. Will and I began by checking out Hoi An’s famous Japanese Bridge. Built in the early seventeenth hundred, it connected the Japanese quarter of Hoi An to the Chinese neighborhoods. The old wooden bridge was quaint. We then explored the Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall which was a place for Chinese traders and fisherman to rest and meet to exchange goods.
We only visited the two small tourist sites. I realized what I loved and most wanted to soak in was the ambiance of Hoi An. I loved the countless, pedestrian streets and the countless, beautiful lanterns. So Will and I meandered more, took photos, and bought a couple souvenirs. Will spun more fidget spinners and played tagged with some local children. By 11:00 am, the sun was shining and the temperatures rising. We went back to the hotel and enjoyed a quick swim before heading to the beach.
Mike had been properly rubbed down and was much more relaxed. The sun had come out, and we spent a glorious last afternoon at the beach. I ate a yummy pork Banh mi and had another glass of Vietnamese white wine. Will played happily and took a swim with Mike. Mike buried Will in the perfect sand and turned him into a stegosaurus.
Back in Hoi An, I ran Will to the night market for a quick visit as he had wanted to see it. I barely had time to shower before Lea, Tuesday’s babysitter, was knocking at the door. I wrote Will’s bedtime down this time, kissed him goodbye and we headed out to another kid-free dinner for our last night. I’d made a reservation at Morning Glory, a restaurant aiming to provide guests with a “broad view of the Vietnamese culinary landscape…Traditional dishes, celebratory dishes, comfort foods, workers’ meals, medicinal foods, street foods and snacks – covering all aspects of our daily lives.” We chose their second location and requested a river view with our reservation. We feasted on morning glory with garlic, pork noodles, pork rolls with shrimp banana leaves and cucumber, and lime glazed sea bass. The food was fantastic as was the bottle of White Bordeaux. Mike was exhausted so he decided to head back after dinner, relieving the babysitter who had successfully put our child to bed. I wandered for another hour enjoying the vibe and beauty of Hoi An. I can’t express how happy the food, wine and the town of Hoi An made me. I completely fell in love with this town. I am so lucky and grateful that we were able to make this trip and that it went so smoothly. We relaxed, explored, ate, drank, swam, recharged and laughed. I could only hope the rest of the trip would go as well. The next day we would journey to Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay.
Tips, more photos and helpful links below…
Tips: I recommend staying in or within walking distance of the Ancient Town. We really preferred going out to the beach during the day and being in town at night when it is most magical. I also highly recommend our wonderful and affordable hotel, Lantana Boutique Hotel and Spa. This was perhaps our best hotel experience. It’s a short walk to Hoi An Ancient Town. Pool, spa, delicious food and drink. Free shuttle to beach. The staff also helped watch Will while we finished breakfast or had a happy hour drink. Everyone was so friendly, helpful, happy, kind and treated us like family.
- Vietnam e-visa: https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/en_US/web/guest/khai-thi-thuc-dien-tu/cap-thi-thuc-dien-tu
- Lantana Boutique Hotel Hoi An: http://www.lantanahoian.com/
- Cargo Club and Morning Glory https://tastevietnam.asia/
- Water Puppet Show: http://hoiannow.com/the-water-puppets/
- White Marble Wine Bar: http://www.visithoian.com/whitemarble/
- Hoi An Mates: http://hoianmates.com
- The Hoianian: http://lanterntown.com/
- Xuan Tu Tours: https://privatehoianguide.com/
- Tanzania blog: https://tangawiziintanzania.wordpress.com/2008/06/15/africa-is-not-a-country-but-tanzania-is/