Vietnam Visitors: Parent Edition Part 1 – Northern Vietnam

It has been pretty quiet on the blog for the last couple weeks, but we have a good excuse. We had visitors! And then we both got sick. But lets focus on the visitors!

My parents flew more than 9,000 miles to come visit us in our favorite place, Vietnam. We had talked for months about when and where they were going to meet us and, since Asia is the focus of our trip, we narrowed it down to three places: Thailand, Japan, and Vietnam. After a lot of research and frank discussions on creature comforts, goals of the trip, and budget, we decided on Thailand. However, when Thailand’s King passed away in October, we changed gears not knowing what travel in Thailand would be like during the mourning period. Since the seasons in Japan mirror that of Minnesota, and with the cost of traveling in Japan being so expensive, we landed on Vietnam.

Ben in Vietnam 2012.

Ben and I were happy to coordinate since Vietnam had captured our hearts in 2012.

My parents hadn’t been on a big international trip since they backpacked around Europe for their honeymoon more than 40 years ago, so when we originally started planning our itinerary, we decided to recreate much of the trip we had taken in 2012. We knew most of the trip would be outside of their comfort zone, because Asia is so foreign, so we wanted to make sure we did things we knew they would enjoy.

Hanoi (Days 1-3)

In order to get to Hanoi, my parents had a long couple days of travel. By the time they landed, they had been traveling for more than 40 hours with long layovers in both San Francisco and Taipei. Any place is sensory overload after that much travel and the motorbikes in Hanoi can be a bit challenging to get used to even with a good nights sleep, so we didn’t have much planned when they arrived. They were troopers though and actually came out to dinner with us that night.

For our first day in Hanoi we started with a traditional breakfast of Xoi, which is sticky rice topped with meat. We were excited to give my parents the traditional Vietnamese experience not only in the food department, but also by sitting on the tiny plastic stools that are a staple in Vietnam. My Kindergarten teacher mom felt right at home on the tiny stools while my 6″1′ dad learned that there is a specific science to being tall and eating in Vietnam.

XoiYen, a traditional breakfast made of sticky rice.

Since coffee wasn’t served with our sticky rice, we went to find some after breakfast. The Note is a cute cafe near Hoàn Kiếm Lake filled top to bottom with encouraging post-it notes and a great view of the lake. In keeping with our plan to provide an truly Vietnamese experience for our visitors, we ordered two coffees that are unique to Vietnam. The first was traditional Vietnamese coffee, which is a very strong coffee served over sweetened condensed milk. The second was an Egg Coffee, which is a Hanoi staple created by a man that wanted to offer creamier coffee. What he came up with was a recipe of egg yolks whipped with sweetened condensed milk and then stirred into the coffee, leaving it tasting like a creme brûlée. Delish!

Introducing my parents to Vietnamese Coffee and Egg Coffee.

After our coffee, the plan was to wander around Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is unique because the streets are named after the goods that were sold on that street more than one hundred years ago. For example, Hang Bac is the name of a street, and it is literally translated to silver product. If you would’ve walked down the street in the 20th century, this is where all the silver smiths would’ve been housed. While the street names don’t necessarily correspond with the goods that are sold on them anymore, the idea of having a street full of vendors for one product still remains. We walked down streets that almost exclusively sold tin, religious objects, silk, clothing, and toys.

Prior to coming to Vietnam, my parents made it clear that they would like to get some art while they were here. We had brought home several paintings from Vietnam in 2012, and my mom has been coveting them ever since. So, our afternoon was spent popping into different art galleries looking for something that spoke to them. After finding a couple pieces they liked, we headed to our favorite coffee shop in Hanoi, Café Phố Cổ, to mull over which painting they wanted to buy. Café Phố Cổ is a bit of a challenge to find, but the views of Hoàn Kiếm Lake and the coffee are totally worth it. We actually ended up there a couple times with my parents.

View of Hoan Kiem Lake from above.

After an afternoon nap at the hotel (jet lag is real people) we ventured out to see what was supposed to be the weekend market. But when it didn’t really amount to much, we went for dinner and returned to the hotel early so my parents could continue to adjust to Vietnam time.

The next morning we walked to find breakfast. On weekends, the road around Hoàn Kiếm Lake is closed to all traffic which makes it a peaceful stroll around the lake and a nice time to visit the Ngoc Son Temple, which is located in the lake. On our way to breakfast we also stopped to listen to some live music from a band made up of traditional Vietnamese instruments featuring a Dan Nhi Two-string Fiddle. After listening to several songs that may or may not have been stuck in our heads for weeks afterwards, we sat down at an outdoor cafe to eat.

One of the street musicians that we listened too. He is playing a traditional instrument called the Dan Nhi Two-string Fiddle.

That was when the traffic jam occurred. But it wasn’t at all what we were prepared for since the cars and motorbikes that were taking up the road were child sized and plastic. Apparently on the weekends you can rent the battery operated vehicles for your children to drive around the lake. We saw a few minor accidents because the drivers weren’t looking where they were going, or the parents with the remote control weren’t paying attention, but it was wonderful breakfast entertainment. The rest of our day was spent exploring more of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and my parents bought some art and souvenirs.

For dinner, we decided to take them to a place that we had visited during our trip four years ago. It was recommended to us by some friends who had spent their honeymoon in Vietnam – thanks Kate and Nic! The Green Tangerine is a restaurant that serves French and Vietnamese fusion, and it was a meal that we are still talking about.

This is a photo of my dad’s rabbit. It was divine.

Halong Bay (Days 4-6)

When Monday morning rolled around we were up early waiting for the start of the next leg of our journey, Halong Bay. A car arrived at our hotel before 8am to pick us up for the three hour drive to Halong Bay. When we boarded the van, we were surprised and excited to find that the two other people in the van were from Minnesota. What a small world! The time in the car went by quickly as we chatted with our new friends, Matt and Martha, who happened to be in Vietnam for their honeymoon.

The Minnesota crew on the way out to our boat, the Red Dragon.

When we arrived in Halong Bay, we got on a small boat that brought us out to the Red Dragon, the junk that would be our home for the next three days. We had visited Halong Bay in 2012 and knew that my parents would love it since I get my love of being on, near, or in the water from them. While we had only done the two day, one night tour in 2012, we sprung for the three day, two night tour this time because Halong Bay is that incredible.

Halong Bay, if only pictures did this place justice…

We spent the next couple days sailing around the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is home to thousands of limestone karsts created hundreds of thousands of years ago by volcanic activity. We kayaked around the karsts, had a bbq on a private beach, visited a floating fishing village, climbed into a cave located in one of the karsts, visited a pearl farm, ate copious amounts of delicious food, saw a water puppet show, and kept trying to devise a plan on how we could lengthen our time in this remarkable place.

We worked really hard in Halong Bay.

When the third day arrived, it was time for us to take the van back to Hanoi and catch our night train to Sapa.

Sapa (Days 7-8)

An overnight train was one of the things I really wanted my parents to experience, so upon returning to Hanoi from Halong Bay we went to the train station. Our train was scheduled to leave at 9:30pm so we had some time to kill in the station. Good thing my dad was wearing his Minnesota Gophers hat because we got to meet a couple other people from Minnesota who were traveling to Sapa with us.

After a short night of sleep, the train arrived in Lao Cai at 5:30am. Interesting fact, Lao Cai is just four kilometers away from the Chinese boarder. We waited a bit for our driver to come and then started the nearly 60 minute drive to Sapa. Unfortunately, the great weather that we had in Halong Bay came to a screeching halt in Sapa.

Even in the fog this place is pretty.

Even in the fog this place is pretty.

It was cold and rainy and the beautiful terraced rice paddies that we were hoping to see were covered in a dense fog that just wouldn’t quit. We stayed at a wonderful hotel between Sapa town and Cat Cat Village, a black hmong village, and drank some delicious ginger tea that was made by our welcoming host and tried to warm up before walking out into the rain. The stroll into town wasn’t too long but it was all uphill so we huffed and puffed our way for some breakfast. We spent the day exploring Sapa and popping into coffee shops to stay warm and dry off. While air conditioning is a must in most of Vietnam, in Sapa we were on the lookout for fireplaces.

I think one of the highlights of our first day in Sapa was getting back to the hotel and climbing into bed for an afternoon nap because the bed came with heated blankets which finally warmed us all up. While 40 degrees typically isn’t terrible, it was the damp and rainy weather that just chilled us to the bone.

Imagine terraced rice paddies in the background. They were there, we just couldn’t see them.

That night we headed to a restaurant which only served traditional cuisine from the ethnic groups found around Sapa and had what my mom would say was her favorite dinner in Vietnam. The cuisine was unlike anything we’d tried before and the ash flavored sweet potatoes, stir fried pumpkin, rainbow trout spring rolls, and slow cooked pork were not only delicious but comforting.

We woke up the next day in Sapa hoping that the fog would give us a break, but it was even worse. You couldn’t see a few feet in front of you which made crossing the road even more of an adventure. We had originally scheduled a car to take us to the Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam’s highest mountain pass, but we cancelled knowing we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the views.

We decided to walk down to Cat Cat Village to learn more about one of the many hill tribes that live in the Sapa area. We descended into the village and saw traditional homes, watched women weave and dye brocade to sell, and admired villagers who were making beautiful silver jewelry.

Some of the stairs we had to walk down to explore Cat Cat Village, and my mom with a bunch of pigs that were roaming.

After visiting Cat Cat we strolled back into Sapa town to spend the last few hours before our night train back to Hanoi.

Find Part 2 here.

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