With motorbikes whizzing madly around us, holding on to our two toddlers, we navigated through a narrow alley of Hanoi’s Old quarter to our small hotel. Watching the breathtaking pace of traffic through the windows of our hotel lobby, we wondered whether we had made a mistake in bringing our 2 and 4-year-old children and their grandparents in their 60s to Hanoi and Halong Bay instead of a relaxing beach holiday.
Since we only had planned a short stop in Hanoi, we had booked a tour with Hanoi Kids, a voluntary English club of Hanoi university students that offers free tours of Hanoi. Our lovely guides, nicknamed Spoon and Whoopy, met us in the hotel and took us to the Temple of Literature, a shrine where the first university of Vietnam was established. As economics students they were more than happy to answer all our questions about Vietnam. To us this was the best part of using Hanoi Kids – hearing these smart kids talk about their country.
The most memorable part of our trip to Vietnam may, however, be the food. The Hanoi Kids took us for lunch at the packed Quan An Ngon and swiftly navigated the vast menu on our behalf. The food was delicious and the Vietnamese pancake was a hit with our kids. The Hanoi Kids do not get paid for their services but you need to cover their entrance fees and meals.
After lunch we parted with our guides and hopped on an electric tourist car, that took us through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. This was a great way to see some of the Old Quarter without having to walk with the kids on the streets that have virtually no pavements. Variety of street life around you is like watching a film. “Why do big people sit on small chairs?”, asked my four year-old looking at people have their breakfast on the plastic stools on the street next to our hotel.
We had booked tickets for the famous water puppet theatre through our hotel. The youngest member of our group fell asleep in the coolness of the theatre but the rest of us enjoyed the 45-minutes show with colourful puppets and music.
In desperate need of a coffee we then decided to enjoy some refreshments on the terrace of City View Cafe nearby where you can get a great view of both the lake and one of the maddest Hanoi roundabouts, that seems to follow no logic or traffic rule. Coffee and ice cream were below average but the traffic is mesmerising!
Cruising along Halong Bay
We had done a lot of homework for our trip to Halong Bay and found out that for our group of 4 adults and 2 kids, a private boat and transfers would not cost much more than joining a cruise on a larger boat. Since we were not sure how our active and sometimes very loud kids would behave in the confined space of a boat for 24 hours we played it safe and chose one of Indochina Junk company’s smaller boats with only two cabins.
The drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay takes about 3.5 hours plus an obligatory stop at an overpriced but well organised and clean tourist shopping complex.
Our boat was charming and had more staff than passengers. Although a bit dated, the boat was comfortable and the staff whipped up a vast array of delicious dishes. Kids were catered for with early dinner and the bar was well stocked. It seems we spent most of the day eating on the deck while watching the magical scenery glide past.
During the cruise we visited a cave and had a chance to kayak around the islands. A guided tour to a floating village in a traditional row boat was included and with a stop at a school and a pearl farm, it was interesting enough even for the kids.
Passengers from the other boats of the same company joined all the activities so the experience is by no means exclusive or very authentic – but we knew this from our research and it didn’t bother us.
Halong Bay is a major tourist attraction and sadly the effects of uncontrolled tourism can be seen. In many areas of the bay a lot of rubbish float in the sea and the tours are very much run like an efficient clockwork to get in as many guests as possible. However, the scenery is beautiful and the experience of spending a night on a boat was fantastic.
The cruise in the mystical Halong Bay was the highlight of our trip but our short stop in Hanoi was an excellent dose of “child friendly flashbacking” – something we need to do once in a while, just to show that we can.