A holiday in Hoi An

I don’t know what to tell you about Hoi An. There is no single story I can think of that would wind a path between all the various sights and sounds. What I can say is that we came to Hoi An for a holiday from our holiday. Globetrotting, we are discovering, can be something of a whirl wind and wonderful though it all is, finding new places to eat every three days can be hard work. No, we don’t expect sympathy!

Hoi An had all the requisite properties for a place to linger, including a beach and an ancient world heritage listed town that pops up on almost every list of South East Asia ‘must sees’. An Bang beach, is by all accounts, one of Vietnam’s finest. It was nice, warm water with good surf and nice soft sand. It is possible however that Australians are well spoilt when it comes to beaches. It was also endlessly long. Well, in one direction anyway.

About two kilometres south of where we were (at An Bang) the beach has totally eroded away. Nothing left. Which is unfortunate for the many many grand resorts built there, now with concrete walls and sandbags holding back the sea. I couldn’t get to the bottom of the disappearing sand. It may have been the resorts too vigorously protecting their patch by building groins out into the surf; natural processes; or rising sea levels due to climate change (as speculated by our hosts).

No beach at Cua Dai Beach

Slowing down was a new experience in this globetrotting caper. In Hanoi, we had lingered on street corners and watched traffic instead of dodging it. Similarly, one afternoon in the Hoi An old town, instead of walking the streets we sat (and ate icecream) and watched how others do the walking. Watching just one intersection proved as interesting in its own way as seeing many.


You could ‘do’ Hoi An in three days and have ticked off most of the sights, but in staying for 11 days we discovered there was much more to take in as we covered the same ground we did the day before. Still, before we knew it, it was time to move on.

We spent the first two days on the beach. The sky was sunny, the air was warm and the sea was cool but not cold. It was rough and wild though and Amy had many discussions with us about how to spot and avoid a rip. She took this very seriously. We think she probably recalled the story of her friend Cassandra and her mum getting caught in one back home.

Sunny beach day kite flying
Lunch delivered to the beach – we should start this in Australia!

The next eight days were cloudy and overcast. Every morning we’d wake up and look outside then look up the weather forecast hopeful the sun might shine, but it wasn’t to be. Which, on the upside, meant we spent much more time exploring.

What the beach looked like for the rest of our stay

Each morning’s hearty breakfast (during which I discovered for the first time in my life the joys of Nutella) was followed by a morning of school work. Here I think we are making progress, both as students and teachers. It has taken some time, but there now seems to be a clearer understanding that school work is not an optional extra this year. It will be done! Journals will be written, spelling words will be learned, projects will be completed and Maths and English will be studied. What’s more it will be done with good humour, diligent effort and focus.

School work – travelling style
Currency calculation school with millions of Vietnamese Dong

We’re not fully there yet, but as I say, I do think we are making progress. It’s hard for Emma and I to play the role of teacher and enforcer of rules on the one hand and comforter and supporter on the other. Probably also hard for Amy and Oliver to see us taking on this strange new role. We have passed through a phase in which I have been chastised by Amy and Oliver for being way too serious. Even Emma I gather was a little confronted by my serious side. Oliver says I am even stricter than Carol (his real teacher) and we know Carol doesn’t take any nonsense.

Back in Laos, while at the Elephant Conservation Centre, Emma and I sent Amy and Oliver off to do some school work in the huts one afternoon while we stayed in the restaurant. We thought some space from us might be productive while they worked. Not long after, giggling greeted out ears and we somewhat reluctantly went to check on progress. We found them both kicking back in the hammocks suspended above the veranda. A hand written note on the door to their room indicated that they were on strike and would do no more school work until they were paid some respect or we could take it up with their union!

I’m not sure Emma or I knew quite how to respond. I think school work was done that day, but I’m not sure. I later recalled a lengthy and involved discussion I had with Amy and Oliver all about unions, management and striking work forces some time back. The information obviously goes in, so they must be learning something.

The best learning seems to take place as they are about to go to sleep. I have found myself in many in depth discussions with them at this time on everything from the sound barrier and why it breaks, to the relative merits of monarchies and democracies. They are thoroughly enjoyable discussions with genuine engaged interest leading to question after question until eventually you just have to say, ‘enough, it’s time to go to sleep’.

But I digress. With schoolwork done we tended to hit the bikes. I’m convinced there is only one bicycle manufacturer in Vietnam. All of the push bikes appear to come in one size and conform to the same functional design. They also have one very comfortable gear which ensures you go neither too fast to work up a sweat, nor to slow to feel you might as well be walking.

Amy with her ‘standard issue’ bike

Out the front gate of our homestay, every journey began by running the gauntlet of five or so family run restaurants touting for business. The owners of each empty establishment would leap to their feet to solicit you in. It became a little awkward and after a few days we started deviating around the block so as not to disappoint them. There were too many good places to eat and we had our favourites.

At the end of our street was a thin bit of asphalt across an open area which looked like a cyclone had torn through. Turns out it is just the site of yet another massive resort to be built along this stretch of beach. The surface here was covered in thick sand with just one narrow navigable path. Emma tells me Amy and Oliver had expressed their surprise that I had not been down there yet to sweep all the sand away. Those who know my slightly obsessive compulsive tidy streak may find this amusing. I simply replied, ‘never let it be said I did not spend enough time with my children that they didn’t know me’!

Surely this path needs sweeping!

Across the bridge along the main road from our beach stay to Hoi An itself was one of the most impressive sights I was not expecting to see in Vietnam. The vegetable village. I loved it. Couldn’t get enough. I’m a sucker for the colours of this magnificent planet and a Vietnamese vegetable village turns on quite a show. Vibrant shades of green of so many different vegies all laid out in immaculately neat and perfectly maintained garden beds surrounded on all sides by slightly ramshackle terrace house like dwellings. It was gorgeous. I took way too many photos.

Vegetable villages of Hoi An
Vegetable villages of Hoi An
Riding through the veggies

Out of the vegetable village the 30-minute ride to town continued along concrete paths through the rice paddies. Water buffalo graze, water birds forage and the wind ripples across the verdant green fields. It all feels very oriental when you throw in the odd farmer working the area with their conical Vietnamese broad brim hats.

Rice paddy riding
A ‘beefy’ water buffalo
On the ride into town

Out of the rice paddies were a few blocks of traffic madness. Manageable madness unlike Hanoi. In fact, it is a mark of our progress together as a travelling family that we managed, by and large, to ride along quite happily and relaxed in conditions that by Australian standards we would never let Amy and Oliver near.

The traffic would subside as we reached Hoi An old town. No cars or scooters allowed for the most part. Another UNESCO world heritage city, this place also has a really nice vibe. Especially on our first night, when we just happened to arrive in time for the full moon festival. All the electric lights where replaced with traditional lanterns hanging across the streets and in every shop, restaurant, bar and hotel – even drifting down the river in thick fleets.

Hoi An river life
Hoi An models
Hoi An by night
Full moon festival lanterns

The Hoi An full moon festival was surpassed, for me at least, only by one other day in which I caught myself shaking my head and saying, this wouldn’t happen at home. We met another family that Emma had found on a travelling family’s forum and before long, there we were, playing bike ‘tips’ in a clapped out run down park with a Russian, her Israeli husband, and their kids from the US.

Round and round we went until Oliver and the Israeli dad made one close pass too many. Down they all went, but the only casualty appeared to be the back wheel of the opposing team’s bike which was now badly buckled. Oops.

Bike ‘tips’

We all retired for coffee, but no coffee was to be found. Instead Oliver and his new US friend somehow injected themselves into a game of soccer with four Vietnamese local kids on an odd shaped uneven patch of patchy grass surrounded by streets. An hour and a half of vigorous competition followed. This was Oliver heaven. I don’t think he stopped grinning the whole game, despite being comprehensively out played. These kids had some skills.

The game ended when a city official unceremoniously walked past picked up the ball and walked off. That was the end of that. I didn’t know whether to chase after him and demand he give it back or jump on our bikes and ride off before some other official arrived to arrest us for playing in the wrong spot. Húng, our homestay host, tells us the Vietnamese government is top 10 in the world for corruption so who knows how it all works. The street light outside Húng’s homestay doesn’t work. He also tells us its because the officials there are still waiting for their money!

International soccer match

On the ride back from town each day, or to dinner each evening, I kept peering in at a funky hair salon and contemplating a haircut. Should I or shouldn’t I. I’m not sure this long hair thing is for me, but I can’t quite bring myself to give it up. Maybe just a trim. The funky hair salon was a corrugated tin shed with a rustic looking chair and a friendly looking Vietnamese man. I think partly I just liked the idea of getting a haircut there, for the fun of it. I finally stopped dithering one afternoon – but the man wasn’t there. Guess guess my hair will just get a little longer.

Dinner each evening was always a pleasure. Vietnamese food is easy to love and easy on the wallet. Our favourite restaurant, after a good deal of sampling was the Tamarind Tree. It may have been the food or the people I’m not sure, but probably both. On our last night we all got hugs from the owner. There was almost tears!

Parking at Cay Me Tamarind Tree – our fave

Each evening, and sometimes at lunch time too, we’d order our meal then whip out the cards and head into another game of Euchre, our new favourite game. It was boys versus girls all week and although Oliver and I got off to an okay start, we soon found ourselves being comprehensively beaten, trick after trick after trick. It went way beyond luck and I was starting to feel somewhat paranoid. Oliver kept bolstering my spirits by refusing to change teams, telling ‘it’s ok Boo I have faith!’ We finally redeemed ourselves on the second last night… but still lost by one trick in the last round!

Hung taught us to play blackjack

The morning of our departure the sun shone full and bright. So it goes. We skipped school to sneak in a final morning at the beach, likely our last for some time. We bid Húng and his lovely family farewell and headed for the airport in a loud taxi with a young driver with a thing for power ballads. Cambodia and the temples of Angkor Wat are calling us on.

A wonderful homestay


Halong Bay – I’d do it again

I don’t like spending money. It doesn’t come naturally and it makes me uncomfortable. I like saving. I like socking money away each fortnight and the feeling of opportunity that comes as the bundle grows. Ironically one of the reasons I like saving, is so that we can do most excellent things, like travel the world for example. Here we are however, travelling the world, and I’m still not entirely comfortable opening my wallet.

But I am getting better at it. Two months into this trip and its starting to dawn on me that this is a pretty special thing we are doing – worth the money. Experiences and time, surely these are as worthy of investment as other pursuits. Rolf Potts in Vagabonding, my favourite book on the philosophy of long term travel, says that:

‘Regardless of how long it takes to earn your freedom, remember that you are labouring for more than just a vacation. A vacation, after all merely rewards work. Vagabonding (long term travel) justifies it.’

Work, I think, has its own purpose and rewards but I take the point.

Why, I hear you ask, am I volunteering these idle thoughts? It is because our trip to Halong Bay lead me to wrestle with such matters. What do I deserve, what is responsible and what is reckless, what is affordable, what matters and why?

We didn’t travel Halong Bay in the manner one might expect from a family trying to eke out 12 months travelling the world. We travelled Halong Bay in style. Lifestyles of the rich and famous style. We decided that if we were going to spend a few days living it up, this was the time and place to do it. It cost twice our daily budget and hence bought me face to face with my own perception of what this year was about and how we are doing it.

A luxury mini-van picked us up from the hotel. Granted it was a well decked out Ford Transit rather than a Mercedes Benz, but it was finished with bling. Purple and white lights lining the roof, leather chairs that would do Qantas business class proud and built in fridges and freezers. You get the idea.

Luxury mini-van!!

The mini-van however was just the entrée to the main dish. The Dragon Legend of the Indochina Junk cruise line was the main course with its:

 ‘24 luxury cabins, 4 decks with inside and outside dining areas, a spa, bar, sundeck, swimming pool and other entertainment options. Each spacious cabin is a work of art with Vietnamese traditional hand crafted décor and modern facilities, a private bathroom includes a bathtub and big sea view windows. Dragon Legend cruise offers dramatic public spaces, impressive open air dining and a bar that definitely makes for a relaxing trip in the bay.’

Yep, it was all that. I particularly liked the cabins. One for Amy and Oliver and one for Emma and I. They were decadent, with big squashy beds and crisp clean sheets. You could lay down and never want to get up and it was oh so easy just to lie there and watch the islands drift by. I wanted never to leave.

Dragon Legend in the mist
Our cabin
Enjoying the heated pool
Kicking back on the top deck

Halong, and the lesser known Bai Tu Long, bays have approximately three thousand craggy limestone islands poking their heads out of the sea. Halong has become the famous sibling, but Bai Tu Long is (apparently) identical, all part of the same landscape, but with less people, boats and plastic floating in the water.  This is where we headed.

Lunch was served, as soon as we got underway, in the outdoor dining area. Kenny, our host for the three days, strategically sat us next to a family from the US. Ryan and Kami and their children Sage and Indy turned out to be kindred spirits and we were soon happily chatting and enjoying the company of more new friends. As you will have seen from the previous blog we spent more time with them back in Hanoi and then in Hoi An, after the trip.

Kenny by the way, is not Kenny’s real name. By his own admission, Kenny’s Vietnamese name was all but unpronounceable to western tongues (it really was – I tried). The rest of the crew either voluntarily or otherwise followed his lead, going by the names of Harry Potter, James Bond, David Beckham and the like. Harry Potter was, funnily enough, also a magician and thoroughly impressed us all with his post dinner card tricks.

As we ate course after course of delectable Vietnamese cuisine, the rather unimpressive Halong Harbour turned into the very impressive Bai Tu Long Bay. The density of craggy little islands of ever changing shape and size made it captivating. Everywhere we looked islands abounded, further from view they lose definition but gain different shades of blue, silhouetted off to the horizon.

The many silhouettes of Halong Bay
And more silhouettes

In the afternoon we kayaked out into the islands. It would have been easy to get lost, but Kenny steered us safely on our way. Back on the ship, Amy and Oliver played hide and seek with Sage and Indy, the boat being the perfect place for such games and with only 18 guests on board there was no-one to complain as they roamed up and down stairs and corridors. Emma and I lay in our cabin or on the sundeck and contemplated how we got so lucky.

Exploring a cave
Amy and her chauffer
Amy at work
Dragon Legend in the background
Returning as the sun was setting
Halong sunset

And so it went. We cruised on and I was never really sure whether we were headed North, South, East or West. We visited stunningly beautiful tiny floating fishing villages nestled in sheltered inner island coves (where, fortunately, the locals this time were genuinely pleased to host us). We had lunch on a private beach watching smaller cruise boats come and go and we spent more time on board eating and enjoying the view as it drifted past, including from the on-board heated pool. It was super comfortable and we were waited on hand and foot at all hours of the day.

Wonderful service
Oliver and Sage watching the islands go by
Spring roll making with Kenny and Harry Potter
Exploring the area near the floating village
Floating village (established over 100yrs ago)
Floating village – they fish and farm pearls and now host tourists
The village now makes some money ferrying tourists like us
View from the hill above the lunch spot – there was a cave system here

Without wishing to overstate the matter, the experience challenged my perception of how I deserved or was able to travel and where we were at. That we could afford this brief stint of upmarket travel was something of a revelation. That it was ok and the sky wouldn’t fall in was another. That I am no longer, or at least didn’t need to be, a university backpacker living off rice and soy sauce was… liberating. That this sort of a thing may just be why we work hard and choose not to pursue other spending opportunities justified the effort involved in being here. It was wonderful. And I’d do it again.

“I’d do it again”

The land of 3 million scooters

Wow! Hanoi hits with you with a punch. A bedazzling load of sensory input that left us reeling as soon as our taxi entered the Old Quarter, having arrived late in the evening from the serene and decidedly first world Hanoi International Airport. The view was not more than a hundred metres in any direction as the narrow streets twisted off and away. There was however more to see than could be taken in as we cast our eyes around to get our bearings and find somewhere to eat.

The streets are a river of scooters, the footpaths are either packed with eateries or performing as a parking lot for yet more scooters, and people, people and more people fill the spaces in between. It’s an obstacle course, with most journeys requiring twice the number of steps you would ordinarily take to get somewhere. Buildings on either side of the streets had the feel of brightly lit canyons and businesses of every form fills in the blanks.

The footpath obstacles of Hanoi
Hanoi streetscape – it is busier than it looks here

Like other visitors to Hanoi, when we weren’t trying to escape it we were totally mesmerized by the traffic. Llewellyn King of The Huffington Post describes it as one of the wonders of the world.

‘Looking at the traffic is like watching a column of ants, going hither and thither in a courteously chaotic way. The only absolute rule on the roads is to keep to the right. Everything else is improvisation. Central to the Hanoi traffic triumph are scooters and very light motorcycles (some of them electric), the occasional moped and even bicycles.

To the more than three million scooters, most of which take to the streets daily, add the skill, courtesy and physical courage of the riders. They weave, dodge, brake, swerve, swoop, accelerate and slow in what, to American (or Australian) eyes, is an unscripted ballet with a cast of millions. The dance is known, but the choreography is new by the split-second.’ (Lewellyn King – The Huffington Post)

The whole thing is a triumph of chaos over system. On more than one occasion we stopped and stood on the corner of two intersecting streets and watched as the opposing streams of traffic met. It was fascinating because nobody stops, the traffic just merges through itself.

Then there is the honking. A cacophony (I love that word) that greets your ears with a level of sensory input to match that provided for the eyes. Scooter drivers are just like bats and whales. They navigate and communicate by sending out sound waves to the other drivers to let each other know they are there. Honking also seems to be correlated with speed. The faster you go the more you honk. Those exceeding the speed limit, if there was one, just ride through town sending out honks to rival any master of Morse code. It’s wearing. So wearing Oliver started to fight back. Yelling out his own ‘beeps’ to warn the scooters that there were now pedestrians that needed to be accommodated on the asphalt.

Into this scene we inserted ourselves each day, bracing as we left the sanctuary of the Hanoi Hotel3B. When we were in Bangkok, Paul (my older brother that is) told us a story about a driver he had once in India. Paul had asked this driver how he negotiated India’s traffic chaos, to which the Indian Driver had replied, ‘Be confident’! I imagined this coming out in a thick Indian accent.

So, ‘Be confident!’ became our street crossing mantra. There is no point waiting for a break in traffic. There are none. There is no point waiting for the lights to change, there are very few. Rather you must have

‘…the patience and boldness to know that the river of motorcycles, a river that ebbs and rises, but never ceases, will accommodate you’(Lewellyn King – The Huffington Post)

Be confident!

So we were. Sort of. Perhaps we were boldly timid, or timidly bold. Emma and I gripped Amy and Oliver’s hands tightly and probably issued ten times more instructions on where and when to step than they were ok with. Hanoi is a tough place to give the freedom to grow and still ensure everyone makes it home in one piece.

We did however get better at it with each foray away from our hotel. We shopped, successfully purchasing four new beanies to keep us warm in the cool Hanoi weather, but unsuccessfully searching for new sandals for Amy. We tracked down familiar banking institutions; we took in the sites including Hoan Kiem Lake, the Ngoc Son temple (built in the 14th Century in honour of a war hero, Tran Hung Dao, who thrice repelled the mongol hordes from China in the 12th century) and its famous red bridge and the Vietnam Military museum; and we navigated our way to the Indochina Junk offices to finalise arrangements for our trip to Halong Bay.

Beanie selfie
How could we not find anything suitable here??  Cinderella?
At the Ngoc Son Temple
Red Bridge to Ngoc Son Temple
Military museum sculpture from bomber wreckage
Everywhere there is an opportunity for commerce

After our Halong Bay visit, and with new friends at our side we explored the street food scene. Ryan and Kami, and their children Sage and Indy had been on a street foods tour before we met them and we soon found ourselves benefitting from their local knowledge. We ate some amazing food, including this indescribably good chocolate egg nog type drink (I dunno how else to describe it), in places that we would not have given a second glance, or even found for that matter.

Chocolate egg nog surprise (Oliver didn’t want to stop eating for a photo)
Watching a street performance with new friends

We left Hanoi at 10.00pm on our last day, catching the sleeper train to Danang. So adept were we at navigating the chaos we walked all the way to the train station with packs on and Amy and Oliver unrestrained for the most part by their parent’s hands. We were becoming (a bit more) confident!

Hanoi train station – waiting for 10pm to come
Intrepid urban hikers of Hanoi