Day 1-2: HANOI

“Stick together like sticky rice” our guide, Tuan, coached the kids. This is a must strategy for crossing any street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi where there are 6 million mopeds for 9 million people and few, if any, stoplights or stop signs. It’s chaos. Lots of “beep beep beeps” as the sea of mopeds, with an occasional van, navigate these narrow roads, barely avoiding pedestrians walking in the streets and completely ignoring any semblance of lanes.

Twenty-two years after first visiting, and a year in the planning, we finally made it back to Vietnam, one of our favorite places when we traveled for 6 months in 2001. It’s not just our lives that have changed (a marriage and three kids later), but the small bustling town of Hanoi is now a big booming city. But the vibrancy and chaos of the Old Quarter still exist…. Vendors are still on the corners hawking their wares…. Shopkeepers remain squatting outside their stores waiting for customers…families still squeeze onto one moped (we saw a one-year-old on one!)….and the custom of having a few beers before noon still stands.

As most of you have probably guessed by now, we are more into experiences than museums when we travel. So, while we had a planned itinerary for our first day here, we scrapped it and asked Tuan to take us to the places HE felt were important and would give us a good sense of life here in Hanoi.

Our first stop was the “Hanoi Hilton”, an infamous prison used during the Vietnam War and where John McCain spent 6 years. Then onto the oldest Confucian University. But the highlight was definitely lunch. Tuan treated us to lunch at a hole-in-the-wall place that served beer fresh out of the barrel and delicious Vietnamese food with not another tourist in sight (nor any other women which was interesting in itself). And yes…Even Syd got a beer as there’s no drinking age here!

Remember I mentioned the 6 million mopeds and few traffic lights craziness? Well, tonight we got to experience it first hand, each riding on the back of a Vespa, piloted by a twenty-something Vietnamese kid, and stopping at different restaurants to try out various Vietnamese specialties. It was both exhilarating and terrifying as there are absolutely no road rules here so anything goes, including making a left turn across a sea of oncoming traffic! Definitely a “do not try this at home” type of experience!

Tomorrow we are headed to Halong Bay, best known for its beautiful, pinnacle-shaped islands, for the night before returning back to Hanoi.


The nice thing about a beautiful landscape, like the islands of Halong Bay, is that it doesn’t change throughout the years. So, while there were many, MANY more boats with tourists, and our own boat was 10x nicer than what we stayed on 22 years ago, Halong Bay was just as spectacular now as when we first saw it before. Huge towering cliffs of green jut out of the sea like pinnacles and look like something straight out of a Hollywood movie!

The best way to see Halong Bay is to stay overnight on a boat. You cruise far out into the islands, passing through the narrow gaps between the towering pinnacles and the occasional floating fishing village. Once anchored, entrepreneurial locals have figured out that they can make quite a living by rowing up to the balcony outside your room and selling you very stale cookies, melted chocolate bars, and warm beer (yes I speak from experience… Though we were happy to support the local economy!) We tried our hand at fishing for squid last night (unsuccessfully) and woke up early to kayak the flat waters and see the islands up close.

I make it my mission to try and do things off the beaten track if possible. If it’s something cheesy and touristy, I’ll generally take a pass unless it’s something like Halong Bay that is worth experiencing regardless. This is how on our way back to Hanoi, we found ourselves in a small village surrounded by rice paddies, watching a water puppet show, a centuries-old Vietnamese performance art most people see in Hanoi. But our guide had a connection and arranged for a private performance in this village in the middle of nowhere. The show was quirky and unique, but what I loved were the kids that gathered, not to watch the show, but to watch US! I quickly realized I was lacking in key phrases like “What’s your name?” and “How old are you” so I have since become well versed in the basics so that I can interact better down the road. For some reason, there was also a news station there filming the show for a story on the preservation of this old art form and they decided to interview us after. So at some point, we will be broadcast on Vietnamese TV! LOL.

We are in Hanoi for the night then head to the far north town of Sapa tomorrow where we will spend two days trekking through local, hill tribe villages, and spend the night in one.


My mom always says that most of life is lived on “plan B”. That’s especially true while traveling — which is how Syd found herself hitching a ride up a big hill on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle.

The adventure started the afternoon we arrived in Sapa, a small town to the North, nestled in the Tonkinese Alps close to the border with China. There are 7 different hill tribes living there, all still wearing their traditional, hand-embroidered clothing and practicing the same terraced rice farming techniques of their ancestors. Their villages dot the sculpted sides of the steep mountain valleys joined together by sidewalk-wide concrete “roads”. It was there that we planned to bike.

We were assured repeatedly that it was all downhill but knowing that we love interacting with villagers, our guide, Tuan, decided on an alternate route that would get us off the main road and into the countryside… a “plan B” you might say. After a long downhill ride into a deep ravine, we were met with the steepest uphill imaginable. Only Josh, who mountain bikes, was able to bike up it (which impressed the locals he passed along the way!) The rest of us non-bikers resorted to pushing. Fifteen minutes in, Syd was exhausted. Motorcycle after motorcycle zipped by us. Up ahead, Tuan finally flagged one down, offered the guy $2 to turn around, go grab Syd and drive her up the hill. And that’s how she got her first motorcycle ride (without a helmet). You would think I would be horrified, but all I felt was relief.

At the top of the hill was the first of several villages… So as we biked, we passed school kids, simple homes, some local shops, and many hill tribe women starting their walk home after selling goods in town. Overall, a very memorable afternoon.

Plan B arrived again the next morning when the Hmong guide we arranged for trekking and a “home stay” (where we would overnight in a local Hmong family’s home) canceled. A new guide was found for us but now, instead of being close to Sapa, we would have to go an hour away to start our trek.

The huge silver lining? We absolutely adored our guide, My (pronounced “Mee”), and headed out to an area just now opening up to Westerners. In fact, we didn’t see another tourist for the entirety of the two days we were there!

We trekked 6 miles across the rice terraces and through bamboo forests. My showed us the indigo plant used to dye Hmong clothing and tricked us into smushing it in our hands. Soon our palms and fingers turned bright green that darkened into deep purple as the day progressed… and only then told Syd and me that it takes 3 days to fade away! The joke was definitely on us!

Lunch was at a local villager’s house, a simple structure with a single lightbulb and fire pit for cooking. Kids were everywhere playing in ways that would make an American mom’s heart race. At one point I felt like the Pied Piper with 7 giggling kids following us for a good 20 minutes through the village. It’s amazing what you can communicate with hand signals, a big smile, and the two English words they all knew: “goodbye!!!” and “foreigner!” Cue the giggles.

You might be wondering what it’s like to do a homestay. It’s definitely awkward at first. You are in a stranger’s home, you don’t speak their language, and there are often customs to be mindful of. But I’ve found that each time, the awkwardness wears off and is soon replaced by a mutual appreciation for one another. We helped cook dinner over the open fire, took fu


“It feels like we’re on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland” the kids joked 3 minutes into our “learn about the ancient way of fishing” experience outside the seaside town of Hoi An. I have to say, Kevin and I agreed. What was billed as an “authentic” experience was more like a well-rehearsed show where everything felt staged. Even what seemed at first like real locals going about their day on the river turned out to be “actors” who showed us how to navigate their circular fishing boats, toss large round fishing nets, and winch up a huge submerged net (which, not surprisingly, had no fish.)

Sadly two decades of tourism have not been kind to Hoi An. We experienced a kind of reverse culture shock when we arrived. Within one day, we had traveled from the authentic and remote areas of Sapa, which we had absolutely loved, to what used to be the quaint old town of Hoi An, now overrun with tourists, the majority from Vietnam and China. Sidewalks are packed with people and shop after shop after shop sells the same cheap souvenirs. What used to be a beautiful once-a-month full moon lantern festival, where lit candles are released onto the river, is now a nightly circus of hundreds of lantern-lit gondola-like boats, each carrying people releasing lanterns. It’s chaos on the water with the same traffic-jam driving rules that govern the busy roadways. Much to our dismay, the sensory overload was a shockingly stark contrast to our experiences in the North.

Some of the quaint aspects of Hoi An remain. We escaped the crowds on Josh’s 19th birthday on the back of Vespas into the countryside, through beautiful bright green rice fields, villages, and vegetable gardens. Farmers in conical hats worked while water buffalo grazed nearby. True to Hoi An’s penchant for “experiences,” even our Vespa ride had stops to teach us how to make rice pancake crackers, the old way of weaving sleeping mats, and the making of rice wine. We also made silk lanterns, did a cooking class, and had tailored clothes made (including Josh’s prom and graduation suits!) and while these experiences were perfectly enjoyable, the element of “performance” persisted. It didn’t help that as we arrived at each place, another group of tourists was just departing so we always felt a bit like we were just another cog on the wheel. We really missed the authentic and unique experiences of the North.

For those of you considering a visit to Vietnam, unless you are really into old architecture, or beach resorts with casinos, I would skip Hoi An and spend more time in places like Sapa, or look into visiting other ethnic hill tribe villages in the central highlands of Vietnam’s eastern border.

We are now on our way to the Mekong Delta in the South where we will spend the night on a boat before heading to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) tomorrow and then home on Saturday.


Their small boat sidled up to ours. After some discussion, two fresh coconuts were handed over, money exchanged hands, and off went the boat with calls of “cam un!” (thank you in Vietnamese). And so it went again…twice more with some sticky rice cooked in a banana leaf and Pho (noodle soup).

Such is the early morning at the floating market in the Mekong Delta, south of Saigon, and it was how we spent breakfast this morning. The “market” is actually a few dozen Vietnamese boats selling a variety of things…. Fruits, veggies, cooked food like the pho we ate, and drinks. Vendors advertise by tying a sample of what they are selling to the top of a bamboo pole raised high like a flag above each boat. Some bamboo poles had 5 or 6 things tied to them! At one point, the pineapple vendor had us get onto his boat to enjoy, together, the sliced pineapple we had just bought. Definitely a unique and fun experience!

We boarded our traditional Sampan boat yesterday afternoon and began the 7-hour, overnight journey up the Mekong towards the market. On the way, we stopped to paddle up a small creek in a Vietnamese rowboat and later went ashore to see our guide’s hometown to visit a lively fish, meat, veggie, and fruit market there.

But the real destination was the floating market, a very early morning affair but well worth the schlepp IMHO. Just the simple interactions with the various vendors’ boats were interesting and getting to practice my minimal Vietnamese provided the usual entertainment for the locals. LOL.

We are now in Saigon with one more day of activities before heading home on Saturday 🙁


Apparently when in Vietnam, my “never ride a motorcycle” rule doesn’t apply because, for the third time in just 10 days, we hopped on the back of Vespas and did a food tour of Saigon.

You have to understand that riding a moped in Saigon is crazy. At any given moment you are surrounded by hundreds of other mopeds so close that you can touch the rider next to you. Cars and buses maneuver through the sea of motorbikes and the stoplights may as well not exist for the amount they are ignored. But somehow it all still works. My theory is that while you get the occasional texting motorbiker, for the most part, the drivers are paying attention and are quite skilled — plus there is so much traffic that it all moves at a slow but persistent pace. So needless to say, we ate delicious food in between being somewhat terrified on the road!

Yesterday, our last day in Vietnam was spent visiting the Cuchi Tunnels, an underground network used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. Based on their ingenuity….the traps they set, their totally hidden entrances enabling them to pop out anywhere unexpectedly, and how they made smoke from cooking fires look like morning fog, to name a few…it’s not surprising they won the war. We were able to crawl through a section of tunnel they’ve actually WIDENED for tourists and it’s truly remarkable that guerillas actually lived in this underground network for years at a time.

We followed this up with a visit to the War Remnants Museum which was tough on us all, but so important to see.

We are at the airport now waiting for our flight home. It’s truly been an amazing two weeks. Remarkably, even the kids have said so 🙂 Their highlights? The homestay, Sapa in general, the Vespa rides, Hanoi, and Halong Bay. Though they are definitely ready for home! It will feel strangely quiet being home without the constant “beep beep beeps” of mopeds surrounding me. I think I may even miss it! I will definitely miss the kind people and beauty of this country.


Hope you enjoyed my blog!