Some write-ups just have a way of taking you back. The photos and the memories have a way of bringing everything to the forefront again, making it seem like all the experiences were just yesterday. One of our favorite things as a family is to look back not in regret, but to reflect. When I think about this trip it makes me realize how much we have grown as family. It also makes me remember what an amazing place Vietnam is. After nearly two decades at war with the United States, the country still stirs up lots of emotions to many Americans. The chaotic cities, lush terraced hillsides, and towering mountains combine with the countries tremulous past to make for an incredible place to visit.

[ D A Y • 1 ] Tokyo → Macau → Hanoi, Vietnam

Travel day! Not necessarily the most relaxing day of our trips (okay, let’s be real…travel days with young kids in tow are never relaxing), but an important one nevertheless. We tried our hardest to book a red-eye this go around as those seem to work best for our family, however we just couldn’t find anything that worked well.

Consequently, mid-morning we loaded up the car and drove to Narita International for our early afternoon flight. Generally we try to fly out of Haneda Airport when leaving Tokyo, but sometimes the price difference is just too good to pass up. Although the tolls can be a bit pricey, one of the nicest things about flying out of Narita is that parking isn’t nearly as expensive as flying out of Haneda. If you plan on driving to Narita, we recommend using USA Parking (just make sure to make a reservation online beforehand and you’re golden). You can even have them meet you at arrivals with you car FOR FREE when you return back home as long as you are not traveling on a Japanese holiday or busy time period.

After unloading the car, it was a short shuttle ride to Terminal 2. We headed to the “special assistance” area from there for check-in for our flight and to check our Deuter hiking carrier and Osprey bags. If you’re opting to travel stroller-free this assistance area will also offer you a loaner stroller that you can use until you get to your gate. From here we zoomed through security, and then found a play area for the kids to get some wiggles out. There is a pretty good one on the way to Gates 81 – 99 next to “Raffine.” Foam mats, creatures to crawl all over, and a small slide kept our littles entertained for a good bit before we headed to the gate to board Air Macau flight to…Macau.

On board the flight, drinks (including beer) were complimentary and a meal was served, so it was a bit more enjoyable than the typical budget airline we tend to go for. As with any other flight, we recommend that you bring snacks with you on board for kiddos as the food isn’t always a hit with our wee ones and some of the meal choices may be gone when the cart reaches you (bummer!). In our experience, the more novel the snack the better. We tend to pick up things that are healthy, but nothing that we regularly stock in the house (ex: freeze dried fruit). Overall, our kids like flying, but they tend to be better behaved when they get in the mindset that it’s a special treat and “special” snacks help create that frame of mind.

On the other hand, if you’re flying budget we would recommend eating beforehand as meals can be pricey on board. Yoshinoya restaurant is a good option in Terminal 2 if you’re looking for delicious food and efficiency. An English menu is available, as well. Just order by the number on the menu and they’ll call you up when it’s ready (pro tip: make sure not to order too much as they do not do take-away). Try the beef bone ramen (1,000yen/bowl)!

A short while later we arrived in Macau ~1930 and moved through transfer security fairly easily. Note that the security staff here will require you to dump any liquids you may have accumulated from your previous flight regardless of whether they are unopened. We made our way up to the Plaza Premium Lounge via Priority Pass afterwards for a few minutes before boarding our second flight to Hanoi less than an hour later. In order to access this lounge head towards Gate 9, take the escalator up to the second floor and boom! it will be right there.

The staff that checked us in didn’t seem to be completely familiar with the benefits of our pass, so make sure to mentally jot those down before trying to check in (ex: Both Dom and I have Priority Pass and each of our passes allows for two additional people to enter the lounge with us, making both of the kids free). Overall, the lounge has a nice selection of food, beer, wine, some hard alcohol, soy milk, as well as a coffee machine. The comfortable seating area made our somewhat limited time fly by.

We departed Macau ~2100 and arrived in Hanoi a bit before 2200. The visa-on-arrival process was very easy, however not as straight forward or as quick as Cambodia. We estimate that we would have saved ~15min had we had e-visas, but not sure that’s worth the extra cost involved. Post-entering the country, we quickly picked up our Osprey Duffles and then found a shared shuttle to take us to Hai Bay Hotel for check-in. The shared shuttle saved us a few bucks (costing 300,000 VND) and we met some new travel friends as a bonus. As we continue to travel, we have become increasingly comfortable with waiting to arrange transfers upon arriving as it has proven to save us a bit of cash. Occasionally we will book a few days/weeks ahead, but we no longer sweat it if everything isn’t set up prior to our departure.

We were immediately hit with a wild welcome and soon learned from the heavy traffic and crazy streets that Vietnam’s soccer team had won a big game against Malaysia earlier that evening. Goodness the city of Hanoi knows how to celebrate! After dodging an endless sea of honking cars/motorbikes, thousands of waving Vietnam flags, and even a few road flare illuminated parties (in the middle of the street) we finally made it to Hai Bay Hotel. Hot towels, tea, and warm smiles met us at the door. Vietnam, this is gonna be fun; we love you already!

USA Parking:

  • Parking (10 days): 6,240yen

Vietnam Visa Tips:

  • If you don’t have an E-visa head to “Visa Application” desk with visa application (printed and filled out), visa approval letter (that you need to apply for and pay for beforehand – https://www.vietnamimmigration.org), and passports. E-visa is $35/person, but the regular visa process was fast enough that we don’t feel like it would have made a big difference.
  • Once you have handed all of this information in, move to the left and wait for your name to be called. At that point you will pay $25USD (they will accept other currencies – we paid in yen) and turn in two passport photos per person. *Note: They don’t take card so make sure you have some sort of cash on hand.
  • After paying move directly to immigration and give them your passports and visas.

[ D A Y • 2 ] Hanoi: St. Joseph Cathedral, Runam Nha Tho, Hoan Kiem Lake, Ngoc Son Temple, Temple of Literature, One Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Presidential Palace, West Lake, Quan Thanh Temple, Tran Quoc Pagoda, Hanoi Weekend Night Market, Ta Hein Street, Bia Hoi Corner

We woke at 0700 to squeals of joy! Frisbee, our magical Christmas elf, had found us in Vietnam! Neither Dom nor I ever pictured ourselves lugging this little guy hundreds of miles around Asia, but traditions are important and thus Frisbee AND our Advent Calendar made the adventure packing list cut…Ha! Only the essentials, right? Frisbee had also come bearing a gift, a wall sticker Christmas tree, so while Dom and I packed the bags for the day, Miles and Penny were hard at work decorating the tree making the room feel a bit more festive.

With the room decorated and the kids dressed, we walked down to breakfast which conveniently was included in our hotel room rate. A quality pre-made buffet alongside a number of good made-to-order options ensured there was something for everyone. The day was off to a great start! Dom had planned a DIY walking tour around Vietnam’s capital and second largest city for our family for the day, so I was anxious to see what he had in store for us. As a sidenote, if do-it-yourself touring isn’t your jam, take a look at Hanoi Kids and schedule a free tour with this volunteer based organization instead!

Before diving into our DIY Tour of Hanoi we’d love to share a few tidbits about the city that we feel will help prepare you for your visit!

Although both Uber and Grab are available and reliable in Hanoi, you’ll most likely be spending the majority of your time in the Old Quarter, a compact area made up of ~35 streets.  As such, in our opinion traveling by foot is the easiest way to enjoy it all. This is also why we chose to spend 2 full days in Hanoi as opposed to more. Even though many suggested this wouldn’t be quite long enough we found it to be plenty to get a good feel for the vibe of the city and hit most of the sights. It’s certainly unlike Tokyo where everything despite being compact in nature is much more spread out. *If you’re really pressed for time you could probably get by with a day and a half if you move at a good clip.*

Additionally, make sure you have some cash with you while you’re out exploring, as Hanoi is a very cash-based economy. Don’t fret too much if you don’t have much before setting out for the day as there are plenty of international ATMs about the city, and we didn’t have any trouble getting extra cash with our debit card when needed. Just be prepared for many places not to accept plastic (a bit of a bummer if you’re trying to rack up those travel points).

Oh yes…and make sure to cross the streets exercising lots of caution! Cross walks don’t really exist and most sidewalks are just a good place for motorbikes to park, so you’ll find yourself walking on the street a good bit and hoping for the best when you cross traffic. So a couple tips to keep from getting run over: 1.) Try to cross with others (the larger the group the better), 2.) walk across at the same steady pace, believe it or not traffic will find its way around you (the first few times you do this I’ll admit, it’s a bit scary!), and 3.) most definitely don’t run!

Okay, now onto our DIY Tour of Hanoi!

Our first stop of our DIY tour was St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Church founded in 1886 just a few blocks from the hotel. It’s a great spot that both locals and tourists use to meet up and although beautiful (+ bustling) during the day we found it to be even more gorgeous at night all lit up for Christmas. So if you’re visiting during the holidays make sure to swing back by at night!

From here we walked to Runam Nha Tho to pick up some Egg Coffee to-go. Have you tried egg coffee before? Sounds kinda gross if you ask us, BUT don’t let the name fool you. Think coffee with a sweet custard-like topping in place of cream that you can indulge in served hot or cold (we prefer hot). Does that sound a bit more appealing? Although it’s way sweeter than our typical brew, it actually ended up being kinda a staple for us during our time in Vietnam!  Just mix it up when you get it and enjoy! Runam Nha Tho will also give you a little biscuit to enjoy with your beverage, however the kids stole these before we even had a chance to taste them. They gave their stamps of approval and will vouch for their deliciousness!

With caffeine in hand, we headed towards the heart of the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, to visit Ngoc Son Temple also know as “the Temple of the Jade Mountain.” Essentially, the lake surrounds the temple and a pagoda sits in the center on an island. Built in the 18th century, legend describes how the emperor was given a magic sword to help him defeat the Chinese. In the process, he oversaw the return of the golden turtle God to the lake. Honestly we had a challenging time completely wrapping our heads around the legend. However, in keeping with this tale, the lake is home to an endangered species of freshwater turtle. It’s thought to be good luck to see one of them.

To Miles delight, there is also a stuffed 250kg specimen on display in the temple, so although we weren’t lucky enough to see a real one this sighting made up for it a bit. Before and after visiting the temple, we were stopped by several groups of school children to be interviewed. It was really rewarding to help them practice their English and getting to know about their favorite places in Hanoi.

We moved towards the Temple of Literature next stopping along the way to peek into several art galleries. Goodness there are a lot of talented people in this city! After marveling at a good number of pieces and contemplating on purchasing one in particular we found ourselves at the Temple which was built to honor Confucius in 1070. Although the Temple of Literature by name is considered a temple, it focuses less on religion and more on academia and thus served as a place of study.  As we meandered through the grounds, which are also home to Vietnam’s first national university, we admired the monuments dedicated to the scholars of the past and enjoyed watching a class celebrate their graduation.

Afterwards, we explored both Ho chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Museum, passing by the One Pillar Pagoda on the way. To be completely honest, our visit to the pagoda was driven more by convenience rather than an actual desire to check it out. Balanced on a single concrete column, and designed to look like a lotus flower floating in a pond, it looked less than impressive on some of the photos we had seen beforehand. Its “reflection pond” was drained for maintenance when we visited as well which certainly didn’t help. In our opinion, is true value lays in its location, as it is flanked by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on one side and museum on the other.

“Uncle Ho” (as he is affectionately referred to) is perhaps the single most important figure in the establishment of modern Vietnam. He served as the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Vietnam and later became the Prime Minister and President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He is a confusing figure for historians, as he used several false names during his life and it’s not even known for sure when or where he was born.

Should his wishes have be carried out, his body would have been cremated and his ashes scattered about the country. Instead, the country decided to give him the Soviet treatment and embalm his body, entombing it in a foreboding granite mausoleum. It’s an impressive sight, particularly during the changing of guard, serving as a reminder that despite the partly sunny sky and welcoming residents of Hanoi, you are, in fact, a visitor in a communist country that was engulfed in a bloody war with the United States for nearly two decades.

Once we finished taking in the foreboding Mausoleum, we walked a bit farther down the promenade to see the bright yellow Presidential Palace. It only takes a glance to realize that this is not a typical Vietnamese structure. Built in 1990 in the French style, it sits in stark contrast to the traditional stilt house that Ho Chi Minh apparently preferred. It was used for official state visits, but the President himself apparently never even lived in the building.

To round out our Ho chi Minh trifecta, we visited the rather impressive Ho Chi Minh Museum. Dedicated to educating the masses about the leader’s rise to power, life, and accomplishments, its unique style certainly leaves an impression. Many of the exhibits are almost art-deco in nature and even though the kids kept us from reading as much as we would have liked it still was a very worthwhile stop.

At this point, we switched gears a bit and left the imposing communist structures behind, slowly making our way toward West Lake, a community where a lot of expats live that is filled with shops and restaurants. On the way, we stopped by Quan Thanh Temple, a taoist temple built in the 1100s to honor the God of the North. It’s one of four sacred temples, constructed in the four wind directions, each dedicated to a specific God.

We were here for a short look and then whisked away to the last stop on our walk, Tran Quac Pagoda. Popping into at a local restaurant for some cold coconut water for the kids (30,000 VND/each) and a Ha Noi Beer (25,000 VND/each) or two along the way. As we continued walking we eventually came to a busy street where the lake lay on one side and a smaller body of water on the other. The street probably wouldn’t have stood out too terribly too much to us except for the bicycle vendors selling a very well known local sweet, Bo Bia Ngot! Think of it like a Vietnamese spring roll with shredded sweet coconut, honey, and rice paper. And at 10,000 VND/per sweet it’s a bargain! Local Hanoi Beer + Bo Bia = the perfect combo and way to wind down our walking tour.

Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, dates back to the 6th century, and (not surprisingly) has undergone several renovations throughout the years. In addition to the large pagoda, there is also a museum on the grounds with some VERY old and priceless statues on display. I would love to tell you we took the time to learn about each one, but in reality by this time the kids had had enough and we weren’t able to give statues the attention they deserved. Perhaps if we had arrived earlier in the day…maybe…

Eager to give everyone a break, we headed back to the hotel for a bit to decompress, essentially completing a big loop around the Old Quarter. On our trek back, we stumbled upon Ha Noi’s Christmas street (Pho Hang Ma) where a collection of vendors were selling any and every Christmas themed decoration you could possibly imagine. Think of it like a Christmas Wonderland in the middle of the crazy streets of Ha Noi. Miles and Penny went from meltdown to best behavior as they were reminded that Christmas was only a few days away!

Back at the Hai Bay Hotel, we headed to the (empty) rooftop restaurant for drinks, some snacks, and hot chocolate for the kids. The food up top was nothing to rave about, but the view more than made up for it. Since it was still somewhat early we decided to pop out for a bit longer after donning a few more clothes. Everyone talks about how Vietnam is hot and humid, but this time of year it is actually a bit brisk in the evenings, so make sure to bring some warmer clothing if you plan on visiting over the holidays. We walked the couple blocks to St. Joseph’s Cathedral first to admire the gorgeous Christmas lights and then it was off to the Weekend Night Market. Open Friday through Sunday, the same market goes on during the day, but takes on a different feel after dark. Lots of street food options abound and it’s just a great place to pick up a souvenir or do some people watching. Post-market, we made our way to Ta Hein Street, aka “Beer Street.”

Ta Hein is one of those legendary places where beer is literally cheaper than water, and there are tons of people sitting outside restaurants in tiny chairs (think kindergarten sized), sipping delicious drafts and enjoying each others company. Since we went earlier in the evening it was still very kid-friendly. We explored the area a bit enjoying the great mix of locals and tourists and then picked up the famous Vietnamese food staple, Banh Mi, for dinner on the way back to the hotel. This is a mouth-watering sandwich on toasted French baguette with tons of veggies, meat, and Vietnamese spices. They are fast, inexpensive, and one of Dom’s favorite parts of the city. You can get them pretty much anywhere, but we stopped at a little place named Pateta (right off Bia Hoi Corner) and didn’t regret it.

The kids were wiped and both fast asleep. Miles actually fell asleep in Penny’s carrier on me firmly reminding me that he 1.) has grown so much over the past several years and 2.) 45lbs. is really heavy! We ate as we strolled back to the hotel stopping at DC Gallery on our walk to negotiate and purchase the painting of a Black Hmong Woman in traditional dress we had been contemplating throughout the day. Conveniently, Sapa, the area in which this tribe has its roots would be our next stop on our northern Vietnamese adventure. Honestly, I could see us living in Hanoi one day. The vibe, the food, the people. The city of ~10million ranks up there with Siem Reap and Chiang Mai as one of our favorites!

Hotel Hai Bay Hanoi Breakfast Tip: Many time hotels in Vietnam will include breakfast in the per night cost (we booked through Booking.com). Breakfast at Hai Bay runs from 0630 – 0930 and is served on the second floor of hotel. Good selection of coffee/tea/juice, curry, pancakes, fruit, rice, omlete, beef pho, shrimp noodles, etc.

Hanoi Kids:

  • Hours: They offer various tours, some focused on architecture, others on food
  • Admission: Free!

St. Joseph Cathedral:

  • Hours: The courtyard is open 24/7, but to go inside you need to visit during practice ceremonies. Weekdays 0530 and 1815, Saturday 1800, Sunday 0500, 0700, 0900, 1100, 1600, 1800, and 2000.
  • Admission: Free
  • Location

Runam Nha Tho:

  • Hours: 0700 – 2300
  •  Admission:
    • Ca phe trung: 105,000 VND
    • Bac Xlu nong: 80,000 VND
    • Bac Xiu (black coffee with condensed milk and fresh milk): 80,000 VND

Ngoc Son Temple:

  • Hours: 0730 – 1730
  • Admission: 30,000 VND/Adults, 15,000 VND/Students, Children under 15 are free
  • Location 

Temple of Literature:

  • Hours: 0730 – 1800 (April 15 – October 15), 0800 – 1730 (All other days)
  • Admission:
    • 30,000 VND/Adult, 15,000 VND/Student (with card), Children under 15years old are free
    • Audio Tour Available for 50,000 VND
  • Location

One Pillar Pagoda:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1700
  • Admission: Free
  • Location

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum:

  • Hours: Daily, 0800 – 1700
  • Admission: Free

Presidential Palace:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1130 (Tuesday, Saturday), 1400 – 1600 (Sunday)
  • Admission: 25,000 VND/Adult
  • Location

Ho Chi Minh Museum:

  • Hours: Daily, 0800 – 1130 and 1400 – 1630. Closed Monday and Friday.
  • Admission: 10,000 VND/Adult

Ho Chi Minh Museum Tip: You will not be allowed to bring in bags (they have a service to check them). Shorts, tank tops, or singlets are also not allowed.

Quan Thanh Temple:

  • Hours: Daily, 0800 – 1700
  • Admission: Free

Tran Quoc Pagoda:

  • Hours: Daily, 0730 – 1800
  • Admission: Free

Ta Hein Street:

  • Hours: 24 hours…it’s a street
  • Admission: Free

[ D A Y • 3 ] Hanoi: Old Town Tuk Tuk Bicycle Tour, Hoa Lo Prison, Giang Café, Cho Hom Market, Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, Overnight Train Hanoi→ Sapa

Despite our ambitious first full day in the city “bounded by the river” aka Hanoi, we knew there were a few more things we really wanted to experience before hopping on the overnight train to the mountainous region of Sapa. We woke fairly early to head to breakfast, check out of our room, and store our bags for the day with the front desk before stepping outside for the walk to Hoa Lo Prison, where American GIs (including John McCain) were kept prisoner during the Vietnam War.

We had planned on trying out a bicycle tuk tuk later in the day, but when one flagged us down after leaving the hotel we decided we might as well kill two birds with one stone and get a ride to the Prison meandering through the city first. Like everything in Hanoi, the price is negotiable so bargain hard to get a good rate. Our “driver” agreed on an hour price to take us around the Old Quarter and then agreed to drop us off at the prison at the conclusion of our tour. To our surprise though he actually took us to the prison in the French Quarter first and then insisted on waiting while we took the tour inside…we didn’t realize until later when he dropped us off at Hoan Kiem Lake that this was to double our agreed on hour long price (we paid the previously agreed upon price and politely refused to pay the extra amount then firmly walked away).

Hoa Lo Prison, was originally built by the French to hold political prisoners during the French colonization. It’s better known, however, as the “Hanoi Hilton,” the place where the Northern Vietnamese held American Prisoners during the Vietnam War. It was very strange to set foot in a place where fellow Americans were tourtured not that long ago. What stood out the most, however, was how much propaganda was still proudly displayed. Paragraphs about how well the prisoners were treated, how they received special meals, and how they got better medical care than in the U.S. accompanied pictures of bone thin GIs. Somehow I think that John McCain would have disagreed with their version of history (as I’m sure he did when he visited later as a Senator).

After getting dropped off by our Tuk Tuk driver, we went on the hunt for some caffeine. In Hanoi, that means another stop for egg coffee! Not content with just any egg coffee, we wanted to try one the best places for it. Giang Café is a family owned restaurant that has been in the same building, serving egg coffee the same way since 1939. As expected, it was busy, but definitely worth it. Head up to the second floor and make yourself at home with the locals. Again, you’ll find yourself sitting in kindergarten sized chairs, but that’s just how they roll in Hanoi I suppose! When you’re done, head back down to the first floor to pay. Service is quick and there are a lot of variations of egg coffee to choose from – you’ve been warned!

Rejuvinated with a nice caffeine buzz, we caught a grab taxi to Cho Hom Market, which is a little outside the Old Quarter and would give us a better idea what “real” Ha Noi was like. Britt had visions of having a tailored traditional Vietnamese dress made for her, and Cho Hom is known for being the go-to place for fabric, so we figured it would be a great place to start. The entire second floor is dedicated to fabric, and even though neither of us knows how to sew (fabric at least), it was fascinating to walk through the stalls filled with towers of colorful stacked textiles – each with a little Vietnamese lady perched in the middle. We never did find a place to get a dress tailored (at least within our budget), but it was a cultural experience, nonetheless.

With our time in Ha Noi drawing to a close (we needed to pick up our bags at the hotel ~2000 to head to the train station), we had one last major thing we wanted to experience, a water puppet show. Unfortunately the 1610 and 1720 shows had already sold out when we arrived to purchase tickets, so we opted for the 1830 show and spent the time before the performance strolling Ta Hein Street (“Beer Street” again), but this time for happy hour. If we are honest we kinda made our own happy hour. One of the staff at AM Thuc Ba Mien flagged us down to sit at his restaurant and so we inquired if they were offering a “happy hour.” The man shrugged and said, “Sure, why not” with a smile. Haha! Let’s just reiterate that everything is basically negotiable in Hanoi…everything! Beer ranged from 15,000 – 20,000 VND (yup, that’s right, 64 – 86 cents!) while appetizers were ~50,000 VND.

Finally it was show time, so we made our way back to Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.  This theater is the original water puppet show in Hanoi and it’s roots date all the way back to the 11th century. The art form originated as entertainment during the times when the rice fields were flooded with waist deep water. The tradition has survived, and although it’s admittedly a little bizarre for a Westerner we still feel like the show is a must do in Hanoi (just do yourself the favor of grabbing a beer or two before hand…don’t worry, Ta Hein Street isn’t far at all)!

After the show, we made a quick stop at a highly recommended Banh Mi sandwich shop, Banh My Pho, to pick up dinner to later eat onboard the train. While it was delicious, we honestly preferred our first Banh Mi shop, Pateta (listed above), as the baguette just seemed to be a little more crispy. Quickly, we headed back to our hotel to pick up the bags we stored, and caught a Grab car to Phong Doi Vao Ga Di Tau train station.

Overnight trains in Asia have proven to be one of our favorite parts about traveling in this part of the world. It’s a unique (for us) way to travel long distances in a comfortable way, saving money by paying for transport and lodging at the same time! Plus, the kids absolutely love them! The trains in Vietnam are still affordable, but are much nicer than the options in Thailand, and we definitely recommend the experience if you want to put yourself out there a little bit. It should also be noted here that if someone offers to help you with your bags, the expectation is a large tip (and goodness they will quote you something outrageous after they have finished helping you, of course). In our experience these people who are trying to “help” can be really pushy and will try to yank your duffel/suitcase out of your hand even when you state you don’t want the help. If you don’t want help make sure you firmly say “no.” However, if you have your hands full with kids and opt for the help don’t be pressured into paying an absurd tip at the end. Pay what you are comfortable paying and they will most likely be happy they got something.

Once we got all everyone situated in the room and the duffels squarely stashed underneath the table (which by sheer luck they were the perfect width!) the kids spent some time in the bunk up top coloring and decorating their space with stickers. Dom and I exhaled a bit and each popped open a Hanoi Beer, sat back, and reflected on the day. The train departed right on time at 2200…next stop, Sapa!

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater Tip: Although we didn’t think about it before hand, tickets here actually sell out several hours in advance. Everything in Old Quarter is fairly close, so swing by the theater before hand (perhaps in the morning) to pick your tickets for the later afternoon shows. We initially planned on going at around 1600, but had to delay a few hours to get three seats together.

Hoa Loa Prison:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1700
  • Admission: 30,000 VND/Adult

Giang Café:

  • Hours: 1000 – 2230
  • Admission: ~25,000 – 50,000 VND/Coffee (lots of options!)

Cho Hom Market:

  • Hours: 0600 – 1700
  • Admission: Free

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater:

  • Hours: 1500,  1610, 1720, 1830, 2000 (show times)
  • Admission: 100,000 – 200,000 VND (Dependent on section in theater, seats assigned within section. We opted for the cheap seats and found them to be just fine for our needs.)

[ D A Y • 4 ] Sapa: Trekking with Sapa Sisters, Topas Eco Lodge

We awoke to creepy music playing on the train, announcing our imminent arrival at Ga Lao Cai Station. Despite our alarms being set to get up, pack up, and exit the train, it was still a bit of a mad rush (despite Ga Lao Cai Station being the last stop on the line). Hurriedly, Dom and I got everyone changed, the bags packed, and vacated our berth to step out into a surreal scene of heavy fog, chilly temperatures, and the silhouettes of big mountains peaking through the early morning chill. Atypically for us, we hadn’t reserved transportation to Sapa itself (~45 min drive away from the station). Luckily for us there was a small gathering of mini-bus drivers all vying for our business right outside the station, so we took a few minutes to gather a few quotes and eventually agreed upon a fare into town for 400,000 VND.

Everything was going really well…and then 10 minutes into the drive, Penny threw up all over the place… yeah…it wasn’t the most glamorous arrival into town. Thankfully nearly everyone in our shared van was traveling with kids, so there was a lot of “Oh, we’ve been there! Let me see what I have to help!” Traveling with kiddos ain’t always the easiest, but it is rewarding and when you find yourself in a van surrounded by other like-minded folks it’s one of the nicest and most comforting places to be when you’re hundreds of miles from home (especially when you are covered in vomit). Nonetheless, she felt better immediately (thank goodness!). Once in town we jumped out of the mini bus and headed to the office of our hotel, Topas Ecolodge, to drop off our bags.

“Hi, I’m Britt! Wife, mom, and pack mule!”

Free of our duffles, we sauntered over to Sapa Sisters for our guided hike through the valley and rice fields with a quick stop at Vic’s Coffee for none other than egg coffee! If you like a little sweetness to your morning joe we think you’ll love it, too! Have I mentioned that it became a staple during our time in Vietnam? Vic’s is a small shop next door to Sapa Sisters and we ended up stopping here twice as Dom is convinced that this  was the absolute best we encountered during our adventure!

Now, onto the hike! We met up with our guide for the day and off we went! All of our research prior to the trip had noted that getting muddy was inevitable trekking through the fields and the Internet certainly didn’t let us down! So, we recommend good hiking boots (or even rain boots) as it’s most definitely unavoidable that you will get covered with sticky mud/water. Unfortunately, I didn’t pack my Hunter Original Tour Rain Boots for this part of our journey, but if I could repack for this trip they certainly would have made the cut as they are comfortable, high enough to keep out mud, and very packable (the “tour” boots fold down making them a bit different than the original boots). Yup, big fan over here!

However, if you don’t own rainboots or a pair of hiking boots that you don’t mind covering in mud you can rent a pair of  “trekking boots” from a local shop. We opted to do this for Miles and Britt for a nominal fee (40,000 VND for Miles and 60,000 VND for Britt). These prices are not firm by any means and the shop keepers seemed to come up with them last minute (we’re assuming after they size you up a bit), so like everything… they’re negotiable. The trek is definitely do-able in running shoes (as evidenced by Dom), however, if you’re rocking a baby carrier we would recommend at least a pair of shoes with some good tread for stability.

Sapa Sisters is one of the few trekking companies run by locals who keep all of your tourist dollars in Sapa itself. When we showed up at the office for our tour, our guide gave us a few options for the day ranging in difficulty. Typical Dom + Britt, we chose the “difficult” course and ended up hiking ~12 – 14km through the valley. Not surprisingly, Miles loved the mud and lead the way most of the time completing the entire trek himself. No complaints. Overall, we felt the “difficult” option was very doable with kids and feel that Miles could have tackled this even as a 4 year old.

We stopped mid-day to have lunch with a local family who were extremely welcoming and had two small daughters that were eager to play with Miles and Penny. The sight of 4 children from very different worlds playing together put a huge smile on our faces and gave us hope that the world isn’t actually a cold, dark, place. We ate the home cooked meal of spinach, potatoes, tofu, pork, and rice toasting the experience with (a lot of) rice wine before setting back out to finish the hike.

We returned to town ~1530 and returned the rain boots. Thankful that I had taken the time to rent these and again kicking myself for not packing my trusty Hunters. After bidding goodbye to our guide, we started to organize a way to get to our hotel for the night since it was a bit out of the way (the bags that we had dropped off earlier in the day had already been taken by the hotel staff to the lodge).

When setting up the trip we booked three different hotels in Sapa ranging in both cost and accommodation level, but at the last minute decided to change plans and take a chance splurging on one of the most unique places we’ve ever had the opportunity to stay. Topas Ecolodge is an ecologically responsible resort perched in the middle of breathtaking mountains, that gives back to the local community and whose staff is made up of ~95% of people from local tribes. There is a van service (free) to the lodge, however the last van departs the town of Sapa at 1400. Since our hike ended at 1530 we clearly missed it. Luckily for us it wasn’t difficult to flag down a taxi. We pointed to where we were headed on Google Maps. The driver took the phone glanced at it for a few seconds and then gave us a nod. Okay, here we go and hopped on in!

Looking back we’d bet that the driver had never driven to Topas Ecolodge. Because…well….to put it simply, the drive was insane! Our hired taxi (400,0000 VND) had to stop multiple times as huge trucks or fellow taxis got stuck along the muddy mountainous winding road. Multiple times we thought “Alright, let’s just walk,” but with darkness approaching, day packs and the kids we always came back to “let’s just give it a few more minutes.” So, if you have the option we’d suggest hopping in a van for this transfer. Ha! Once we arrived, however, it was clear that the journey was completely worth it. This place was breathtaking and unlike any other place we’ve ever stayed. Such a sweet, quiet retreat nestled high in the middle of the secluded mountains and rice terraces.

The rest of the evening was spent taking a dip in the (semi-heated) pool, picking up some food from the lodge’s restaurant to take back to the room, and enjoying some quality family time. Can we recommend the trout and duck? Both excellent quality, reasonably priced, and simply delicious! We could already tell one night in Sapa wasn’t enough. Dom and I have promised each other that we will come back to this spot later in life to soak in the experience again. It’s a promise I’m pretty sure we won’t be breaking.

Ga Lao Cai Station Tip: Pickings are slim on board the train so make sure to pick up food and drinks before boarding. Also, head to this site to book tickets.

Sapa Sisters:

  • Hours: Full-day Trek Duration: 0900 – 1500
    Admission: One day private trek: $37/Adult, $2.5/Child plus $3 to have lunch cooked by a local family
  • Location

Vic’s Coffee: 

  • Hours: Essentially always open (as it is also a hotel/hostel)
  • Admission:
    • Milk Coffee: 35,000 VND/each
    • Egg Coffee: 40,000 VND/each

[ D A Y • 4 ] Sapa: Topas Eco Lodge, Sapa Downtown, Overnight Train Sapa → Hanoi

Topas Eco Lodge is one of those places that is really hard to capture in photographs. Heck, I’m not sure a wide-angle lens would even do it justice. Maybe a drone? It is one of the few places we’ve been that we both completely agree we NEED to go back and experience again. I mean look at that crazy morning view (that’s our room in the photo above). Even with the fog, it’s still absolutely ridiculous. With the crazy taxi ride up the mountain the night before, we got to the resort just as the sun was setting. By the time we got settled in the room, it didn’t leave a lot of time to enjoy the resort itself. Consequently, our plan for the next day was to relax and enjoy our time on the mountain top.

Checkout was at 1100, but they had no problem letting us hang out for the rest of the day (we had no plans until our 2200 overnight train departure back to Hanoi). When you’re ready to check out of your room just let the hotel staff know and they’ll pick up your bags directly from your room and bring them to welcome house to store until you’re ready to depart the resort via the complimentary van.

Dom and I awoke right before sunrise (~0600) to enjoy watching the mountains come alive with the early morning light from the balcony behind our room. Once the kids got up it got a bit louder and we headed to breakfast (buffet style, which was AMAZING and included in the room rate) and then spent the rest of the day exploring the resort, having another cup of coffee on the balcony while the kids built all sorts of Lego creations (they have a bunch of toys/games for kids in the welcome lodge), swimming at the pool, and visiting one of the nearby Red Dao hill tribe villages. The kids enjoyed a pizza poolside for lunch and then Dom and I enjoyed one last beer as well as fresh spring rolls and bun cha, a BBQ pork and noodles dish that is only served in Northern Vietnam.

Just stop for a second and look at this place. No cars, no pollution, no noise, no politics, just rice terraces, big mountains, and your family. Words can’t express how amazing it was.

Of note, the pool has showers/changing rooms around the side so it’s easy to take a dip and take a shower even if you’ve already checked out of your room. The dense fog continued to slowly lift over the course of the day, and we milked every last moment until we needed to catch the last shuttle at ~1600 back down to Sapa’s Notre Dame Cathedral located in the downtown area at 1700.

As we hopped out of the complimentary hotel shuttle, the sun was setting and the mountains loomed surrounding the stone amphitheater. All types of people were gathered enjoying the evening at Quang Truong Square. The shuttle driver helped us arrange for a taxi to hold our luggage so we could explore the downtown area for a bit (free of our duffles) before heading back to the train station. The roads aren’t exactly easy to navigate and can be a bit hectic, so paying the extra 100,000 VND for the driver to store our bags in his trunk while we explored the town of Sapa was completely worth it. In total the trip back to the train station was 500,000 VND (including the extra holding charge).

We used the time in town to check out a few souvenir shops, let Miles and Penny play with some local kids in the town square, and enjoy the most delicious egg coffee of the trip. Yup, you guessed it, another trip to Vic’s!

We met back up with our taxi driver at 1900 to ride to Ga Lao Cai Station. 50minutes later, we were there. Next to the Station was a small spot, Café Thu (will be to the left of the station when facing the station), so we picked up a few drinks to take on the train as in our experience pickings are very slim to none on board. Soon after (~2100) we boarded the overnight train, found our cabin, changed into pajamas, and fell asleep so fast I don’t even remember the train leaving the station. Sapa, you were a dream…

Topas Ecolodge TipBreakfast runs from 0700 – 0930. Great selection of fruit, coffee/tea/fresh juices, quiche, pancakes, sausage, bacon, cheese, yogurt and granola, egg station, etc. We booked through Booking.com and the cost was included in our room rate.

Notre Dame Cathedral:

  • Admission: Free
  • Hours: 0800 – 1800
  • Location

Sapa Town Square:

  • Admission: Free
  • Hours: Open 24 hours
  • Location

[ D A Y • 5 ] Transfer Hanoi → Halong Bay: Azalea Cruise

The early morning wake-ups are perhaps the worst part of taking overnight trains. Unlike in Thailand, we found that the Vietnamese trains generally run on time, so we set the alarm for 0500 to get everyone up and dressed before the train arrived back in Hanoi at 0530. This time we were a bit more prepared for a speedy departure as we found there isn’t much of a grace period to disembark once the train stops. Everything was running pretty smoothly until we exited the train station. It was at that very moment that Penny threw up all over me…again. Ughhhhh! Gross.

The Deuter carrier was completley covered in vomit, but with Penny still smiling, we dodged the mass of taxi drivers eager to get a fare and quickly found a spot to clean up (oh the amazingness of wet wipes!). Besides the stench, our little adventurer seemed to recover quickly which allowed us to breathe a sigh of relief. Feeling a bit like a bizarre circus act as various people began crowding around to watch the spectacle we elected to walk the 1.5km back to our previous hotel to store our bags instead of catching a ride. It was a bit of a strange feeling strolling around Hanoi with our bags in the wee hours of the morning, but honestly we never really felt uncomfortable. Cities most definitely have a different vibe as the sun rises and it’s kinda neat to be able to experience waking up with the locals along the city streets.

Hai Bay Hotel, met us like we were family and were gracious enough to let us store our bags for free, again). We had about 2 hours to grab breakfast and a coffee before getting picked up by our Halong Bay cruise company, Azalea Cruises. We opted to walk to Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su for breakfast, a real local Vietnamese pho joint to dine with locals. Fast service, delicious food, and a good value made this joint an excellent choice and we have the kind folks at the front desk to thank for that! As far as the menu goes, we would recommend the “Chin” (well done beef pho) for 60,000 VND or the “Nam Gau” (brisket with flank beef pho) for 65,000 VND, but honestly we don’t think you can go wrong with anything of the choices this place serves up! Two thumbs up!!

Cafe Runam was just a short walk away, so we stopped there for a second time (this was the same shop that we stopped at for coffee during our first full-day in Hanoi, so details above). Then scooping up our bags at Hai Bay we loaded up at 0900 to drive to Halong Bay (~3hour transfer) arriving at the cruise terminal around noon (the van does make a stop along the way at a service station, so there is an opportunity to grab a snack/coffee or use the restroom if needed).

If you’ve done any research into Halong Bay, you know there are a seemingly endless number of cruise options for you to dwell over. We actually changed our reservation twice before finally settling on a 2 – day, 1 – night cruise with Azalea. We feel like this is one time you really do get what you pay for and quality matters since most things you’ll be doing will be on board the ship. Overall, most cruises in the bay offer similar excursions, so the main differences you are going to want to hone in on before choosing a company are: 1.) the quality of the accommodations, 2.) the quality of food served during meals, 3.) size of the cruise ship and 4.) where does the cruise go? Does it venture out of the heavily trafficked area or are you going to be surrounded by other boats the entire time?

So, how did our Azalea Cruise fare?

Azalea did a great job with quality of accommodations and our room was more than large enough for our family. In fact it was substantially bigger than our master bedroom at home. The bathroom was probably my favorite as it was also ginormous (easily 3 – 4x the size of the one in our master bedroom at home) and had a beautiful tub for soaking and relaxing. Additionally, the room was lined with windows giving you a great view of Halong Bay from any spot!

 

Quality of food was top-notch with lunch the first day being our absolute favorite as it was heavy on seafood options! However, if you have dietary restrictions or simply aren’t a lover of seafood you will also most definitely be able to find something that you’ll enjoy! So. Many. Options.

We also chose Azalea as the ship was on the larger side and thus there were many other traveling families and couples. Dom and I really enjoy meeting other travelers and hearing their stories as we bounce around. We met a wonderful couple this go around who currently resides in London and one of the most delightful families from Singapore!

We had read that Halong Bay could get really crowded, but felt that Azalea did a great job of staying away from the crowds. Besides the occasional cruise ship we mostly felt alone on the waters.

Our only criticism is that our itinerary felt a bit rushed and if we could change anything about the trip it would be to find the time to do a 3 day, 2 night cruise instead. Halong Bay is every bit as beautiful as you have heard and in our book at least is definitely worth the time/money it takes to get there.

“So what exactly do you do on a boat with two wee ones?” you might ask. Surprisingly, ALOT! A whole lot. After boarding the boat and indulging in an epic seafood lunch, we spent the first day soaking in the incredible views from the various balconies, taking a hike through Trung Trang Cave on Cat Ba (the biggest island on Halong Bay), and jumping in for a dip in the (sightly chilly) waters of the bay off the back of the ship. Bottom line: The kids were happy and exhausted after the very full day!

With the kids crashing early it left time for Dom + I to enjoy a drink while watching the sun set over a hundred limestone islands dotting the bay from our balcony on the back of the ship (as a surprise, we found out after boarding that the cruise line upgraded our cabin, we splurged a little for this cruise, but not this big – thanks, Azalea!).

It was one of those rare times where you can let yourself reflect on how far away you are from everything you know, and how much you are enjoying it. The rest of the evening was happily spent on the balcony with a bottle of wine reflecting on our past, enjoying the present, and discussing our plans for the future. After 10+ years of marriage, those types of nights just don’t come along often enough.

Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su:

  • Hours: 0600 – 2200
  • Admission: 50,000 – 70,000 VND per delicious bowl

[ D A Y • 7 ] Halong Bay→Ninh Binh Area: Tam Coc Boat Ride

Dom awoke before dawn the next morning to catch the sunrise over the lake, while the kids “slept in” until about 0645. We had a (very quick) breakfast and then headed out via kayak to explore some of the inlets around the island.

If we had one complaint about our Halong Bay experience it would be (as mentioned previously) that it was simply too short. Azalea did a great job packing in activities, but it made for a tighter schedule than we would have liked…I mean “schedule” isn’t exactly a word you want to think about when you are on a cruise. If we could do it all over again, I’m sure we would have taken a day from somewhere else so we could do a 3 day, 2 night cruise instead of the 2 day, 1 night option. Even if we didn’t get to see anymore of Halong, it would have given us more time to enjoy each activity a bit more throughly and spend more time taking in ridiculous views from our room’s epic balcony.

After kayaking, we checked out of our room, enjoyed brunch on the board as the ship, and headed back to the port. Azalea had arranged the transfer to our next (and last) Vietnamese destination (this was included in the cost of the cruise), the Ninh Binh area. Our driver was promptly waiting for us upon returning to shore around noon. We hopped in and settled in for the 3.5 hour drive.  Our driver seemed hell bent on getting there as soon as possible, and while we appreciated his urgency, it wasn’t exactly a relaxing trip. Perhaps “nail-biting” is a better description. Upon arriving in Tam Coc, we checked into Tam Coc Mountain Lake Homestay, met our amazing hosts, and (via their recommendation) walked 5 min down to catch one of the last boat rides in Tam Coc.

Ninh Binh is known as the “Halong Bay of Land”, and the boat ride through Tam Coc perfectly demonstrated why. Our rower (using primarily his feet to row), took us on a 1.5 hour tour passing by limestone cliffs, through caves, and past villagers checking their nets for the daily catch. It was nearly dark by the time we got back, but the experience of being on the water during sunset made it completely worth it and I think going later in the day actually made for a much better experience overall. Taking in some of the best views in the area while supporting the local economy…we dig it.

We walked across the street to Dang Quang Restaurant for dinner. This area of Vietnam is known for goat, so (of course) we ordered a few traditional goat dishes (fried and roasted), a pizza for Penny, and a burger for Miles. By the time we washed it all down with a Hanoi Beer everyone was ready for bed. Lovin’ that this destination is a bit more off the beaten path compared to the others in our itinerary, but we have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t stay like that for long. Even after just one evening we would recommend penciling in this area during your Northern Vietnam adventure. It’s just that good.

Tam Coc Boat Ride:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1800 most of the year
  • Admission: 195,000 VND/Adult, 100,000 VND/Child, Children under 3yo are free

Tam Coc Boat Ride Tip: Tipping the boat driver in the past has been somewhat expected. I think they are trying to crack down a bit on pressuring tourists into tipping, however as we did not experience the forced tipping we had read about. If you opt to tip ~50,000 VND (~$2usd) at the end of the ride seems like it is pretty standard.

Dang Quang Restaurant (small family place, so no info website to be found):

  • Hours: Open when the family that runs the place happens to be in the kitchen (not kidding!)
  • Admission:
    • Dinner for all 4 of us (including drinks) was ~$16usd
    • Ordered:
      • Bai Hanoi Beer: 15,000 VND
      • Fried Goat with Rice: 105,000 VND
      • Roasted Goat with Noodles: 105,000 VND
      • Pizza: 99,000 VND
      • Hamburger: 50,000 VND

[ D A Y • 8 ] Ninh Binh Area: Trang An Grottoes, Bai Dinh, Hang Mua Temple

We awoke to the sounds of birds chirping in the courtyard outside our window.  Sensing the impending return back to Japan, we were eager to get out and spend our last full day in Vietnam exploring. We hopped on our bikes and headed to Trang An for the other well known boat ride in the area, Trang An.

Our pre-trip research seemed to suggest that out of the two boat rides in the area, the Trang An boat ride was way better overall than the Tam Coc one we did the previous day. The reviews were convincing enough that we almost skipped the Tam Coc version all together. Having the opportunity to do both, we actually feel like the Tam Coc version was just as beautiful and made for an overall better experience with the kids, but it all depends on what you’re looking for. Not sure yet? Check out our post, Tam Coc vs. Trang An Boat Tour in Vietnam: Which is Better?, to help you decide!

In addition to being absolutely breathtaking, the Trang An area is also well known for being the filming location for the Kong, Skull Island movie with Nicole Kidman and Jack Black. While I don’t think many consider the film a cinematic masterpiece, the scenery certainly doesn’t disappoint.

There are three different boat routes you can pick from, conveniently named Route 1, Route 2, and Route 3. I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of the choices, but generally Route 1 has the most caves, while Routes 2 and 3 had a good mix of both (Route 2 in particular also takes you by the Skull Island set if that’s at all important to you). Regardless of which path you choose, the trip takes ~2 hours.

Following the boat ride, we hopped back on the bikes and rode to Bia Dinh, the largest buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. Large is a bit of an understatement, as the area encompasses over 700 hectares. We pulled up to the parking area, paid our 15,000 VND to park, and headed across the parking lot towards the ticket gate. You essentially pay your “entrance fee” by purchasing a ticket for an electric cart that will take you to the main entrance. You can purchase one way or round trip tickets, but in reality by the time you walk through the complex exploring, you are nearly back at the parking area anyway so we would recommend getting a one way ticket and then just making your way back to the parking area on foot.

We really didn’t know how much time to budget here and looking back we severely underestimated the size of the grounds and how long they would take to cover. Between exploring and then mis-reading the map back to the parking lot we ended up spending about three hours. It put us a bit behind on the rest of the day and thus we had a bit less time at our next stop, but the verdict was that it was definitely worth it.

By this time it was starting to get a little later in the afternoon, so we hurried towards our last stop, Mua Cave (“Hang Mua”). This was by far the most memorable stop of the day and although tired after exploring the grounds of Bia Dinh I’m so glad we didn’t call it a day then. Although we had less time than we had originally budgeted, we somehow timed our hike up to the dragon with sunset. “Hang Mua” means “dancing cave” as it is a location where the king used to come to watch song and dance shows performed in the cave. Once you arrive, it’s easy to see why it was a place the king liked to visit. The golden light washing over the green fields, river, and limestone cliffs made for some amazing memories.

As you pull up to the area many people will try to flag you down for parking, but if you keep going to the end there is actually a free area to the entrance – don’t be fooled! The entrance area admittedly feels a little touristy with restaurants/hotels set up near by, but as you continue to walk down the path you will come to the steep 500 step pathway to the summit. 500 might not sound like a lot because in reality it really isn’t, but these are big, steep steps and by the top you will be breathing a little hard, no matter how great of shape you are in.

Once at the top, you’ll cash in on the absolutely breathtaking views of the area, as you can see Tam Coc on one side and Trang An/Ninh Binh city on the other.  It was particularly cool to crest the ridge and see the Tam Coc waterway where we took our first boat ride during sunset the prior evening. Seeing the boats rowing down the peaceful waterway from a birds eye view was spectacular, and hanging out with the Dragon which we had seen way up on the mountain the night before made Miles’ day. The only downside: we weren’t the only ones with the idea to get there at sunset, and there were probably about 40 other people up there camped out to watch the sun set over the “Halong Bay of Land.”

We headed down just before dark so we could ride back to our homestay before it got too late. We stopped at the room to recharge for a few minutes, parked our bikes, and then headed out on foot back to the main city area to get dinner at Lacom Tam Coc Restaurant. The food was good, and prices were reasonable, but it wasn’t anything particularly special. After dinner, we headed back for showers and headed to bed, sad that the next day we would be leaving Vietnam. We have so very much enjoyed our time here.

Trang An Grottoes:

  • Hours: 0700 – 1600
  • Admission: 200,000 VND/Adult, 100,000 VND/Child
  • Parking: 15,000 VND for two wheelers (bicycle or motorbike)

Trang An Grottoes Tips:

  • The trip duration is ~2hours making it slightly longer than the boat ride in Tam Coc.
  • There are three routes to choose from with the main differences being the number of caves and temples expereinced.
    • Route 1: 9 caves, 3 temples
    • Route 2: 4 caves, 3 temples, film set from King Kong Skull Island
    • Route 3: 3 caves, 3 temples
  • Unlike some of the information that you may come across online, you aren’t forced to do any extra tips or payments to the rower at this location. Tipping is completely optional, so don’t be pressured!

Bia Dinh:

  • Hours: 0700 – 1600
  • Admission (electric cart): 30,000 VND/person each way, 20,000 VND/person (under 1M tall) each way
  • Parking: 15,000 VND/motorbike

Bia Dinh Tips:

  • For some reason the front entrance is closed. Don’t get discouraged. Turn around and proceed to the back entrance. There is a parking lot here that you can park in for 15,000 VND/motorbike
  • From the parking area, proceed to the ticket counter and buy a ticket for the electric cart to get to the main entrance. Note that the electric cart is charged for each way, so we opted to purchase a one-way ticket as you can purchase a return ticket inside if necessary. While we were busy wandering through the Bai Dinh temple complex we realized via the large posted maps that we had moved closer to the parking lot, thus it seemed pointless to back track just to use the electric cart. We would encourage you if you’re up for a bit of walking to purchase a one-way and then as you meander through the grounds to slowly work your way back to the parking area. Just keep up with the maps as it’s a large place and fairly easy to get lost!

Hang Mua:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: No entrance fee

[ D A Y • 9 ] Ninh Binh: Hoa Lu, Thai VI, Bich Dong Pagoda, Thing Nham Bird Garden. Transfer to airport → Macau → Tokyo

Our flight back to Japan didn’t take off until ~2300, so even with the 2.5 hour drive to the airport we had plenty of time for some last minute exploring in the Ninh Binh area. We started the day with another excellent (included) breakfast at Tam Coc Mountain Homestay before checking out. Our gracious host family agreed to hold our bags in the check in area of their home and even arranged the taxi to the airport for us for later that evening. We had an excellent experience here, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a more local experience in Tam Coc.

We then once again hopped back on the bikes and rode to Hoa Lu, (the ancient capital). From a location perspective, this stop would have made sense to tackle the previous day, but we simply ran out of time. As the name would suggest, this was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, so lots of history! The location was chosen as the high surrounding limestone cliffs kept the city protected from potential enemies. While the original buildings have been destroyed, two rebuilt temples are on the beautiful grounds, as is a section of the original floor from 968 AD. Overall, if you’re tight on time we would recommend skipping this stop unless you are really into Vietnamese history in which case you’ll want to dive on in!

Our next stop was Thai Vi Temple, a smaller, yet still magnificent temple in Van Lam Village. The temple is much smaller than others we visited in the area, and was built in the 14th century. It’s a little bit off the beaten bath, but that made for a very peaceful visit. We let the kids run around the grounds as we took in the beautiful contrast between the towering mountains and striking architecture and beautiful carved stone.

Next, we headed to Bích Dông Pagoda (“The Pagoda of the Emerald Grotto”). The pagoda was build by two monks in the 18th century  and actually consistes of three different pagodas, Ha Pagoda (lower pagoda) is at the foot of the mountain, Trung Pagoda (middle pagoda) is on the way to the top, and Thuong Pagoda (upper pagoda) is at the very top. All three pagodas are beautiful, but the entry gate is actually what seems to garner the most attention. The bridge crossing to the gate against the backdrop of towering limestone cliffs makes for a pretty amazing scene.

With our time running short before we had to head to the airport, we had one last stop that we wanted to explore before hopping in the taxi bound for Hanoi. Thung Nham Bird Garden is a large (334 hectares) protected nature area about 12km east of Ninh Binh city. As the name suggests, it’s an excellent spot to see lots of species of native birds. With kilometers of nature trails and several caves to explore, it’s also an awesome spot to let your animals run loose and get some energy out. You could easily spend three or more hours exploring this beautiful area, and if you happened to ride your bike (pedal bike that is) they will let you cycle through the park on the various trails. Excellent way to see a lot of the park in a relatively short period of time.

With our time in Vietnam dwindling, we sadly hopped on the bikes one last time to head back to the homestay and pick up our bags. On our way out of Tam Coc, we had noticed an interesting hand made craft store on the side of the road and decided last minute to make a stop on the way back to the homestay. Minh Trang Handmade Store is a gem if you’re into textiles and is divided into two stories, with the bottom floor showcasing some amazing handmades, art, and jewelry. The top floor was the highlight, however, as you can climb the stairs and chat with some of the amazing women who are actively sewing the items sold below. We bought a few gifts for friends/family and sadly headed back to the hotel to start our journey back home. The taxi was already waiting for us when we got there, so we said one last goodbye to our delightful host family, hopped in the back, and away we went. Tạm biệt, Ninh Binh! 

During our time here, Vietnam has been one of those countries that seemed to get a lot of hype. Despite (or perhaps because of) its tremulous past with the United States, it seemed to peak our curiosity more than some other destinations on our list. We are happy to say that it didn’t disappoint! During our nine days in northern Vietnam we got to take in some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve ever seen, meet some truly kind people, and experience a culture unlike any other. Before the trip we already knew nine days wasn’t going to be enough, and each day it only became more clear that we barely scratched the surface of this amazing country. Needless to say, as of writing this a second trip to see central and southern Vietnam has already been booked. Vietnam, we will see you again this spring!

Hoa Lu:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free (just don’t get tricked into paying for parking)

Thai VI:

  • Hours: Not documented ANYWHERE, but essentially sunrise to sunset
  • Admission: Free

Bich Dong Pagoda:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free

Thung Nham Bird Garden:

  • Hours:  Open 24 hours
  • Admission: 100,000 VND/person

Minh Trang Handmade Store:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1800

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