Vietnam

I’ve always dreamt of Halong Bay and we finally arrived at Hanoi from Siem Reap, after visiting another dream destination. Our flight was late and we reached the MK premier boutique hotel around 1030pm and were happy to find that it was located smack in the middle of the French quarter. Hanoi is extremely crowded and chaotic swarming with bikes, scooters and cyclos and people drive on the sidewalks too! We had a day before we departed for our cruise the next morning, so we decided to explore Hanoi. We took a taxi to the Tran Quoc pagoda which was interesting and located in the one of the few lakes in Hanoi. We then walked with the double stroller to the Ho Chi Minh Masauleum area, struggling along the way with the stroller and kids through the busy streets. We were pretty exhausted after the little excursion in the heat in the morning and took a taxi to a recommended restaurant Quan an Ngon which was quite nice with an extensive menu and and a large area. Kids and Anjali had a good nap while I read and we were ready for the evening after a Iced Vietnamese coffee at the rooftop of our hotel where we watched the sunset. The kids were then super excited to sit in a “cyclo” that took us to the main lake area. Anjali and Ayaan went to visit the famous Ngoc Son pagoda in the middle of the lake, and unfortunately someone swiped Anjali’s iPhone from her bag – understandably she was upset but happy that everything else was ok. When we reunited we took the kids for the famous water puppet show that they absolutely loved with its water buffaloes, boats and live music. We had a fantastic dinner at Duong 2 and had our first taste of amazing Vietnamese food 24 hours after arriving. Anjali put the kids to sleep while I went for a walk in the Friday night market that was packed with people (it was also a Vietnam soccer game that they won against Malaysia) and smoked some hookah at the Hookah room.

Next morning we woke up excited and anxiously waited for our 2 hour ride to the cruise at Halong Bay. Ayaan was very excited since he hadn’t stayed on a boat before. We were picked up at 9am in a luxury 6 seater minibus and the kids were entertained playing with the many gadgets in the minibus for the ride. We had a quick pit stop to see how pearls were extracted from oysters and also got our first view of the magnificent Halong Bay with its thousands of limestone islands – the myth goes that a dragon spat out these islands. We arrived at the cruise lounge where we were greeted with a smile, wet towels, a welcome drink and appetizers. After much research we had decided to go on the newer 3 days 2 nights Au Co cruise from Bhaya cruises instead of the more popular Paradise cruises. It was an absolutely awesome luxury experience and the only improvement we could think of was to have more live music. The boarding was seamless and as we sat for a 5 course set meal lunch we realized there were just 23 guests on board. We were also delighted since we were given an extra room that was much appreciated with our two monsters. The lunch was delicious as we sailed through the limestone islands offering a heavenly view. Our first stop on the cruise that afternoon was to visit the Tieng Ong cave with stalactites and stalagmites. The kids enjoyed the little trek and particularly had fun with the dogs that lived in the cave. After some brief rest on the cruise, our second stop was to visit the 200 person Cua Van floating village in a row boat. This was a particularly serene and relaxing experience, so much so that Ariana fell asleep in my lap on the boat! We spent the evening back on the boat where Anjali went to the hot tub at the back of the boat and then we all went up to the bar to enjoy a happy hour drink while they held a master chef competition. Dinner was another fantastic 5 course set meal and the kids happily munched on their specially prepared dinners. I spent a few hours reading on the balcony and enjoying the moonlight over the islands, as the rest of them slept like babies.

The first morning on the cruise started early and we barely got time to grab breakfast, before we sailed off on the tender boat to the Cat Ba island and national park. While other guests biked, we took the buggy through the stunning landscape and to the town to Viet Ha. Along the way we stopped at a little farm where Ariana enjoyed playing with the hundreds of butterflies of all colors. We got back to the boat with enough time to have a dip in the hot tub and then sit for another 5 course set lunch that was delicious. The final outing that afternoon was to the emerald waters and a white sandy beach of Ho Ba Hahm. This was the highlight of our Vietnam experience as the tiny beach was deserted, the sand powdery and the emerald water calm and warm with an amazing view. The kids were in love and we achieved a proud parent moment where Ayaan and Ariana could float independently in the sea albeit with their floats. Ayaan also took turns to go out on a kayak and he also helped row with his oar! Once again the evening started with drinks on the top deck at happy hour while we watched the sunset and Ayaan then visited the engine room and captains deck with Anjali. Over the course of 2 days Ayaan visited the captain half a dozen times and also blew the fog horn. Our final dinner on the cruise was a live music filled bbq buffet dinner on the top deck which again was amazing. On our final morning we woke up late, had a relaxing breakfast and chilled on the decks taking in for the last time breath taking views of Ha Long bay!

Our ride back from Halong Bay to Hanoi was less relaxing as the kids decided to throw their tantrums as they were sleepy but didn’t sleep. We arrived at the O’gallery Majestic hotel and the kids finally napped, while I dropped off laundry and read some more. We figured the kids would enjoy another cyclo ride, so we took them on an hour long ride through the French quarter after a bite at the hotel lobby restaurant. On our last day in Hanoi, we had debated leaving town to visit the beautiful Ninh Binh district to see “Halong Bay on land” but decided against it after our nightmarish drive back the previous day. We figured we would have a day for the kids for a change. So after breakfast we took a taxi to the kid friendly Thong Nhat Park. The kids absolutely loved this park since it had not only slides and swings, but also rides in trains, cars and even a carousel. We also walked along the calm lake, and overall it was a good change from the otherwise crowded and not super safe for kids (traffic wise) city of Hanoi. We grabbed lunch at Ngon Villa and this was our favorite meal in Vietnam. They had an all you can eat menu (not buffet) for $18 and every item on it was delicious. One of the highlights of our SE Asian journey has been that the kids have loved the food and eat really well at every meal. That evening after a nap we had a dip on the tiny rooftop pool that Ayaan enjoyed because it had one very strong jet that created a downstream effect. We wanted to eat a nice meal to end our Vietnam trip, so we walked 10 minutes to the famous Grandmas restaurant that was fantastic as well. Ariana particularly enjoyed the restaurant with the “two ladies playing the music”. On our final morning in Hanoi, we walked over to the historic Citadel and the kids were delighted to find a stage for a water puppet show set up there. Halong Bay was definitely the highlight of our Vietnam trip, and Hanoi was just too crowded to enjoy with the kids although the food was amazing! On to a couple of weeks in Thailand!

Cambodia

Our first journey as a family after 6 weeks in India started in Siem Reap. We took an early morning flight connecting through Bangkok and the kids did great on both legs. On arrival in Siem Reap we were greeted with a clean and organized airport where it was quick to obtain our visa on arrival. We took a taxi to the Le Meredien and we liked our driver so much that we decided to hire him for our entire stay here for $90. We figured it’ll be easier to be in an AC car while visiting the temples than Tuktuks in the sweltering heat. That first night we just relaxed in the lounge where the kids had some pizza and we had some great cocktails and after they slept early we had a date night dinner in the Italian restaurant downstairs.

On our first morning in Siem Reap (named for the city’s Victory over Thailand), we woke up comfortably and we had a sumptuous breakfast including local dishes. For our first trip to Angkor Wat we decided to get a babysitter to watch the kids while we covered the more strenuous temples. We got dropped off first at the Angkor Thom complex starting at the famous Bayon temple. Angkor Wat (or temple city) is filled with the legends of Ramayan, Mahabharata and Buddha and went back and forth between Buddhism and Hinduism. Bayon was our favorite temple with its face covered edifices and different levels. After Bayon we visited the nearby Baphuon, another important temple in the complex with a grand walkway to it and a terrace at the top. We were glad we left the kids as there was a lot of climbing with very high steps and extreme heat. We also explored the several Buddha statues, Elephant and Lepper King terrace, Phimeanakas and a detour to Prah Palilay as Anjali and I got lost in the magic of the jungle. After 2 hours of strolling we were tired and stopped for a local Cambodian lunch with shrimp noodles and lemongrass chicken with Angkor beer. The short hiatus energized us to go see the grand Angkor Wat temple. Right from entering the moat, the temple is majestic and as you enter the west gate a long walkway leads to the main temple. The reflection of the temple in the pond nearby is a photographers dream! Climbing to the top of the temple we got a fantastic view into the Khmer empire among the forest that was built in the 12th century. That afternoon we decided to take it chill and we relaxed in the pool with the kids. We ventured out to Pub Street at night and ate a fantastic dinner that Ayaan really enjoyed at nearby Khmer Kitchen. Siem Reap is a fascinating little city that is well planned along the river and is extremely cheap with $6 massages and 50c beers.

The second morning, we took the kids and drove 45 mins to Kampong Phluk – one of four floating villages in South East Asia’s largest lake. We took a traditional boat out for 2 hours that took us to the amazing floating village comprised of houses, school, hospitals, temples, a church and restaurants where 600 people live. The kids did very well and were fascinated by seeing crocodiles, snakes and rabbitd all of which the locals eat and makes goods of. They also enjoyed seeing the mangroves growing in the lake. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a great place for lunch that our driver Sophian recommended where we sat is a private hut and our table was essentially a large swing in the gardens. The food as always was delicious and Ayaan particularly excited that he got sticky rice with mangoes (something he tried to order on the flight in but they didn’t have). The kids napped well after lunch while I had a foot massage and when they awoke we were off to the main Angkor Wat temple again to watch the sunset. Although not extraordinary (it’s better for sunrise but we were too lazy), the kids enjoyed their first visit to the temple and saw some monkeys as well. We once again ended the day with dinner at a Pub Street restaurant called Monsoon and walked the Night Market as well (that had $1 massages!). At night we had a little adventure as we sat in the hotel bar downstairs while the kids slept upstairs only to be called by the staff to let us know that Ayaan has escaped to the lobby!

On our final day, we visited the temples with the kids again. We first visited Preah Khan which worked out great with kids as they were able to walk the entire temple themselves, exploring it holding hands and posing for cute pictures. It wasn’t very crowded which worked well and it was quite an experience strolling through the long corridors with historic pillars and rubble. Ariana was happily singing songs while walking back through the jungle while Ayaan was busy collecting sticks and leaves. Our last stop at the temples was at the famous Ta Prohm temple made famous in the Tomb raider with many of its temples devoured by overgrown trees. It was an impressive site but it was too crowded with Chinese tour groups all of whom for some reason wanted to take pictures with our kids (it got creepy soon). We came to back to room service for lunch and after the nap took off for our short flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. Cambodia has been very kid friendly with amazing food, cheap, and We leave wondering why Angkor Wat is not a wonder of the world.