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!

Jordan #50 – part 2

On our 3rd morning in Jordan, we woke up to a panoramic view of the red stone mountains of Petra and spent an hour gazing at the amazing site. We then drove 1.5 hours south to the Wadi Rum desert or “the valley of the moon”. It’s really more like Mars as was portrayed in the Martian. Wadi Rum was the unexpected highlight of our trip to Jordan. We had high hopes but the experience that entire day took us to a different planet.

We first stopped at the visitor center where we booked a 4 hour 4×4 tour through the desert. Our driver Najeh met us as we finished another average local meal at the village and drove us into the desert. The experience reminded us of our Tanzanian safari. As we drove through the amazing red soft sand and gazed at the amazing Martian mountains, Anjali and I were in awe of the magnitude and the beauty. The weather was fantastic as well since October is a one of the best times to visit. The tour took us to a sand dune we climbed, the little bridge and Um fourth bridge, Lawrence’s house and spring and the khazala canyon. We ended the tour a bit early, so we decided to experience the Bedouin lifestyle and took off on a camel ride in the middle of the desert!

Around 430pm exhausted we drove in search of our camp – The Space Village luxury camp. We were originally planning to stay at the Wadi Rum Night Luxury Camp but we found out a week ago that they couldn’t honor our booking since their email, website and Facebook page were hacked 5 months ago! We had trouble finding the Space Village camp and had a scare when our car got stuck in the sand and I had to push it out while Anjali guided us back to the road – thank god we didn’t have the kids with us. Once we got to the camp, it was fantastic and pure luxury glamping. It’s just 6 months old, spanking new with 30 tents with very nice hospitality. Right outside the tents is a large sand dune which is also one of the most popular spots to view the sunset. We climbed up the dune and sat while watching one of the most beautiful sunsets we’d seen. We then ran down the large sand dune to the camp where Arabic tea and shisha (or hubbly bubbly awaited us). The dinner was very local and fantastic with a rice and chicken stew cooked underground for hours. We had a great nights sleep on the very comfortable beds only disturbed by Anjali waking me up at 4am to see a sky full of stars, like we had never seen before. You really couldn’t ask for more in a days experience!

Next morning we departed Wadi Rum after a nice breakfast and drove for 4 straight hours to the Dead Sea. We got stopped a second time on the trip for a random ID check, but besides that the drive was seamless and breathtakingly beautiful just before and at the Dead Sea. Dead Sea is really a salt lake that is 400m below sea level, the lowest point on Earth. We arrived at the Marriott right at lunch time and devoured on some Italian food and wine. The Marriott is located right on the Dead Sea with a private beach and 5 pools. After relaxing for a bit we went down to the private beach for a dip in the Dead Sea. The water is 10 times saltier than a sea and it’s super easy to float almost like if you were on the moon. The salt can burn your eyes and nose though. We also put some famous Dead Sea mud on our bodies. The pool and spa was inviting after and we watched the sunset from there. After some shisha we spent our last night having a nice dinner and watching belly dancing. We spent our last morning floating in the Dead Sea and chilling in the pool before taking the red eye to Mumbai to see the kids and family. Jordan was amazing! Thank you to the grandparents again and looking forward to seeing the kids.

Ireland – part 3, Galway & Dublin

After a sumptuous breakfast of waffles, freshly baked croissants, and smoked salmon, we set out for Connomarra National Park, a 2.5 hour drive from Corrofin. As we approached the area, our eyes were greeted by stunning lakes, and lush green mountains with waterfalls streaming down. Our first stop in the park was for lunch at the visitor center, after which Ariana played with her grandparents in the park while Ayaan joined Gaurav and I for another hike. As we walked up the mountain, we could see a spectacular view of the valley and lakes below. After the hike, we drove to the beautiful Kylemore abbey which was set against the backdrop of a lake. After strolling the grounds, we drove to Galway and checked in to our apartment. Gaurav brought dinner for the kids and grandparents, and then we enjoyed a date night out! Our first stop was at Cava Bodega where we enjoyed pinxtos and tapas with a carafe of Rioja. Next we headed to the popular pub, Tig Cioli where we each enjoyed a strong Irish Coffee. We learned that Tig Cioli was the first pub that ever opened in Galway and they’d listed the price of a pint for nearly every year since 1900! I’ve begun to really appreciate the pub culture in Ireland because it is extremely kid friendly with baby changing tables, kid menus and live music to drown out any tantrums :). The pubs have become what I look forward to for each meal, and possibly what I’ll miss the most about Ireland! This time though, we were kid free and we decided to make the most of the night. Our next stop was Tich Neachtain where we were able to hustle our way into a fantastic seat right by the live band. We started off with a black Jameson reserve which was fantastic and then proceeded to have several pints of Guinness and whisky flights interspersed with shots of Jameson. We stumbled home and woke up to a heavy hangover the next morning.

It was dada’s birthday so after breakfast at home, everyone enjoyed a treat of the famous Murphy’s ice cream. We walked to Eyre Square and then strolled the medieval streets of Galway taking in the live music at nearly every corner. We made our way to the Galway cathedral which was beautiful. Finally we enjoyed lunch at a pub near our home and then headed back for the kids nap. Ayaan and Ariana have been to over 50 playgrounds during this trip and we took them to another before dinner. It was one of the densest playgrounds we’d been to with a train in addition to the usual and the kids loved it. It was dada’s 73rd birthday and we celebrated with dinner at Buddha Bar. The kids enjoyed singing “happy birthday to Dada”, blowing out the candles and eating up the cake.

In the morning we drove 2.5 hours to Dublin and arrived at our apartment in the heart of Dublin near O’Connell St. Gaurav returned the car to the airport after 1600km of driving, while I picked up groceries and lunch. We spent the afternoon strolling through the historic streets of Dublin – Trinity college, Dublin Castle and St Patrick’s Cathedral. Ayaan wanted sweet corn chicken soup again so we found a nearby Chinese restaurant called M&L which worked out great, and also gave us the opportunity to walk down the touristy city center. After putting Ariana to sleep, Gaurav and I sneaked out to check out the night scene in Dublin. We stumbled upon the Quays bar with a live band that played many of our favorite Karaoke songs! We also visited the famous Temple Bar which is a huge indoor-outdoor pub with Irish local music. The Jameson Black Barrel became our go to drink for the night. Overall we really enjoyed Dublin’s vibe with its historic streets, canals and live music everywhere.

On the last day of our European adventure, we woke up to a sunny Dublin. We took the tram to St Stephens Green, a lovely local park with beautiful flowers, ponds and a playground, and neighborhood. The kids and parents enjoyed the short tram ride. We spent the morning strolling through the park with our coffee, and ate lunch at the mall next door. To celebrate the end of our 2.5 month journey through Europe, Gaurav and I had a special meal at Taste of Rustic, a new age Japanese restaurant in Dublin. After enjoying some Nigiri, we visited the Church bar, a unique experience since neither of us had previously had a drink at a converted church!

It’s been a wonderful journey and we’re thankful that Ayaan and Ariana did incredible, and the grandparents joined us for some of it. On to Bombay for the next phase of our journey!

Austria

After a 3 hour drive we arrived in Bad Goisern, Austria – Ariana’s 15th country. It continues to be brutally hot in Europe this summer with the heat wave with temperatures in the 90s in places like Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland. We checked in to our apartment in a hotel which was great with a wrap around balcony. We took it light since it was a travel day and went to nearby Bad Ischl, Austria’s original capital, and to a local children’s park which the kids really enjoyed with a train, zip line and jungle gym. Ayaan “drove” us in the train to Porto – that place and name is ingrained in him since we kept telling him about the trip when were in Sausalito and how we’re flying to Porto.

On our first day, we woke up early and drove to Hallstatt. We took the funicular up to the viewpoint overlooking Halstatt and the lake, which the kids loved since it reminded them of the hillevator in Sausalito. The view was stunning and we were lucky to get up there early. Ayaan then said “let’s walk around the lake” so we strolled through the beautiful but touristy Halstatt. We then decided to drive to Dachstein Krippenstein and take the cable car up to the top of the mountain at 2100m. Kids once again loved it as expected and we were all delighted to find the temperature to be much cooler at noon. We ate a nice lunch overlooking the glaciers and mountains, after which Ariana fell asleep in the stroller. Anjali and Ayaan went and played in the snow – it was Ayaan’s first time and he loved making snow balls. That tired him and he napped as well. We pushed the stroller on a short hike to 5 fingers which is a lookout over the stunning lake and Halstatt. Enough activities for the day and we headed back to the apartment, visited the same park again, did some laundry and called it a night. Putting Ariana to sleep has gotten more difficult as she’s gotten used to hanging out and playing with Ayaan.

On our last full day in the area, we decided to spend time visiting the smaller, lesser known towns and lakes in the breathtaking Salzkammergut area. We first visited St. Gilgen on Wolfgangsee which was quaint and absolutely stunning. Halstatt is the most famous, but the other towns are equally great and less touristy. We had a cup of coffee lakeside and then visited the children’s park in the center. The kids were thrilled to visit the fire station that had a open house and push the baby stroller in the town. We then drove along turquoise and deep blue lakes to Mondsee, which is a charming. colonial town with a nice square. Ariana saw a church and said “Lets go see the church” and so we did. We learned later that it was the same church where Captain Vontrapp and Maria had been married decades earlier. We saw an Austrian folk band play live for a wedding in the square which was cool. We had lunch in one of the Italian restaurants in the square and devoured some delicious risotto and pizza – ironically now that we were out of Italy Ayaan loved it. The kids napped and we took the opportunity to take a longer scenic route driving past a few more lakes including Traunsee and the relatively uninspiring time of Ebensee. Our evening was fairly predictable as we took the kids to the park again, took the kids to a Chinese restaurant, and opened our bottle of Tignanello. Off on our final drive tomorrow to Munich.

Slovenia

A quick 3 hour drive in the morning from Venice brought us to Lake Bled in Slovenia, a new country for all of us! We were disappointed to learn that the weather here too was sweltering and unfortunately our room didn’t have air conditioning. Fortunately it got fairly pleasant at night and we had a balcony to enjoy after the kids slept. The lake is stunning and very hard to capture in pictures with its bright turquoise, warm, crystal clear waters filled with row boats and a tear drop island. We particularly liked that it felt like a really small town. The first evening we walked around the lake, sat by the shore and dipped our toes in the lake, and ate some Chinese food nearby since it’s the kids’ favorite. Anjali and I finally got to spend some time in the balcony after the kids slept and sip on our Antinori chianti.

The next morning we ate some yummy breakfast overlooking the lake and visited the bled castle with its breathtaking view of the lake and the island. The kids did great as they climbed up themselves and appreciated the view (Ariana said “so pretty” and Ayaan said “we should get a house like this”). We then took the row boat to the island. The ride was beautiful but the island church and tower were disappointing. After our boat ride, we ate a nice lunch lakeside at the Hotel Jezero while the kids were busy playing with the baby stroller. Ayaan has become quite European – before drinking water he always asks if it’s sparkling now. The kids had a late nap after which we decided to go visit the Castle beach for a dip in the lake and some fun for the kids with a sand pit. It’s a must do in Lake bled as the water is warm and it’s a great way to experience the lake with family.

On our last day in Bled, we woke up early and made our way to Vintgar Gorge – a beautiful stroll along a crystal clear river with waterfalls among narrow rock cliffs. It reminded us a bit of Plitvice in Croatia, but not as emphatic. The kids did fantastic again as they walked about 80% of the way appreciating the beauty and saying hi to all the doggies on the way. I’m glad we got there early since we missed the crowds and the sun. We were all a bit tired after the hike, so we drove to Lake Bohinj about 45 mins away for lunch. Beautiful but not really worth a visit after Lake Bled. Our final evening in Bled was spent strolling along the lake and capping the night off with some local Bled cream cake and a glass of muscat. Slovenia has been relaxing although hot, and we’re off to Austria tomorrow!

Como / Bellagio

After a long journey from Switzerland, we were thrilled to cross the border into Italy where we knew we’d be greeted with amazing food (the only country in Europe we all have been to)! The kid-friendly attitude of the Italians was a welcome respite after several days in France and Switzerland! We ate at a Pizzeria in Como where Gaurav and I were delighted to dig in to our favorite marina pizza which we’ve seen only in Italy. The kids played in the lakeside park and Ayaan jumped through the water fountains, becoming drenched for our short car ride to Lezzeno, a small town bordering Bellagio. We stayed in a lovely apartment with a 180 degree view of the lake which was perfect after the smaller rooms in Switzerland.

The next morning, the rainy weather, combined with a long and grueling journey the previous day convinced us to relax in our house and enjoy the beautiful vistas of Lake Como. Once the kids awoke, we drove to a park near Bellagio where Ayaan enjoyed a mini zip line! We spent the evening strolling in the beautiful town of Bellagio with its mansions and amazing views.

The next morning, we hit the Lido di Bellagio beach club where the kids enjoyed playing in the outdoor showers and with their sand toys, while Gaurav and I relaxed with a bottle of Prosecco. After a few hours of sun, we took a dip in the cool lake.

That evening, we rented a boat from Lezzeno and passed the beautiful palaces and gardens of Bellagio. Although we were worried about being on the boat with both kids, they were fairly cooperative with Ayaan serving as co-pilot with his daddy while Ariana enjoyed the thrill of the boat and the beautiful view! We enjoyed dinner at Pizzeria Aurora before retreating to our home for a nightcap of Brunello di Montalcino from Banfi. Our time in Como / Bellagio was relaxing and filled with a lot of fantastic food and wine – just what we needed!! Italy is one of our favorite countries so we weren’t surprised that both of us wanted to return back to the area someday.