We were told that the north of Vietnam was typically a little cooler than the south and I was looking forward to a respite from the heat. (This is saying something, as I don’t mind higher temperatures!) However, a look at the weather app on my phone showed it was going to be even hotter when we arrived in Hanoi. The only television I watched was BBC World and the weatherman commented on how a long-lasting high over south-east Asia was making things rainy in China but unseasonably warm in Vietnam. Even the locals were telling us this was unusual. This is why I was especially thankful for air-conditioning once we were on our Ha Long Bay cruise (which I’ll come to shortly). But first, we made our way to our accommodation at the Golden Lotus Luxury Hotel and discovered we were within walking distance to a number of significant tourist sites.
1. Dress appropriately when going to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Sites like Tripadvisor mention there is a dress code, but we didn’t realise how vigilantly it was enforced until we arrived. It was Easter Sunday morning and the line snaked all the way around the neighbourhood. We were in line for 45 minutes or so until we reached the area where guests were waved through to the next stage when we were pulled aside and told that since the kids had bare knees we would need to buy them a scarf or sarong if they wanted to gain admittance. You’ll see a picture of Riley in the video below with that tied around his waist.
And I only barely passed muster – my dress had a sort of cap sleeve that covered my shoulders (also not allowed to be exposed), but I would’ve needed a scarf myself if my hemline had been even a millimetre shorter. Luckily, we were allowed back into the line where we left it and not head back to the end. The reason why other people wore longer cotton pants and shirts then became much more obvious after this. Yes, the line was long but it did move along consistently and I’m glad we went.
2. Visit the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
The good thing about the regular theatre timetable was that if you arrive only to discover you’ve just missed the show that’s about to start you only need to wait an hour or so for the next one. This is what happened to us, so we went downstairs to a very happily situated coffee house for a drink. Note the restroom at this cafe and a few others (not all) have their toilet paper located outside which you can grab as you go in. There’s also a non-compulsory donation to use the toilets. This is a good chance to use some of your smaller denomination notes which are hard to get rid of otherwise.
Anyway – the show. I admit I was ambivalent going in, but I found it charming. On top of the technical skill required to manoeuvre the puppets, it was exclusively in Vietnamese and felt like one of the most genuine experiences I’d had until that point. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I didn’t need to. The puppets told the story.
There were a few younger children in the audience and I noticed some did get a little wriggly. One fed-up mum scooped up hers to take outside when he got a little loud. The children in the first row – where we were – were much more engaged because they could see everything, down to the bits of rigging that were tugged about during some of the sequences. If you’re worried about how your kids will fare in the same situation, maybe try getting up as close to the front as possible.
After the show, you can cross the road and visit the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Admission to the temple is a couple of Australian dollars and it’s lovely (more shots can be seen in the video).
3. Go on a Ha Long Bay Cruise
Most often, travellers organise in advance a trip to Ha Long Bay (or Halong Bay). This is what we did through Luxury Escapes – we ended up on a Bhaya Cruises boat and I have nothing but good things to say about the experience.
The drive across to Ha Long Bay took 2.5 hours and we only had to wait for about twenty minutes until we were shown to our boat. The kids were supposed to be in a conjoining room to ours, but there was a slight mixup in the room allocations. They were still just next door (on the non-conjoining side), and I admit this made me nervous. (They would be alone! In the middle of the water!) But we’d already had that experience in our Hanoi hotel, so I took this as an extra lesson I needed to learn in letting them have more independence. They’d be fine, I told myself.
(Later I got too sick to worry about it at all!)
To finish my point though – if you don’t have anything planned upon arrival, there are lots of tour companies in Hanoi where you can organise a last-minute trip and not just to Ha Long Bay but up into the mountainous areas like Sapa and more. You can also do things like cooking classes or crafts or more.
Let me be clear about something. I don’t like boats. I’m not afraid of them, or the water – it’s just that I’m prone to seasickness. And I was absolutely fine for the first five hours of the cruise. We’d gone out and explored a cave and visited a floating village and I’d watched the kids swim in the bay (what a thing to do!) and it was all smooth sailing (literally). Then the boat went around in circles for a little while trying to find a good place to drop anchor and the wind came up. That’s when I started getting woozy. And, yes, the five o’clock cocktail I drank didn’t help either.
So just before dinnertime, I took some Qwells, had a shower, put the air conditioning on, lay down in bed and tried to stop myself puking. I felt guilty I wasn’t upstairs, but as I later discovered they were just about to begin a five-course meal, it was probably best I wasn’t around all that food.
I did get a knock on the door at some point and it was the tour director holding up a tray with a bowl of pumpkin soup and some steamed rice and it was a lovely gesture. Delicious too, I managed to eat most of it. After dessert, there was squid fishing off the bow. My son was terribly excited about the whole affair and I could hear his footsteps thunder up and down the hallway outside my room as he ran off his energy. I joked that the boat had a Death on the Nile vibe about it and if you’ve ever seen the movie you’ll probably remember the running footsteps in that as well!
As I’d gone to bed so early, I was up well in time the next morning for the optional tai chi. I felt much better! And then the trip was over by 10.30am! Short and sweet.
One last thing about the food before I finish – the chef was only notified of our food requirements once we were on board. We had one vegetarian and two who don’t eat seafood. That he could pivot on short notice and provide terrific multi-course meals showed a flexibility of skills that were very much appreciated.
There’s more in the video below. It is a magical place.