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Trip Report Christmas in Vietnam with teens: scooters, bicycles and junks

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Why are you going to Vietnam for Christmas? Definitely the most oft asked question we received when we told people we wouldn’t be home for Christmas. Well, the answer was simple – we used to take our big international trips during spring break but with our daughter now a sophomore in college her spring break and my son’s no longer coincide so we had to find another time when both kids had the same two weeks off so Christmas it was! Then we decided we didn’t want to go anyplace too cold. We had already been to Thailand and Cambodia so Vietnam it was!

Good and bad to traveling at Christmas – good is generally less stress over holiday stuff – just did light decorating around the house and limited baking. We left on Dec. 16 and once we were gone we were really able to just relax and enjoy each other’s company. Bad – obviously a busy time to be preparing for a big trip, particularly for our daughter who finished her last final Wed. night flew home Thurs. morning and then we flew out for Vietnam Friday morning. Also, getting all Christmas gifts before we left (just takes planning) and buying things small enough to pack – some were just pictures of the gifts =).

Before I travel I always like to watch movies and read books that take place in the location. Aside from the Vietnam War movies we are all familiar with, I recommend the following:
Indochine - subtitled from French , takes place in the 1930s when France ruled about a woman who owns a rubber planation and her adopted Vietnamese daughter
The Quiet American-takes place in early 1950s during the war for independence form the French colonial power
Journey from the Fall- after the war a family is forced to emigrate to America.

Saigon by Joel Grey - a sweeping historical fiction that follows an American
family from the 1930s and French colonial rule in Vietnam to the war and aftermath, long but I loved it and read it quickly.
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli -fiction of an American photographer during the war
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip. Follows her story as a young girl and young woman during the war but goes back and forth between the story of her going to Vietnam in 1986 to see the family she left behind when she fled.

Now onto the trip. We are a family of four: me, hubby(DH) (late 40s), 19 yo daughter(DD) and our 16 yo son(DS). We also traveled with a good friend(DF) of ours, sort of the kids “big sister” who is in her late 20s. Our family of four has traveled quite a bit but this was DF’s first overseas trip. We had been to SE Asia in 2007 to Thailand (Bangkok, Chiang Rai) and Cambodia (Siem Reap/Angkor Wat). Have to admit after that trip we weren’t ready to go back to SE Asia right away, but after 4.5 years we were ready.

Left Dec. 16 flew on Continental/United with no surprises. Arrived 12:30am. I had received our VOAs from – easy, quick and painless process. Received a confirmation email the same day, and within two days had received our documentation letter. Went straight to VOA office when arrived, only one family ahead of us so had to wait a few minutes but not too bad. We already had our two passport size photos and all forms filled out beforehand, definitely made the process quicker. We saw a lot of people filling out forms and getting their pics done.

We had reserved a van from the Riverside Renaissance Hotel since we were arriving so late, and only took about 15 min. to get to hotel that late at night.

RENAISSANCE RIVERSIDE HOTEL (a Marriott): We really loved this hotel. We had two interconnecting rooms, a double and a triple (had a rollaway bed). Nice large rooms, plenty of room even with the rollaway, good size bathrooms with all the amenities you would expect. Excellent buffet breakfast ($19/person if not included in hotel rate). Great selection of both Vietnamese and western food. Pancakes, waffles, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, cereals, pot stickers, congee, rice, beef/chicken dishes and a lot more delicacies that I can’t remember along with an excellent selection of fruit. In addition there was an omelet station and a pho station. We found the staff very nice and helpful, though we found them a bit slow when checking out – just seemed as though they had so much info. to put into the computer, so much paper that came out of their computer, that it took a long time. Perhaps because we had two rooms it was more time, but still. I only mention this so you give yourself an extra 15 min. or so when leaving – we had our guide for overnight in Mekong patiently waiting for us. There is a nice spa, DH had two good massages while we were there, and DD and DF used the gym a few times which they said was quite good for a hotel gym. There was a rooftop terrace with a pool and lounge chairs and food service.


This was our free day in HCMC to see a few sites, do some shopping and hopefully get over jet lag, so we didn’t get to the buffet until about 10am but still a full selection of food.

Started out the day walking to see the Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Center. Tried to go to the American Embassy just to see the building, but I think the directions we were given were faulty or it was a lot further down the street than we were told.

We perused through the Banh Tran market, Saigon Tax Center and the Viacom Center. Basically, Banh Tran is many market stalls where you can bargain, Saigon Tax Center is in a building with escalators, etc. but a little more downscale and I was able to bargain a bit with the lacquerware I purchased on the 3rd floor. Viacom Center is a big nice mall with a lot of stores that we would be familiar with, and some we wouldn’t. On the bottom floor is a nice food court where we stopped for a break at Highland Coffee. Headed back to the hotel with some more shopping on Khoi Dong Street. We enjoyed our day in Saigon/HCMC and remarked early on how much we liked it better than Bangkok. Easy to walk around, some very nice public parks, and all in all a pleasant experience.

Went back to the hotel and rested a bit before our 7pm reservation at Xu. Wanted a place not too far from hotel, that was a bit more upscale Vietnamese so as to ease us into the “local” food. The food here was excellent, particularly the chicken and rice dish but the portions were small and definitely more expensive then you can find, but we were pretty tired by now and enjoyed the dinner.


I had booked a Cu Chi Tunnel tour with Khoi of Water Buffalo Tours before we left. Khoi couldn’t be our guide for this tour (but would be for our 2D/1N tour of Mekong). Our guide for today was Tan, who was young (mid-20s) but very nice and knowledgeable. Also, very interesting to talk to someone of his generation about the war, politics and economics. He picked us up at 9am and we drove 1.5 hrs. to the CuChi Tunnels. Now I know there is some controversy on the travel boards about whether or not this is a worthy trip but we all found it quite interesting and informative. There were a lot of demonstrations and dioramas along the way. DS got a kick out of going down one of the manholes where they hid – he didn’t want to stay down there very long at all. The tunnels themselves aren’t very long, but then that is good because you wouldn’t want to be down there for too long. Yes, the movie at the beginning of the program is anti-American as it constantly refers to the “American-killer heroes” but then it’s their country, they can tell the story (happens again in other places as well). At the end they served you tapioca root with a sesame seed dip – the food of the VietCong fighters. Not bad actually, but wouldn’t want it to be my only sustenance.

From there we drove back to HCMC and had lunch at Pho Hoa. Tan says it’s the best Pho in town (that is all they serve). Can’t speak to that but it was a typical local restaurant and the Pho was very good. DH decided to be adventurous and ordered the Pho with everything, incl innards, etc. He said it was good, but had a few minor tummy issues afterward so said wouldn’t be quite that adventurous again.

Next we drove to Cholon (Chinatown) and the Chinese wholdsale market – absolutely crazy!! People moving products everywhere and a great place to see the scooters loaded up with tons of boxes, etc. tied to the sides.

From here we stopped at a Pagoda built in the 1700’s. Beautiful original carvings remain. We decided to say goodbye to our driver and take Tan up on his offer to teach us how to cross the street in Vietnam. Now there are two main rules: 1. Try to find a local to walk alongside and 2. Slow and steady, slow and steady. You can stop for a bus but don’t stop for a scooter. The scooter sees you and is adjusting their direction in order not to hit you, if you suddenly stop and they have to put on their brakes – well I think you get the pictures. So, we stopped at a giant roundabout with no lights or traffic control and Tan took us individually across the street and back. He was right – just slow and steady. Seems crazy as you cross the street with tons of traffic but it really worked!! We actually had a ton of fun with this and built up our confidence for the rest of the trip.

Last stop was at Fanny’s for ice cream, it was about 5:30pm. We were pretty tired and still dealing with some jet lag so we just got room service in our room that night.


Picked up at 7:30am by Khoi of Water Buffalo Tours. BTW, Khoi was great to work with responded promptly to all my emails and adjusted a few things for our CuChi Tunnel tour so we could start a bit later. We drove for about 1 hr. on backroads before stopping at a local market in the Mekong Delta. Now this was very local – there was not another westerner or tourist in sight. Enjoyed walking through the market with all the interesting fish, seafood, live chickens, etc. We stopped to buy some pineapple and the lady meticulously cut it to make “pineapple on a stick” – the stick being part of the pineapple – no extra charge of course. The ladies in the market love DS asking him “how old are you?” and they all loved letting us take their pictures.

Our next stop was a small furniture factory that did intricate inlaid detailing. Let me note that none of these stops were to encourage us to buy stuff but just for us to see the handiwork. No one even came out to see us, Khoi just showed us around and told us the details of the craftsmanship.

Next up was a small gardening operation where they were planting chilis. Really quite fascinating to watch the women working meticulously to plant these tiny little plants. I’ve tried to sit like they were (like many Vietnamese do) on their haunches but I just can’t get down that low!!!

From here we drove to Khoi’s mother’s house where we picked up bicycles and had a quick 40 minute ride through the back country. Beautiful and quite interesting to see this “quintessential” part of Vietnam. Khoi’s brother runs a sort of afterschool day care program for school kids at his mom’s house so there were tons of kids there playing billiards and pool.

From here we drove to the ocean and had a fabulous lunch on a place right on the beach. Again no tourists nor foreigners here. We had an amazing lunch of clams(cuckolds), grilled tiger prawns, soup a fish dish and this delicious steamed okra that was amazing when dipped in the fish sauce. Also, my first taste of mangosteen which is now my new favorite fruit!! Unfortunately, it is hard to get here in the US. Apparently, illegal to import up until about 2007/2008 but even so still seems to be hard to find. Found this one site that says they carry them $29.99 for 9-13 (so not cheap) plus you must do next day air. Even with that, they say they are temporarily out of stock – but I wonder how long that has been up there. Apparently, you can get them in Canada.

Next up we drove to the boat dock on the delta where we saw our first tourists of the day (tons of them). We got on our own boat where we went around a big island, then got on a smaller longtail type boat where we went through the narrow jungle canals. At one point we got off and walked across the island, stopping at a small restaurant for a potty room break and DS playing with the python!

Another 2 hr. drive to Can Tho where we checked into our hotel Kimtho Hotel. It really wasn’t bad with decent size rooms and bathrooms and our room had a view of the river. The common room décor was a bit garish however. The worst part was the restaurant where we had breakfast the next morning was just a bit depressing as the ceilings were very low and had few windows so it was very dark. The breakfast buffet was mostly stuff we were unfamiliar with though they did have an omelet station.

We got settled into our rooms then met Khoi downstairs for dinner. We went to a local restaurant that served only one dish – a pork dish with glass noodles and broth. Very yummy, but Khoi cautioned us against drinking the water or any ice and they only thing they refrigerated was the beer so kids and I had warm soda. We were craving chocolate/western dessert so Khoi recommended a French restaurant around the corner from the hotel where we enjoyed chocolate crepes, banana splits and an apple tart.


Woke up early the next morning to meet Khoi at 5:40am to head to the floating market. First stop was at the retail floating market then through canals to the wholesale floating market. While I realize that this is probably more authentic and WAY less touristy then the floating market outside of Bangkok, I must say that (well as a tourist) it was much less interesting and not nearly as fun and probably not worth the long drive or the overnight stay. At least DF hadn’t been to the one in Bangkok before so it was nice for her to get to experience it. Just not really very many boats, particularly in the retail market and Khoi suggested we not buy any food, which was one of our favorite parts of the Bangkok market.

I had read one comment before our trip where someone had said if you’ve been to floating market in Bangkok and Tonle Sap in Siem Reap then not necessary to go to Mekong Delta. While, I think everything/place is different and something new to see, I would have to agree that if you have been to those places and are short for time I would probably skip the Mekong.

Came back to hotel, showered and had breakfast. We left there about 10:15am and arrived at the Cao Dai Temple on our way back to HCMC at 11:45am just in time to watch the noon ceremony. Very beautiful and colorful temple and it was interesting to watch the ceremony and learn a bit about the religion.

Arrived back in HCMC about 2pm and we decided to go to L’Usine ( – 151 Dong Khoi) for lunch. I had read about this store/restaurant on the internet and thought it sounded pretty cool – it was. Hard to find as it is located upstairs and you have to walk through this open store on the bottom (someone else described as an art gallery – but that is a bit generous), anyway walk through the store and behind where all the scooters are parked and walk up the stairs. Also, when looking for it from the street – just look up and there is a large sign saying L’Usine upstairs. This is a very cool space and definitely part of the “new Vietnam”. Lots of expats, students and wealthy Vietnamese hanging out, on their laptops sipping coffee or enjoying lunch. We had excellent Banh Mi and they also had yummy cupcakes (the Smore’s were the best – graham cracker on the bottom and marshmallow instead of icing.) Not a cheap local restaurant but a nice break and delicious lunch. After lunch did some more last minute shopping down Khoi Dong St. – really loved all the little stores there, lots of nice handicrafts some more expensive than others.

Dinner that night was at a French restaurant La Fourchette (9 D Ngo Duc Ke) just around the corner from hotel. Despite some good reviews we had read, we thought only ok and wouldn’t bother returning.

Next up Hoi An

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    To jgg: Your link to L'Usine does not work for me. Maybe you mean This shows what it calls l'Cafeteria with a light menu, although the actual "usine" ("factory" in French) appears to be a clothing boutique. Thanks for so many details and especially the attempt to add Internet links.

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    Nice report. The American Consulate (Embassy is in Hanoi) is located next the the French Consulate on Le Duan St. The old embassy building from 1975 no longer exists. It's been replaced by low rise buildings. This may have hindered your ability to find it.

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    rhkkmk - we do hope to give it a second chance someday!! Must say we LOVED our stay at the Peninsula and all our time with Tong - just weren't enamored with the city itself - but definitely willing to give a second try.

    I forgot to mention that on our day with Tan when we went to the CuChi Tunnels, after we went to lunch back in Saigon we went to the War Remnant Museum. Unfortunately, we only had about 45 min. there which wasn’t nearly enough time, but on the other hand enough to get a sense of what was there and the message. Again, quite interesting telling their side of the story, sometimes hard to see but important none the less.

    Also, I just wanted to mention that we did really enjoy our time with Khoi our guide in the Mekong. He was about 11/12 during the war, his father had fought with the South Vietnamese so after the war he was sent to a work camp, which he later fled only to end up in Malaysia in a refugee camp. Sounds horrific, yet he said the bright side was that he met another Vietnamese refugee there who spoke English and taught him and a few others to speak English. Amazing story and fascinating to talk with him about all these things. He spent a few years living in Australia before returning to Vietnam.

    DAY 5

    I booked all our internal flights on Vietnam Airlines on their website and had no problems with anything. We left the hotel at 7am for an 8:30am flight. That early there was no traffic and we were at the airport in about 15-20 minutes. Easy check-in though we weren’t allowed to carryon our rollaboards – we carryon all of our luggage, but we had anticipated that this might happen for our internal flights and were ready to check them if we needed to. Only disappointment was that I had two pairs of nail polish that I was bringing along to put in DD Christmas stocking. They were correctly placed in my liquids bag and had safely made it all the way to Saigon. However, here they said I couldn’t carry it on because “it might heat up and explode- no nail polish”!! The really annoying thing was that no one else in the family even took out their liquids bag, but I thought I needed to – I’m guessing if I hadn’t taken it out they wouldn’t have noticed – oh well, a minor loss.

    An easy 1 hr. 10min. flight to DaNang. Vietnam Air has a brand new terminal in Danang – just opened a few days before we arrived, so very nice, big and clean. We were picked up by the hotel van. We stayed at the Boutique Hoi An Resort

    We arrived at the resort where they served us tea as they checked us in. Front desk was very helpful, and we loved the minimalist décor in the lobby. We stayed in the 2 bedroom/2 bath villa right on the beach. Great large bedrooms – the master bedroom was particularly spacious with fabulous king size bed (DH said “excellent bed” and he has back problems so is very particular). Master also had couch, table, tv, laptop and opened onto a small terrace. It was great for us all to be in one space but have our own bedrooms since the weather wasn’t nice enough to take advantage of the beach and it was also nice to have the living room since we would be celebrating Christmas here. Please note that if you stay in one of the villas it is a bit of a walk down to it, we didn’t find it a problem, but others might.

    There were a few oddities. The shower/tub in master was oddly laid out with deep shelf that you had to either step over to get into or sit on and move yourself around to get into. Then shower curtain was too short for opening and the showerhead was positioned in the middle of the tub rather than on one of the ends so the floor got soaked. The other weird thing was that we would have had a nice view of the ocean but there was a plastic green fence in front so the view was a bit marred.

    The free wifi in the rooms was nice, though the kids said they had trouble connecting in their room so would come into ours to connect and then they were fine to move about the villa. The free shuttle service was very nice, but have to agree with other comments that it would be nice if it ran a bit more frequently, and sometimes they used a smaller van which couldn’t hold everyone. One time coming back from town, they brought the smaller van and there was not enough room for us, but they did kindly get us a taxi and paid the bill.

    We arrived at the hotel settled in and headed into Hoi An for lunch. Okay, so I know there is a lot of controversy over Hoi An as well, but you can count us in as people who LOVE Hoi An!! I never thought I would use the word “charming” to describe anything in SE Asia (well Siem Reap had some moments), but Hoi An was truly charming. Yes, there are a lot of tourists but there are also a lot of locals in the markets, etc. We live in Southern Oregon where there are two very touristy towns, but that doesn’t mean that us locals aren’t real people!! Anyway, we just loved the little shops, restaurants the river, the market of Hoi An. I think one of the reasons we enjoyed Hoi An, despite the fact that the weather was never nice enough for the beach, was some of the activities we did – some people complain that there is not a lot to do in Hoi An, but we found that not to be the case. We loved our cooking class, street food tour, and bicycle tour – more details on those later.

    Our first stop was Cargo Club for lunch – a great restaurant for lunch/dinner or a yummy dessert, with a fabulous atmosphere. A nice menu with a mix of Vietnamese and Western food. Some of us had banh mi and others had salads. Everyone enjoyed their lunch.

    Next up was a stop at the tailor. Now, I had a list of 3 tailors that I had found recommended on the internet. We walked by all three and DD and DF didn’t like the feel of any of them, so I told them to put on their “radars” and pick where they wanted to go. They picked ThuThuy Silk (60 Le Loi). One of the things that we didn’t realize is when you walk on the street some places have a lot smaller storefronts than others, but many have large areas in back once you walk inside with a much larger selection of fabrics then what you can see from the street. Atleast ThuThuy Silk did, so I’m assuming others as well. Also, they had a great wifi connection so you could look stuff up on the internet to show them.

    We actually had a lot of fun with the whole tailor thing, particularly DD. She was in heaven showing them a dress and blazer that she wanted on the internet, then working with them to tweak the design a bit to her specifications. She says this was the highlight of the trip for her!! We all had 1-2 things requested and we were measured. This was about 3-4pm and they said everything would be ready by 10am the next morning.

    Now, I know I had read about another family who had been in Hoi An at Christmas and they had a tailor make them all Christmas stockings!! I thought this would be a great idea, we could all pick our own fabric and have custom made stockings. Unfortunately, the ladies at ThuThuy just refused to do it. We showed them pictures on the internet, and told them we would pick the fabric from them, but they just kept saying they couldn’t do it. Didn’t make any sense to me, they can make a dress from a picture in less than 24 hrs. but not stockings?? Anyway, they told us to go to this “bookstore”, gave us directions, as they said they had some Christmas decorations for sale. We found the place, they didn’t have any stockings – only Santa hats, but they did have some smaller fake treats garishly decorated with lights and all different colors of tinsel. We figured, what the heck, and bought one to keep in the villa living room!! We did stop at another tailor to see if they would make stockings but they said no as well, so we decided to give up on that – we ended up just doing a tradition from some European countries and putting stuff in the kids shoes instead of stockings. I’m pretty sure the taxi driver back to the hotel thought we were a bit crazy carrying this Christmas tree back, but the front desk at the hotel gave us sweet smiles!!

    For dinner that night we went to Ms Ly’s (22 Nguyen Hue St). We got there about 7:20pm and they were packed but he told us to come back in half an hour and suggested we have a drink at Bazaar just around the corner. We had a nice rest at Bazaar than back to Ms Ly’s which was still quite busy but our table was held for us. We just decided to do her set menu of Hoi An specialties which included fresh spring rolls, fried wontons, white rose and Cao Lau (a pork noodle dish). Ms Ly’s husband is American so very helpful in explaining everything on the menu. We loved the dinner and enjoyed desserts of flambé and fried bananas.

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    We also thought HoiAn was charming -- and we had great weather the first 3 days we were there (the last day it rained so hard that we simply left for Saigon earlier than planned). We didn't have any tailoring done (frankly, I'd gotten less-than-positive reviews of the quality of the clothing, so it just didn't interest me), but I did buy one "genuine Pashmina" (in other words, "a real scarf") in a pattern and colors I still love, and wear all the time -- brings me back to our trip every time!

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    Hi Crosscheck!! I've been thinking about your question myself. Not to diminish any of the great things we did in Thai/Cambodia - ie floating market, tiger temple, fishing village, time riding elephants, and seeing Angkor Wat, I have to say I think everyone's fave was probably Vietnam. I think a lot of that however, did have to do with enjoying the food more as well as the weather being more mild. We were in Thai/Cambodia in late March when weather was VERY hot and humid - kind of takes the wind out of your sails. At Christmas time in Vietnam weather was nice and hot(not too humid) in Saigon, and then cooler as we went up north, but nothing too cold - not beach weather, but good touring weather.

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    DAY 6

    What a great morning we had!! I booked a street food tour with Neville Dean of Taste of Hoi An ( ( . Neville had been a promotional speaker before he and his wife decided to retire from Australia and move to Hoi An. He said after he lived here a few months he was in a local café when two young tourists walked in. They looked at the menu saw that there wasn’t any western food, and walked out. He felt like running after them and saying – let me show you great the local food is here – and the idea of Taste of Hoi An Street Food Tour was born. Neville is truly informative and enthusiastic – he has truly found his passion!!

    He picked us up at our hotel at 7:15am. Then we picked up another group of 4 and off we went to a local market – not the main one in Hoi An, but another one just slightly further out. We started out at a juice stand that made us a sort of smoothie like drink with ice and several kinds of fruit. Let me stop here and state that Neville has built up relationships with certain people at the market. And, in addition to his wife who helps make some of the yummy tastes you get at the end of the tour, he also has a Vietnamese woman who he lovingly refers to as “Bossy Boss” who he says is really particular about what we can eat and which vendors we can eat from. For instance this vendor gets her ice from a place that is ok for us to eat (I’m not sure if she uses that ice for everyone but definitely for Neville’s guests each morning). Neville and Bossy Boss take great care in making sure we can enjoy the food without having any tummy issues later on.

    From there we walked through the market trying several kinds of herbs, fruit and other tastes along the way. Neville has this great relationship with the women in the market – despite the fact that they can’t speak English and he can’t speak Vietnamese they have an amazing rapport joking and laughing with each other. We stop and sit down in the little plastic chairs to have Vietnamese pancake, stop to have a small bowl of pho. We stop and get some Xi Ma which looks like a soupy mud and tastes slightly like burnt oatmeal, but is actually water-grass soup. We continue to walk through the neighborhood then stop at the White Sail restaurant where we all share platters of fabulous local tastes. A bit more walking until we reach our final destination – a private room in the back of one of the restaurants in town. Here we get even more tastes of amazing food prepared by his wife and bossy boss while we are regaled with stories of food and culture. My favorite line was “Vietnamese eat when they are bored of not eating.” Lucky they stay so thin, but then everything they eat is also so healthy. We were done around noon and were stuffed!! We all loved this tour, and when I asked everyone at the end of the trip what their top 3 things were everyone named the street food tour as #1 or #2.

    After the tour we went back to the tailor tried on our clothes and requested some alterations. Then we just walked around the town a bit again stopping into little shops, walked across the river as well, before heading back to the room to rest.

    Dinner was at Brasserie Cava (Hguyen Phuc Chu, 53) located just across the river. The menu is Vietnamese and Mediterranean food. We had lamb burgers, chicken kabobs and ribeyes. Food was good, though nothing spectacular, the atmosphere was great and service was good.

    DAY 7

    Today was Christmas Eve. I had booked a half day bike tour with Heaven & Earth Bicycle Tour ( I had originally booked the morning tour hoping that if the weather was nice we could spend the afternoon on the beach. Well, our entire time in Hoi An it was gray and overcast – little bursts of rain for maybe 30 minutes 1-2x per day but nothing that got in the way of doing anything (except sitting on the beach). Well, since I knew it wouldn’t be beach weather and I thought the troops might have a mutiny if I told them we had to be up early again I went ahead and changed our bike ride to the afternoon. The day before while walking around town I had noticed Heaven & Earth’s little stand so I stopped there and asked if we could change to the afternoon time which they said was fine (by the way they also have full day and overnight/homestay trips).

    So, we all appreciated sleeping in, had a leisurely breakfast and took the 11am shuttle into town. Stopped at the tailor for the last fitting where everything looked good, then went to Anthony Bourdain’s favorite Banh Mi stand where we got 5 delicious Banh Mi for $7. Then walked to the bike tour office for our 12:45pm tour. We had another family of 3 with us, two parents and a daughter from France, but the daughter was studying abroad in HCMC. The parents didn’t speak English so the daughter translated everything for them. We met our two beautiful and charming Vietnamese guides. These two young ladies were so delightful, very inquisitive, asking us many questions and very eager to answer our questions. Spoke excellent English and very proud of their work in the tourism industry.

    We started out with a 45 minute boat ride to a rural island with beautiful countryside. Thoroughly enjoyed our time where we shared the dirt road mostly with the cows, chickens, water buffalo, bicycles, the occasional scooter and adorable children waving and saying “hello”. We had a few stops to see straw mat weaving, inlaid pearl, basket boat maker, wooden boat maker and an ice maker. You could also take your turn at paddling a basket boat in the river. We only saw one other small group of tourists on the island and they were doing a walking tour. Bikes were newer and in good condition with nice size baskets in front. It is an easy ride on completely flat streets. When we were done we took the local ferry back to Hoi An then the ride back to the office in Hoi An – a bit more challenging but fun !! We were back about 5:30pm

    We had a 7pm Christmas Eve Dinner reservation at The Cargo Club, so quickly picked up our clothes at the tailor that we had already approved and paid for and went back to the hotel to freshen up. The Cargo Club had a special Christmas Eve menu but you could also order off their regular menu which includes Vietnamese and western items. Our group had chicken or duck curry, tagliata, steak, minestrone, black bean soup, white bean rosemary soup and caeser salad. We had a fabulous dinner along with some of the yummy desserts.

    We had planned to go to mass at 9pm at the local Catholic church, so after dinner we headed up that way. Now, they celebrate Christmas Eve kind of how we here in America celebrate Cinco deMayo or St. Patricks day – as an excuse to have a big party!! Some of the stores closed a little earlier (7pm instead of 10pm), EVERYONE was out in the streets walking around, lots of kids in santa suits, people selling santa balloons, just a real festive atmosphere. But this all happens just on Christmas Eve night – Christmas Day everything is business as usual.

    As we walked up to the church we noticed how crowded the streets were, when we arrived at the church about 8:45 they were performing a very elaborate Christmas pageant with children, adults and even lifesize paper mache camels!! Everyone was crammed in the courtyard of the church trying to watch. It was clearly behind schedule as it appeared they kept having a problem with the sound system as they blew a fuse a few times while we were there. It wasn’t over until almost 9:30, and the rush of people were headed away from the church as people were leaving after the pageant. We decided we were all pretty tired so decided to skip mass and just head back to the hotel. A really great Christmas Eve day and evening.

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    When looking ahead to Christmas day I wanted to plan something that we could do all together, and since Christmas often has to do with cooking together I decided doing our cooking class today was a good idea. There are tons of cooking classes to choose from, and even when you arrive just about every restaurant will do cooking classes, so you probably don’t need to book in advance if you’re not particular. After reading a lot of reviews I decided to go with Van of Green Bamboo. ( Her website is not that developed so I suggest you read many of the TA reviews here:

    Before we left for Vietnam Van sent us a long list of dishes we could make and asked us each to pick one. The day of the class she picked us up at our hotel about 8:15am and we drove to the local market. It was definitely drizzling today, so we were happy that we would be inside for most of the day. Van gave us each a non la (typical Vietnamese hat) to wear. The guys declined but us gals wore them and found them excellent to keep off the light rain while we went through the market. By this time we had been to local markets a few times on the trip, but we still learned so much. We went shopping for all the food we would need for our class, which we had never done that before, and she even asked us if there were any other dishes we wanted to make. My husband piped up about a particular dish we had the day before with Neville, and my son added the banana pancakes so we added the food for those and ended up making 7 dishes! BTW, we were the only ones in the cooking class – I think max she can do is 6-8.

    We headed back to her home where we cooked in the kitchen in her house. This was VERY hands on - we did everything (No standing around and just watching here). We had a fabulous time, my two teenagers LOVED it and we had a ton of food! It was a fabulous way to spend Christmas day. BTW she picked us up about 8:15am and we weren't done until about 3pm. Sometimes she does a morning and an afternoon class - I think the morning usually ends around 2pm. If you do the afternoon I believe it goes until the evening, and I think she has to buy a lot of the food in the morning for that class, so you would not be doing as much shopping in the market. The things we made were Fresh spring rolls w/pork and shrimp, a noodle dish w/beef, shaking beef, chicken curry, Vietnamese pancakes w/pork & shrimp, banana blossom salad w/pork & shrimp and banana pancakes.

    Van’s brother drove us back to the hotel after the class. Then we finally had a chance to open our gifts. – definitely the latest we have ever done that – EVER!! Had a nice relaxing late afternoon, and the kids headed back into town later that evening to do some last minute shopping – in Vietnam you can get a leg up on your after Christmas shopping by actually shopping on Christmas day!! DH and I got a head start on our packing as we would be leaving in the morning for Hanoi.

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    Glad you are enjoying it and finding it helpful. Here is the last installment on Hanoi and Halong Bay.

    DAY 9
    Left the hotel at 8am for a 10:05 flight to Hanoi. The new terminal in Danang is really very nice (though not sure what the old one was like). About 15 minutes before we should start boarding the plane there was an announcement over the loud speak, “Vietnam Airlines regrets to inform you that flight 1508 to Hanoi…….will depart 10 minutes late.” We were all holding our breath, sure that such an important sounding announcement meant that they were going to be cancelling the flight – to hear that it would be ten minutes late we almost broke out laughing – most airlines don’t even let you know their leaving 10 minutes late!!!

    Arrived in Hanoi, had hotel van come pick us up. Much longer drive from airport to city center than I’d been told. We were staying at Hanoi Elegance Ruby (#4).

    HANOI ELEGANCE RUBY – located down a narrow side street, the lobby is not large and very unassuming. So unassuming that I have to admit I wanted to be sure we were in the right location, so while we were waiting I googled Hanoi Ruby on my phone to look at the lobby pics!! Soon, however, they brought us delicious mango smoothies and the kind concierge showed us to our rooms, and I began to see why the Elegance chain gets such rave reviews. By far some of the best service anywhere!! DH and I had a junior suite and kids had the family room/triple. The rooms were very large, nicely decorated and had fresh fruit delivered daily plus we were given a bottle of wine to enjoy. Our room also had couch, coffee table and a computer, and great wifi in the room. The entire staff spoke excellent English, and was extremely helpful and friendly.
    At breakfast you were given a menu with all kind of western options and pho. You could order anything and everything you wanted and it was incl. in our room price. Everything was made to order. The croissants and baguettes were particularly good!
    After we settled in it was lunchtime so we looked through our list and talked to the concierge. We wanted something not too far away from the hotel so we chose Green Mango (18 Hang Quat St.). We had to admit that we thought it was an odd menu with Italian/western and Vietnamese items. However, we all ordered different things and the food was quite good.

    We just walked around the city getting a feel for things and doing a bit of shopping. We did stop at Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple. Definitely a calming place to get away for the crowds even in the middle of the day.
    For dinner we went to Newday (72 Ma May). As we were walking there I decided I liked Hanoi better at night when things weren’t so crowded and crazy. Newday is a local Vietnamese restaurant with great food. Our young water was charming and enjoyed practicing his English on us. He was talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. Then he said, “John McCain came here. He was here in 1968 and stayed for 4 years”. We all kind of looked at each other and said, “yea that’s right……”

    DAY 9
    We were originally going to spend part of this day with a friend of a friend who was teaching English here, but about 6 weeks before the trip she decided to head home for Christmas. I contacted HanoiKids about 4 weeks before our date to book them and they were already booked up!! So, today was our day to see a lot of the sites but we were going to do it on our own. We all agreed the night before that sleeping in was a priority rather than getting up early to wait in a long line to see HoChiMinh’s body, but we did want to at least see the mausoleum. We probably got there around 10am and when we did there was absolutely no line, so we figured what the heck and followed the way to go in and see Uncle Ho. I am glad we did (I’m the only one who was willing to wake up early, because I had wanted to do this anyway, but glad it worked out this way). The whole experience with the guards (you can’t wear sunglasses going in or have your hands in your pockets), his body, the mausoleum was all fascinating.

    After coming out, this is where we could have used a guide or at least someone to tell us what to see first in the HoChiMinh Complex – we ended up doing everything backwards then the way you should. We first went to the one pillar pagoda and then had to backtrack a bit to get over to the Presidential Palace. The complex was about to close and I really wanted to see the stilt house, so we headed there first – it is right next to the Presidential Palace, but after you come out you can’t head back to the Presidential Palace area, which of course I didn’t realize that until after we came out. BTW you don’t have to pay to see mausoleum but you do have to buy ticket to Presidential Palace. So, if going on your own, after you come out of mausoleum turn right to Presidential Palace area. Go first to Presidential Palace then to stilt house and then walk to One Pillar Pagoda. From there you will be close to where you entered the comples. Next up we walked to the Temple of Literature. There were lots of teenage girls in colorful ao dai with their dates – it almost looked like a pre-homecoming event.

    Walked across the street to Craftlink, a nice handicraft store that is a non-profit organization which helps the people making the items. From everything I’d read about it I thought it would be a much bigger store than it was. But it was very nice and had some lovely items. Also, I collect nativities and try to buy a nativity from every country we visit (not always easy to find) but this store had a sweet little nativity so I was very happy!!

    From here we hailed a cab to take us to Ag Quon Nong. As we were driving I could see the meter just spinning up the numbers really fast, and I thought – this guy is going to try and rip us off! When he got us to the restaurant he said it was 600,000 dong – about $30. Well, we obviously knew that was wrong, but he kept on insisting. Finally DH just gave him 100,000 dong – about $5.00 and walked away. That was probably still more than it should have been but it was easy to grab, throw and go!!

    We had a great lunch of won ton soups, fresh rolls, Vietnamese pancakes, noodle dishes and other delicacies. Next up was Hoa Loi prison. Despite the fact that much of it is gone, we still fond it very interesting as signs were all in English and we thought the museum well done with good exhibits. However, the propaganda about how well the American GIs were treated was a little over the top – memories of the pics in Terezin outside of Prague.

    Back to the room to rest, but I needed to head to a Vietnam Airlines office to change our tickets from Hanoi back to Saigon. I had originally planned to stay until the afternoon on our last day in Hanoi before flying back to Saigon, but I could tell that overall we were not wowed by Hanoi, and we had discussed that we’d rather spend most of our last day in Saigon where it was warmer, and we had a nice pool to relax in and there was some last minute shopping we wanted to do there, so I wanted to change our flight from leaving at 4pm to leaving in the morning. I asked the concierge where I could go to get the ticket changed and he gave me very good directions to the Vietnam Airlines office and also details on what I needed to do when I got there (pick a number and then the number shows up on a screen when they are ready for you). This was my first trip out on the streets on my own. I found it easily and was able to take care of the change with no charge. Did some shopping on my way back.

    Just want to stop here and reflect on the comment I made about Hanoi not “wowing” us. I do think Hanoi suffered a bit from what a call the “Florence Syndrome”. Our first trip to Italy we did Rome, Venice, Florence in that order, and honestly Florence didn’t “wow” us either, but to be fair I think sometimes at the end of the trip everyone is just a bit tired, and unless there is something particularly unique or you have an incredible experience, I think the last location can just suffer a bit from fatigue. So, I think that was partly why we didn’t love Hanoi or Florence.

    Tonight we had dinner at the Hanoi Social Club (6 Hoi Vue). At first I didn’t really want to go here because it said it was mostly vegetarian but then people were also raving about their hamburger so we decided to give it a try. It was a fabulous meal and turned out to be one of our favorites. We started out with the leafy salad and the pumpkin salad. Not sure if it was because I hadn’t had a salad in awhile or not but the leafy salad was excellent. The pumpkin salad was very good but very large and filling – definitely something to share or make it your entrée. Two of us had the burger, one the veggie burger one the mango curry and one a cherry tomato pasta. For dessert we shared the chocolate cake with hazelnuts. Everything was delicious. The restaurant itself is on several levels with each level decorated a little differently. We were able to sit on the rooftop with our jackets – basically sat on a couch with chairs and food was on a coffee table. We had a fabulous evening and dinner.

    DAY 10
    8am pickup for our trip to Halong Bay. We booked directly through the Hotel for the Indochina Junk Red Dragon boat ( Drove about 1.5 hrs before a stop a major tourist spot where disabled people are making things. Yes, a tourist trap but they did have a lot of very clean bathrooms, and a huge store where you could buy almost anything incl. having clothes made by a tailor! They had a big snack area where you could buy western snacks – candy bars, cookies and chips – expensive but sometimes that’s just what you’re craving on a long drive.

    We arrived at the dock about 12:15, waited a few minutes before meeting our guide, “Popeye”, and were taken to a smaller skiff that took us to the Red Dragon II. We immediately loved the boat and all the fatigue from the trip and long drive is wiped away as everyone is super excited about this next adventure. The boat is beautiful – just as the pictures show on the website. Our rooms are very nice – everything made of beautiful wood. The bathroom was actually a pretty good size considering you were on a boat. The kids had a triple room that was quite large and ran the full width of the boat with a window on either side. The Red Dragon has 5 rooms, we had 2 rooms and another family had the other 3. It was actually a Vietnamese family – all adults celebrating someone’s bday. According to Popeye, it was very unusual to have a Vietnamese family on the trip, and they were truly honored.

    We chose to sit outside for lunch. A bit chilly, but just wore our coats. They handed us menus, we thought we were supposed to choose a dish, but it turned out we actually got all of them to share!! We had hot and sour soup, chicken salad, clams, squid, prawns, sea bass, vegetables and rice. We were all surprised the food was quite good.

    About 3pm we anchored and took the skiff to an island where we walked around, and visited a cave. Then we went to the beach where you could relax or go kayaking. Unfortunately, the weather was just not warm enough to enjoy sunbathing on the beach. DF and DS tried their hand at kayaking, but just too cold to get too wet so they came back rather quickly. The island appeared to be only for Indochina Junk boats so not too crowded.

    We went back to the boat and rested in our rooms or on the deck. Dinner was at 7pm. We ate inside because it just wasn’t warm enough outside. Another big meal with great food including mantis prawns, which were as big as lobster. A challenge to separate from its shell – but worth the trouble!! After dinner the chef came out and played his guitar and sang for us. They tried to get us to sing too, but the VonTrapp or Jackson family we are not.

    Breakfast was at 7:15. We ate outside and had Pho Gao (chicken noodle soup) and fried egg and toast. Then we went to the fishing village. Our bamboo boat was rowed by a young woman. A nice visit through the islands and houses with a short stop at the school. At the end there was a stop to show us how they cultivate pearls as there was an oyster farm in the village. We didn’t buy anything there, but the Vietnamese family did – perhaps they knew something we didn’t about this being a good place to buy pearls.

    Back to the Red Dragon and the sun was coming out and it was warm enough to layout on the lounge chairs reading. Lunch was about 11am. This time we were given a choice of two dishes out of 4 that we could have. Choices were scallops, prawns, beef or chicken.

    Back to the dock around 11:45am. We all loved this trip despite the gray weather, and all agreed we need to come back when the weather is better and do the 2night/3 day trip. Our driver was a little late, didn’t arrive for about 40 minutes. Drove back to the hotel with a stop at ANOTHER large tourist stop - at least the bathrooms were clean!!

    We arrived back in Hanoi about 4pm. We couldn’t stay at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby again because they were booked up for that night so we were going to the Hanoi Elegance Sapphire. We had just brought an overnight bag on the Halong Bay trip and left our luggage at the Ruby, which they transferred over to the Sapphire for us. The Sapphire was just as great as the Ruby. Not too far from each other, still well located in the Old Quarter. I did think that the lobby was bigger at the Sapphire and definitely the elevator and the hallways were much larger. The breakfast was a buffet plus made to order eggs, omelettes, French toast and Pho. Our room had a nice glass covered terrace and our bathroom was also much larger.

    After we arrived back in Hanoi we did some last minute shopping before our dinner at La Badiane (10 Nam Ngu), a great French restaurant. Our dinner there was excellent. For appetizers we had eggplant, carpaccio and foie gras. DD had the tuna for her entrée and the rest of us ordered the steak (best one on the trip) – everything was excellent including the warm choc cake and mango apple crumble for dessert. I have to say, even though we didn’t love Hanoi, the food we had there was great!!

    DAY 11
    Left at 8am for our 10am Vietnam Airlines flight back to Saigon. Hanoi airport is much more crowded and with longer lines than either Danang or HCMC. Got through security and went straight to boarding the plane.

    Arrived in Saigon at lunchtime, and we were all anxious to go to L’Usine again for lunch for the great sandwiches and yummy cupcakes. A last minute stop at a store on Dong Khoi street for something that I hadn’t purchased before and back to the hotel to rest by the pool and get massages. DS and DF went to do some last minute bargaining at Ben Thanh market.

    For dinner we went to Pizza 4Ps (8/15 Le Thanh Ton) – weird name I know, but very good pizza there. We all enjoyed our meal. BTW, we took a taxi here and it was a good thing, because it would have been very hard to find, as the entrance is down an alley.

    Back to the hotel to finish packing for our 6am flight home the next morning.

    This was a great trip!! We already know we want to go back to Vietnam – this time we will do Hue, Sapa and 2 night Halong Bay trip along with time in Hoi An and Saigon!

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