Sheryl Krengal, her husband Daniel, and their daughter Anna (age 13, attends Beijing BISS International School).
During Mid-Autumn Festival from September 30 to October 7, we took our first extended holiday from BISS to visit Northern Vietnam. We flew direct with Vietnam Air from Beijing to Hanoi and stayed in the city’s Old Quarter. We spent four nights at the Hanoi Topaz Hotel and three nights at the Catba Sandy Beach Resort in Ha Long Bay. We arrived at our island after three hours on a bus and three hours on a boat; over the next few days, we dined on seafood, visited caves, and enjoyed a cruise around the bay.
Roundtrip flights from Beijing to Hanoi for three people cost around RMB 15,300 in total. The Hanoi Topaz Hotel was lovely and economical, around USD 50 (RMB 312) per night; the Catba Sandy Beach Resort cost approximately USD 40 (RMB 249) per night, which included a small breakfast of bananas, fried eggs, and bread.
The Best Part
Swimming, hiking, and cycling in Ha Long Bay was fantastic, whereas Hanoi had wonderful restaurants and tourist activities. The museums – particularly the Revolutionary Museum – were fascinating. As Americans, it was intriguing to see the Vietnam War from the “other” side. We also toured the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Ethnology Museum; these were well worth the time and very inexpensive. A ticket cost around VND 25,000 (RMB 7.50).
We also befriended Andrea, a Canadian backpacker, and joined her on an all-day excursion paddling, biking, and climbing a mountain on another island. We saw an old Vietnam War bunker and got an awesome view of Ha Long Bay.
The Worst Part
As we approached the Catba Sandy Beach Resort in Halong Bay, I looked at Daniel and said: “There is no way this place has wireless internet.” It turns out that Daniel had signed us into an “eco-tourism” resort – a wonderful thing, but not exactly what we were looking for. In short, we would be living in a hut on the beach. Our bedroom consisted of two beds and two mosquito nets. There was no Wi-Fi, no air conditioning, and – occasionally – no electricity. Fortunately, we did have a bathroom and there was access to cold beer in the central dining hut. We quickly learned that everyone else was staying for a night or two; we had signed up for five. Though it was breathtaking in its beauty, staying at an “eco-resort” was like being set back 60 years in terms of luxuries and conveniences.
Other than the surprise of staying at an “eco-tourism” resort, most of our surprises were pleasant ones. The people were friendly, the food was fantastic, and the prices were very cheap. We came into Hanoi at dusk and were first amazed at the architecture, which is strikingly different from China. The tall, slender homes with balconies and colorful exteriors were refreshing compared to the block-style apartments common in China’s huge cities.
Our experience revealed northern Vietnam to be a place that can be both family-friendly and good for those who like roughing it a bit. Staying at the Catba Sandy Beach Resort was certainly “roughing it,” though we managed to do a lot of swimming, kayaking, hiking, mountain climbing, and biking. Hanoi was quite easy to navigate and there were many ways to entertain each member of the family.
The weather in October was just about perfect, with warm days and cool nights.
Traveling around Hanoi was easy; ATMs were common and easy to use. People were helpful and taxis were easy to find. We did get ripped off by a cab driver with a “fixed” meter, so we learned to ask how much the fare would be before we got into a taxi.
The museums and parks in Hanoi are quite interesting. We stayed in the Old Quarter, so everything was within walking distance.
Be aware that getting a visa is a must for an American. It’s not difficult, and you can do virtually everything online, but you don’t want to arrive at the airport without the paperwork. We ran into a family at Beijing International Capital Airport that assumed they could get them when they arrived in Hanoi; they weren’t allowed onto the plane.
There were no medical issues with going to Vietnam. We were warned that there were disease-carrying mosquitoes where we were hiking, but they reportedly only come out at dusk.
All photos courtesy of the Krengel family
This article originally appeared on p26 of the beijingkids January/February 2013 issue. View it in PDF form here or contact email@example.com to find out where you can pick up your free copy.