After a long and hard flight over to Hanoi where we crossed 6 time zones, we arrived in Hanoi. As would be expected, no one slept well on the plane, along with a 3 hour stop in Singapore where we “wasted” some free passes at an airport lounge there. (We got some free passes when we got our credit card). I say we wasted it since the lounge was bright, loud, and not very comfortable which you would expect an airport lounge to be.)

Barf bag in hand, Wilson takes a break from the screens…

We hopped back on Singapore Air where the kids were treated super well, especially since we were in the last two rows of the airplane. Coming close to the end of the flight, the head flight attendant asked the kids if they wanted to go up to the cockpit at the end of the flight, and they jumped at the chance.

We weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the cockpit, but Lulu got to sit in the captains chair and both kids got to press some buttons. Thank goodness it wasn’t the landing gear button they pressed…haha. Crash!

Who knew Vietnam was so mountainous!

We got to La Selva Boutique Hotel just after lunch, and everyone crashed pretty hard for a couple of hours for some much needed sleep. We got up as we had tickets to go to the Water Puppet show which was pretty cool.

These were the kids beds when we arrived at La Selva. What an amazing hotel. Everything was perfect…highly recommended!

In a nutshell, all of the performers are standing in hip waders in the pool that is the “stage”. The narrator and orchestra sit on an elevated stage around the pool where they play traditional music to accompany the story going on in the water.

The performers and controlling the puppets which are attached to long poles that are hidden under the water, and they also have levers and pulleys that make the puppets move.

Water puppet water fight.

The story is about a dragon king who lived in the sea, and he met a beautiful fairy who lived in the mountains.  They fell in love and made an egg from which 100 children were born and voila, the Vietnamese were born.  However, they couldn’t forget their love for the mountains and the sea, so they separated and took 50 kids each with them.

Flaming dragons added to the pizzaz of the show!

After the show, we headed out to a local favourite restaurant to have Bun Cha which is incredibly delicious. Basically, it is a bowl of vinegary soup with meatballs that you season with fresh garlic and chilis. You take some skinny rice noodles and dip it in the soup, along with a chunk of a deep fried spring roll, and then you pop it in your mouth (with or without some fresh coriander). It was an awesome start of the culinary part of our tour of Vietnam.

Mmmmm Bun Cha. Our fav dish in Vietnam.

We headed back home as it was going to be a long day the next day with a lot of sight seeing. Well, let me clarify that. I dropped Deb and the kids off at the hotel and I headed back out to explore and enjoy some of the weekend night life that was going on. They close the roads around the lake that is right by our hotel so that families can come out and have some fun, play games, exercise, and enjoy buskers and musicians at various locations around the road that goes around the lake. According to some locals, they started to close this area so that local people could get out and exercise more and socialize more since the limited footprint of Hanoi restricted how much “play space” there was for Hanoi residents to have.

Just a cool street. No, this wasn’t where the street party was.

I think it accomplished what it was trying to do, but given the large groups of kids and teenagers that were out playing and socializing with each other, playing Jenga and other games, and shuttlecock (their version of hacky sack), it got them off their butts and screens and actually got them to speak face to face with each other.

Hacky sack, but with a stack of coins on a stick with feathers at the other end to keep it in line.

The musicians that were playing were awesome, and after a while, I knew that Vietnam was going to be a fun place to be and it was a very safe location to be.

The kids were hard to rouse and get excited for the day ahead as they were still on Africa time. Breakfast choices were typical western foods, but they also had Vietnamese breakfast items, which were the same as the dinner items. So, I had that! Wilson often eats grilled cheese for breakfast, so I might as well try his strategy.

Happy happy. Joy joy.

We hooked up with HanoiKids, a student based organization,  for a walking tour for the Old Quarter. Our two guides, Anh and Vu, were university students who had the morning off and gave us the tour. The great thing with this company is that the tour is free, but it is great if you want to donate something to the company, it helps them fund their efforts at educating university kids in conversational English which will help them improve and enrich their lives through the ability to pursue their dreams locally or internationally.  (PS…their website has some great recipes).  They also work hard to help spread the word about their culture so that it preserves it within their own youth, as well as spreads it around to all of the visitors that visit the area.

We started off by walking around Return Sword Lake. You are probably wondering why it is called this…it was said that in the Ming Dynasty, the king’s army was surrounded by the Chinese army around the lake, but a turtle came up out of the water with a sword in its mouth and gave it to the king. The king’s army was then able to fight back successfully and won the war. After the war, he returned the sword to the turtle in the lake.

Jutting out into the lake is a bridge that goes over to a temple in the middle of the lake. The temple is one for education. As you walk towards it, there is a monument that is shaped like a pen, and on a nearby arch there is an inkwell on top. It is to symbolize that the pen and ink will write messages and information in the sky and that knowledge will never be lost. Because it is stored in the “cloud”. Hahahaha! Couldn’t resist….

The pen.
The inkwell on top of the arch.
Wilson getting an explanation about the catfish dragon legend.

Everything lives in balance here, and is centred around Feng Shui. A turtle sits in the front of a house, and a phoenix in the back as the phoenix and the turtle coexist, as the phoenix uses the turtle as a place to rest when it gets tired from flying. At this temple, there was a statue of a salmon going up a waterfall to the top, it will become a dragon which represents strength and persistence with respect to education as the salmon.

While we wandered around the Old Quarter, we had two groups of kids come up and talk to us and the kids. It was like they were out in small groups, with the kids no older than Lulu and Wilson, going around to obviously non-locals to try their hand at English. Anh told us that they were part of a club, like theirs, that helps kids develop conversational English skills. Their educational system, much like ours, teaches kids English but in the form of vocabulary and grammar, but not practical English where it is conversational. So this was the way that they got their practice. They start teaching kids as early as 3 to 4 years old.

They started some pleasantries, but then started talking about the local site you were standing in front of, or a famous site in Hanoi. Wilson and Lulu had a great time talking to their peers and helping them learn more about our culture as well.

Hanoi wasn’t always the capital city, but in October 1000AD, it was moved from Ninh Binh to Hanoi by the king as Hanoi was the educational and knowledge centre of Vietnam at that time.

One of the typical vendor stalls. This one is on “textile street”, where literally everything that has to do with textiles and sewing is here. This is a zipper store. There are thread stores, button stores, and even bra padding stores. Jane and Barb, you would be in heaven!

The girls took us to a Catholic church that built in the 1700s when the French occupied and ruled the area. However, 70% of Vietnamese don’t follow a particular religion. They worship and praise their ancestors. The next common religion is Buddhism, followed by Catholicism.

Anh and Vu with the kids showing them how to make the Vietnamese version of hand hearts
The towering Catholic church that stands out from all of the other buildings in town.

We meandered over to the historical prison that was built in the early 1900s by the French. It was a scenic part of Hanoi with a cute village that occupied it, but the French displaced the village to make room for the prison.

Watch out! Some prisoners escaped! Oh. Wait. It is just us.

The French wanted to make the prison the strongest prison in Indochina, so they imported a lot of items from Europe that were proven to be tried and true, as they were used in castles.

The capacity of the prison was 500 people, mainly political prisoners, but at times they would get upwards of 1500 prisoners in there. This was the “Robben’s Island” of Vietnam.

Similar to Robben’s Island, there was an underground system of communication that was used in the prison to help keep everyone up to date and inspired that they were perpetuating political change outside of the walls of the prison.

Hands bound. Feet shackled in a row…

They took twigs from a nearby tree and hollowed them out, and then packed in terra cotta from pots that they used as the “ink” for writing in the prison. They would then hide the messages inside hollowed out chopsticks, in specified holes in the wall (like geocaching!) or in the bottom of the bowls of soup and pho to spread the news.

They were each given 15 minutes a day of “freedom” to go to the bathroom which they could use for exercise or to have a shower.

We played “HeadsUp” for our 15 minutes of freedom while Deb and Lulu visited the water closet.

During this time, two groups (at two separate times obviously) made their way into the sewer system under the jail, and used pieces of their metal kitchen utensils to saw through metal bars and chip away at the walls of the pipes to escape the prison. They were successful, but some of them got recaptured.

A tight squeeze!

The prison was later turned into a prison for prisoners of war during the Vietnam war. There was some photos and artifacts from the war that were on display, and set up in a way to portray that the POWs were treated well during their stay there.

After our walking tour, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then got ready for the afternoon Vespa tour. We were picked up by a group of, you guessed it, university women who were going to chauffeur us around the town to various sites with our guide, Tu from Paloma Motor Bike Tours.  We first visited a temple where Tu gave us a lesson about temple worship, and the layout of temples.

As you enter a temple, there are two elephants that are facing each other. Generals that served in the war rode elephants, and they were a symbol of strength and power. The elephants are made of rock to symbolize power, and the magnetism of the rocks act to push bad spirits away from the temple.

Leading into the temple, there is always a tiger on the right and a dragon on the left, and a turtle at the front and a phoenix at the back to balance each other out. All of them aimed at warding of bad spirits away from the centre of the temple.

However, homes and businesses are set up the same way, and you can see them subtly set up this way when you actually look for it.

We started talking about our birth year and our symbols, but I will let Deb talk about this as it is pretty funny and get into the details. In short, Deb is a tiger symbolizing power. Lulu is a rat, symbolizing that she is smart and fast. Wilson is a dog, symbolizing that he is loyal and honest. I am an ox, soft and lumbering. Much like a saint Bernard, eh mom?

The second temple that we went to was actually a pagoda. The difference between the two is that a temple is a place to worship a real person, like a king, a queen, a national hero or some saints who are believed to help local people with some difficulty jobs.  Inside the building you would see statues of the person being worshiped, and a pagoda is the place purely for Buddhism. That is where Buddhists go to pray and worship Buddha.

We stopped to have some snacks on the street, which involved coconut and sugar, but since I am the only person who likes coconut in our family, I had an extra helping….

A food bike…. everything is more compact here. One guy. One bike. Selling one thing.

Then we drove down some back alleys to pop out at this small lake in the middle of some houses.  It was called B52 lake.  Aptly so because there was a large chunk of an American B52 sitting in the middle of the lake that was shot down during the Vietnam War.  Symbolically, and ironically, out of the middle of the fuselage was a little tree that was growing out of it.  Something from nothing.  Life and hope, out of death and despair.

We walked through Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which had an expansive garden and grounds that surrounded it.  It was pretty quiet around there, but you could certainly imagine large political parades with the army marching through here.

We headed off to one of Tu’s favourite restaurants where we had some fresh spring rolls and banana flower noodles which was delish. Everything is so simple and so fresh here. The restaurant décor is nothing special, but who cares when the food it amazing.

We also had another dish that was a stir fry that you scooped into a puffed pastry thing. Then you jammed the whole thing in your mouth. Awesome…

This was supposed to be our little snack before we had supper somewhere. Well, that ended up being our full supper, until Wilson and I went out to a local eatery where the local to tourist ratio was at least 50:1, with us being two of those. So, you do the math. That is a true way to tell if a restaurant is good….not by TripAdvisor.

We had some spring rolls and noodles, washed down with a couple of tasty beverages and then we headed back to the hotel to grab the girls to go out to the lake loop to see what was going on as it was closed again that night for everyone to come out and have fun.

On our third day in Hanoi, the only thing we had booked was a Vespa Food Tour with Paloma Tours again, so we let the kids sleep in as much as they could, which was quite a bit. A quick breakfast was plowed back and then we got into the groove of some homework for a couple of hours. Wilson is learning about Newtonian physics at this point along with basic algebra, which is fun as I love physics…but I have to tone it down a bit as my excitement turns into “What do you mean you don’t get this!”…. Lulu is learning to write in cursive as she is going to Montessori when we get home, and she is working on her math (BEDMAS….remember that?), and the science of the atmosphere. We are really trying to keep up with what is going on at home in their classrooms.

The corner of toy street and textile street.

We, well at least I, am realizing that the kids are experiential and tactile learners, as it is hard to motivate them to sit down with texts to get them to do their work, but they love constructing, doing, and playing with physical things which we are getting creative with.

Both kids are enjoying photography, and experimenting with their camera and my camera. They are already saying…”Dad, that would be a nice shot”. So, I either take it or I give them the camera to take it. That is fun as I love photography, if you haven’t guessed it already.

Huc bridge over to the Temple of Jade Mountain, for which the king in the 10th century built for himself celebrating his victory over the Chinese army

The kids are doing online typing lessons which they are enjoying as well quite a bit. The history of what we are seeing, and the geography of where we are, can be overwhelming at times for them. They aren’t reading about an abbreviated version of it on Wikipedia, the web, or in a textbook. They are full on living, touching, seeing, and smelling it all. It is a little more in your face than learning in a classroom is.

Buttons, buttons, and more buttons…

We spent the day walking around Hanoi shopping, haggling with vendors, and eating food. Lulu is halfway there when it comes to eating. She is fighting us less when it comes to trying new foods, and she is saying “This is actually good” more than she used to.

We bought some North Face knock offs, but still good quality, from a couple of the shops including a new backpack as we are needing another day pack for hiking around. A GoreTex shell, rain jacket, and backpack cost us $46CND. Not bad. But your jaw drops at the price tag since $5CND is $100,000VND. You feel like a millionaire though.

Then the kids wanted to buy a new toy to take with them. They had been bugging us for the last two days about getting Lego. To Deb and I, Lego doesn’t make sense when you travel. Small parts, easy to lose, hard to pack, yada yada yada. But the kids didn’t see it that way. So we discussed this with them, and they said that they would take care of it and not lose any. Ok. Get some Lego. I would rather that than their main form of entertainment either being on a screen or poking at each other. (They are getting along quite well though…).

The kids in one of the stores on Toy Street. It was odd that there was an overabundance of pink more than any other colour.

We headed off to “Toy Street” where the stalls (that are maybe 4’ wide by anywhere between 5’ to 20’ deep) are literally side by side. Pink plastic and transformers as far as the eye can see. This is crack to kids. They sifted through all of the sorts of Lego and we gave them a budget to work with, but they couldn’t agree. Wilson wanted Lego Avengers with Spiderman and friends, whereas Lulu wanted Lego friends (girl lego), specifically a high school set that she has not seen anywhere. Ever. And she wasn’t going to budge. It cost more than the budget we gave them, certainly if the two of them were getting Lego.

Riding down a back alley.

Wilson will play with her Lego friends, but it isn’t the same as playing with Spiderman. Finally, Lulu was getting quiet and sad. I got the kids to negotiate the price, but the owner of the store where the one and only Lego high school was, wasn’t budging as much as we needed him to. So, Lulu pulled out the best negotiating tactic ever. She started to cry. So, when you have a blond little girl with incredible blue eyes, and then you add tears on top of them….watch out. Puddy in her hand. So, the guy dropped below the budget, and then at the end gave us an extra $50,000 off. The kids were very happy. Then came the “You’re the best dad ever”, and I got TWO kisses on the lips from Lulu (she only kisses me on the lips for my birthday, Fathers Day, and maybe Christmas. Don’t ask me why).

Big street toys for the big kids. This is Chinese Checkers that they play on the days that the streets around Return Sword Lake are closed.

That night we headed out for a night food tour on the Vespa’s with the same company that we had the day before. Tu was our guide again, which was great. The bikes took us around the city at night, and out onto one of the first bridges that were built a long time ago.

Not sure if the lady walking down the middle of the road knew what danger she was in…

So long ago that the bridge is only wide enough for bikes and a single train track to travel along. The bridge spans the 1.8km, so driving it in the dark with trains going down the middle between the two lanes of motorbikes is a bit hair raising.

Train versus Vespa. Who is going to win!

The bridge crosses the Red River which has, over the years, receded. Now there are a number of families that live under the bridge and farm the now exposed nutrient rich land. Their farming is interesting as it is tiered…rice at the waters edge with water being pumped into the flat fields, then banana trees, then corn, squash, carrots and more traditional vegetables.

Looking at the farms below.

We stopped at the first restaurant which made a traditional steamed rice crepe that they filled with finally chopped wild mushrooms , Roasted and dried onions, and black sesame seeds and rolled it up for us toDip into a bowl of broth. The broth was familiar as it was a combination of vegetable stock and rice wine vinegar that you seasoned with garlic chilli sauce and lime. Our guy gave us a lesson for how to use chopsticks properly and gave quite a bit of interesting history with respect to the chopsticks.

A man and his feast…. Those tasty rice crepes just kept a comin’!

The chopstick has quite a considerable history and has a lot of symbolic meaning in the Asian culture. On the table the chopsticks are always in a communal jar for you to grab from. However, you need to pick two that are the same length, as each chopstick has a partner of equal stature. It plays into the Ying and Yang element of everything here. If you pick out two that are different lengths, you put them back and pick out another until you find ones that are the same length. And since each chopstick has a partner, if you drop one on the floor, you need to retire the other one and pick out a new pair.

Another Ying and Yang feature is that normally the bottom chopstick doesn’t move, whereas the top one is the one that moves. It is meant to represent a cranes beak, as it is able to pick up a lot in its beak and also able to finely pick things out of narrow and tight areas.

There are obviously two ends to the chopsticks, and when you are with friends and guests you serve them from the communal dishes at the centre of the table with the clean and narrow end, and then you flip them around and eat with the fat dull “dirty” ends.

Chopsticks are everything here.  Flipper, sieve, spoon, whisk…I need to start using them more!Traditionally, they are made of bamboo, but fancy ones that we found were made out of elephant tusk (but could have been bone but “promoted” as elephant tusk). No way that we were going to be supporting this industry by buying them.

Our guide Tu explaining the crane motion of the sticks

An important fact for the kids was that you don’t tap or play the drums on your bowls with the chopsticks as it will summon bad spirits to the house. In keeping with that theme, when you rest your chopsticks in between mouthfuls, you put them on the side of the bowl, and never stand it up in the rice as it is disrespectful to the dead since it represents incense that you would put at temples.

No this isn’t the father in the legend. Just the “family vehicle”.

An interesting chopstick legend was that there was a dying father who asked his three sons to come in to his room where he was going to announce who he was going to leave his fortunes to. He took a handful of chopsticks from the table and said that whoever could break the chopsticks would be given his fortunes. The three brothers didn’t get along, and each one tried to break the chopsticks all at once with all of their might. However, none of them could break them. The father then took the chopsticks and broke each one on its own. He said that like family, the chopsticks are stronger if they are close and support each other, and if they are on their own they are weak and will easily break. Cool family analogy. I don’t know who got the fortunes though….

After we finished eating this delicious appetizer we had it out onto the road for some street meet. Literally. There was a guy standing over a charcoal barbecue that was no more than 8“ x 12“ and he had marinated pork skewers cooking on the barbecue. The pork was thinly sliced and weaved onto barbecue skewers after it had been marinated in vegetable oil, honey or brown sugar, sautéed onions, sesame seeds, garlic, salt and pepper.

They’re probably with some rice wine vinegar to tenderize the meet as well. Yet again, another thing for me to try at home. It cooked slowly and at the end a mildly spicy chilli sauce was put onto the skewer and we ate it. It was incredibly delicious.

Walking down the dark alleyways to get to our next restaurant.

Our guide decided to take us further into the streets of Hanoi and we sneak through some pitch black alleyways to get across to a neighbouring block. It was incredible to see how these people live. All of the shops on the outside of the blocks well the inside is a maze of little street side to reach tiny homes that are 3 to 4 stories tall.

This is a coffee shop now, but was a family home. Tu said that this is a typical size that three generations would live in. It is no bigger than our living room.

And each one of these buildings three generations of families live with each floor being no more than 10‘ x 15‘. And yes that means that three generations are living in one floor. The kitchens have to be on the outside of the building and literally are no more than 3‘ x 5‘. Just goes to reinforce that you can do a lot with so little given the quality of food that these people are able to make, it also is a testament to using fresh ingredients.

Street side kitchen.

The kids were, and admittedly Deb and I were as well, having a ton of fun on The scooters.  Prior to this, Deb was not a big fan of motorbikes, but I think that these things are more her speed for safety.

Happy passengers!

The last place that we ended up before heading out for dessert it was a hodgepodge of sticky rice that you went down a small street side buffet and picked out what you wanted to put on it. I recognize the egg and the chicken but there was a bunch of stuff that I did not recognize, But I got her to put it on there anyways. One of them I think was candied Chinese sausage. The top that all off with dried sautéed onions which makes everything tasty!

The other specialty at this restaurant was a noodle soup that was probably the most adventurous thing that we could eat it while we were there. Staring straight up out of the bowl at me was the foot of a cow the had been boiled. Hopefully cleaned before was boiled for something like 24 hours.  There was also a block of congealed cows blood, and what look like a goat testicle. Thankfully it wasn’t and it was just a pork meatball. This is where training for the amazing race eating challenge just comes in to effect.

When you’re eating something like this you just focused on something off in the distance and pretend that you’re eating something else. The cows blood was a block of Jell-O that tasted nothing like Jell-O but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Better leave the house for it was a bit chewy but I had to try eating it nonetheless. The goat testicle, a.k.a. pork meatball, was good as was the rest of the meal.

Sitting at the Chefs Table. Curbside!
The chefs table. Brains and all…

Our last stop was for a bit of dessert. The kids wanted ice cream but to keep with the traditional food theme, we had to have something that was truly Vietnamese. We stopped at another street side restaurant for a glass of semi sweet drink that was made out of lychee fruit and black beans in a watery sauce. It was OK, but wouldn’t put it up there on my top 10 foods. Then we headed back to the ice cream shop for an ice cream treat for the kids. Admittedly I had to have a lemon menthol ice cream to wash down the last dessert that I had. Off to bed we went in preparation for a big day ahead travelling to Hao Long Bay.

Here are some more pics that I loved during our time in Hanoi (more to come as we are here for a day on the way back).  What a great city.  Admittedly, we are all not big city people.  But there was something about Hanoi that didn’t make it feel like a big city.  Don’t get me wrong, it was pretty loud, smoggy, and crazy….but there was such a sense of community here with large groups of people hanging out all over the place eating and socializing. Everyone was pleasant and friendly, and in all honesty…happy. Not what you normally see in cities where people bury their head in their phone or just walk around with a bland look on their face, not looking at anyone and not talking to anyone.  And everyone retreats into their respective buildings.  Here in Hanoi, it is all out there.  People are spilling on the sidewalks so much that you have to walk in the streets.  Sure it was scary the first few times that we crossed the mayhem, but at the end of the trip it all made sense how the traffic flowed around.  Organized chaos.

Blowing bubbles in the street on community night where the streets are closed.
This is a typical restaurant. No one sits inside. Everyone is out on the street on small plastic kid tables and chairs.
Madness at the Vietnamese Opera House.
Happiness is riding on a scooter like you are a bird flying in the sky.