Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi

We had heard many good things about Hoi An (it is a highlight in the Lonely Planet) and were not disappointed. The small city looks like a fairy tale at night with lights and lanterns everywhere. The centre of the city is closed down for traffic (except at rush hour) and it makes for a very relaxed way to discover the city. Not having to watch the children on the road is bliss. No beeping mopeds, just cyclists and pedestrians.

We spent a few relaxing days here, wondering around and having some dresses tailor made for the girls. And one for me too. 20140331-165443.jpg

In the old town there are several historic buildings and museums to visit. You pay an entry ticket which has five stubs on it and you can choose which museums or buildings you wish to visit, each costing one stub. We didn’t end up using them all but visited an old merchant house, the main museum and the Japanese bridge. We also had the obligatory cyclo ride and a leisurely boat ride on the river. 20140331-165627.jpg

Reluctantly we moved on after spending five days in Hoi An. We transferred to Danang, spent one night there and then took the train to Hue. The train ride was amazing with absolutely wonderful scenery. 20140331-165757.jpg

Arriving in Hue though, we almost wish we hadn’t left Hanoi as all of a sudden the weather was much colder. We did a city tour and visited the Forbidden City, a craft village, several tombs and came back on a dragon boat.

20140331-165908.jpg All quite interesting but Hue left us, well, a bit cold. Maybe anything after Hoi An was going to be a bit of a disappointment.

Next stop was Hanoi. We didn’t expect it but it was very cold. And wet. It felt like home. Hanoi is a very buzzing city though with great old town buzzing with street life, a fancy French Quarter and a lake in between the two. We enjoyed just strolling around and watching life happen.

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We managed to squeeze in a trip to Halong Bay, a beautiful area of the country and a UNESCO heritage site. The bay is made up out of thousands of limestone islands. It is a stunning site, even though it was misty and we didn’t see it in the best light.

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Da Lat – fabulously kitsch & Nha Trang – beach capital of Vietnam

The bus journey was incredibly bumpy as the road from Mui Ne to Da Lat isn’t exactly smooth. We actually had a few cuts and bruises from being thrown around in the bus and I managed the get a bruise on my arse. Luckily Da Lat did prove to be worth it through as it was a lovely town. It is a tourist hot spot, mainly for the Vietnamese wanting a romantic getaway. It is known for its kitsch and several parks are decorated with incredibly stuff that certainly deserves the accolade! The lake in the town has little paddle boats in the shapes of swans. We quite took to it, it is also a very friendly place.

We did a tour around the town and visited several temples, a waterfall, parks and strawberry farm. But mainly we enjoyed wandering the streets and on Saturday and Sunday night they close the town centre for traffic from 7pm until 10pm. Wonderful! When we had a half day spare before leaving we visited the ‘Crazy House’, wonderfully wacky house that is particularly interesting for kids. It got mixed reviews on Tripadvisor, but for kids it is a must!

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Nha Trang is the beach capital of Vietnam, it is (again) full of Russians as they can book package holidays directly to here. It does give it a bit of a Costa del Sol feel. However, there is lots to do, beach is big and clean and the food is great. With children, this is a pretty easy destination.

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In front of the beach there is a little island with Vinpearl land on it, a fun park with all sorts of rides, a water park, restaurants, shops, an oceanarium and a beach. It isn’t cheap, for our family it cost $90, which includes the longest cable card ride of water to get there. You are not allowed to take food on the island, so you are forced to buy it there but it is reasonably priced. All the rides were free and the girls in particular loved the wave pool. The waves go on every hour for half an hour and we had to drag them out of there at the end of the day as they couldn’t get enough of it. So although costly, it was money well spent.

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Ho Chi Minh City (great) and Mui Ne (not so much)

The border crossing into Vietnam was a bit laborious but we got in without any problems. After Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Min City seems a different world. Where Phnom Penh had rickshaws and not much modern development, Ho Chi Minh is a world city with everything that comes with it (good and bad).

On recommendation of the hotel we took a walking tour around town, spread over a few days. The heart of the city is beautiful with a mixture of modern buildings and old-fashioned French architecture. In parts it has wide streets with many upmarket shops. Not quite what I was expecting! The street food in Ho Chi Minh is plentiful and amazing and we had many tasters which were all excellent.20140305-164849.jpg

We visited the War Museum. It is gruesome, depressing and totally not suitable for children. Luckily there is an actual playroom on site where the kids could entertain themselves whilst John and I took turns to have a wonder through history. The many photos are graphic and sometimes sickening. The suffering for the people is not over yet as the Vietnamese still live with the after effects of Agent Orange (the nasty chemicals used by the Americans) that have caused cancer and all sort of disabilities in the population living through the war. Unfortunately it is also causing birth defects in the generations after and it is still a problem now. 20140305-164708.jpg

Also along our walking tour was the Skytower, a newly built skyscraper with a viewing platform. Nice as it was, it was pricey and not all that exciting. Lift up to the 47th floor in 30 seconds was pretty neat though.

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The Central Park had a nice play park for the children, whilst the park itself is nice to walk through with no traffic. The Vietnamese like to exercise in the evenings and you see people have aerobics lessons and play badminton.

John had a look at the Reunification Palace whilst I waited in the shade with a sleeping Nesta on my lap. It is huge and built in the 60s so quite interesting architecture and furnishings. The central market at the end of the park was worth a visit although the Vietnamese can be quite assertive salesmen so don’t think you can have a nice browse without being hassled.

After a couple of days we moved swiftly on to Mui Ne. A seaside town recommended as a highlight in the Lonely Planet. Normally you can’t go wrong with recommendations in the Lonely Planet but this time we were very disappointed. Really don’t get the attraction here. Yes I am sure the surfing is good because of the strong winds but the beach is small and mainly covered in high concrete walls from the hotels and restaurants. And mostly you cannot even reach the beach as there is hardly any paths to it so you have to walk through the hotels and restaurants, which they don’t like you doing. Mui Ne itself is a very, very long stretch of road. And I mean really long, it goes on for miles. So no nice area to walk around in and no nice beach, so what is the appeal? Unfortunately I do not have an answer!

Saying that, John took the children on a half day trip whilst I did some work. They had a nice time sliding off sand dunes and visiting the Fairy stream. But Mui Ne itself? Unless you are really into kite surfing, I would give it amiss.

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Phnom Penh: eating, drinking, culture and roller skating

We ended up spending nearly a week in Phnom Penh, mainly because we splashed out and stayed in a very nice hotel with swimming pool. We slipped into a very comfortable pattern of sightseeing in the mornings, chilling at the pool in the afternoon and going out for dinner/drinks in the evening.

The riverfront is definitely worth a look and walk along the promenade. There are many bars and restaurants to choose from for a rest if the sun gets too much. There is even a Costa Coffee here (near the Royal Palace). We visited the Royal Palace, with its many different buildings and beautiful gardens (including a monkey) and the National Museum (not that special to be honest).
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Of course there is also a very gruesome history in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge and it is from here you can visit the Tuol Sleng Museum (former prison S21) where they tortured people to get a ‘confession’ before shipping them off to one of the Killing Fields. Both very interesting, but very, very depressing. It is amazing how this country has recovered from this disastrous period in which about 2 million people were killed. This is a quarter of the population and was mainly the educated that were targeted. Imagine a whole generation of academics, teachers, musicians, artists etc. vanished. It has hard to imagine what that does to the psyche and the population make-up of a country. Despite this, the Cambodian people are some of the nicest and friendliest people we have met on this trip.

On a brighter note, around the corner from our hotel we discovered a rolling skating park. The girls had great fun skating around with other children and teens although be it to very inappropriate music. Luckily the girls aren’t streetwise enough to know what it means when someone is harping on about a teeny, weeny dick man… Can only think that the English of the Cambodians isn’t good enough to know what it meant!

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Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

The night bus from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap was interesting. They call it the hotel bus, we had two double beds on the bottom (they are bunk double beds) and you can almost stretch out completely on a – very – thin double bed. The window is from the bottom of your mattress to the top of the bed above you. You can’t really sit up so are forced to lie down, where you can watch out of the window. It was a pretty cool experience and, of course, the kids absolutely loved it. It was a bit rickety as the roads in Cambodia are not always in great shape so quite bumpy. However, we all slept most of the way on the 13-hour trip.

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We lucked out with the hotel we booked, it was clean, spacious and most importantly it had a swimming pool. It is getting hotter now and it is great for the children to have a nice cool swim at the hottest of the day.

Of course, Siem Reap is where Angkor Wat is and this was the main purpose of our stay. The town of Siem Reap is surprisingly nice, lots of French architectural influence although a bit of a party town as well. They even have a street called pub street and you guessed it is full of pubs.

We spread our Angkor Wat visit over three days, there are so many associated temples and buildings to see that you really can’t do it all in one day. More importantly, after about 4 or 5 hours of walking around in the heat looking at temples, the children get understandably tetchy. A one day pass costs $20, whilst a three day pass cost $40 and you can use the three days within a week (so you can take a break as well).20140212-164145.jpg

On day one we saw some of the bigger temples and The Royal Palace. On day two we saw some smaller temples and Ta Prohm (the overgrown Tomb Raider temple), we were meant to see Angkor Wat too but decided to keep that for the morning of day three when we were all fresh. It was all mesmerising and so interesting. There are many stories behind these temples (Hinduism, Buddhism, Kings, Khmer Rouge, The French etc. etc.) It was pretty challenging to get our head around it all!

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Sihanoukville, Cambodia

One more beach resort on the other side of the border: Sihanoukville, Cambodia. We are not quite sure what to expect. We spoken to a Russian family on Koh Chang and they didn’t really paint a good picture. The beach is dirty and it is partying central. We thought we give it a go anyway and if isn’t great, we’ll move on to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) a bit sooner than we had planned. Since we were going to arrive on a Saturday night on one of the busiest weekends of the year (Chinese New Year) we booked and paid our accommodation ahead. We had great problems finding something as everything seemed fully booked. So unfortunately, we had to pay a steep price (highest on the whole trip so far) for our room but at least we wouldn’t be sleeping on the beach like some people had to! We stayed at Otres beach, which is a quiet beach quite far from the main strip and it was actually really nice. We did decide to move to the main beach as John managed to get a beach hut overlooking the sea. We are a bit high up so we see the palm trees and the sea. It is one of the most lovely places we have stayed so far. The main strip is VERY loud at night but we are just far enough away that it is just background noise.

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At Otres beach we bumped into an Australian family who live in Taiwan with two children of similar ages as ours and they played together very well. We hung out with them for a while, just sitting at the beach, chatting and watching the children play. It was very tranquil for all of us. It is great when the children make some friends as this happens few and far between.

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Altogether we ended up spending 5 nights here and did…. not much. We sat on the beach mainly. And that’s it. We are usually not very good at just chilling out so it was actually bloody fantastic. We have now booked our night bus to Siem Reap. They call it the ‘hotel bus’ and it actually has double beds in it! Not quite sure whether we’ll sleep well in it but it sounds intriguing.

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Koh Chang: Elephant Island

From Koh Samed we took the minibus to Koh Chang, another Thai Island but closer to the Cambodian border. Another stop before we cross, we are dreading the border crossing a bit as we have read so many horror stories of being ripped off. We were told we would arrive around noon but this turned to be around 4pm. We are learning quickly to add a few hours to whatever travel time we are told. First we had to take a taxi to the boat, then on the boat to the mainland where we waited for our bus. This turned out to be an open tuk-tuk-like van. After about 30 mins into the journey, just as we wondered whether the whole 4-hour trip was going to be in this rickety thing, we were transferred to a huge bus on the side of the road somewhere. It all seems somewhat chaotic but somehow we always seem to arrive where we were supposed to.

We hadn’t arranged any accommodation but went to the busiest beach, White Sand Beach (sounds good hey?) and the first place we walked into luckily had a good room available. Only about 100 metres from the beach – we haven’t been able to afford to stay on the beach yet. It’s high season at the moment so everything is much more expensive than we had anticipated, maybe further into our trip we’ll manage it.

Koh Chang is surprisingly beautiful, bigger than we though and a nice place to hang out for a while. Obviously many different beaches to explore but also other things to do. There are several waterfalls inland and Elephant Island (Chang = Elephant) is also the place to ride on one of the big beasts. Which we did. Very interesting experience and of course, the kids absolutely loved it. They got the opportunity to feed them some bananas and sit on their necks. I was also happy to see that the elephants looked healthy and well looked after.

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On another day, we hired a car and had a look around the rest of the Island. We visited a few remote beaches, saw a few collapsed roads and visited a temple. The day was slightly spoiled by me getting the runs and Amy throwing up. Perhaps a warning we need to watch a bit more carefully what we are eating!

All in all, Koh Chang was a very relaxing few days for us and can recommend it for a beach holiday.

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Koh Samed: Full of Russian poseurs

Finally some beach time where it is warm enough to swim (although not as hot as you might think), the beaches in New Zealand were amazingly pretty but it was a bit too cold to swim. It has actually been about six months ago since we were at a warm beach at Costa Rica.

We arrived in Koh Samed after many, many delays. It took ages to get out of Bangkok due to congested traffic. We had to stop for petrol, which took about an hour and so on. Anyway, we arrived at about 3-ish and John rented a scooter to scout out a place to stay whilst I had lunch with the children. We lucked out and found a reasonably priced place, a hundred metres from the beach. We dumped our stuff and had a look at the beach whilst the sun was going down. Such luxury. It is a bit of a party beach but we are on the quiet end. The upside is that there is lots going on like fire shows and many places to eat and drink.

We soon found out that this place is very popular with Russians. It is full of romantic Russian couples and it goes like this: the girl poses provocatively in front of the the boy who is carrying the biggest camera you have ever seen and they take picture after picture after picture. The Chinese and Japanese are very good at doing this too. Tis very amusing.20140128-105107.jpg

So you can sit at the beach here and people watch. Many restaurants to pick from and many Thais coming around with fresh fruit and other foods. One time, we bought some fruit from one of these guys and found some Swiss people trying to negotiate the price of a coconut, which was 50 Baht (£1). The Swiss guy said: “Oh know that is too much, 30 Baht.” The Thai guy rightfully pointed at the weight he was carrying to bring this stuff to people and said: No, 50 Baht. The Swiss guy tried again: “40 Baht”. The Thai guy says no. The Swiss guy tried to lift all the gear of the Thai guy (and couldn’t) and said: “Fair enough, 50 Baht.” We got chatting to them and it turns out they were staying in The Marriott on the mainland and got here by speedboat on a day trip. Baffling. I mean, they are negotiating over 10p. Why try to be tight with the little guy doing back-breaking work in the heat whilst happily shelling out a fortune to stay at the Marriott?20140128-105359.jpg

All in all we stayed here for almost a week, just chilling out. We hired some scooters and toured around the island and had a look at some of the other beaches. It is a touristy place, but the beaches are beautiful and the island small so very easy to navigate on a scooter. Now up to the next island: Koh Chang.

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Four days in Bangkok

A day before the flight to Bangkok (with a transfer in Singapore) we received an email from Jetstar saying that due to the protests in Bangkok they would understand if we would want to change our flights and to give their Customer Service centre a ring to discuss possibilities. We did some research on the protests but couldn’t really find any news that worried us too much (it is all very contained in certain areas) but gave them a ring anyway. The only option they gave us was to change the date of our flight, we couldn’t change the destination (to Phuket for example) so didn’t think that would help us particularly and decided to go ahead. We booked a hotel near the airport with an airport pick-up as we were arriving at 8.30pm and didn’t want to risk being caught up in the closed roads of the protests in Bangkok late at night. Although we arrived a half hour late in Singapore (with a tight transfer time already) but the transfers at Singapore airport are so swift and efficient that it all went seamless.

When we woke up in the morning we had planned to go for a swim in the swimming pool but it was a bit too chilly in the morning (I know!) so after breakfast we decided to head into Bangkok city centre. We had a few delays in traffic because of closed roads and saw a protest going past but it was all very contained and peaceful.

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We had a bit of a look around at Ko Saen Road and then decided to walk to the river and take a boat to one of the many temples. As it was, we got majorly delayed in a tuk-tuk scam. We were warned in the Lonely Planet book to not take any advice from a well-dressed Thai man as it is most likely to be a scam but we must have temporarily forgot (I blame the jetlag) and somehow ended up being taken around a few temples and a few ‘stops’ along the way in travel agents (I’m sure it used to be textile and gem shops?!?). Luckily we didn’t buy anything – we read later that usually the tickets are fake and you loose all your money – so although it wasted a lot of time, we didn’t get scammed. Lesson learned though, and we will now remember to be a bit more on our guard!

The next day we moved to a hotel in Ko Saen Road and visited the leaning buddha (where Obama was a few weeks ago) and the Royal Palace.

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20140121-164633.jpgBoth beautiful and very interesting. In the evening we wandered around the area and ate the street foods and soaked up the atmosphere. Bangkok is hectic, but it is amazingly interesting.

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Around Tauranga and Mt Maunganui, New Zealand

Having spent quite a bit of time in this area, staying with family, we have discovered a few favourite things to do as a family:

McLaren Falls
McLaren Falls is a small area with rocks and waterfalls just before the McClaren Park, about a 15 minute drive from Tauranga City Centre. It is a great place to sit in the sun or shade with a picnic, cool down in the rock pools (cold water though!) and watch the local daredevils jump from the bridge and rocks into the water far below. 20140109-131655.jpg

Mt Maunganui
Lots to do in and around Mt Maunganui. It is an easy walk around the Mount and there are lots of places to climb down and sit at the beach. One particular afternoon we had great fun with a bucket and a net, catching prawns, crabs, sea urchins and the like (we did put them back in the water soon after!), having a good look at them and their natural habitat. 20140109-131803.jpg

At the end of the high street in Mt Maunganui there is also a fab play park where our kids can spend hours. Bonus is the fish and chips (or fush and chups as they sometimes call it here) at the corner where you can pick up some cheap food when they get hungry.

Unsurprisingly, the beach is also a great place to hang out. Long stretches of sandy beaches on one side of the Mount. On the other, the beach is smaller but often less windy and has great scenery of boats, ships and cruise ships going past.

Tauranga waterfront
In the city of Tauranga at the Strand, there is again a great play park and water fountain to play in, overlooking the sea. It even has a little coffee shops that is made out of a shipping container (Boxed Coffee) so you can sit with your coffee and watch the kids, whilst having a stunning scenery in front of you. A real holiday feel for the whole family.

Hot Pools
They are everywhere around the area. The busiest one is at the bottom of the Mount at Mt Maunganui, but there are dozens of them around. Nice warm water, the kids love as do the adults.

Lollipops indoor play centre
Great on a rainy day, it is spacious and clean and they serve decent coffee. Oh and they have Wifi if you ask, I am writing this blog post here right now! It is about a 10 minute drive outside the centre. There is a Chipmunks indoor play centre nearer to the centre as well. We haven’t been there admittedly, as we went to a Chipmunks in Whangarei and didn’t like it very much so haven’t bothered here.

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