Week 13, Hanoi, Hạ Long Bay & Tam Cốc: Vietnam with kids

Diary of a Globetrotting Family: Big laugh, little moment; turtle and sword, bay cruise, street food conundrum, birthday surprise

During our first week in Vietnam with kids, Connor turned 11, and I turned 45. Many of my birthdays have been full of memories, but a birthday in a new country is always additionally special. However, the kids made my 45th birthday the best yet.

No matter how much you travel, no matter how many countries you’ve been to, a country new to you also takes some getting used to. From the big city of Hanoi to the countryside calm in the Ninh Binh area, we are experiencing so many facets of Vietnam with kids—and I’m glad we have three more weeks to go here.

“Playing to win is only one way to play a game.”

A real head scratcher by Hạ Long Bay

Real quick: “Halong Bay” is another way this place is spelled, and more prevalent in English. As much as possible, I use the spelling common in its country. In this case, that’s Hạ Long Bay.

After the 3-hour bus ride, while the four of us waited for our water taxi that would take us to our overnight Sena cruise on Lan Ha Bay, part of the broader Hạ Long Bay of northern Vietnam, Aster and I sat by the side of the boat-bobbing harbor and played I Spy. Above us, low clouds turned down the day’s thermostat. People in puffy coats asked us if we were cold, but our bare arms were just fine. For us Oregonians, the late morning at Hạ Long Bay was pleasantly cool, and we felt no need to snag our jackets out of the purple rolling suitcase.

Between our respective turns, we spun in our blue plastic chairs to guess what the other had spotted: a passing child’s red coat. My green shirt. Two coconuts, green and taut, growing on a tree at the edge of the covered waiting area. A woman’s green coat. A spinning stand fan. Aster’s dress, with red flower designs. Her rainbow KEEN sandals.

Back and forth we went, until Aster said, “I spy, with my little eye, something blue.”

Spoiler alert: she was staring just above my forehead when she said this. And as you might have guessed, I was indeed wearing my blue fedora-style hat.

“Something blue, eh?” I grinned at her, and began looking around. “The water.”

“Nope.”

“That blue lantern hanging over there.”

“Nope.”

“The boy’s blue jeans.”

“Nope.”

Aster began to giggle. With my left hand, I took off my hat, held it down near my chest, at her eye level. With my right hand, I scratched my head.

“Wow,” I said to her, sucking in some breath. “You’ve given me a real head scratcher here.”

As I put my hat back on, her giggles turned into huge belly laughs.

From the blue kayaks on the roof of a nearby boat to the light blue of my backpack on the floor next to us, over and over, Aster told me no. I took off my hat and scratched my head two more times, just to keep her laughing.

“My eyes,” I told her as I put my hat back on for the third time.

“Nope.”

“Your eyes.”

“How could I spy my own eyes?”

“Good point. So I guess that’s not it either.”

“Nope. Do you give up?”

“I do.”

Aster starting laughing again, and her bright, bell-like laughter rose through the air like the scent of the sea. She pointed at my head. “It was your hat!”

I took it off my head. “Well, that means you win… a turn with my hat!” I set it on her head, and she dashed into the waiting room behind us to tell Jodie and Connor what had happened.

Of course, as you know, playing to win is only one way to play a game. Delight, a fond memory, and joy in the moment are a few other outcomes I’m especially fond of. Sometimes the kids like to razz me that I often lose the games we play. I typically wink and tell them I win in ways they don’t yet know. 

Could I have guessed Aster’s clue as soon as she told me? Yup. She wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. But for Aster, she wanted to have some simple, joyous, fun time, just the two of us. Now she’ll have that as part of her. A few minutes with her dad, full of giggles and silliness, by a beautiful bay in Vietnam. Not long after we finished, our guide came over. Our water taxi was here, and it was time to head into the bay for our overnight cruise.

“We amble, ramble, and wander. For us, the journey is a destination in and of itself.”

Cruising family

Another plate arrived at our table, and Connor’s and Aster’s eyes got even wider. The kids had not been privy to a set, multi-course meal like this before. But as we enjoyed salads, squid, sautéed vegetables, fresh-cut pineapple, and more, even the ever-appetited children realized there was more food before us than they could eat. From our central table in a dining room with ornate floor tiles and richly stained dark woodwork, large windows on each side looked out on the green waters and some of the 1,969 tall, karst limestone stack rocks of Vietnam’s 1553-square-km Hạ Long Bay.

After lunch, we rode in a little wooden boat through a cave that cut through one of the karst rock formations. Later, Aster and I donned swimsuits and braved the chilly water. Aster jumped into the water again and again, paddling and laughing. Our fellow passengers cheered her on. More of them leaped into the water too, inspired by her glee and impressed with her acrobatics. I suspect they also figured that if the youngest passenger on board could handle the water, they could too.

Back on board, our three-deck ship took us alongside the tall rocks. The stacks typically rose at least 40 feet high, and were rounded at the top, often with straight or slightly angled sides. The limestone towers rose out of the bay, the rocky hearts of what time and ocean had eroded away for eons. It was as if someone had tried to turn mountains into corks to stopper up the sea.

The calm, green water took on the initial shadows of late afternoon as the sun shimmied down a sky full of low, thick, gray clouds.

Naturally, it was coffee time.

A chat with a view

Opening the sliding glass door of the private balcony that was part of our second-floor, double-cabin room, Jodie and I set our little white porcelain cups on our wooden table. Atop each cup, a thin metal pot held hot water and let it gradually steep its way through a bottom layer of rich, dark Vietnamese coffee. The brew filled the white porcelain cup beneath until, at last, the coffee’s aroma reached full maturity like a timer going off.

We sipped in silence for a time. Our gazes focused on the sight of the shimmering water, the dark green of the vegetation on the rocks, and the grays and browns of the stone tower themselves. Now and again we passed another ship, and waved to other people out for their own enjoyment of this lush, beautiful space not far from the mainland.

Chatting about what we observed, Jodie and I honed in on how our family has always loved the water. We have kayaked in the seas and lakes of the Northwest. Prior to getting married, we went on a sailing trip through Australia’s Whitsunday Islands. When Connor was four months old, Jodie had a symphony gig on the Oregon Coast. We used a concert there as an opportunity to dip Connor’s toes in the Pacific, his first time touching the ocean. Our children love to splash and sit in the surf, whether that’s the warm sea of Oaxaca, or the chilly dark gray waters of Oregon.

We love the water. We love riding on the water.

What we love about our family travels

However, we love the land, such as our penchant for taking long road trips through valleys, hills, and plains. I’m actually writing this on a southbound train in Vietnam, reflecting on how much we are enjoying this train ride, just as, a few months prior, we took a 48-hour train ride from Oregon to Colorado.

The ship wove through the darkening green waters of Hạ Long Bay. With a quiet clink, Jodie set down her coffee cup. “I’m starting to wonder,” she said, “if we’re a cruising family.”

Taking another sip of my own coffee, I pondered this observation. A cruise, or to cruise, has some definitions that apply (and, as you might guess, a fair few definitions that don’t apply) to our family, our way of life, and how we like not only to travel but to live:

  • sail about in an area without a precise destination, especially for pleasure
  • travel or move slowly around without a specific destination in mind

And, as usual, I realized that Jodie was right. Whether on land or water, our family loves the journey. We don’t have big bucket list aspirations or have to have adrenaline rush adventures. Sure, as we make progress toward our goals, we enjoy a touch of excitement here and there, such as putting extra chiles in a bowl of phở. We are content with each other’s company, a beautiful place to see… and, preferably, an endless supply of coffee.

We live in the moment, and each moment after. We like to sit back and relax, not run ourselves ragged. We amble, ramble, and wander. For us, the journey is a destination in and of itself.

We are a cruising family.

“At the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we stared at the serene green lake and I wondered if there was a sword at the bottom.”

The turtle and the sword

At the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we stared at the serene green lake and I wondered if there was a sword at the bottom.

Any Vietnamese schoolchild can tell you the tale: Long ago, Emperor Le Thai To was rebelling against an occupying force from Ming-dynasty China. To aid the emperor’s push for independence, the Dragon King gave him a magical sword. Once the battle was won, while the emperor took a boating trip on Hoan Kiem Lake, a golden turtle emerged to take back the sword. The emperor relinquished this divine loaner, and the blade hasn’t been seen since.

Out in the water on the southern end of the lake, a stone pagoda known as the Turtle Tower reminds visitors of the legend. Today, the noise, motorbike buzz, hazy air, and ceaseless crowds of modern Hanoi surround the lake. Yet the calm waters and a surrounding small park area remove you to a calmer place inside and out.

Turtle truths behind the long-ago legend

At the time we visited Hoan Kiem Lake, we were simply seeking a wee walk, and a bit of calm amidst the bustle of the large city. Passing by painted stone panels, including one where a turtle swam with a sword on its back, we crossed a red curving bridge to a little island. There we wandered the serene grounds of Ngoc Son Temple. Trees, flowers, and plants added green and calm to the space. It’s easy to forget that you are in the middle of Hanoi. In a small chamber off the red-roofed main temple, though, two displays brought the long-ago legend to life.

In Vietnamese culture, four animals are considered integral, even holy: unicorn, dragon, phoenix—and I bet you can guess the other. The turtle symbolizes longevity, wisdom, and independence. Yet the turtle doesn’t just find its home in Vietnamese mythology. The lake has long been home to Rafetus swinhoei, also known as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle. This rare species is considered the world’s largest freshwater turtle.

These turtles have been found from southern China to northern Vietnam. Unfortunately, only four are known to exist, leaving the future of these turtles in doubt.

Life brought to myth brought to life

Hanoi’s turtle lake, upon whose green waters we now gazed, has been the known home of two giant turtles. In 1967, a 550-pound, 7-foot long male came ashore from the lake and died. Later study estimated its lifespan to have been more than 500 years old—over half a millennium. Some said this turtle could even have been the golden turtle from the old legend, or at least the turtle that inspired it.

Sadly, in 2016, another lake turtle died, at least in part due to toxic conditions in the lake. Today, the Hanoi and Vietnamese governments are trying to clean up the waters and make a more sustaining habitat for these turtles again.

As I entered the chamber off the main temple, an unexpected sight stopped me. Inside two glassed-in, boxy platforms, giant turtles stood, frozen, heads up, as if waiting for the emperor to approach so they could ask for the Dragon King’s sword back. At first I thought they were sculptures. I looked closer at the extraordinary detail—then I realized that yes, the detail was extraordinary—because they were actual turtles. After each had died, it had been preserved via a process called plastination. The displays were made with special glass and other materials to keep the turtles in good condition. It was a reminder that life can become legend, but perhaps we could also remember that legends only work when life persists.

Standing at the edge of the temple’s island, we stared south, toward the Turtle Tower and its green island. The meeting of myths and legends with modern reality can be a jarring collision. The preserved turtles behind us are thought to have died in no small part due to poor conditions in the water. Yet the legend of the turtle and the sword is an integral, enduring tale in Vietnamese culture.

For us, we breathed in the calm, and the slightly clearer air, around the lake-surrounded island. I hoped that the one day, the water would be clean enough for turtles to live in it again. Maybe the life that inspired the legend could inspire us to take better care of life.

“Fruit you eat raw, already sliced with a knife whose sanitation you don’t know, is a hard trust exercise.”

The mango question

The lady in the conical hat stood between a row of parked motorbikes on the sidewalk. A river of motorbikes zipped by on the late afternoon Hanoi streets, as she told me the clear plastic package of sliced mango cost 60,000 dong. The day was waning quickly in the northern Vietnamese city, and I was finishing up running a few errands while Jodie and the kids hung out in our nearby room.

And I’d been looking for some fresh fruit.

Granted, 60,000 dong is about US$2.50. After spirited discussion, some head-shaking, alternating taps on my phone’s calculator, air sucked in through pursed lips, and a fair bit of laughing, we settled on 30,000 dong. I bought the pack of mango, but as I walked back to the hotel, I realized my purchase had come an unexpected side of doubt.

Do we take the chance?

As you know, our family loves street food. Skewers of grilled chicken. Bowls of steaming hot soup. Fried dough (well, fried anything). Veggies. Fruits. We happily buy fresh food from street vendors all the time. Or rather, we had in Thailand. Vietnam with kids, though, was still new to us, and we were still figuring out the nuances of street food here.

Had I bought whole mangoes—which, as you are no doubt already thinking, is exactly what I should have done—then the mango question wouldn’t have jumped into my clear plastic bag and sat on top of the flip-top package. There wouldn’t have been a mango question at all.

A whole mango, like other fruit with peels you don’t eat, is easy to deal with. We wash it in filtered water, slice it up, and go to town.

Buying fruit that’s already been sliced through, was giving me pause. Fruit you eat raw, already sliced with a knife whose sanitation you don’t know, it a hard trust exercise.

I talked it over with Jodie. We could wash the sliced mango in filtered water. Odds are, it would be fine.

Trusting our gut(s)

“What bothers you about it?” Jodie asked me.

“I keep thinking about how we’re about to leave Hanoi,” I replied. “We’ve got a few hours train ride south, then we have birthdays and Christmas all in the next few days.”

“And this would be a horrible time to find out we got it wrong.”

I nodded. “I know it’s not a big deal, especially if we rinse the fruit in filtered water. But I don’t want to risk it. Besides, I’m one of the ones with a birthday coming up.”

“Plus, we know that sooner or later any of us might get food poisoning,” said Jodie. “While there’s never a good time to get sick, birthdays and the holidays would be the worst.”

In the end, we left the mango in the fridge in our hotel room, unopened and uneaten. Would it have been fine for us to eat the mango? Probably.

Still. I think we made the right call, for our own sakes and for the kids. A couple of days later, after arriving in Tam Cốc, in the Ninh Binh province, we bought a package of scooped jackfruit and rinsed it with filtered water. We then enjoyed some of the best jackfruit we’d ever had—and had not so much as an unexpected belch.

We bought two dragon fruits too. And two mangos, whole. They were delicious—but all the tastier when rinsed, sliced with our own knife, and eaten with a healthy dash of peace of mind.

“The scavenger hunt has become an entrenched part of our St. Clair family celebrations and traditions.”

Secret birthday surprise: Do not disturb

When Aster told me to, I closed my eyes. Then, from the bamboo dining area at one end of our hill-ringed, rice paddy-surrounded homestay in Vietnam’s Tam Cốc area, Connor led me alongside the long, chilly swimming pool, past the potted plants, across the tile, and up the three steps to our room, at the opposite end of the property.

“Your first clue,” said Connor, while Aster giggled, “is inside.”

A onetime idea becomes a family tradition

One Easter, when the kids were little, we turned getting their Easter baskets into a scavenger hunt. Another time, when Connor’s birthday party happened to coincide with a break in some very hard rain, parents and kids donned boots and rain jackets to hunt for clues and find treasures amid the fickle weather of an Oregon winter.

Now it seems that the scavenger hunt has become an entrenched part of our St. Clair family celebrations and traditions.

Fortunately, our homestay had plenty of good hiding places, since we wound up having not one, not two, but three scavenger hunts.

For Aster and Connor’s birthdays, we had told them that with our traveling we wouldn’t be doing much in the way of presents to unwrap. It’s simply too impractical. Plus, we have focused instead on putting our resources and energy into experiences. The scavenger hunts, then, have become not only a silly giggle fest of clue finding and solving, but of a warm-hearted togetherness that has become a family tradition.

On Connor’s birthday, as we had done with Aster’s, I got up while Jodie and the kids were still asleep. Heading out to a table where I could think, I brought with me scissors, a pen, a pad of graph paper, and a bag with a few treats inside, such as cola-flavored gummy bottles, a pack of mints (Connor loves mint), a three-pack of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and a small pack of vanilla cupcakes (procured a few days prior from Messrs. Circle and K, a few minutes walk from our hotel in Hanoi).

Using the graph paper, I mapped out where I’d hide each clue and an accompanying little gift (plus, hiding the gift is like wrapping it in anticipation and giggles). Once each little puzzly, riddly clue was written and stashed, I told Jodie and the kids that we were ready.

The gift of memories, strong family bonds, cool experiences… and tasty sweets

We had wondered if the hunts might be something the kids did individually, such as when it was for their own birthday. Over time, though, we have seen that the camaraderie and collaboration have become just as integral to the hunt as the hidden clues themselves. Whenever one child has a scavenger hunt, both kids work together, reading each clue, discussing it, breaking down who will search where.

Aster’s birthday hunt in Thailand culminated with her learning that we would take her to the Chiang Mai Night Safari that evening. Since she loves animals, it was a perfect match. Our village in Vietnam, however, did not have something that struck us as a good match for Connor. So for his final prize, we told him that in January, when we visit LEGOLAND Malaysia, he would get to pick LEGO activities to do.

The unexpected hunt

What I did not expect, however, was to wake up to a scavenger hunt of my own. The morning of my birthday, I was ordered out of our room. Holing up in a chair in the dining area, I sipped coffee and read The New York Times on my phone. The green, tree-covered karst limestone hills surrounding us kept me company. A few cows nibbled grass on one of the berms between rice paddies. From the mirrored, calm water, white birds took to the air while their reflections glided across the glass they left in ripples.

When the kids told me they were ready, once I was allowed to open my eyes, I stepped into our room. On the floor, near a bag of colored pens and pencils, was a piece of graph paper. Connor had written on it, in large block capital letters, “Secret Birthday Surprise. Do Not Disturb.”

The two best gifts

Shortly after, I found my first clue. And each clue was accompanied by a gift from the kids: They had written me little jokes, which Jodie had helped them find online. The setup was on one side of a long strip of graph paper, and the punchline on the other, such as

“Why do seagulls fly over the sea?”

“Because if they flew over the bay, they’d be bagels!”

Hunting for clues all over the homestay, for my birthday I got to double over with belly laughs. The jokes were adorable. My children had done something so sweet for me on my own special day.

Of course, they probably don’t yet know the other gift they gave—that Jodie and I, I think and hope, had in turn already given to them: What makes an occasion special is who we share it with, and most things in this life are better, or at least easier, when handled together.

“What did the baby corn say to the mama corn?”

“Hey, where’s the popcorn?”

He’s by the side of the pool, laughing his head off, and crying, with joy and gratitude for a day made all the more special by two children with such loving, giving, joyous hearts.

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