Having visited the beautiful Halong Bay with my wife in 2012, it was like honeymoon all over again. So we were determined to plan a trip to bring all our children along to enjoy this Unesco World Heritage Site. An overnight cruise in Halong Bay was such an unforgettable experience, it would be regrettable for our children to miss out on what we had enjoyed.
Since our last family trip to Europe in 2011 for a self-drive tour when our two girls were studying in UK, we didn’t have a chance to travel together again. As our eldest son would be enlisting for National Service in 2015 and our girls busy with their work commitments, we probably won’t be able to travel together as a family again for quite a number of years. So we began to plan our year end Christmas break to Northern Vietnam to cover Sapa, Halong Bay, Hao Lu Tam Coc (also known as inland Halong Bay) as well as Hanoi for a 9 Days 8 Nights vacation. Our preparation started in May and we booked our air ticket to Hanoi very much in advance at $240.10 flying Vietnam Airlines. Flight details as follows: Singapore to Hanoi 1305 to 1525 Hanoi to Singapore 1040 to 1450 We also made contact with Halong Sapa Tours, a very reliable tour agent in Hanoi to enquire about tours to Sapa and Halong Bay cruise. Ms. Cham responded promptly to all my enquiries and offered suggestions to plan our itineraries and also provided quotations for various tours options. Finally, we decided to book a 2 Days 3 Nights Sapa Tours staying at the Sapa Lodge Hotel at USD 155 per persons. We also booked another 2 Days 1 Night Halong Bay cruise with the newly renovated 3 stars Oriental Sails 1 at USD 119 per person. As for the inland Halong Bay full day tour, we would decide which day we would prefer to go when we arrived Hanoi. The agent would also provide free transfers to and from the airport to their office in the Old Quarters as well as both way transfers to train station for the Sapa tours. In addition, they would also provide a room for us to rest and shower plus free breakfast when we return from the Sapa tours early morning and waiting to connect to the Halong Bay cruise. These were indeed value added services, without which could cost us quite a bit of trouble, inconvenience as well as extra budget to take care of these extras for our tours. In order to confirm our reservations, all that was required was to pay a 10% deposit of the total costs for these tours via paypal and the rest we could make good when we arrived their office in Hanoi. It was so simple so I transferred the deposit to confirm our reservations. We were very grateful with the way they conduct business to make it so easy for us to book tours in Hanoi. As for hotel for the last 4 nights in Hanoi, we booked 3 rooms for the 6 of us from the Eclipse Legend Hotel at S$35 per night inclusive of breakfast via Agoda. The cost for a room a night at this hotel was incredibly low and we were quite happy with this booking. This hotel was also rather new and located at the Old Quarters and near the lake as well. So with all the necessary reservations out of the way, all we had to do was to wait for that happy day to arrive. Of course not forgetting to purchase travel insurance during NATAS fair in August for this trip.
The planned itineraries are as follows: Day 1 (Hanoi) Arrive Hanoi at 3.25 pm. Pick up by Halong Sapa Tours agent for transfer to their office to settle outstanding payment for tours. Have dinner and wait for transfer to railway station for overnight train ride to Sapa. Day 2 (Sapa) Arrive Lao Cai train station and transfer to Sapa Lodge Hotel. Begin Sapa tours with hiking and shopping. Day 3 (Sapa) Continue with more hiking and shopping in Sapa. Transfer to Lao Cai train station for dinner and overnight train back to Hanoi. Day 4 (Halong Bay) Arrive Hanoi railway station early morning and pick up by Halong Sapa Tours agent back to office. Continue with bus ride to Halong Bay for cruise. Overnight Halong Bay cruise and activities. Day 5 (Hanoi) Halong Bay activities in the morning. Transfer back to Hanoi after lunch. Collect bags at Halong Sapa Tours office and check in at Eclipse Legend Hotel. Day 6 (Hanoi) Full day tour to Hao Lu Tam Coc from Hanoi. Stay at Eclipse Legend Hotel. Day 7 (Hanoi - Christmas Eve) Free day in Hanoi for shopping and dining. Enjoy Christmas Eve festivities in Hanoi. Stay at Eclipse Legend Hotel. Day 8 (Hanoi - Christmas Day) Free day in Hanoi for more last minutes shopping. Stay at Eclipse Legend Hotel. Day 9 (Singapore) Check out of Eclipse Legend Hotel. Transfer to airport for morning flight home.
Our dream vacation finally came after preparing for more than six months for this trip. There won’t be much to expect for this first day where all that we were going to do was travelling and transfers in Hanoi to eventually reach our destination in Sapa the following day. We arrived Changi Airport in the later part of morning in good spirit. Once we got all our luggage checked in with Vietnam Airlines, we began our vacation with a late breakfast at the McDonalds and enjoyed the festive mood at the airport, all dressed up to welcome Christmas in a month’s time. With our first meal done, we happily cleared immigration and started shopping first at Uniqlo inside the airport to purchase some thermal wear for our son who would be heading for South Korea in January. We also bought a packet of jellybeans at a shop for Ms. Cham’s young son whom we would be meeting later to settle the outstanding amount for our tours. One more thing we did was to buy a number of buns to bring along in case we might be hungry during the overnight train ride to Sapa.
Finally the call was made for us to board our flight to Hanoi. Without hesitation we got on board, took our seats and looked forward to our long awaited adventure together as a family at last after three years. The plane was fine except it was more like a budget airline with no entertainment onboard and nothing to do during flight. However, a nice meal was served once we were cruising. The flight went smoothly and soon we landed at Hanoi Airport. After customs and immigration clearance and having collected our luggage, we made our way out and met a guy holding a card with my name sent by Halong Sapa Tours to bring us to their office at the Old Quarters. Before we left the airport, we asked this driver to help bring us to a mobile shop to top up our old Vietnam sim card for our use during the next 9 days. Once we got this matter out of the way, we boarded the van and were on our way to Hanoi City. After travelling for about an hour, we reached the city and encountered the usual heavy traffic. Eventually the driver stopped along the road outside the gate of a building where a sentry was standing guard next to our van. This was one of the buildings that belonged to the Ministry of Defence. The driver then called for the agent to come over to bring us to the office. Soon a man came and brought us through a small lane next to this Ministry of Defence building and then turned right at the back of the building and later took a left turn and we were in the middle of some buildings inside some back alleys. It would be impossible for us to find our way here even with the given address. So this guy brought us into the building and some renovation was on going. We left our luggage on the ground floor next to the staircase and we went up to the office. Then we found out that this guy was actually the husband of Ms. Cham who had been communicating with me via emails. We all gathered and sat on the sofa and he served us cakes, macarons, fruits and drinks while we talked and settled the outstanding amount for our tours. It was so nice and generous of them to serve us refreshments to welcome us to Hanoi. Soon Ms. Cham appeared together with their boy whom she had gone to pick up from school. We gave their boy the jellybeans we bought at the airport earlier and he seemed to like it. We were very pleased we could do a little to make a child happy. We talked for awhile and also confirmed the day tour to Hao Lu Tam Coc for the day after our return from the Halong Bay cruise. The cost for this full day tour was USD 28 per person where they told us not to worry about paying them in advance. We were assured that we could pay them after the tour. Our impression was this couple were very trusting and unassuming people and not some calculative businessman and woman. They treated us with respect and just like friends. No wonder they had very good reviews from those whom they had done business with in the past. We were given a street map and were advised we could have dinner nearby and then come back to rest in their office until the time for us to depart for the railway station to catch our overnight train to Sapa. So off we went to explore. We also tried to remember our way back through those small back alleys to come back to the office. So with six of us trying to make a mental note, we wouldn’t have much trouble returning to the right place after dinner. As we ventured out to the streets, it was already dark. Hanoi do get dark very early around 6 pm. This was our boys first visit to Vietnam, so crossing the road was an adventure in itself for them. We got to step onto the road and walked slowly forward with cars and motorbikes approaching us. All these vehicles would know how to avoid us as they ‘swim’ around us as we crossed the road. So the trick is to walk slowly forward and never run or step backward. The motorists will judge the distance between their vehicles and the anticipated movements of those crossing the roads and will adjust their speed and directions accordingly. If we upset their calculations, the consequence would be ugly. Of course this kind of jaywalking would never be condoned in Singapore but it is a way of life here. After crossing the main road, we explored some streets with shops still opened at night. We managed to find the shop U-Move where we bought some haversacks during our last visit and so we went in for a quick look. Finding nothing of interest for the time being, as we already knew the prices of such goods would be a lot lower in Sapa, we left the shop and went to look for dinner. The pho restaurant recommended by Cham’s husband was very crowded and with six of us, it would be hard to find a table, let alone get used to sitting on low stool like squatting on the ground while having dinner. This would not be a very comfortable way to begin our first meal in Hanoi. So we went to another restaurant which was less crowded, air-conditioned and more comfortable. We just ordered some simple dishes of rice and noodles for dinner. The meal was just fine but not fantastic. It was good enough to hopefully see us through the night during the train ride. In any case, if we were hungry, we still had the buns we bought from Bengawan Solo at Changi Airport for supper. With dinner settled, we made our way back to the office of Halong Sapa Tours at night successfully, which we considered an achievement. We had preplanned which bags to bring along to Sapa and which bags to leave behind in their office and so we were all set and ready to go. We reached the office, rested for a while and soon Cham’s husband called for us to head out to the main road and we boarded an awaiting van. He didn’t come along with us and the driver drove through the charming streets of Hanoi and soon arrived at the railway station. We alighted and found Cham’s husband was already there waiting for us. He rode his own motorbike there and brought us into the train station and sat down to wait for the train to depart. He then went to talk with a Caucasian couple who turned out to be part of our tour group to Sapa.
Near to 9 pm, everyone at the station started to get up and moved and Cham’s husband led us to the correct car and ushered us to the correct cabin and gave us the train tickets. He told us he would be waiting for us at the railway station when we return from our Sapa tours to bring us back to his office. With that, he left us and wished us a safe trip and have fun. Our four children had a whole cabin to themselves while we shared a cabin with the couple we met earlier. We were very pleased to see our children happy and tucked into their soft sleeper beds, talking and having fun and enjoying one another’s presence. Snacks and drinking waters and even a bunch of bananas were also provided in the cabin. With that we left the kids to entertain themselves and we went over to our cabin.
We chatted with this couple and found out they were from Australia. We talked for awhile and eventually hit the sack as we already had a long day all the way here. The sleeper bed was not very wide but good enough. However for taller chaps, they might have problem stretching from end to end. Sleeping on this bed wasn’t too bad if only you don’t mind rocking back and forth in a narrow cradle as the train chucked along during the night to bring us to our dream destination, Sapa. Not long after, we lost mental signal, awaiting for the excitement of beautiful Sapa in a few hours’ time to bring us back to our senses.
Continue to Day 2 ...