Saigon & Mekong Delta

Why are you going to Vietnam for Christmas?  Definitely the most oft asked question we received when we told people we would not be home for Christmas.  Well, the answer was simple – we used to take our big international trips during spring break, but with Lauren now a sophomore in college her spring break and Michael’s no longer coincided, so we had to find another time when both kids had the same two weeks off so Christmas it was!  Then we decided we did not want to go anyplace too cold.  We had already been to Thailand and Cambodia so off to Vietnam!

Good and bad to traveling at Christmas – good is generally less stress over holiday stuff – just did light decorating around the house and limited baking.  We left on Dec. 16 and once we were gone we were really able to just relax and enjoy each other’s company.  Bad – obviously a busy time to be preparing for a big trip, particularly for our daughter who finished her last final Wednesday night flew home Thursday morning, and then we flew out for Vietnam Friday morning.  Also, getting all Christmas gifts before we left (just takes planning) and buying things small enough to pack – some were just pictures of the gifts =).

Before I travel I always like to watch movies and read books that take place in the location.  Aside from the Vietnam War movies we are all familiar with, I recommend the following:


Indochine – French movie with subtitles , takes place in the 1930s when Vietnam was under French rule.   About a woman who owns a rubber plantation and her adopted Vietnamese daughter

The Quiet American-takes place in early 1950s during the war for independence from the French colonial power

Journey from the Fall– after the war a family is forced to emigrate to America.


Saigon by Joel Grey – a sweeping historical fiction that follows an American family from the 1930s and French colonial rule in Vietnam to the war and aftermath.  Long, but I loved it and read it quickly.

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli -fiction of an American photographer during the war

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip. Follows her story as a young girl and young woman during the war but goes back and forth between the story of her going to Vietnam in 1986 to see the family she left behind when she fled.

The Matterhorn  by Karl Marlentes.  Supposed to be an excellent depiction of what it was like to be fighting during the Vietnam War.  I got bogged down in the details and found it difficult to keep track of the characters so did not get very far.  I suspect someone who likes war novels would love it.

Now onto the trip.  When we traveled December 2011, Lauren was 19 and Michael was 16.  We also traveled with a good friend of ours, Holly, sort of the kids “big sister” who is in her late 20s.  This was Holly’s first international trip, aside from Mexico.  While she has gone on other trips with families as their nanny, we did not have her join us as our nanny but as our traveling companion.  She has a super positive attitude and tons of energy so we knew she would be up for anything!  We had been to SE Asia in 2007 to Thailand (Bangkok, Chiang Rai) and Cambodia (Siem Reap/Angkor Wat).  Check out those trip reports here.  I have to admit after that trip we were not ready to go back to SE Asia right away, but after 4.5 years we were ready.

We  left December 16.  We flew on Continental/United with no surprises.  Arrived in HCMC  (Ho Chi Minh City) at 12:30am.  I had received our VOAs  (Visa On Arrival) from – easy, quick and painless process.  I emailed them and I received a confirmation email the same day, and within two days had received our documentation letter.  We went straight to the VOA office when we arrived.  There was only one family ahead of us so had to wait a few minutes but not too bad.  We already had our two passport size photos and all forms filled out beforehand, definitely made the process quicker.  We saw a lot of people filling out forms and getting their pics done when we arrived which definitely took more time.  Be prepared!!

We had reserved a van from the Riverside Renaissance Hotel since we were arriving so late.  It only took about 15 minutes to get to the hotel that late at night.

RENAISSANCE RIVERSIDE HOTEL (a Marriott):  We really loved this hotel.  We had two interconnecting rooms, a double and a triple (had a rollaway bed).  Nice large rooms, plenty of room even with the rollaway, good size bathrooms with all the amenities you would expect.  Excellent buffet breakfast ($19/person if not included in hotel rate).  Great selection of both Vietnamese and western food.  Pancakes, waffles, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, cereals, pot stickers, congee, rice, beef/chicken dishes and a lot more delicacies that I can not remember, along with an excellent selection of fruit.  In addition there was an omelet station and a pho station.  We found the staff very nice and helpful, though we found them a bit slow when checking out – just seemed as though they had so much information to put into the computer, so much paper that came out of their computer, that it took a long time.  Perhaps because we had two rooms it was more time, but still.  I only mention this so you give yourself an extra 15 minutes or so when leaving – we had our guide for overnight in Mekong patiently waiting for us.  There is a nice spa, Stephen had two good massages while we were there, and Lauren and Holly used the gym a few times which they said was quite good for a hotel gym.  There was a rooftop terrace with a pool and lounge chairs and food service, and great views of the river.


This was our free day in HCMC to see a few sites, do some shopping and hopefully get over jet lag, so we did not get to the buffet until about 10am, but still a full selection of food.

We started out the day walking to see the Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Center.

We tried to go to the American Embassy just to see the building, but I think the directions we were given were faulty or it was a lot further down the street than we were told.

We perused through the Banh Tran market, Saigon Tax Center and the Viacom Center.  Basically, Banh Tran is many market stalls where you can bargain.

Saigon Tax Center is in a building with escalators, etc. but a little more downscale and I was able to bargain a bit with the lacquerware I purchased on the 3rd floor.  Viacom Center is a big nice mall with a lot of stores that we would be familiar with, and some we would not.  On the bottom floor is a nice food court where we stopped for a break at Highland Coffee.  We headed back to the hotel with some more shopping on Khoi Dong Street.  We enjoyed our day in Saigon/HCMC and remarked early on how much we liked it better than Bangkok.  Easy to walk around, some very nice public parks, and all in all a pleasant experience.  They were putting up all kinds of decorations overhead on the streets for Christmas – though often not what we think of as Christmas colors.

Went back to the hotel and rested a bit before our 7pm reservation at Xu.  I had wanted a place not too far from the hotel, that was a bit more upscale Vietnamese so as to ease us into the “local” food.  The food here was excellent, particularly the chicken and rice dish but the portions were small and definitely more expensive then you can find elsewhere.  However,  we were pretty tired by now so enjoyed the dinner in the nice air conditioned space.


I had booked a Cu Chi Tunnel tour with Khoi of Water Buffalo Tours before we left.  Khoi could not be our guide for this tour (but would be for our 2D/1N tour of Mekong).  Our guide for today was Tan, who was young (mid-20s) but very nice and knowledgeable.  Also, very interesting to talk to someone of his generation about the war, politics and economics.  He picked us up at 9am and we drove 1.5 hrs. to the CuChi Tunnels.  Now I know there is some controversy on the travel boards about whether or not this is a worthy trip but we all found it quite interesting and informative.  There were a lot of demonstrations and dioramas along the way.

Michael got a kick out of going down one of the manholes where they hid – he did not want to stay down there very long at all.

The tunnels themselves are not very long, but then that is good because you would not want to be down there for too long.  Yes, the movie at the beginning of the program is anti-American as it constantly refers to the “American-killer heroes” but then it’s their country, they can tell the story (happens again in other places as well).  At the end they served you tapioca root with a sesame seed dip – the food of the VietCong fighters.  Not bad actually, but would not want it to be my only sustenance.

From there we drove back to HCMC and had lunch at Pho Hoa.  Tan says it is the best Pho in town (that is all they serve).  Can not speak to that but it was a typical local restaurant and the Pho was very good.  Stephen decided to be adventurous and ordered the Pho with everything, including innards, etc.  He said it was good, but had a few minor tummy issues afterward so said he would not be quite that adventurous again.

After we had lunch we went to the War Remnant Museum.  Unfortunately, we only had about 45 minutes there which was not nearly enough time, but on the other hand enough to get a sense of what was there and the message.  Again, quite interesting telling their side of the story, sometimes hard to see but important none the less.

Next we drove to Cholon (Chinatown) and the Chinese wholesale market – absolutely crazy!!  People moving products everywhere and a great place to see the scooters loaded up with tons of boxes, etc. tied to the sides.

From here we stopped at a Pagoda built in the 1700’s.  Beautiful original carvings remain.

We decided to say goodbye to our driver and take Tan up on his offer to teach us how to cross the street in Vietnam.  Now there are two main rules:

1. Try to find a local to walk alongside

2. Slow and steady, slow and steady.

You can stop for a bus but do not stop for a scooter.  The scooter sees you and is adjusting their direction in order not to hit you, if you suddenly stop and they have to put on their brakes – well I think you get the picture.  So, we stopped at a giant roundabout with no lights or traffic control and Tan took us individually across the street and back.  He was right – just slow and steady.  Seems crazy as you cross the street with tons of traffic but it really worked!!  We actually had a ton of fun with this and built up our confidence  for the rest of the trip.


Last stop was at Fanny’s for ice cream, it was about 5:30pm.  We were pretty tired and still dealing with some jet lag so we just got room service in our room that night.

 DAY 3

We were picked up at 7:30am by Khoi of Water Buffalo Tours.  By the way, Khoi was great to work with.  He responded promptly to all my emails and adjusted a few things for our CuChi Tunnel tour so we could start a bit later.  We drove for about one hour on backroads before stopping at a local market in the Mekong Delta.  Now this was very local – there was not another westerner or tourist in sight.   We enjoyed walking through the market with all the interesting fish, seafood, live chickens, etc.

We stopped to buy some pineapple and the lady meticulously cut it to make “pineapple on a stick” – the stick being part of the pineapple – no extra charge of course.

The ladies in the market loved Michael asking him “how old are you?”  and they all loved letting us take their pictures.

Our next stop was a small furniture factory that did intricate inlaid detailing.  Let me note that none of these stops were to encourage us to buy stuff but just for us to see the handiwork.  No one even came out to see us, Khoi just showed us around and told us the details of the craftsmanship.

Next up was a small gardening operation where they were planting chilis.  Really quite fascinating to watch the women working meticulously to plant these tiny little plants.  I have tried to sit like they were (like many Vietnamese do) on their haunches but I just can not get down that low!!!

From here we drove to Khoi’s mother’s house where we picked up bicycles and had a quick 40 minute ride through the back country.  Beautiful and quite interesting to see this “quintessential” part of Vietnam.

When we got back, the kid’s had just gotten out of school.  Khoi’s brother runs a sort of afterschool day care program for school kids at his mom’s house so there were tons of kids there playing billiards and pool.

From here we drove to the ocean and had a fabulous lunch on a place right on the beach.  Again no tourists nor foreigners here.  We had an amazing lunch of clams(cuckolds), grilled tiger prawns, soup, a fish dish and this delicious steamed okra that was amazing when dipped in the fish sauce.

Also, my first taste of mangosteen which is now my new favorite fruit!!

Unfortunately, it is hard to get here in the US.  Apparently, illegal to import up until about 2007/2008 but even so still seems to be hard to find.  Found this one site that says they carry them $29.99 for 9-13 (so not cheap) plus you must do next day air.  Even with that, they say they are temporarily out of stock – but I wonder how long that has been up there.  Apparently, you can get them easier in Canada.

Next up we drove to the boat dock on the delta where we saw our first tourists of the day (tons of them).  We got on our own boat where we went around a big island, then got on a smaller longtail type boat where we went through the narrow jungle canals.

At one point we got off and walked across the island, stopping at a small restaurant for a potty room break and Michael playing with the python!

Another two hour drive to Can Tho where we checked into our hotel Kimtho Hotel.  It really was not bad with decent size rooms and bathrooms and our room had a view of the river.

The common room décor was a bit garish however.  The worst part was the restaurant where we had breakfast the next morning was just a bit depressing as the ceilings were very low and had few windows so it was very dark. The breakfast buffet was mostly stuff we were unfamiliar with though they did have an omelet station.

We got settled into our rooms then met Khoi downstairs for dinner.  We went to a local restaurant that served only one dish – a pork dish with glass noodles and broth.  Very yummy, but Khoi cautioned us against drinking the water or any ice and the only thing they refrigerated was the beer so kids and I had warm soda.

We were craving chocolate/western dessert so Khoi recommended a French restaurant around the corner from the hotel where we enjoyed chocolate crepes, banana splits and an apple tart.


Woke up early the next morning to meet Khoi at 5:40am to head to the floating market.  First stop was at the retail floating market then through canals to the wholesale floating market.

While I realize that this is probably more authentic and WAY less touristy then the floating market outside of Bangkok, I must say that (well as a tourist) it was much less interesting and not nearly as fun and probably not worth the long drive or the overnight stay.  At least Holly had not been to the one in Bangkok before so it was nice for her to get to experience it.  Just not really very many boats, particularly in the retail market and Khoi suggested we not buy any food, which was one of our favorite parts of the Bangkok market.

I had read one comment before our trip where someone had said if you have been to the floating market outside of Bangkok and Tonle Sap in Siem Reap then it is not necessary to go to Mekong Delta.  While, I think everything/place is different and something new to see, I would have to agree that if you have been to those  places and are short for time I would probably skip the Mekong.

We came back to hotel, showered and had breakfast.  We left there about 10:15am and arrived at the Cao Dai Temple on our way back to HCMC at 11:45am just in time to watch the noon ceremony.  Very beautiful and colorful temple and it was interesting to watch the ceremony and learn a bit about the religion.

We arrived back in HCMC about 2pm and we decided to go to L’Usine  (151 Dong Khoi) for lunch.  I had read about this store/restaurant on the internet and thought it sounded pretty cool – it was.  Hard to find as it is located upstairs and you have to walk through this open store on the bottom (someone else described it  as an art gallery – but that is a bit generous).  Anyway you need to walk through the store and behind where all the scooters are parked and walk up the stairs.  Also, when looking for it from the street – just look up and there is a large sign saying L’Usine upstairs.   This is a very cool space and definitely part of the “new Vietnam”.  Lots of expats, students and wealthy Vietnamese hanging out with their laptops, sipping coffee or enjoying lunch.  We had excellent Banh Mi and they also had yummy cupcakes (the Smore’s were the best – graham cracker on the bottom and marshmallow instead of icing.)  Not a cheap local restaurant but a nice break and delicious lunch.

After lunch we did some more last minute shopping down Khoi Dong St. – really loved all the little stores there, lots of nice handicrafts, some more expensive than others.

Dinner that night was at a French restaurant La Fourchette (9 D Ngo Duc Ke) just around the corner from the hotel.  Despite some good reviews we had read, we thought it was mediocre and would not recommend nor bother returning.

We really enjoyed our time with Khoi, our guide in the Mekong.  He was about eleven or twelve during the war.  His father had fought with the South Vietnamese so after the war he was sent to a work camp, which he later fled only to end up in Malaysia in a refugee camp.  Sounds horrific, yet he said the bright side was that he met another Vietnamese refugee there who spoke English and taught him and a few others to speak English.  Amazing story and fascinating to talk with him about all these things.  He spent a few years living in Australia before returning to Vietnam.

Next up Christmas in Hoi An!

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21 responses to “Hanoi and Halong Bay”

  1. Micaela says:

    Hello! I just recently discovered your blog via tripadvisor. Loved all your Vietnam posts, thanks for all the info and photos! We are travelling to Vietnam (from Australia) for the first time in March 2013 with a pretty similar itinerary to yours and can’t wait!

  2. Oh wow…this post is like a dream to me! The photos are very inviting, looks like you had a wonderful time 🙂

  3. Elizab54 says:

    Thank you for your detailed posting! Found it via the forums on TripAdvisor. We were struggling with having to choose between Vietnam and Thailand for a 7 day trip in February 2013. Vietnam it is! (Given the time constraints, just seems like the right choice for us.) I think our families have similar traveling styles so perhaps I should read up on some of your other adventures for future travel inspiration!

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Glad the blog was able to help you make a decision – and I know you will have an amazing trip! Happy to answer any questions you might have. Hope you can be inspired from our other adventures!

  4. Scott P says:

    What a huge help. We are your Pacific NW neighbors (live in Seattle) and are doing Christmas in Vietnam this year! Taking our kids (10 and 12) for their first trip abroad. We are a little nervous that they are a bit young (for it to be fully enjoyable for all of us) but we are going to take it easy and just take it all in. You provided just enough detail and the photos are fantastic. I will now feel like I am returning to a somewhat familiar place. Thank you!

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Scott – We took our kids on their first trip abroad when they were 9 and 12. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out great and we’ve been traveling with them internationally ever since!! I think it’s good that your plan is to “take it easy and just take it all in.” Your kids will have a fabulous time, and definitely a Christmas to remember!

  5. Elizab54 says:

    I have one more question: did you arrange most of the trip yourself (sounds like you did) or did you rely on any tour operators to help you arrange tours, transportation, etc. in advance? Would love to hear your thoughts on how easy it is to make arrangements from North America, maybe what were your greatest resources for finding the right tours: whether it was street-food tours or your Halong Bay Junk boat excursion, where you felt you didn’t need help, etc. Thanks!

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Yes, I did do the planning and arrangements all by myself. I did not use any tour operators. I found all the guides/tours I used from posts and reviews on TripAdvisor. Then I contacted them directly via email. All of them responded quickly to my emails and were always very helpful in giving me all of the information I needed. I just booked with them directly via email. I did have our hotel in Hanoi actually book the Halong Bay tour, but I picked the company to use myself by reading TA reviews.

  6. Scott P says:

    Judy- How were the mosquitos that time of year (Hanoi, Hoi An, Mekong Delta)? Both of my girls seem to have sweet blood.

    • Judy Gambee says:

      We did come prepared with plenty of bug repellant (brought the wipe on kind), but didn’t really need it. We did not find any problem with mosquitoes at that time of year, particularly in central/north Vietnam (HoiAn, Hanoi) where the weather was cooler. My daughter is also favored by mosquitoes and she had no problems.

  7. You have amazing article about my country. thank you very much for your visiting. May i ask which is the best place in VIetnam? what is the place that you want to come back ?? Thanks again.

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Hoang – We loved visiting your country! Our favorite places were Halong Bay and Hoi An. We definitely want to go back to those two places. We also look forward to visiting Sapa and Hue on our next visit.

  8. Joan F says:

    Hi, we are heading to Vietnam in mid Nov so loved reading your of your family experiences. For better or worse we are on a small group tour, all friends of friends so it will be interesting to see how the group dynamics work out! However there are some free days in Hanoi and Hoi An so I was pleased to see your ideas for the bike tour, the street food tour, the cooking class and all your restaurant addresses and comments, very helpful thanks. From the reading I’ve done I feel that it wouldn’t be too hard to organise ones own tour as everyone seems to be so helpful. Starting to get very excited.

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Actually, when traveling with a small group of friends it may not be a bad idea to be on small group tour. That way you don’t have to worry about everyone agreeing on what to do next, someone just tells you!! Your free days might be a good time for people to do different things depending on their interests. For future reference though, it was very easy to organize everything on my own, and book everything online. Have a fabulous trip!!

  9. Angel says:

    Thank you for your great trip report on your vacation to Vietnam. I have spent my whole Sunday morning reading it and taking notes. Your detail and photographs are amazing. We are off to South East Asia at the end of June. Tickets are bought and now I’m doing research to book the actual trip. Though I will use a tour company, your blog gives me lots of ideas to impart to them. We are traveling with 3 kids ages 11, 9 and 5. They are well-traveled having gone on safari in South Africa at age 2 and 4. They have now taken 9 additional trips all over the continent of Africa and many trips all over Europe and the Caribbean. It was during elephant trekking in Namibia this past summer that they insisted on going to Asia for the next big vacation. So thank you again for all of the ideas. I am inspired!

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Glad to hear that you were inspired!! You will have a fabulous trip, we all loved Vietnam. I am just in the research phase of planning our first safari for June 2014, but due to the time of year I think we will be going to Tanzania, so will have to do South Africa at another time.
      Sounds like you have done some great traveling with your kids – have an amazing time in Vietnam!!

  10. Lillian Chua says:

    Fabulous! Love your blog!! Thank you for taking time to tell us all about it!
    We are planning to go this December and wonder if we should do the 2d1n or 3d2n on Halong Bay as it seems pretty cold and we are quite tight on time. Any suggestions, please?

    • Judy Gambee says:

      I would recommend just doing the 2D/1N. It was pretty cold while we were there – too cold to hang out on the beach or do any water sports. We loved our time on Halong Bay, but in Dec. I would just do one night – especially since you are tight on time. I hope to go back someday when the weather is better and do the 2 night trip!

  11. Grace says:

    Your article is very informative! I’m glad I found this. My husband and I are going to Halong Bay in November. We came from a country where the weather is either very hot or rainy, so we look forward to a chilly weather (but hopefully no rain) when we get to Halong Bay. It’s great that you posted pictures of indochina junk. We’re considering right now to book either the Red Dragon or the Dragon’s Pearl, and your pictures and descriptions will really help us to decide. Thank you so much! 🙂

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