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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Beginning of Vietnam, Laos, & Cambodia

We are just back and before I get into the pre-trip planning details, I want to summarize that we had the most awesome epic adventure of our lives!!  We were so fortunate that everything went off without a hitch.  So many WOW moments.  So many lifetime memories.  And more importantly, when do we go back?!

Perhaps you are nervous about planning your own trip; I know I was overwhelmed with nerves, especially after reading so many warnings, scams, and tales of woe.  But, with proper planning, you will find yourself having a SPLENDID time as we did.  This is an extraordinary part of the world with so much to see and do.  And, we found it easy - very easy to traverse.  I want to share our itinerary (the pace of which was perfect for our family and style of travel) and our experiences to pay it forward as I know I found trip reports and travel forums super helpful.  Maybe reading through our adventure will help you plan your travel. Let's get started!


Our dog wanted to join us!

Pre-Travel Musings

Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia - 6 Weeks. Wait. This is crazy!  Maybe, but we were plenty excited for this chapter in our adventure family travel. It was the most ambitious trip I've planned to date.  We had never been to any of these countries or even to this region.  This trip began as "3 Weeks in Vietnam", but somehow grew.  And, grew.  Until, we arrived at our final itinerary.  Reflecting back, I wouldn't change a thing other than a couple minor tweaks with the hotels.

Final Itinerary

Day 1: East Coast, USA to Vietnam (connecting Narita, Japan)
Day 2: Arrival Ho Chi Minh City (Caravelle Hotel)
Day 3: HCMC (Caravelle Hotel)
Day 4: HCMC (Caravelle Hotel)
Day 5: Mekong Delta (Anh Dao Mekong Hotel) Jason SSS Tour
Day 6: Mekong Delta (Victoria Can Tho Hotel) Jason SSS Tour
Day 7: Fly Can Tho to Hoi An (via Danang) (Vinh Hung Heritage)
Day 8: Hoi An (Lantana)
Day 9: Hoi An (Lantana)
Day 10: Hoi An (Lantana)
Day 11: Fly Danang to Hanoi (La Siesta)
Day 12: Hanoi (La Siesta)
Day 13: Hanoi (La Siesta)
Day 14: Halong Bay (Indochina Junk Dragon's Pearl)
Day 15: Halong Bay (Dragon's Pearl)
Day 16: Ninh Binh (Tam Coc Garden)
Day 17: Ninh Binh (Tam Coc Garden)
Day 18: Ninh Binh (Pu Luong Reserve - 1st Home Stay)
Day 19: Ninh Binh (Pu Luong Reserve - 2nd Home Stay)
Day 20: Ninh Binh (Pu Luong Reserve to Tam Coc Garden)
Day 21: Ninh Binh (Tam Coc Garden)
Day 22: Hanoi (La Siesta)
Day 23: Hanoi (La Siesta)
Day 24: Fly Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Laos (Mekong Riverside)
Day 25: Luang Prabang (Mekong Riverside)
Day 26: Luang Prabang (Mekong Riverside)
Day 27: Luang Prabang (Elephant Village)
Day 28: Luang Prabang (Elephant Village to My Dream Boutique)
Day 29: Luang Prabang (My Dream Boutique)
Day 30: Luang Prabang (My Dream Boutique)
Day 31: Fly LP to Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Victoria)
Day 32: Siem Reap (Angkor Victoria)
Day 33: Siem Reap (Angkor Victoria)
Day 34: Siem Reap (Angkor Victoria)
Day 35: Siem Reap (Angkor Victoria)
Day 36: Siem Reap (Angkor Victoria)
Day 37: Fly Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (Villa Song)
Day 38: HCMC (Villa Song)
Day 39: HCMC (Villa Song)
Day 40: Depart Vietnam to East Coast, USA
Home Sweet Home

Trip Planning!

I spent a solid 2 years researching and planning this trip.  It began as a notion after we returned from our first trip to Ireland (pretty much our first big trip anywhere) where the kids got to explore their Irish roots.  It was such a fantastic trip, that we dared to dream a trip to Vietnam.  We began looking at tour groups and outfits that plan complete itineraries. Somewhere along the way, I decided that what we were looking for was something so customized that I might as well plan it myself.  The best resources were the Tripadvisor travel forums.  I can't praise them enough.  From the regular contributors and the trip reports, I took in so much information and it all paid off tenfold.  I also muscled up carrying around my Lonely Planet, Foder's, and DK travel books.  I received several travel brochures with enticing pictures that I used to get Rob and the kids excited for this adventure.  Somehow, we ended up with the itinerary above which we nervously reviewed and re-reviewed.

But first, we needed to know the requirements to enter and stay in each country and arrange the proper Visas.

Visas:

Vietnam - I got our Visa approval letters online through www.vietnamvisapro.net about 8 weeks ahead of travel with absolutely no problems.  We applied for 3-month, multi-entry Visas and got the approval letters in under 48 hours.  Didn't bother getting private letters, so had 18 strangers on the same letter.  It was quoted $80, but my credit card was charged $91.43, I assume transaction fees of some sort.  I downloaded the NA-1 form that was provided and filled it in as instructed.  I would do the same process again for any future return.  

Laos - Nothing to do ahead of time.  We planned for VOA at the airport in Luang Prabang upon arrival at cost of $35 per person.

Cambodia - I did e-Visa using the website without any problems at cost of $36 each.  Printed 2 copies each and put them in our passports.

I used an app for passport photos and got a 4x6 sheet of 6 photos each.  Had trouble getting them to print properly off our printer, but discovered that Shutterfly does free prints, so ordered them off and received them, no problems.

Flights:

9 flights booked! I booked all of our flights ahead of time (way ahead of time), but that was because I wanted specific flights on specific days. Yes, it was nerve-wracking to realize I had 36 non-refundable plane tickets in my pocket.

Home to Vietnam (and Return) - ANA
Can Tho to Danang - Vietjet
Danang to Hanoi - Vietnam Airlines
Hanoi to Luang Prabang - Vietnam Airlines
Luang Prabang to Siem Reap - Vietnam Airlines
Siem Reap to HCMC - Cambodia Angkor Air

Accommodations:

Every accommodation was booked in advance, some WAY WAY in advance.  Each was either booked directly or through Booking.com. The ones that I booked directly, I paid ahead of time either in full or with first night's deposit.  I found that most of the hotels were intended for 2 adults, 1 child unless they had the rare "family" room and then there were expectations that the younger child would sleep with us and the older one use the extra bed.  2 extra beds in a room would be a tight squeeze.  As a result, I ended up booking two rooms in several places that interconnected.  This certainly raised our expenses, but we had a flexible budget.  And most importantly, we would maintain our sanity with the extra space. I only had issue with one booking when soon before our travel I was informed that they had given the one family room away to someone else (after I had confirmed with a credit card), but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we ended up booking a fantastic place in a much better location.

By the way, I was prepared to hand over passports at each accommodation and had been informed that they may/may not keep them for the duration of the stay.  However, at every stay, we only had to show them at check-in.  Hahaha (funny now, but not so funny at the time) - They might change this policy though as we lost one of our passports in the safe (don't ask) and the entire hotel security and management freaked out (I guess it is a big deal for passports to go missing, especially an American passport as we were told).  A security team (they sent a TEAM to our room to help locate it) actually found it in the safe tucked up out of sight (how dumb are we).  I can't describe how relieved we were, but you can ask them as they will never forget how profusely we thanked them with relief.  So embarrassing.

Tours:

I actually booked several tours before we even had flights!  Like over a year in advance!  I know, crazy!  But again, I wanted very specific tours on specific days.  I booked all our tours directly.  Every tour was booked and confirmed (and reconfirmed) prior to travel except for Les Rives, which I booked online a few days before we did it.

XO Foodie Tour
Jason SSS 2-Day Mekong Delta Tour
My Grandma's Home Cooking
Heaven & Earth Private Bike Tour
Hanoi Kids
Hanoi Street Food
Indochina Junk (Dragon's Pearl) 2-Night Cruise
Toan of Ninh Binh (Motorbike Tour, 3-Day Pu Luong Reserve Trekking with 2 Homestays)
Elephant Village Shangri-Lao 2-Day Expedition
Les Rives Cu Chi Tunnel Tour

Bound for Vietnam!

Our departure day FINALLY arrived! We had uneventful travel getting to the airport using one of the airport shuttles and began the long-haul flight to NRT, Japan.

Let's Do This!

Home for the next 12 hours!

I had dreaded this flight, but it was not so bad. The onboard entertainment had several new releases that I was keen to see.  For onboard comfort, the top 5 necessities that were lifesavers were 1) noise-cancellation headphones, 2) sleep masks, 3) comfy socks, 4)  travel pillows, and 5) snacks.  The kids had their iPads, but honestly the onboard screens had such good selection, that they mostly used it for movies and games.  Thankfully, we were all able to get some sleep. 

Leaving Washington D.C.

I was worried about our tight connection of 1 hour 50 minutes as we would have to go through a transit security with our carry-on only luggage. I had prepped the kids to move quickly and we briskly made the transfer. Worried for nothing, it was easy peasy fine. The airport staff are highly-effiencient at moving people onward.  Surprisingly, I found the 2nd shorter flight to drag more so than the long-haul, but we arrived and de-boarded only slightly disheveled.

Hello Japan, Goodbye Japan

The signage for Visa On Arrival is very clear and we made our way to the short line.  Most people arriving with us for VOA went to go fill out forms.  I was super organized with our paperwork, photos, and $50 all paper-clipped together for each of us.  There were several people already waiting and I wondered how long they had been there.  It seemed like the majority of the waiting people had someone taking and handling their paperwork for them.  I told Rob, "Those are the line-cutters" and I wondered if I should have paid for the same fast-track service.  Nope.  Not necessary and really, you don't need somebody to physically hand your stuff over to the official for you.  They don't bite.  We waited to hear our names called.  It was comical because after every name was called, everybody would look at each and questioned if it was their name that had been called - since when did every name sound the same.  In less than 15 minutes, Rob's name was called.  I went up with him and discovered that they had processed him separately and the rest of us were not done.  But, no worries - as soon as we said something, they pulled the rest of ours together and handed all 4 passports with visas back to us.  Woo hoo, success!  

We then moved onto the Passport Control line.  This line was longer than the VOA line, but we soon got to our turn.  We got in trouble trying to go up as a family together and it took some stumbling to realize that they want each adult to come up one by one.  Eventually, we got through and since we only had carry-on luggage we pushed through and headed for the Customs line.  As we were walking through towards the "Nothing to Declare" line, an official called to us and motioned for us to bypass and go right on out the exit into the Arrivals hall.  It's official - welcome to Vietnam!!

As you are coming out the exit, there are plenty of vendors offering SIM cards and transportation as you walk out.  Ahead of the trip, we had decided not to bother getting a SIM card.  You should know that the wi-fi is really good and available throughout all 3 countries.  We had downloaded maps to use offline and were able to use the GPS for navigation even when there was no wi-fi.  Unless you have some specific need to make an actual phone call yourself (hotel staff were always happy to make calls on our behalf when we needed to contact a guide/transfer), I wouldn't ever bother getting a SIM card.  It did look easy enough to do so though if you wanted.      

Like deer-in-headlights, we scanned the signs in the Arrivals Hall to locate our name, but didn't see ours anywhere.  A twinge of worry began to set in.  Then, a sign popped up with our name - whew, what a relief!  I had pre-arranged with Hanoi Transfer Service for a 7-seater to our hotel for $20.  We decided to hit the ATM on the way out, but after trying 3 machines we concluded that it just wasn't going to happen as all the machines seemed to be out of cash.  We watched other tourists trying to do the same to make sure it wasn't a problem with our cards.  We decided we would work it out later as we were only going straight to the hotel and the transfer was already paid in advance.  It was nighttime when we arrived and oh so exciting seeing the bright lights of the city and all the hustle and bustle of the traffic.  We were already squealing with delight on that ride to the hotel.

Wearing Welcome Gift of Non La (Conical Leaf Hat)
I had picked the Caravelle as a special treat for our first accommodation. It was on the higher-end in terms of cost, but I was worried about the long journey, the culture shock, and I wanted to bookend our arrival and departure with something "easy" with a fab pool. The Caravelle is BEAUTIFUL and we found it to be in the perfect location across from the stunning Saigon Opera House. 

View From Our Room

Welcome drinks!  Complimentary non la hats for the kids!  We checked into our rooms and even though it was after 10pm, we couldn't resist going out to find a bite to eat. We stumbled into the first open place that we could find - Bier Garden and thank goodness, they took credit cards.  We ordered enough dishes to feed an army.  Then, made cheers to our arrival with drinks. 

Found An Open Restaurant - 1st Meal





Oh my gawd!  Our first meal in Vietnam was DELICIOUS!  We already felt so relaxed.  We closed the restaurant down and I don't know if it was the time-difference or simply the excitement of adventure, but the kids were doing great!  



After filling our bellies, we returned to our hotel and tucked in. Goodnight first night, Vietnam!

Walking by the Saigon Opera House, so peaceful at night.

Found Our Way Back!

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