Friday, April 12, 2019

Planning a family ski trip to Niseko ... Japan?

I am the first to acknowledge that I am not at all qualified to write anything about Niseko.  We spent just under two weeks in Niseko.  When I wrote the blog post about Whistler we had been there five times.  That said, there is a definite lack of information out there about skiing Japan with kids so I am happy to throw my hat in the ring and share what I now know.

Why Niseko over any of the other Japanese ski resorts?

When I investigated skiing in Japan I literally googled Japanese ski resorts and started with that but after much deliberation I made the decision to go to Niseko as I felt that as the resort was very established and popular with the Australian market it was probably the best place for our first visit to Japan.  Shortly after I committed to that decision a lovely family friend got in touch and asked if we were interested in joining them for a trip to Niseko.  That sealed our decision, Niseko it was

Where to stay in Niseko?

The boys and other kids from The Aya playing out the front of the hotel.  (The Aya had a great supply of toboggans at reception. Just ask to borrow however many you need.)

Residence 102 at The Aya, this was our private ski in/out entrance,  From here it was less than 200m to the chair lift and not even 20 metres to the Go Snow ski school drop off.  

Niseko is comprised of four different ski resorts.  Annapuri, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Grand Hirafu.  We picked Grand Hirafu as our location as most of the restaruants that we wanted to checkout were in Grand Hirafu and also the hotel options in Grand Hirafu seemed the best.  We booked The Aya which is positioned in a fantastic ski in/out location at the base of the Grand Hirafu chairlift and it was excellent.  I could not fault the accommodation in any way.  We spent the first half of the holiday in one of the residences, sharing it with our friends, and it was amazing.  We had a view straight onto the base of the mountain from one side and from the other we gazed onto a beautiful snow covered grove of trees.  It also included a private onsen and our own ski in, ski out entry.  The ski room was enormous with lots of storage for all of the ski gear.    The walk in the morning from our apartment to drop the boys at ski school was literally less than 20 metres.  It really was a great location.  We were walking distance to the Seico Market, the local supermarket, Mick's (a fantastic bar and bottleshop), lots of fabulous restaurants and most importantly, the on site restaurant Ginger, had amazing coffee.   


The Aya really ticks all the boxes, it has a very funky vibe and great staff that well and truly went above and beyond.  As in the front desk staff helping our friend's 25 year old son clean up a vomit covered bedroom after one of the kid's came down with gastro and we were all out having dinner.  I was super impressed.  For our first time to Niseko, I think we really nailed it with the accommodation.  There were a couple of other hotels that looked like they might be worth  investigating also,  Skye Niseko looked great.  It is positioned a bit further up the mountain and is also ski in/out.  Ross and I had a lovely lunch at the deli here one day and from what I could see of the hotel it looked pretty amazing.  It would just be a slightly longer walk to the village if you wanted to go our for dinner and if your kids were attending regular ski school you would need to either ski them or walk them down to the ski school base.  The Vale is literally next door to the Aya, so again an amazing location in the heart of the village, ski in and out and it also had a very cool vibe about it.

These Villas belonged to the Aya and looked incredible. They were right outside our apartment and   they had the most glamourous young couples staying in them (it turns out that there is a lot of money in online gambling, who knew?) and if money was no object for me too, I would definitely love to stay in one of them one day!

Which Ski School?

Hamish and his friend that we travelled with waiting for their lesson to begin at Go Snow.

Niseko is different to every other resort that we have skied at with children.  There are multiple ski schools and they are all privately owned.  More importantly they are all associated with the different resorts that make up Niseko.  When you are picking your ski school definitely investigate whether it has a base at the resort that you are based at.  As we were staying in Grand Hirafu we picked Go Snow for our ski school.  This decision was also influenced by the recommendations of friends that had previously skied Japan.  My thoughts on the ski school are a little mixed.  Go Snow was in a great location, the meeting area for Yama Riders (8-14 year olds) is just outside the front of The Aya.  The meeting spot for Ninja Kids (3-6 year olds) is next door to The Aya's Ski Valet room so it was definitely the best for us as far as location.  The instructors were also great, Hamish and his mate that we were travelling with even had an instructor who attended the same school as me in Canberra, just 30 years after my time there!  It was more that the ski school levels are pretty lax and there were a real mix of abilities at the advanced level of the ski school program.  We had a fair few complaints from the boys at the end of the day that they had to spend a lot of time waiting on runs as the other two kids in their class were both unable to keep up and struggled with many of the runs.  It is also frustrating as the Ski School were not permitted to take kids aged under 13 years through the Gates (this is where all the good skiing is) and were limited to only skiing the main runs, which are very busy and pretty basic skiing. This rule also applies to private lessons unfortunately.  Definitely do some research before you book into any of the ski schools.  Confirm that the location is convenient and ask lots of questions.  One friend told us that the ski school she booked her daughter into refused to serve lunch as part of the day program, so they had to ski back to the ski school base, collect their daughter, feed her and then return her back to the ski school.   Go Snow did feed our kids and there were no food complaints!

Dressing the kids for skiing Japan

Hamish rugged up against the cold.

It was cold.  The coldest I have ever been skiing.  It is the only time Hamish has asked for glove liners.  Up the top of the mountain it averaged around -12C.  The village was around -6C.  There were times it was colder as the wind up high added a little something extra to the chill.  Hamish wore Ice Breaker as his base layer, added a merino wool top over that and then a light down vest under his ski jacket.  He has Kjus Ski Wear and he said that he never felt cold in his body, only his hands.  I ended up giving him my Ice Breaker merino wool glove inners in order to keep his hands warm as it was that cold.  He doesn't like the artificial hand warmers.  He also for the first time asked to wear a balaclava.  The cold/snow/ice on your face in Japan is quite something.  Do not send little ones out in Japan without their faces covered, buy either a merino wool or fleece balaclava to wear under their helmets.  I would say the same for the adults.  It was soooo cold.  I ended up wearing my Ice Breaker neck warmer as a sort of face mask as at times my face did not feel like it belonged to the rest of my body.  If you are planning to ski Japan often, I would investigate investing in proper heated gloves and boots.  The main thing is dress yourselves and the children in quality ski gear.  Skiing is an expensive enough holiday as it is, there is no point going all that way and not being able to get out and ski because you are too cold.

Our first day in Niseko and we seriously thought we had arrived in skiing heaven.  Incredible powder, bluebird skies, it was magical.  My friend Jennifer and I skied long after everyone else had retired for the day.  I am so glad we decided to stay out that day.  We were able to witness the most incredible pink glow over the resort as the sun set and we also made the most of the good weather.  It didn't take us long to realise that blue skies in Niseko are rarer than hen's teeth.

Ski Hire?

We prefer to hire our skis each season.  The boys do have their own skis and poles but we don't travel overseas with them.  Primarily because, no one wants to fiddle about with oversized baggage at the airport and also because you can then check out all the new demo skis each season as part of your ski hire package.  Another factor to consider when making the decision to travel with your ski gear is whether your travel insurance will cover the cost of any damage to your ski gear.  Ours does not and we have a comprehensive annual policy that includes skiing as part of the extras.  Our ski gear is not covered for damage on snow or in transit, so we have always opted to rent our skis (we do all travel with our own boots though).  These are the two options for Ski Hire in Grand Hirafu that we looked at:

Rhythm Snowsports

We used Rhythm  because when skiing in Australia that is where we have always hired our gear from.  It turned out to be a great decision as they appeared to be the biggest rental shop we saw in Niseko.  They also have a relationship with The Aya and have a small service desk in the Aya's ski valet room.  It turned out extra handy for me as one day when I went to pick up my skis after lunch I found that someone had replaced my poles with their significantly shorter ones.  The Rhythm staff member at The Aya was great and swapped them over immediately for me.  Another reason to hire from Rhythm is that there is a fantastic little coffee bar within the store that has excellent coffee.  Drinkable coffee is always a lovely and welcome surprise when travelling.  Rhythm delivered all our ski gear directly to the Ski Valet at The Aya, when we checked out we simply handed it all to the Rhythm staff member on duty in the Ski Valet room.  Super easy.

Larry Adler

Larry Adler's is basically a Sydney institution, there are multiple stores in Sydney and they always have gorgeous window displays.  The family we travelled with hired all their gear from Larry Adler who then had it all delivered to the Ski Valet at The Aya, but if you want to switch anything over you need to walk back to the Larry Adler store to do it.  Also, once you are done skiing you need to return the ski gear to the Larry Adler store.  It also definitely did not have the range of options that Rhythm had.

Where to eat?

We booked our trip to Niseko is July 2018, so a full 7 months before we travelled.  Friends that had travelled to Niseko in the past and also out wonderful travel agent advised us to make our dinner bookings as soon as possible. Luckily we heeded their advice as I did a quick ring/email around, got a few suggestions and then asked Ari from the Luxe Nomad to go ahead and make bookings.  Incredibly, 7  months before our trip several of the restaurants that had been highly recommended were already booked out.  Almost all the others refused to take a booking without a credit card.  Regardless, we had some absolutely amazing meals out.  These are the stand outs that I would recommend.


Kamimura is conveniently located in the heart of Grand Hirafu and was walking distance from The Aya and... it is probably the best degustation menu I have ever had. Ever.  It was literally astonishingly and mouth wateringly amazing.  If you go to Niseko and you enjoy food, please do make the effort to visit.  It wasn't a cheap meal but it was truly extraordinary.  All the dishes are made with locally sourced ingredients and they literally burst with flavour and texture.

Ross and I were lucky enough to meet Chef Yuichi Kamimura, what a treat. 

Other great local restuarants I would recommend include Abucha 2, Ezo Seafood, Rin and Yukitei.  All of these will require bookings months in advance.  As soon as you have booked your accommodation, book the restaurants you are interested in visiting.
Sea Urchin... so delicious!

Family travel tip... always pack a deck of UNO!

If you are in the mood for something other than Japanese,  we all loved The Barn.  Locally sourced ingredients and a fantastic location.  The staff here were amazing also.

The Barn by Odin, the building was inspired by traditional Hokkaido architecture and was very impressive.  Definitely worth a visit

  If you are in the mood for something cheap the food trucks are also fantastic and the kids will love it.  These are all parked in the heart of Hirafu Village and are right near the Seico Mart.  You can't miss them.

The food trucks offer a variety of cheap, fast and easy meal options.

If you are in the mood for some Apres-Ski, the best option we found was Mick's.  A fantastic little wine bar diagonally across the road from The Aya.  It is a wine bar and also a bottle shop.  We ended up having drinks here most evenings when we were intending just to buy a bottle of wine to go with dinner or a bottle of champagne for some apres-ski drinks.  It is just that kind of place, welcoming, fun and friendly.  That said, Mick's really does have an incredible selection of wine and also some great local beers and whiskies.


How to get to Niseko?

We flew ANA from Sydney to Tokyo and then Tokyo to Sapporo (New Chitose Airport).  From the airport our travel agent (The Luxe Nomad) booked us transfers with Sky Express.  We were met at the airport by a lovely New Zealander from Sky Express who helped us with all our gear and explained to the driver that we wanted to stop for food and toilet stops at around the half way point.  Our return transfers were also with Sky Express and the service was faultless.  There were 9 of us and we travelled in a mini bus  that was spacious and comfortable. Also, the seats had proper seatbelts.  Even better,  almost everyone had a nap at some point in the journey.

What to do on non ski days?

We spent one fabulous afternoon snow mobiling at Hanazono.  We booked a taxi to transport us all over to Hanazono and then the boys had a play on the kids snowmobiles (if they have snow mobile'd elsewhere I would skip this.  The "guides" were super strict and the boys got a little frustrated with it.) Afterwards though we all did a proper snow mobile tour and it was amazing.  We were unable to do the Panorama course as the visibility was very poor and the guides considered it too dangerous so as an alternative we did an extended tour of the Rabbit course and it was beauitiful and exhilarating.  The course takes you through what in summer is a golf course and must be incredibly beautiful to play golf at as it was quite spectacular even in winter.  We cruised along icy paths past groves of trees and picturesque mountain views and it was really lovely.  We all loved it, from the 7 year old to the 67 year old!

The boys also loved the snow tubing that was also available at Hanazono.  It is a very kid friendly tubing park and you could easily leave the kids to play for a couple of hours while you enjoy a peaceful lunch inside!

Do we recommend Niseko for a family ski holiday?

I have been asked this a few times and definitely have mixed feelings.

The positives about skiing Japan are:

The time zone is similar.  Realistically it probably took a similar amount of time to get to Niseko as it would to get to Whistler, the extra flight, the transport from New Chitose to Niseko all adds up, but the bonus of no significant jet lag is not to be disregarded.

It was amazing to experience Japanese powder, it really was something else and I have never experienced powder like it elsewhere.  I would also say that it is very pretty skiing Japan.  Some of the runs in the gated areas were exceptionally lovely.

Japanese food! So delicious.

Culturally it was fantastic to experience something different.

Not to say these are negatives, but they are things to consider when making the decision to ski Niseko (also please remember we only have been once and for a very brief time and they reflect only my experiences):

The mountain is busy.  The lift lines are like Perisher on a Saturday in school holidays.  The lift lines are also very poorly managed.  They do not have mountain staff organising the lines into groups of four for a chairlift of four and so on.  It is very frustrating to watch lift after lift go up the mountain with only 1 or 2 people on a 4 seater when there are a hundred keen skiers and boarders waiting in line.  This was the situation at all four of the resorts also unfortunately.

The main ski trails are also very crowded (and a little boring)  and there are a lot of beginner skiers.  More than I have ever seen anywhere.   The gated areas and off piste skiing however is brilliant and quiet but you are skiing at your own risk and there are costs associated with any recovery.  I would also advise that you store all the emergency phone numbers for the different resorts into your phone in case of any incidents.  We spent most of our time skiing in the gated areas and outside of the resort boundaries.  In two weeks of skiing, I only ever saw ski patrol go through a gated area once.  We did come across other skiers of course, but in some spots it was rare and for safety reasons I would only ski in the gates with an operating mobile phone and with another person.  This is all very problematic for family skiing.  If you have children that are accustomed to challenging skiing and have been skiing double black runs and couloirs elsewhere, they will be very bored in ski school in Japan as they are not permitted to ski through the gates.  (Even if you pay for private lessons as we discovered).  We ended up skiing with the boys most days so that they could actually enjoy some decent skiing.

All that powder does come at a price, it is an almost permanent white out.  Our first day skiing was a magical blue bird day and I am truly grateful we got to experience that one day of incredible skiing as every other day had next to no visibility.   It is very, very cold and it is almost always snowing.  Again, this is not ideal for families.  Hamish and I got horribly lost one day and I was frightened I would lose sight of him at some points and we are very experienced skiers.  This is something that I would definitely consider if you are beginner skiers as the legendary Niseko white-out is not for the faint hearted.  The cold and the lack of visibility would not be fun for little kids and I would also be fearful of putting them off skiing for life.  Skiing is not a cheap holiday and to go all that way and with that kind of expense and for the kids to hate it, would be so disappointing.

Niseko is also very expensive.  The entire trip cost us double a ski trip to Canada.  I am glad we went and experienced it but the expense was phenomenal.  We stayed in comparable hotel accommodation, at both destinations we eat out every night and we book the kids into ski school at both.  Niseko was easily double the cost if not more (sorry Ross!).

So would we go back?  I asked Ross this recently and he said he would go back for a boys trip with his mates but not with the family. I would have to agree.  I am very glad we went and experienced Niseko but I probably would not travel there as a family again.  I can see much more value skiing elsewhere in the world as it was so tremendously expensive. I know this will polarise some people, we know some very committed Niseko ski families, so I guess it truly depends upon what you want from a family ski holiday!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Vietnam - Halong Bay

The incredible view from Surprise Cave in Halong Bay

The next stop on our journey around Vietnam was a cruise around the magnificent Halong Bay.  This part of the holiday was the absolute highlight for me.  We left Hanoi for Halong Bay, not entirely sure how much we were going to enjoy Halong Bay.  We had left booking the cruise options until the very last minute, as no one could make their minds up about when and where to go.  One of the significant disadvantages of travelling with a large group is the need to take multiple peoples annual leave options and interests into consideration!  As we had deliberated for so long about where to go and what to do, we were unable to book into our preferred option for the Halong Bay part of the holiday.  We had intended to book a private cruise on a traditional Indochine Junk, which sounded divine.  Sadly, they were all booked and the next best option that we could find that could accommodate all of us was a 3 day cruise on Au Co 1.  We were all a bit unsure about what this experience would be like, none of us are cruise people and the idea of being locked away on a boat with 66 other tourists filled some of us with trepidation.  

Upon arrival at Tuan Chau Port, where our cruise was to depart from, we were ushered to the waiting area with our fellow travellers, all of us surreptitiously eyeballing each other.  A few other families, multiple young couples and so on,  then much to our collective horror, a large group of young men suddenly appeared.  All of them dressed in matching colourful Hawaiian shirts.  The communal gasp of horror was almost audible.  My sister in law and I locked eyes, both of us instantly imagining all sorts of potential raucous debauchery.  Shame on all of us though, the cruise was amazing, we loved every second of it.  Writing this today, months afterwards, I would still say that it is one of the best things that we have ever done as a family. The Hawaiian shirted louts? Well, they turned out to be a group of Norwegian engineering students that were finishing up a study tour of Asia and were a charming and polite group of young men, who turned out to be great fun to be around.   A true lesson in not making assumptions was learnt.

The boat was very clean and well equipped.  The food was great (no one got sick!), the seafood barbeque dinner in particular on the boats rooftop was memorable not only for the magical setting but also for the seafood feast.   The crew of the Au Co were fantastic, lots of fun, brilliant with kids and very talented at keeping everyone entertained.   There were plenty of different activities available onboard and it is important to note that there was no obligation to take part in any of these.  Indeed,  I wouldn't have known that some of them had even taken place had the boys not participated and provided me with feedback.  Activities that were offered on our cruise included kayaking tours of Ba Trai Dao area and also Dark and Bright Lagoon.  A traditional bamboo boat ride during which we actually saw some Cat Ba Langurs playing.  Apparently we were extremely lucky to see these as there are fewer than 60 remaining.  Ross and Hamish were able to paddle very close to them in their kayak.  I tried to take photos but couldn't manage it with my phone unfortunately.  In the evenings the boys busied themselves squid fishing off the side of the boat with the crew.  Every morning there was a tai chi lesson on the deck, Hamish, my nephew and my Mum all did this together and enjoyed it!  There were cooking lessons and fruit carving lessons before dinner.  All in all, if you wanted to be busy there was plenty to do,  if you just wanted to lie on the deck drinking cocktails and soaking in the wonder of Halong, that was equally possible!

Nick on the top deck of the Au Co 1

Every evening we enjoyed sunset cocktails on the rooftop of the Au Co and marvelled at the wonder surrounding us

Activities of note included a visit to Surprise Cave in Lan Ha Bay.  The cave was enormous, made up of three separate chambers, all filled with delicate stalactites and stalagmites.  It was quite a hike both up to the cave and then back down again and it is not something that I would  recommend unless you are reasonably fit and confident on your feet.  We all enjoyed the exercise though and it was well worth the walk to enjoy the magnificent view from the exit of the cave.  Our visit to the cave was very early in the morning and the caves were empty as we walked through.  I have since heard that it can be chaotically busy later in the day when the day boats visit Halong so that is something to consider when tossing up between an overnight cruise visit to Halong or a day trip.  

Inside one of the immense chambers of Surprise Cave.  The two tiny figures are Hamish and my nephew who ran about inside the cave having the time of their lives.

The largest chamber inside Surprise Cave is the last before you exit.  
The Cave was used by the Vietcong Army as a hide out during the Vietnam War and it was this aspect of the caves that probably fascinated the boys the most as well as the opportunity to have a run around.   For the rest of us it was a great opportunity to get some exercise and I would also recommend visiting the caves just to see the view from the caves exit.

Bikes lined up in preparation for the tour of Viet Hai Village

Another amazing Halong Bay experience organised by the Au Co crew was an afternoon spent exploring Viet Hai village on Cat Ba Island by bicycle.  Well we all cycled to the village and Nick who was training for NSWPSSA Cross Country ran the 6km to the village, much to the amusement of everyone else on the cruise and the villagers.  He was able to keep pace with us all also, pretty impressive in the heat and humidity!

Viet Hai village until recently was completely self sufficient and essentially isolated from the rest of the world only accessible by rough tracks through the jungle.   It is home to 80 families and is now open to a small amount of tourism.  We were permitted to visit as many of the Au Co Crew grew up in the village and the village is now the primary supplier of vegetables and fruit to the Au Co.  We were lucky enough to be given a tour of the sustainable and completely organic garden beds that supplied the majority of the food we were enjoying at every meal!

The "Au Co Organic Vegetable Gardens" on Cat Ba Island

After the tour of the gardens we were then permitted to explore the village and visit the small school.  Once again, we were the only tourists to be exploring the village and the whole experience felt like such a privilege. Chatting to the locals who all adored the boys and Hamish and my nephew loved an impromptu soccer game with some of the local boys.  The cycle ride to the village itself was beautiful, passing through tropical jungle and fields of grazing animals , there were a few hills but nothing too challenging and all the children managed the ride easily.  

Soccer truly is the worlds number one sport!  Hamish playing soccer with the boys of Viet Hai village that was cut off from the rest of the world until relatively recently.  

Halong Bay is incredibly beautiful,  the water is so still and the impressive limestone island formations so extraordinary that you truly experience moments of breathtaking wonder.  Be warned though, the rubbish in the water is appalling.  The crew explained to us that most of the rubbish floats down to Halong from China and that almost all the professionally operated cruise ship companies are now sponsoring rubbish collection programs.  Even so the amount of rubbish is extraordinary and there is only so much that the cruise ship companies and local people can manage.  If any readers are lucky enough to visit Halong Bay and experience the serenity and yet striking beauty of this World Heritage listed site please consider writing to UNESCO and lobbying for the protection of the people whose livelihood depends upon the cleanliness of the water, those that inhabit the floating villages and simply for the protection of the environment.

Tips for Halong Bay:

 - Pack a few warm clothes, the evenings out on the deck were quite cool and we were literally layering clothes on in order to keep warm.  The days were beautiful though and the water was lovely and refreshing. (Yes we swam despite the rubbish and no one ended up sick or acquired google worthy skin infections!)
- Make sure you pack a waterproof camera or a gopro to take photos of kayaking expeditions.
- Book well in advance and only with a reputable company, we have heard a few horror stories about overbooked ships and shonky cruise ship operators.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Vietnam - Hanoi

The April school holidays were spent exploring Vietnam and Cambodia and it is almost certainly the best holiday I have ever been on.  I find myself thinking about the many experiences we had and the incredible places we visited often.  We travelled with my parents and my brother and his family as a celebration for my Mum's 70th birthday and I admit, I was terrified before we left that it was going to be a nightmare.  I literally had sleepless nights imagining all the potential family dramas but in the end it was absolutely fine.  There is a lot to be said for multi-generational travel actually. 

Our holiday began in Hanoi.  We left the day school finished and I felt so disorganised before we left.  It was the least preparation I had done for any holiday.  I needn't have worried though, the company we used to plan the holiday were fantastic and Vietnam is a fabulous country to explore  with children. The Vietnamese love kids, somewhere whilst on this holiday I read that the Vietnamese adore children as they believe it brings them closer to God, and they really do seem to cherish children.  From the guides we had in each city, to the hotel staff, to people on the street and in shops,  they all adored the children and were happy to chat with them and indulge them.  Vietnam really is a fabulous family holiday destination.

Our first morning we explored the streets near the hotel. A short walk from our hotel was the lovely Hoan Kiem Lake.  We wandered around the lake in the early morning bustle of the city.  As we walked my dad was telling us that the last time he was in Hanoi, which was in the late 1980s, there was still the wing of a B52 bomber poking jauntily out of one of the city lakes, left as a constant reminder to the people of the catastrophic effects of war.  The boys of course delighted in hearing this story.

These photos don't really illustrate the activity that was taking place all around us.  It was very early in the morning as we walked and there were people doing tai chi classes, hawkers selling their wares, shop fronts opening, people on their way to work, joggers and cyclists all around us competing for space along the walkway. Yet, at the same time it was as incredibly peaceful as these photos suggest.

Highlights of our time in Hanoi included exploring the bustling French quarter by cyclo.  We all had our own cyclo driver and I was the last to leave.  My driver was holding the most enormous cane and terracotta pipe and as we pulled out he had a long suck of whatever it was that he was smoking and then he was off, we explored the "36 streets"  of the old quarter, him pedaling my 180cm tall frame around and I was eventually the first back to the hotel.  Love to know what my guy was smoking!

Mostly the drivers went in single file as we pedaled around the streets so it was easy to keep an eye on those kids that were alone with their cyclo driver.  The youngest two both travelled with an adult much to their disgust.  The oldest one, looked like a little Maharajah in his cyclo!  We all loved this method of exploring the city and I would recommend the experience to all.  I was able to sit back and relax and really admire the fabulous old buildings and watch the passing traffic, soaking it all in properly.

Another highlight from Hanoi was our hotel.  Most of the hotels we stay in are amazing but I only ever include details about the hotel if I think that they are truly unique or special.  Our hotel in Hanoi was definitely worthy of a mention.  We stayed at the Sofitel Legend Metropole and it was stunning.  The hotel is located just moments from the lake which was fantastic for us, Nick was (and still is) training for some up coming cross country races so he was able to jog around the lake safely every morning without us being concerned for his safety.  He is 11 and quite mature though.   It is also walking distance to the old town.  The hotel itself is stunning, with French Colonial architecture and is soaked in history.  Jane Fonda stayed at the hotel during her controversial trip to Vietnam in the 1970s, Graham Greene stayed at the hotel whilst writing The Quiet American.  W. Somerset Maugham was once a guest and wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour at the hotel.  I loved our stay here, both for the fabulous ambience and the history.  I highly recommend it.

Other activities in Hanoi included a visit to Ho Chi Minh's Tomb, it was here that I really felt a sense of Vietnam's Communist ruling party.  The vast Ba Dinh Square where the mausoleum is located and where Ho Chi Minh delivered his Declaration of Independence speech in 1945, really does have echoes of China's Tiananmen Square.

Two of those tiny figures in the distance are Hamish and my nephew.  There is something about wide open spaces and the desire to run for small boys.  The boys also enjoyed observing a changing of the guard ceremony which was done with all the necessary pomp and circumstance.

If in Hanoi I would also recommend a visit to The Temple of Literature, the home of Vietnam's first university.  It is over a 1000 years old and home to the UNESCO heritage listed Stone Seles.  Stone tablets that record exam results from the Le and Mac dynasties (1142 - 1779).  Ha, that might motivate the students of today to study harder knowing that their exam results were to be carved into stone and then added to the UNESCO world heritage list! The boys were nonplussed by these though and much more impressed with what they deemed to be the biggest Taiko drum they had ever seen.  (Nick is in a Taiko drum group at school).  The Temple is a lovely place to visit, it is surrounded by high walls and inside has a peaceful, tranquil feel away from the chaotic streets of Hanoi just outside the boundary walls,

The only museum we visited in Hanoi was the Museum of Ethnology, here my Mum whipped out notebooks and pencils for the boys.  One was very into it, one lukewarm and the other blankly refused.  I loved my Mum's idea of the boys documenting their holiday with drawings and written notes and wish that they had agreed to participate with this but sadly no.  Whenever they did agree to document anything the Vietnamese people around us were fascinated by their drawings.

My last recommendation of things to do and particularly with children is to attend a Vietnamese lacquerware workshop.  We watched with interest as the artists began with a wooden base, then painted or decorated the wood with an inlay of egg shells or mother of pearl.  The boys even got to try their hand at a few of the different stages involved in creating a lacquered work of art.

Hanoi was a wonderful introduction to Vietnam and it is well worth a visit, if only for a visit to the fabulous Sofitel Legend Metropole for a drink at the bar and then a cyclo ride around the old quarter.  I will follow up in the next few days or so with the next leg of our holiday.  The magical and magnificent Halong Bay. 


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