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I was a bit “pressured” to provide a review of the Ha Long Bay cruise that we took by one of the staff members aboard the La Regina Grand cruise that we took. Since I find those create a kind of biased view and also because it was difficult for us to find useful reviews when trying to make reservations, I took the time to write a lengthy and unbiased review that I posted later instead of succumbing to the pressure. I’m reposting that—with some additional edits—here.

Overall, we enjoyed the 2D/1N cruise with included transfers to/from Hanoi. Our room was comfortable for a family of three, which included two twins combined and a single twin for our child as well as a separate soaking tub and large walk-in shower. The floor to ceiling windows and balcony were also nice touches. Not knowing what to expect, we thought the food on the cruise was decent at all of the meals — not unlike eating in the main dining room of large cruise ships — selection though was more limited at buffets and main meals (although it looked the the cruise line did a good job of handling dietary needs). Likewise, the prices and quality for drinks were reasonable, especially as guests are a captive audience once aboard the ship. The staff were all friendly and competent.

To give you a sense of the day: 

We departed our hotel in Hanoi around 8:30am. We arrived at the port around 11:15am, with the journey including a 30 minute “comfort stop” at a pearl shop which was only a few moments from the cruise terminal. That’s a waste of time and also less than helpful for anyone on the 2 hour ride between Hanoi and Ha Long. 

Once at the terminal, check-in was efficient but a bit chaotic with departing passengers and arriving passengers transiting about the same time. After waiting about 30 minutes, we boarded another ship (larger than the ship’s own tender) to transfer to the actual cruise ship. The journey to the area where the cruising vessels are anchored took about 45 minutes and was reasonably scenic.  

Upon arrival (around 1:00pm), we were sent to the lunch buffet while the ship sailed to our first destination. After lunch, we were given access to our staterooms and time to prepare for the first outdoor activity involving either kayaking (2 people, row yourself) or taking a bamboo boat (6-8 people, local rows you) out through a cave and back. This was very enjoyable and took about an hour transiting from the ship to tender and then spending ~40 minutes doing the activity. After this, the ship moved again to its overnight anchorage spot where swimming off of the back of the vessel was made available as an option before happy hour (5:30-6:30pm), a cooking demo, and dinner (seating at 7:00pm). In the evening, there was a squid fishing activity that we skipped — otherwise, not a lot of post dinner entertainment options. Wifi on the boat wasn’t great either, but I didn’t get good mobile data service on LTE speed from our overnight anchorage. 

Morning could start early with the primary activity being a 7:15am departure from the boat to shore, followed by a 15-20 minute (each way) bus ride to a cave. Return to the ship by 9:00am for check-out followed by a brunch buffet at 9:30. Then it’s a repeat of the prior process with a transfer from the mooring location to another vessel for the journey back to the harbor. We arrived around 11:15 back on land and were immediately whisked to our waiting transfer van (great!) but then wasted about 45 minutes driving around Ha Long city to pick up another family at a different cruise terminal (less good). In the end, we returned to the hotel in Hanoi around 2:30pm. 

Our cruise had a rather diverse set of fellow travelers from Asia (including India), Europe, and North America in groups of various sizes (couple to large family gatherings). This obviously varies by sailing; just know that the cultural differences might be pronounced (one large group on this particular sailing was rather boisterous). 

If you have the time (we did not), I’d recommend taking a 3 day / 2 night cruise instead of the single overnight — there’s just a lot of time spent on travel logistics vs. actual cruising on the single overnight voyage. I’d also try to get away from the armada of cruise ships to more secluded experiences. We were clearly on the “tourist trail” not “off the beaten path” (or whatever the nautical equivalent of those are). That said, we’re pleased to have both done the trip to Ha Long Bay and sailed aboard Le Regina cruise lines. I wouldn’t call it a “luxury” experience as described, but it was perfectly serviceable and met our expectations.

Days #11-15: Vietnam

We landed in Vietnam early on Monday morning and went through the usual airport arrivals process — all very smooth with our newly minted eVisas (which I almost forgot to get!). Our driver met us at the designated place and time. We proceeded to drive into Hanoi in what I have to assume was rush hour traffic, which wasn’t very bad at all.

First impressions were positive — well ordered traffic and good infrastructure. As we made our way into the historic city center, Libby and I grew a bit more apprehensive of my hotel choice as the world seemed a little grittier — perhaps more “elegant decay” a la Venice — with the addition of all manner of street vendors and narrow, crowded lanes. But, really, our concerns were for naught. The location was fantastic. The streets were vibrant. The hotel (Hanoi Pearl)—while not a Ritz-Carlton—was a fantastic value, perfectly located, and service as personalized and good as we’ve experienced anywhere.

Since the rooms were so affordable, I splurged on paying for an extra night on both ends to give us a guaranteed early check-in and late check-out. This also entitled us to breakfast, which is what we did first after our overnight flight. We then took a nap, grabbed a drink on the roof deck lounge, and prepared for our evening tour / dinner featuring the street foods of Vietnam.

Wow! What can I say about the cuisine?!? We wandered the neighborhood (probably never more than 5-10 mins from the hotel) eating all kinds of new and delish dishes. Unlike Chinese, Japanese, or even Thai food, our exposure to Vietnamese cuisine had been limited. Now we’ve been spoiled by the subtlest and most flavorful pho I could imagine, delighted by all manner of spring rolls, eaten bun cha (with a beer) like Obama and Bourdain, munched on a delightful banh mi que, and innumerable other dishes.

Tuesday started with a walking tour that I booked of the Old and French Quarter, which started by meeting at the local cathedral before heading to Loading T’s for coffee (amazing!) and a chat about Vietnamese coffee and history. As an American of our generation (born after the end of the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War), I found our expectations of and beliefs about Vietnam to be refracted through and colored by a lens of history that is very different than that of the Vietnamese people — not unlike our first experience to Eastern Europe in visiting Prague. For Americans, the Vietnam War was a seminal event for at least one generation that has rippled through our culture and politics to this day. For Vietnamese, the American War was but one of a 50 years long string of conflicts (involving at least the French, Japanese, French again, Americans, civil war, Chinese) and not even the worst of their experiences (that distinction goes to the famine during the Japanese occupation in WWII). I’m no expert on this subject, but it feels like the country has sort of “moved on” from it all with a sort of communism/capitalism that works for them.

Anyway, we cut the walking tour a bit short as Emerson’s stomach was upset — nothing serious — probably more to do with time and dietary changes versus any sort of real illness. By the late afternoon, everyone was up for seeing the delightful Thang Long Water Puppet show. Although performed entirely in Vietnamese, we were able to “follow the plot” of the various scenes and enjoyed the show more than expected.

Wednesday and Thursday were basically dedicated to Ha Long Bay, which is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. I have a separate post reviewing that cruise experience, which outlines it in detail. Overall, it’s worth the visit, but I’d suggest spending more time there and trying to get a bit further off the beaten track (or whatever the nautical equivalent of that would be — I kept thinking “this would be so much better on our own boat”). Back in Hanoi, we replicated our usual pattern of coffee at Loading T’s followed by a happy hour cocktail at the roof-top lounge.

Dinner was at a local Vietnamese place that had excellent reviews on Google — it was good but not as much as the street food / sidewalk vendors. One lesson we learned: staff in some Vietnamese establishments really pimp for online reviews, ask for you to mention them specifically by name, and actually tend to hover over you while writing the review on the spot. As a result, I would approach any tour/restaurant/activity with a seemingly disproportionately high number of excellent reviews with skepticism, especially if they repeatedly and consistently call out the same staff members by name.

On Friday, we were on our own and explored the Old and French Quarters. The primary highlight was a visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which outlined the role and contribution of women not just to the family and agriculture but also socially, politically, and militarily. Amongst certain ethnic communities within Vietnam the cultural is matriarchal, but I got the sense that equality for women is reasonably deeply rooted in at least modern (post-colonial) Vietnam.

After the museum, we had a late lunch at a local microbrewery (this seems to be a global phenomenon) with excellent beer and food, followed by a final trip to Loading T’s for their delicious cinnamon-flavored coffee with evaporated milk, and a stroll through the Old Quarter. We returned to the hotel to finish packing, get cleaned up, check-out, and leave for the airport around 9pm.

Today’s box score: +1 country (Vietnam)

Days #8-10: Qatar

Friday was basically just a travel day. We had an early wake up call in order to catch the 5:10 Heathrow Express from Paddington. The train journey, transfer to terminal 4, check-in, security, boarding, etc. all went smoothly. We were a little delayed as we deplaned at least one passenger for reasons that are entirely unclear and then had to conduct a security sweep of the cabin and off board their checked luggage. The flight was otherwise smooth and mostly empty on Qatar’s giant A380, which is a plane that I have always enjoyed flying on. It was also the first time on Qatar Airways, which worked well despite our lack of status and flying economy — nothing special really, but totally competent.

Arrival in Qatar was equally smooth. We were actually only a few of the handful of passengers to actually enter the country from our flight — most were simply transiting here to another flight. Thus, no real waiting at immigration, baggage claim, or for a taxi to our hotel. Nice!

Speaking of our hotel, I booked us into the Marriott Marquis City Center. Due to my status and lack of guests, we were upgraded to a very large, top-floor, 2 bedroom suite (good), but we lost access to the washer/dryer combo (bad) that I’d planned on using in the 1 bedroom residence unit that I did book. The hotel was attached to a large though not luxurious mall, which was actually practical for us throughout our time in Qatar and gave more of a sense of local life (which for the vast majority of residents probably doesn’t involve double parking their Rolls in the valet line to dash in to pick up their new Patek Philippe).

We ate dinner at a place called the Twisted Olive on the ground floor of a nearby office tower. It had excellent reviews, served breakfast all day, but seemed dubious when almost nobody else was there in the evening. nonetheless, we trusted the reviews and were very pleased with our respective meals that were quite wide ranging (I, for example, had an Asian-inspired version of hot chicken and waffles with the waffles substituted for French toast — delish!).

On Saturday, we grabbed breakfast in the Marriott’s Executive Lounge and then took an Uber to the majestic—truly swoon-worthy—I.M. Pei designed Museum of Islamic Art. It was an interesting look at various forms and expressions of art across the Islamic world over the centuries. From their, we taxied to the Place Vendome Mall, which was a fairly typical mix of (mostly) high-end international retail brands and a variety of global dining concepts that seem to make up Middle Eastern malls. To that end, we ate at Eataly (a sort of mid-to-late afternoon “linner”) and bought some Birkenstocks. After sundown (when it was cooler — relatively speaking), we took an Uber to Souk Waqif to soak up the ambience of what was one of the nicest, cleanest, and most interesting souks we have ever visited.

Sunday was our final day in Qatar. We made it a fairly leisurely day with a later than usual start and allowing time to prepare for our evening flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. We thought about going to the modern art museum, but we ultimately settled on visiting the National Museum of Qatar. The NMoQ traces the natural, cultural, and political history of Qatar from pre-modern to contemporary events. Impressions: it’s unsurprisingly a difficult physical environment to live in that’s been heavily influenced by its proximity to the sea, external forces (including the British, Saudis, and Bahrainis) often attempted to control Qatar and its people, and some of those tensions remain to the present (most notably the very big deal—in Qatar, I only vaguely recall the event in US media coverage—of the blockade of Qatar imposed by a Saudi-led coalition starting in 2017).

Departing from Qatar was an easy journey through the airport despite my lack of status / premium seats and equally uneventful aboard a fairly full Qatar Airways B787 (first time for L&E on that aircraft type. The flight departed around 8pm and being both fairly short relative to our later than usual bedtime and filled with small, screaming children wasn’t especially restful.

All in all, glad to have visited Qatar and added this country to our list.

Today,’s box score: +1 country (Qatar)

Days #2-7: London

We arrived in London on Sunday very well rested thanks to the late night departure from Tampa and the flat beds in Virgin’s Upper Class. Passport control, luggage collection, train into Paddington — all very easy. Our hotel room wasn’t ready. So, we grabbed a snack and drinks at Vagabond.

After that we headed off to the National Galley (renovations ongoing — so a limited collection seemed to be on display) to look at some art for a while before grabbing a dim sum dinner at a family favorite in Soho, Duck and Rice (where we haven’t been together in years).

Monday started with breakfast at Ole & Steen (cinnamon social — yes, please!) and was followed by a trip to the Wallace Collection for a dog art show and tour around their permanent collection. Libby and I hadn’t been to the Wallace in years, and I forgot just how fine of a museum it really is. Very much worth the visit. We spent the afternoon wandering about the West End — some shopping, sightseeing, and beers / lunch split between a Canadian pub (poutine time) and Indian street food at the Seven Dials food hall. In the evening, we went to see Once On This Island at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre — where both the show and venue were enjoyable and certainly worth the discounted ticket price.

Tuesday saw us taking a train out to Hampton Court Palace, which Emerson really wanted to visit last November. We’ve been here more times than I can count, and I can’t say much has changed since our last visit (maybe the addition of the Chocolate Room?), but it was a pleasant visit on a beautiful day. Indeed, the weather all week was cool-ish for Floridians but often sunny and without rain — just great for us! The other daily highlight (especially for Libby) was seeing Aspects of Love starring Michael Ball. The show clearly has issues given modern sensibilities and seems—as many reviewers put it—kind of “daft,” but the music itself was enjoyable and Michael Ball (along with most of the cast) gave a great performance.

On Wednesday, we started the day with a group walking tour of the West End theaters, which turned out to be just us and the guide, Charlie, on this particular day. Admittedly, we know this area of London pretty well and also have been to many of theaters over the years. However, the tour provided more color and richness (origin of phrases. theatre names — insights into early theatre history and personalities) — even for a theatre buff like Libby. After the tour we grabbed a quick, small lunch of some dim sum at Red Farm followed by book shopping at the Waterstone’s in Piccadilly and a visit to the Royal Academy for a small but excellent show of African-American outsider art. For dinner, we went to Hoppers in SoHo — a recent find for me after a visit to the outpost in King’s Cross with excellent Sri Lankan food (best thought of as a spicy variant of Indian cuisine).

Thursday was our final day in London. We started the day without firm plans other than seeing Rose, a one woman play that’s received excellent reviews, in the afternoon. Ultimately, we opted for breakfast at Ole & Steen (cinnamon social, again… yum!), followed by a visit to Daunt Books in Marylebone (somehow a first for us — awesome curation and organization by country for travelers like us), and a visit to the Tate Modern where we saw a two person show featuring Mondrian (fav of mine) and af Klint (admittedly someone I was unfamiliar with). Mondrian was enjoyable but not revelatory — his work and story is so familiar at this point to me. Like a recent show I saw at the Guggenheim during a business trip to New York that featured Gego, af Klint was thrilling as a discovery of yet another wildly talented female artist finally enjoying wider recognition and place of prominence in the “Art World.” Admittedly, af Klint’s story was complicated by her instructions to not publicly show her most significant work until 20 years after her death. However, once given the opportunity, some museums passed on acquiring her works (even as a donation) — I’m sure they’re regretting that decision now.

As previously mentioned, we saw Rose, which can only be described as an amazing performance and theatrical triumph. The story is of a Ukrainian jewish woman, Rose, and her life surviving her upbringing, life in World War II Poland, loss of family, unsuccessful exodus to Israel, and a rebuilt life American. The entire production consists of her relating this story and all of the associated emotions—for almost two and a half hours—from a bench while sitting shiva. Simply amazing.

Dinner on Thursday was early-ish at Pizzeria Mozza, a London outpost of Nancy Silverton’s Californian institution. As expected from the founder of La Brea Bakery, the food was of extremely high quality with an exceptional crust. That said, I probably wouldn’t rush back just because Californian-style pizza isn’t my favorite take on pizza—I’m a snob for NY-style, classic pepperoni thin crust not inventive, circular flatbreads—and there are just too many great options in London to eat pizza when I’m in town.

Returning to the world…

Greetings ya’ll!

It’s been a while since my last post here.

I’m writing this from the sort of sad generic “international lounge” at Tampa International Airport. We’re heading to London tonight in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class cabin (my Delta SkyPesos still have some value).

As some of you know, I started a new (now old) job in 2018 that had me traveling very frequently internationally from mid-2018 until March 2020 when the world shut down for COVID.

Along the way, I started losing enthusiasm for this project. Too much travel / activity. Too little time (or desire) for writing.

We did, however, travel to China in late 2019 when seemingly the biggest concern was protests in Hong Kong. I still have a post from the summer of 2019 (a second trip to London) and others from the China trip that are in “draft” mode at this moment. I plan to edit and post them in the coming days as I have time during our current adventure.

I’ll also fill in the gaps in 2020 (nothing other than trips to our house in North Carolina), 2021 (a round trip journey from Florida to New England by car), and 2022 (when we traveled to Canada and around the Great Lakes region, as well as our first overseas trip as a family since the pandemic started). We also managed to visit NYC a couple of times, travel to our place in NC, and also buy a boat (finally!) earlier this year.

This year is a real return to the world. Emerson is now 13! Probably closing in on the 157 count too (I need to do the math). And, so it’s time for another quinquennial adventure around the world — our 3rd time circumnavigating the globe as a family.

Pretty awesome!

To top it off, we plan to head back to South America and Antarctica around Christmas.

Anyway, I’m back… now let’s get going.

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