We hope you’ve had the best Christmas possible, and that this new year will be full of happiness, love and exciting projects. We have recently come back to Thailand, and to our little van that was waiting for us at the airport… we missed it so much!
But let’s start by the beginning… We arrived in Thailand for the first time from Cambodia around a month ago, and spent here fifteen days, visiting the north of the country. Our visa waiver ended at the end of December, so we decided to spend the Christmas holidays in Vietnam. We took a flight there because it is very hard to come into the country with a car. So this is why we had to leave our adored van at the Bangkok airport, and for the first time do some backpacking. We took two bags: one for clothes, one for toys.
North of Thailand
- The culture: Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet
These three cities host some of the most impressive ruins in Thailand. Ayutthaya has in our opinion the most spectacular temples, but they are all surrounded by the new city, which spoils a bit their enchantment. On the contrary, the old city of Sukhothai is located far away from the new town, and has the most magical surroundings: forests and plains. Kamphaeng Phet is lesser known but it still has very impressive remains. Except for its main temple, which is surrounded by a road, the other temples are hidden amongst a forest of white stunning trees. You’ll find very few tourists in these three sites, and you’ll enjoy discovering them as if you were walking in a park. We loved their relaxed atmosphere.
- The cities: Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a big but very tranquil city that can be visited in a couple of days. We really enjoyed walking around the old town, stopping in the many beautiful temples and shopping in the markets. The Sunday market is great and it has good food, but can get very crowded.
- The countryside: Pai and Mae Hong Son
What we loved the most about our trip to Pai and Mae Hong Son was the road that took us there and back to Chiang Mai. The road is known for its enormous amount of curves (1864 between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son), and the views are breathtaking. We didn’t fall under the charm of Pai, as we found the town to be too touristy, but we really loved Mae Hong Son, it is a beautiful and very relaxing town.
- School resources and our first Thai donation
In Chiang Mai, we spent a few days in Welcome More, a very nice hotel with an even nicer owner, Aye. She helped us during all of our stay to find places to visit, and on our last day, she took us to a shop on the outskirts of the city, where she bought a big pack of school resources (notebooks, pencils, erasers, etc.) for the kids that we would visit in Thailand.
A few days later, we had the opportunity to deliver the first batch of school resources. On the beautiful road between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai, we found a small school hidden in a village a few hundred meters outside the main road. We spoke to their teacher, a young woman who was very happy to receive us. We packed the toys while the children were playing on the courtyard, and brought them together with a few packs of notebooks and other school supplies.
We had a great time with the children, who loved their new toys, and spent quite a bit of time playing with them until they had to go back to class… The Frisbee was the star of all the presents; the kids loved playing with it (and Ludo too!).
- The food
- Rush Lush Café Studio (Ayutthaya): we had both an amazing breakfast (really good English muffin) and lunch (also great Sukhothai noodles) here. The place looks really cool, and is full of books and movies!
- The Hideout (Chiang Mai): this café has the best French toast that we had ever tasted (we came back to Chiang Mai after visiting Mae Hong Son just to have it again) and amazing smoothies.
- Woo café (Chiang Mai): it’s a trendy restaurant, with really good food – be careful, it can be really spicy!
- ‘Fun’ facts
One thing that really surprised us when visiting Thailand was to see the cult of personality imposed by the king. There are photos of him everywhere: in the smallest shops in hidden villages, on the highway, in big resorts and in Bangkok’s malls… and even on the internet! When we spent a few days working in Bangkok we managed to see the new Star Wars film in the cinema. Just before the film, some music started playing, and everyone suddenly stood up “to pay respect to the king” (as we read on the screen, which subsequently showed pictures of him at different times of his life). Thailand is one of the most developed countries in South East Asia, so this was really a shock for us!
Christmas in Vietnam
- The culture: Hue
Hue was the ancient capital of the Nguyen dynasty, and the Hue Citadel, or Forbidden City, was for us the cultural highlight of Vietnam. We spent about three hours walking around its extensive grounds, of which we loved most the west side, with its stunning temples, palaces and the most beautiful mosaics we had seen. Hue is also know for its royal tombs, constructed by the emperors in preparation for their own deaths, the Thien Mu pagoda, overhanging the Perfume river, and Ho Quyen Arena, which was used in ancient times for fights between elephants and tigers. If you don’t have much time, choose to visit the citadel (a must-do in Vietnam), then the pagoda, and maybe one of the tombs.
- The cities: Hoi An and Hanoi
Hoi An was one of our favourite towns in the world tour, and second in South East Asia, after Luang Prabang. All over the city, you can enjoy the splendid architecture, which showcases a mix of indigenous, Japanese, Chinese and later colonial European influences. You can walk around the city during the day, and visit some of the heritage sites (ancient houses, temples, the stunning Japanese bridge, etc.), and stop to buy some beautiful handicrafts in the art Craft Manufacturing Shop. But the city becomes even more beautiful at night, when the lanterns that it is famous for are lit. If you have enough time, you should get a bicycle, to visit the countryside, and stop at the beach.
Hanoi is a great city to visit, even if its cultural sites aren’t the most impressive. The Hoa Lo prison is worth a look, as well as the Military History Museum, which hosts many war vehicles. You’ll discover the importance of “uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh) in his mausoleum and complex, and in the Thang Lo citadel. The Temple of Literature is probably one of the most well preserved monuments in the city. But what you’ll really love about the city is its buzzing old quarter around the Hoan Kiem Lake, full of old temples, shops, art and especially street food (for which Hanoi is very famous). Look out for ancient, but half-destroyed, houses above the traffic and electricity cables. If you have some extra time, go see the famous Water Puppet Show, or relax at the Hanoi Social Club, a really cool café. At night get a drink at the stylish Tadioto bar, where we spent New Years Eve.
- The countryside and seaside: Ninh Binh and Halong Bay
Ninh Binh is quite an ugly town located about 100km south of Hanoi. So as soon as you get there, rent a motorbike and start exploring its surroundings. Tam Coc, also known as the inland Halong Bay offers a very nice but ‘prefabricated’ river tour to see the spectacular limestone mountains and water caves. To be honest, we enjoyed more our motorcycle tour around Trang An’s mountains and villages.
We had low expectations about Halong Bay, as most people told us it is ‘too touristy’ to be worth a visit. And while it is indeed more touristic that Ninh Binh, Halong Bay’s landscape of limestone mountains remains much more impressive. In fact, even compared to similar sights in China (Guilin and Zhangjiajie), this was our favourite. Our recommendation would be to take a small overnight cruise, as it will drive you away from the masses of day tourist, plus a small boat ensures that the visits won’t be crowded. We chose AClass cruises, which was quite decent and reasonably priced.
- Bringing some Christmas joy to kids in Vietnam
This year it was for both of us the first time that we spent Christmas away from our families, so we decided to do something special, a TOY donation! We were lucky: our host in Hue worked in the city hall, and helped us to find a school. Since it was our first TOY donation without a van, we had to put all the pre-packed toys in one of our backpacks and take a motorbike to find the school.
We drove around for about half an hour without finding the school, until we found someone who offered to take us there. She climbed up on a motorcycle and we followed her up to the school. We arrived just in time, half an hour before the school finished. One of the teachers in the school spoke a little bit of English, so it was easy to explain to her our project, and when we went to the class to give the toys, she told the kids about our adventure. Christmas is obviously not celebrated in Vietnam, but it’s never a bad moment to receive presents! We played with the children until the school bell rang and they ran to their bicycles to go home. It was really a wonderful Christmas day!
Only a few days later, another hotel manager, this time in Ninh Binh, helped us prepare our next toy donation. At the beginning she planned to do it in her home village, but since it was too far, and one of the boys in the hotel knew of a place where we could go in Ninh Binh, the plans changed. The place was the Social Protection Centre of the city, which hosts both orphaned children and old people.
We went there early in the morning, accompanied by the boy from the hotel, and were received by the director of the Centre. She told us that all the children were at school in the town, but that we could go give the presents there, as they all studied together. The school was in a tiny village in Trang An, and there too we were very well received by the principal and two other teachers. Our ‘guide’ told them all about our project, and one of the teachers left to gather all the children in a room, while we waited. The kids were all very young, and adorable. At the beginning, they only came to open the presents one by one, but soon they all surrounded the table full of packages and got the toys that they liked. As always, we played with them for a while, until we had to go catch a bus back to Hanoi.
One of the nicest surprises of our trip was actually on Christmas day, just after we had done our toy donation. We went to eat at a restaurant called Cocodo, and by chance met his French-Vietnamese owner, who happened to own a balloon factory, and offered us to make balloons with our logo for the kids! We can’t wait to receive them, so we can put up some photos.
- Nu Eatery (Hoi An): our favourite restaurant in Vietnam, they have amazing fresh spring rolls, and an overall tasty menu, for a very cheap price.
- Phi Banh Mi (Hoi An): its famous sixty-cent sandwiches are so good, that you will want to repeat (we did).
- Les Jardins de la Carambole (Hue): we recommend this restaurant more for the ambience than for the food (which is still pretty good). We celebrated there our Christmas dinner, and had a lovely time.
- Chookie’s (Ninh Binh): they make amazing burgers!
- Street food (Hanoi): our favourite place was Banh Mi 25, which has delicious sandwiches – we went there every day for five days! But street food in Hanoi is generally great: another favourite for us was the Bun Cha.
- Hanoi Social Club: as we already said, it’s a great place to spend some time working or reading a book. The food is great, but what made us return was its thick and delicious hot chocolate, which reminded Ana of the hot chocolate back home in Spain.
- Giang Café (Hanoi): this crowded and dirty café created one of Hanoi’s most famous coffee specialities, the egg coffee. It sounds weird, but it is actually great, and we came back both for the egg and coffee and the egg and chocolate.
- Red Bean: another restaurant for big occasions (New Years Dinner in our case), its Chef’s menu, and particularly the foie gras mi-cuit, was great.
- ‘Fun’ facts
Vietnam is the first country that we visited without our van, and we learned fast: take a flight if you can! The flights In Vietnam are most times cheaper, faster, cleaner and more comfortable than the bus or train. If you need to get a bus, we would recommend going to the local bus station, rather than taking the tourist bus. They are dirty and old but the tourist buses weren’t much better and they are more expensive and slower.
We had seen the pointy Chinese style hats everywhere in South East Asia, but the nicest ones that we saw were in Vietnam, as women use a wide lace to tie them (check the Hoi An photo).
Ana and Ludo
Disclaimer: all the touristy stuff + restaurants, etc. are at our own expense (just to reassure you that all your donations are TOY-exclusive!)