Last month, we went to visit my parents in Thailand to see how they’re doing. It’s been a tough year for them. My mom used to live with us part-time, but we moved her to Thailand about a year ago. She has dementia (most likely Alzheimer’s disease) and I couldn’t take care of her in the long term. Eventually, she’d have to go to a dementia care facility and it’d be very difficult with the language barrier in the US. So my dad is taking care of her in Thailand and it’s working out okay. Her condition continues to worsen and she needs 24/7 supervision at this point. She can’t do basic things like tying her shoes and getting dress. Also, she can’t be left alone because she’d get scared and go wandering around outside. So it was a good decision to move her to Thailand. I couldn’t be with her 24/7 and take care of my son at the same time. Unfortunately, my dad also had some health issues last year. He had internal bleeding and had stayed in the hospital for a week. He’s better now, but they’re still trying to figure out what the problem was. Anyway, we went to spend a few weeks with them in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My dad was better by the time we got there so I was relieved. We had fun around town, but this trip was more about checking up on my parents. So on the way home, we took us a short side trip to Vietnam and Japan. This part of the trip gave us a chance to relax and experience something new.
We didn’t spend a lot of money on this trip because I finally got travel hacking to work for Asia! Here’s how I hacked this trip.
- US to Thailand flight – Chase reward points
- Thailand to Vietnam – Cash (It was under $200 for 3 people.)
- Vietnam hotels – AAdvantage (American Airlines) points
- Halong Bay cruise – Chase reward points
- Vietnam to Japan to US – AAdvantage points
Travel hacking is tough when you have to get 3 tickets. Generally, Chase has the best signup bonus so go for that if you’re a beginner. American Airlines cards are pretty good too. Mrs. RB40 and I signed up for the AAdvantage Platinum Select card each and accumulated 110,000 AAdvantage points. That was enough for 3 one way tickets from Asia. So I had to work it and use my Chase points to complete the trip. Anyway, AAdvantage cards are pretty good if you can get at least 50,000 points from the signup bonus. Click here to find the right credit card for you.
I heard Vietnam is nice, but I didn’t know much about it. I picked Hanoi because American Airlines fly out of there and not Chiang Mai. It was a convenient choice and I always wanted to visit Vietnam. We love Vietnamese food so we thought it’d be a lot of fun. Also, I heard Halong Bay is really nice, but it’s really crowded. We wanted to visit before it gets completely overwhelmed by tourists.
Hanoi is great. It’s so chaotic. There are people, motorcycles, shops, food carts, cafes, and restaurants everywhere. It feels kind of like Bangkok 30 years ago. Thailand is a lot milder now. Most drivers follow traffic rules and nobody honks their horns anymore. Hanoi is a lot more raw. I’m very glad we visited before it turns into a sparkly metropolis like other Asian cities. I heard there are many scammers in Hanoi and they target foreigners. However, we didn’t encounter anyone sketchy. We look Asian so we blended in pretty well. Fortunately, there are many free student tours in Hanoi. We signed up for two and they were very helpful.
On our first evening, Cam (a high school student) came to meet us and gave us a short foodie tour of Hanoi. She wants to go to study in Canada. Her English is very good!
We went to a famous bun cha restaurant, Bun Cha Dac Kim. I’ve heard of bun cha, but I never had it. It’s a Hanoi specialty and I’ve never seen it on a menu in the US. You take the noodles and dip it in the sauce, then eat it. The sauce is made from fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, water, and grilled pork balls. We also got some crab eggrolls. Our guide was surprised at how expensive this restaurant was, but it really wasn’t that much to us. I think we spent around $15 and had a great first meal in Hanoi.
Walking Street food
After dinner, we went for a walk at the street food market. It was cool to see, but we couldn’t eat anything at that point. There were so many people out and about. This is what I love about Asia and Europe. People get out and walk around a lot more than in the US. Here, people go home and stay inside.
After walking around for a while, Cam took us to a coffee shop. Café Dinh is a cool hidden café right by Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi. We’d never know about this place if our guide didn’t bring us here. The entry is just a little doorway and you have to walk up these steep stairs. It feels like stepping into someone’s home. Apparently, all the best places in Hanoi are hidden away like this.
The egg coffee was awesome. It was thick and rich and gave us some much-needed energy to continue. Café Dinh is a great spot to try egg coffee because the owner is the daughter of the inventor. This is the original secret recipe. Nice! We enjoyed it tremendously and it was cheap, just $1 each. After coffee, we walked around a bit more then headed back to the hotel to take a rest.
Halong & Lan Ha Bay cruise
The next day, we went to do the Halong & Lan Ha Bay cruise. I heard Halong Bay is very crowded and a bit spoiled so I booked a less busy destination with La Pinta Cruise. This cruise starts off at the edge of Halong Bay then move to Lan Ha Bay. That’s a pretty good compromise. We booked a short 2 days/1 night cruise because we usually don’t like boats. We prefer to have our feet on the ground. The total price was around $500 for 3, but I used my Chase points for this cruise. You could go a bit cheaper (around $100 each), but we’re too old to hang out with backpackers. I don’t mind a higher price for more comfort now, especially when I don’t have to pay. La Pinta is about midrange. We saw some nicer boats and some worse ones. It was just about right for us.
We had to take a small boat to get to the cruise ship. This tugboat was used to push the cruise ship around. That was interesting. I guess it saves gas.
This was our cruise ship. I think it was a little less than half full. There were 14 people on this trip.
I was hoping we’d get upgraded because it wasn’t too busy, but that didn’t happen. Fortunately, our room was already pretty nice. It was spacious and the beds were comfortable. The view was awesome. We really like this setup with the huge windows. The balcony was great too. Check it out on our video.
Cruise ship food
The dining room was nice too. However, I was a bit disappointed with the food. The dishes look incredible, but they didn’t taste that great to me. I think the cook made the food very mild for foreign tourists.
Shrimp and squid appetizer.
Chicken and rice
Beef stir-fry and eggplant stir-fry
Papaya salad and fresh salad roll
Trung Trang Cave
We went on an excursion to the Trung Trang Cave. It was neat, but Mrs. RB40 wasn’t impressed. She’s not much of a cave explorer. She prefers fresh air. RB40Jr liked it. Our guide said local people used to live in this cave in the olden days. That sounds like a tough existence.
Here is another excursion we went on – kayaking to the Dark & Bright Cave. Most of the tourists took the boat, but RB40Jr and I opted for kayaking. This was the first time he went kayaking and it turned out very well. He tried his best to help and did pretty well. I’m not sure how far we kayaked, probably around 2 miles total. We got back just as I was starting to wear down so it worked out perfectly. We liked this excursion much better than the previous one.
The best thing about this cruise was the view. The limestone islands were spectacular and calming at the same time. The boat was very stable too. Mrs. RB40 didn’t get motion sickness at all.
We saw a beautiful sunrise in the morning, incredible!
Last day in Hanoi
All in all, we had a great time on the cruise. 2 days/1 night was perfect for us. We were ready to get back to solid land. For our last day in Hanoi, we met up with 2 student guides and they showed us around the city a bit more. It was a lot of fun. We like Hanoi a lot, but I’m not sure if we’ll visit again. There are so many other places to see.
Enjoying the sidewalk café experience
Pho Hung Trong – This is another hidden place that serves the best pho noodle soup in Hanoi. You’d never find this if you don’t know it was here. I went to this pho place by myself while the others took a nap.
Banh mi – yummy and cheap
Salad rolls and ??? – The salad rolls were great, much better than any I tried in the US. I have no idea why they were so much better there.
Banh Tom – Hanoi fried shrimp cake. They made and serve this on a little table on the sidewalk. It was good.
On the way back home, we had a 10 hours stop in Narita, Japan. We took another free tour and visited the Narita temple and Omotesando shopping street. RB40Jr was really worn out because he only slept for about 4 hours on the plane. However, he perked up after a while and we all had a great time.
Naritasan Shinshoji Temple
Narita is known for their Unagi (freshwater eel) restaurants. We tried one and it was very different than at home. They kill and grill the eel in the morning so it’s super fresh. The meat is firmer than the frozen unagi we get in the US and it was cooked to perfection. I enjoyed it, but it was pretty expensive. I think this set cost around $35.
The Narita Airport Transit & Stay program provides free guides, retired seniors. It’s a great program.
We had a great time in Vietnam and Japan. The short side trip was very relaxing, It was a real vacation. I plan to go see my parents every year and I’ll add a similar side trip as often as possible. Where should we go next time? Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun.
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Source: Retire By 40
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