Hong Kong to Hanoi
THERE'S no hesitation when we ask our kids the highlights of a trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam.
Laura, 9, and Jed, 11, plump for Hong Kong Disneyland and Halong Bay, the spectacular cluster of 3000 islands off the coast of northern Vietnam.
The two places couldn't be more different; Disneyland slickly served up with its fibreglass trees and near-faultless animatronics, Halong Bay one of the world's natural wonders where you can make your own fun.
Our journey started in Hong Kong, which has to be one of the easiest places to take kids. The 12-hour flight was the longest they'd done but, with hundreds of entertainment options, it was hardly an ordeal.
It made for a late arrival, though, and so the civil engineering wonder that is Chek Lap Kok Airport was something of a blur, as was the 30km high-speed train ride to the station at Kowloon. From there, a shuttle bus took us to our hotel on Nathan Rd.
We'd done a little bit of nosing around the internet for hotels that met our criteria in Kowloon (called tourist central for good reason); a place of fairly good standard for the kids and with a pool. Because we were in part of China, it seemed easier to find rooms that allowed for one child only, rather than two.
We ended up at the Holiday Inn.
It met the criteria, although was certainly not bargain-basement and became just a little eye-wateringly pricey as we sleepily opted for an upgrade, but we didn't regret it - we were on holiday.
Hong Kong is all about islands and heights, so we had our first shot at getting our bearings the next day with a tram ride up Victoria Peak. It was a short Star Ferry voyage away on Hong Kong Island and an open-top bus ride to the tram terminus. At 552m, the peak gives a good overview despite the haze. We were in Hong Kong during the April school holidays; not quite the prime weather months of autumn when it is less humid and hazy.
The Peak Tower shopping complex had plenty of dining, entertainment and shopping options, and gave us our first taste of market haggling.
Disneyland, a 35-minute journey from Kowloon, was done and, as with all of Hong Kong, much of the fun was getting there on the superb metro system.
We were sold on the Octopus travel card. Similar to New Zealand's new Snapper and Hop cards, the Octopus allows you to jump between various forms of transport, and you can use it to buy other products. The kids were sold when they found they could use theirs in vending machines.
At the end of a Disneyland day, we still had energy for Lantau Island, Hong Kong's largest island and a wilderness retreat. We took the spectacular and slightly unnerving cable-car ride, which gave a great view of the airport, to the 934m peak - home to one of the world's biggest Buddhas.
Near Ocean Park is genteel Stanley, where we did some market shopping, but we could easily have spent a day there rather than a few hours. We had to get back to Kowloon for the 8pm laser show, a 15-minute extravaganza and a great free attraction.
Besides accommodation and slightly dearer attractions, costs were on a par with a holiday in New Zealand - good value, delicious food and cheaper transport, including the ultra-consistent taxis.
We had just four days in Hong Kong, but our five days in Vietnam, just a 90-minute flight away, were equally well spent.
Going to both highlighted, for the kids especially, the contrast between a global urban powerhouse and a developing country.
Vietnam is still emerging and it's worth remembering, when trying to wring out a few cents when haggling, that the equivalent of $6 to $8 a day is regarded as fairly good money for a breadwinner there.
Hanoi is a city of six million, and starting to warm up in April - around 30C and humid.
We had been set on our course to Asia after winning two adult return airfares with Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary, Dragon Air, so we again put those savings into accommodation. Accommodation for four was hard to find, so we took two rooms (about $320 a night in total) at the mid-to-upper-range, locally run Golden Lotus.
It was a good choice - airport pick-up was seamless, it was wonderfully located ("toy street" shopping was just around the corner) and had friendly staff. Hanoi is a city of fantastic museums, great food (with kids' Western food options in most restaurants) and terrific shopping for clothes and homeware.
It's also famous for its motor scooters adhering to no apparent road code. A tip on crossing the road: pick your line, stick to it and walk at a brisk, even pace. If you feel like a thrill, take a ride on a motorcycle taxi.
A "must-do" is the Military History Museum, best-known for the tangled wreckage of downed US planes and other captured equipment outside display halls.
Inside are more powerful messages; the flak-ravaged shirt of 3-month-old Phan Thi Luyen, killed by "American steel" (a pellet bomb), the toy duck of 2-year-old Tram Vam Ly, killed by a B52 bomb, and the flame-thrower "hero Hoang Van Ve used to destroy two American M113 armoured vehicles and killed 24 puppet regime soldiers" in Laos. Maybe artful propaganda in their time, they are now just sad stories.
One neat surprise was the jaded charm of Lenin Park. Look out for the mainly abandoned rides, with MiG fighter replicas and a funky kids' roller coaster. It's ripe for Disney-style development, so our advice is to get there before that happens. We encountered young college kids celebrating graduation, who were charming, beautifully dressed and made a fuss of blonde Laura.
The guidebooks recommend the Hanoi water puppet theatre, which might not seem like everyone's cup of tea, but made for an interesting evening out (a troupe performed at the Auckland Arts Festival for the first time this year).
Our side trip to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise proved a hit. It's a three-and-a-half hour (slightly hairy) bus ride east of Hanoi and the embarkation point showed the area is well-geared for mass tourism, with scores of junks ready to go. They range from modest in size and comfort up to luxury cruise boats the size of a Cook Strait ferry. We had two cabins, each with an en suite, and were provided with a guide and great, freshly cooked meals for less than $500 for the entire package.
Great value, but it's probably worth checking on the size of the bus that will take you there and back - go for a big one if you can.
Halong Bay is a cluster of about 3000 near-vertical-sided limestone islands, some riddled with caves that make those at Waitomo seem a bit compact.
We cruised at a leisurely pace around a tiny portion of the islands, stopping to explore caves and spectacular "hidden" natural amphitheatres accessed only at low tide. We pottered around the islands by kayak, too. We cruised by floating villages where families farm bizarre-looking fish.
After dinner, there was (unsuccessful) night-fishing for squid and, for the adults, the chance to lounge on the top deck sipping cocktails and debriefing after an enjoyable day capped by jumping off the top of the boat into the welcoming waters of the Gulf of Tonkin as the sun set over China.
For Jed and Laura, it all came naturally. For parents, the 10m leap was daunting but, egged on by the kids, it was a plunge worth taking.