Sunday, July 8, 2012

A vacation in Vietnam


I've said it before....even though Singapore is a tiny speck on the world map, it has an enviable geographical location being surrounded by the jewels of South East Asia. There are no dearth of places to visit when you live in Singapore and you will be left spoilt for choices. Me and my husband have been slowly ticking off countries from our list of must-see destinations in this part of the world. As we began planning our next holiday, we realized that we were left with Vietnam, Cambodia and Philippines. We zeroed in on Vietnam because it has fascinating history, interesting culture and raw natural beauty all rolled into one. 

Vietnam is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea to the east. Vietnam's history is one of war, colonization and rebellion. It's past is imprinted with Chinese, French and Japanese influences. The Vietnam war was a major event in its history that made the world sit up and take notice of this country. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of South Vietnam, supported by the United States and other anti-communist countries.The war ended with a North Vietnamese victory in 1975. After the war, Vietnam was unified under a Communist government and soon integrated into the world economy.

This was a trip that almost never happened because we got our Vietnam visa only the previous day of our flight. That was one helluva nerve wracking experience! But we were lucky that we got it just in the nick of time. Having only 5 days to spend, we decided to devote all our time to Northern Vietnam - Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in particular. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the second largest city. It is a popular destination with tourists. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a renowned travel destination, located in Quang Ninh province. It is said to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The bay (with an area of around 1,553 km2) features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes. Ha Long Bay is a center of a larger zone which includes Bái Tử Long bay to the northeast, and Cát Bà islands to the southwest.

Here is a compilation of some of my experiences in Vietnam

Day 1 (29th June 2012, Friday)

We flew to Hanoi from Singapore on Jetstar Asia at 10 am. The flight took 3 hours and with a time difference of 1 hour, we touched down at 12:30 pm local time. The weather was about 32 deg C with a humidity comparable to Singapore so it was hot and sticky! We had priorly arranged for a pickup at the airport so there was no last minute scrambling to find a taxi. We found our driver within minutes and we started towards the city. Our hotel, Hanoi Elegance Ruby located in the Old Quarter is about 27 km away from the airport and it took us about 45 mins to get there. On arrival at the hotel we were greeted by the warm staff and offered refreshing drinks. Our room was the Junior Suite and it was absolutely lovely. 


After unpacking we decided to go for lunch and began exploring the area around the hotel. We saw a charming restaurant called Green Mango and went in. The restaurant was as good as we thought it would be and after a satisfying meal we took some rest and then set off on foot towards the Hoan Kiem lake. Our hotel had provided us with a very useful map with walking directions which served as an invaluable guide throughout our trip. 

Local beer...available everywhere and dirt cheap

Streets of the Old Quarter

A typical sight!

I loved the look of this store!

The area around the lake was buzzing with activity. There were people of all ages chatting, walking, exercising, walking their dogs and just relaxing. We spent some time at the lake and then decided to go to the Goumet Cafe restaurant for dinner. This was located in another branch of the Hanoi Elegance group of hotels.

Hoan Kiem lake




Night market

On our way to the restaurant we unfortunately encountered an unpleasant incident. To cut a long story short - if you ever visit Hanoi, be careful of the female fruit sellers near the lake. If they approach you to take a picture with their hat and bamboo sling, just walk away because their only intention is to swindle you. While on the same subject, we met an Australian tourist a few days later who told us that she was robbed of her purse by an unidentified woman at the exact same spot. Anyway, coming back to the good memories, we arrived at the Gourmet Cafe and had one of the most wonderful evenings in Hanoi. It erased the memory of the earlier incident at the lake completely. The restaurant had a night view of the city, attentive staff and delicious food. I had the best Cesar salad and Vietnamese Pho at this place. We would have definitely gone back if we stayed in Hanoi longer. On the way back to our hotel, we took the Xich Lo (a cycle rickshaw) and it was a really fun way to navigate around the Old Quarter amid the chaos of the traffic and pedestrians. 

Chaos!

Day 2 (30th June 2012, Saturday)

We woke up to a lovely day. The sun rises early in Vietnam and at 5:30 am there was daylight streaming into our room.

See what I mean?

We had decided to visit the Ho Chi Minh Complex, a complex consisting of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the Presidential Palace, the Museum and House on Stilts. From research beforehand we knew that the mausoleum closed at 10:30 am so after an early breakfast, we took a taxi and reached the complex at 9 am. It is actually not too far to walk but given the temperature outside and the early closing timings of the Mausoleum, it is more advisable to take a taxi or the Xich Lo. Being a Saturday, there was an enormous queue at the entrance of the complex much to my dismay but fortunately, the line moved quickly and we were inside the complex barely within a 10 minute wait. We first visited the Mausoleum which has the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh on display. Streams of people queue each day, sometimes for hours, to pass his body in silence. This place is revered by the Vietnamese so take care to dress properly (no shorts/skirts/revealing clothes). You are also required to take off your hat and/or sunglasses and bear in mind that photography and use of mobile phones is not permitted. After that we walked past the Presidential Palace (where the current President lives), Ho Chi Minh's Vestige in the Presidential Palace area and then stopped by the House on Stilts (where Ho Chi Minh lived during his later days). Our last stop was at the Ho Chi Minh Museum where we absorbed important information on the history of Vietnam.

The Mausoleum

The Presidential Palace

Ho Chi Minh's Vestige

House on stilts

Ho Chi Minh Museum

Words of wisdom

After finishing up at the Ho Chi Minh complex we decided to go to the Temple of Literature. It isn't too far away but looking at the fiery sun we decided to take a taxi. This was the second time we almost got scammed in Hanoi. The meter on the taxi began racing at a suspicious pace and after a few mins we noticed that it displayed about four times the distance that we had actually travelled with the corresponding fare, a clear indication of being rigged. We were exasperated by this blatant cheating and after a war of words with the driver (with an empty threat to go to the police) we got him to drop us at the Temple of Literature at a reasonable price. Looking on the bright side, this time we didn't get taken for a ride! We spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the Temple of Literature.






By the time we were done, it was late afternoon and seeing that the sun had mellowed down, we leisurely walked back to the hotel. We had a nice lunch at the Golden Drum cafe near our hotel and spent the rest of the day lazing around. For dinner we walked over to the Hanoi Essence Cafe and had another splendid evening. The food at this place is scrumptious and service impeccable. The waitress taught us how to assemble traditional Vietnamese spring rolls which was wonderful. There was a souvenir shop just opposite Essence Cafe which I liked very much. I bought a pair of fabric shoes, some beaded accessories, a hand embroidered bag, an oriental table runner and some wall art pieces among other things. Some objects in the shop were downright creepy though.....one example being....

Great snakes!

Day 3 (1st July 2012, Sunday)

This was one of the most awaited days on my itinerary as it was the day we were to leave on a 2D1N cruise to Ha Long Bay. After we were done with breakfast at the hotel, a minivan arrived to pick us up (along with two other Australian families) to Ha Long Bay. The journey took almost 4 and a half hours but with two adorable little girls from Adelaide who chatted non-stop throughout the journey and a midway stop at an enormous souvenir house, it didn't seem so long. We reached the Hon Gai harbour at 12:30 pm and began to board the "junk" (or boat) within a few minutes of arrival. Our boat was called the Dragon Pearl and it belongs to a company called IndoChina sails. We booked the trip through our hotel since that felt like the most hassle-free and convenient mode. It had begun to rain during our journey and still was when we reached our destination which had me worrying that our cruise would be ruined but by a stroke of incredible luck, just as we were boarding the boat the skies cleared and glorious sunshine greeted us. The weather was fantastic throughout the rest of the cruise and it is something I have been incredibly thankful about ever since. Our boat had 10 cabins and could house upto 20 people.  We gathered at the restaurant where we met our fellow passengers and we were welcomed by the crew. Our tour guide gave us some instructions and information regarding the boat, handed us our cabin keys and then announced that lunch would be served shortly. Our cabin was small but clean and charming. It was equipped with all the facilities that any decent hotel room would offer.

The Dragon Pearl

Our cabin

To say that the lunch that followed was an elaborate affair would be an understatement. There was course after course coming out of the kitchen and after a while I even lost track of how many dishes I had sampled. The food was mainly Vietnamese and I was amazed at how simple yet delicious all the dishes were. Of course I couldn't try all the dishes because of my dietary preferences but whatever I sampled, I liked very much. I never realized how diverse, creative and delicious salads & soups could be before I visited Vietnam. Under normal circumstances I abhor radish but there I was chowing down (without complaint) julienned radish in a light vinaigrette topped with toasty sesame seeds! We were invited to relax on the sun deck and enjoy the view. Halong Bay consists of numerous islands and cruising through the lime green water surrounded by these marvels of nature gives you a true sense of peace and tranquility. To make our experience even better, the humidity and heat of Hanoi had vanished and there was even a lovely breeze blowing.





In the late afternoon we reached an island where we first visited the Thien Canh Son Cave where a local fisherman family used to live. I had never seen such a huge cave in my life and it was surprisingly cool and dry and I even found myself imagining what it would be like to live there!



We then went down to the beach where some people chose to swim and the others went kayaking around a nearby island. This for me was the highlight of the trip. Kayaking amidst such breathtaking natural beauty was unforgettable. It felt like I was united with nature. While my husband was hard at work skillfully handling the paddle, I was too busy clicking away silly pictures of the both of us with my camera phone! But after a while I felt bad for him and chipped in. By the end of it though, I felt like the muscles in my arms were screaming with agony!




View from the kayak

After a magical afternoon we headed back to our cabins for some much needed rest. That evening was spent sipping cocktails, trading stories and experiences with the other passengers, reading and just having some quiet time to take in the marvelous sights. Our dinner that evening was served outside and no words can describe how amazing it was. As with dinner, there were what seemed like a dozen courses, one more enjoyable than the next. Our chef had painstakingly created some spectacular vegetable carvings that were displayed for us. The captain had a few words to share with us and all the crew assembled to make sure we were having a good time. Me and my husband shared a table with a wonderful couple from Sydney and their young son and the conversation was engaging.




Day 4 (2nd July 2012, Monday)

We awoke early (as seems to be the norm in Vietnam) and had breakfast in the restaurant. We were then informed by our guide that we would visiting the Vung Vieng fishing Village. From our junk, we transferred to a smaller bamboo boat and reached the floating village. We then gathered in pairs and had a small boat steered by a local fisher woman who took us by boat around the whole village. We saw women hard at work, children running and playing, young girls relaxing on a hammock, dogs barking and a glimpse of everyday life (the only unusual aspect being that here it was on water!). 







After doing a round of the village, we were taken to the place where fish farming is done, the school where the local children go to,  a souvenir shop + art gallery and a place where pearl farming is practiced.



After an eye-opening and informative morning, we headed back to our junk. Lunch was served after which we began to pack and begin the process of checking out. We reached the Hon Gai harbour in the afternoon (just as it began to pour with rain) where our ride back to Hanoi was waiting for us. I could not believe our luck! Once we reached Hanoi, I set off wandering the streets alone (while my husband decided to get reacquainted with the tv!) to do some more souvenir shopping for my close friends and family. I also bought some Vietnamese snacks to take back to my colleagues in Singapore and some Vietnamese coffee (which I had heard a lot about). 

Some of the stuff I bought

For dinner, I had made reservations at Restaurant Bobby Chinn in Tay Ho district. I made these reservations while in Singapore since I wasn't sure how crowded the place would be. I watch his show - World Cafe Asia all the time so I was excited to dine at a celebrity chef's restaurant. The restaurant had a very Moroccan feel to it and the ambience was mysterious and dramatic. We had three courses of some very attractive and delicious plates of food and then spent some time afterwards in the lounge sipping cocktails and smoking apricot flavoured hookah (shisha) as my husband contentedly remarked 'Bobby Chinn rocks!' :D


Day 5 (3rd July 2012, Tuesday)

The day of our departure had arrived. We decided to keep the rest of our time in Hanoi free. After a late breakfast in bed (which the hotel staff kindly arranged for), we spent the rest of the day packing and watching tv. We left to the airport at 12:15 pm and our flight to Singapore took off at 3:05 pm.

And now here I am....sitting in the aircraft, rapping on my iPad as I reminisce about our time spent in Vietnam. I have no idea when I will find time to publish this post but since the memories of the last few days are vivid and deeply etched in my mind, I thought of writing it before they fade away. Hanoi is so many things - lively, mind boggling, chaotic, overwhelming, interesting and fascinating. We had mainly pleasant but also a few unpleasant experiences here. Ha Long Bay was spectacular and it is a place I would recommend to everyone to visit once atleast during their lifetime.

That concludes my experiences in Vietnam. I would love to return some day to explore Central and Southern Vietnam. I still want to visit Hoi An, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) so I hope I get the opportunity some time in the future to come back!

Hanoi travel tips:

Vietnam is a relatively safe place. The instances of violent crime are low but petty crime is quite common.
  • I would advise you not to carry your SLR camera in crowded places such as markets and busy streets. Try to make do with a point and shoot camera or camera phone.
  • I'm assuming most hotel rooms have safe deposit boxes so it is a good idea to store all your valuables there and bring along only what you need while sightseeing/shopping
  • What I noticed was that most of the ATMs in Hanoi did not work so it is a good idea to withdraw enough cash beforehand. Currency exchange services are widely available and the US dollar is accepted in many places. 
  • Ask your hotel to book a taxi for you or find out which taxi company is the most reliable. You can even ask your hotel to arrange for a Xich lo ride for you. It helps when the price is negotiated beforehand.
  • There are a group of unscrupulous women working together to scam/rob tourists at the Hoan Kiem lake. Stay close together and make sure your money is stowed away safely.
  • The Vietnamese currency has crazy denominations. Familiarize yourself with it.
  • Bargain....bargain....bargain. It is amazing how easily the vendors lower their prices if you are persistent. Most souvenir shops sell the same merchandise so you can enquire about the prices in a few places. Prices vary from street to street!
  • Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and TripAdvisor are three good websites that you can rely on while planning this trip.
  • Dress respectfully when you visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. No shirts, cameras, phones, hats or sunglasses. It would be a shame to not visit the mausoleum as that is one of the highlights of the Ho Chi Minh complex.

You can check out some of my reviews of Hanoi hotels, restaurants and activities on TripAdvisor here:

http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g293924-d795057-r133579293-Restaurant_Bobby_Chinn-Hanoi.html
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g293923-d2044615-r133668850-Indochina_Junk-Halong_Bay_Quang_Ninh_Province.html

4 comments:

  1. ah fantastic!!!! now i don need to go there, seen it all :) ha long bay is really beautiful. I think I've seen the same place in a lot of movies

    ReplyDelete
  2. nice travel log :D loved the tips section.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That was a lovely, leisurely trip to Vietnam, Megha. Thank you for taking me along. :-)

    ReplyDelete

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