So we were deciding which city to go to. Hanoi, the capital city or Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam? In addition, Ho Chi Minh City has the historical war tunnels. However, we decided to go for Hanoi because of its accessibility from the airport as well as the opportunity to visit attractions to its east and west , namely Sapa and Halong Bay.
Hanoi is located on the north east of Vietnam. On this trip, we visited Halong Bay (the UNESCO World Heritage Site) to its East and Sapa (350Km northwest of Hanoi). Some rate of conversions when we visited at the end of 2009
1USD = 1.4SGD=18,000VND OR 1SGD=13,000VND (Vietnam Dong)
Average haircut : 250,000 VND for gals
Taxi ride from Hanoi train station to Bat Su St:
50,000 VND (not 100,000 VND!)
Bia Hoi (Beer) at street corner: 6,000 VND for 1 glass (Yes it is really that cheap!)
Pastries: 6,000 VND @ local bakeries (11 Cha Ca St)
Foot massage: USD4 for 30mins (Au Trieu St)
Souvenir magnets: 10,000 VND
Day 1 (Arrival and trip to the Hotel)
We arrive at the Noi Bai Airport (Vietnam) and were greeted by our friendly driver with the sign that says “Hanoi Boutique Hotel : Kate”. Everything was smooth until we got on the car…
1. Max Speed. The car was moving at a maximum speed of 60km/h! No matter how fast it was trying to go or how it was overtaking other cars (can you imagine?) it was still travelling no more than 60km/h. Talk about safety…
2. High Beam and Horn. Everyone seems to be driving with their high beam lights on. The most interesting part was, EVERY car and motorcycle were sounding their horns throughout the journey! Our driver was practically placing his hands on the horns throughout the entire journey!
3. Crossing the road. We witnessed how an old lady crossed the road amidst endless trails of motorcycles. The trick is, to cross at a constant pace. The old lady was walking really really slowly across the road, it didnt seem like she was looking at the on coming traffic at all! The key was, she was moving slowly BUT at a CONSTANT pace. The result? Every oncoming motorcycle was able to predict her path and avoided her altogether! This little observation was put to good use throughout the rest of the trip. You really need this piece of advice, plus some guts, to cross Vietnamese roads.
As we approached the hotel, it really didnt look appealing at all. It looked like a 1 star hotel and the entrance was relatively small. But things started to change as you enter the reception, it was clean and inviting with renovations that looked new. But the surprise really came when we entered the room…
It immediately upgraded to 3 stars! Nicely decorated room, with a balcony view of the streets as well as a plasma tv! The toilet was clean and had toiletries (including towels) readily available. To top it off, WI-FI was free! We turned in early that evening, to the sound of horns on the streets…
Day 2 – Hanoi City, Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, Temple of Literature, KOTO – Know One Teach One, One Pillar Pagoda, Hoan Kiem Lake, Martyr’s Monument, Old East End Gate, Dong Xuan Market, Water Puppet Show, Bag/Shoe Street, City View Cafe
Soon morning came and we were (not surprisingly) awaken by the sound of the horns. It was nice to breathe the morning air and look out at the balcony, the streets before the hustle and bustle begins. We took breakfast and were pleasantly surprised by the chicken and beef pho that were served. It suited our taste buds well. There were also fruits and fruit juice to go along. Not bad…
We decided to walk towards the museums and Mausoleum (famous structure). Along the way, we stopped for an authentic cup of Vietnam cuppa. For 77cents (abt 50cents USD), we had one of the best coffee we’ve ever drank. It was rich yet wholely Vietnamese with aroma of the coffee with every sip. It was then it dawned upon us….Starbucks has been cheating our $$ all these while!
As we ventured on, we took photos of memorials, statues and a Catholic church. We soon stumbled upon the Mausoleum from a distance and decided to get closer to take some photos. As we got closer, we realised there were some important Korean officials visiting the place and there were literally no one in the vicinity except the police. So happily, as excited tourists, we took out our camera and started shooting. Almost immediately, the whistles started to sound and we were waved to move away from the vicinity! Much like prisoners trying to break out of jail, being whistled at…quite a traumatic experience. So enjoy the pictures that we ‘risked’ our lives for!
Next, we headed for the Ho Chi Minh museum, mainly because we wanted to use the toilet. We paid 15,000VND each to enter the museum. The museum showcased the history of its leader and some of the important milestones and significant events that took place. It also showed pictures of him meeting leaders of various countries at that time.
As we approached the Temple of Literature, it started to rain. We were then approached by locals with ponchos (make shift rain coats) ready with them. Some selling at 18,000VND while others only at 10,000. Because of the rain, we took only photos at the entrance and headed straight for lunch at KOTO (Know One Teach One).
The KOTO project was really to help children off the streets and to equip them with culinary skills so that they can become self sufficient and provide for themselves by either serving in hotels / restaurants or continue to teach others like themselves. Both Kate and I found this to be a very meaningful project and came by specially to support.
The food was GREAT! We had the roll with beef and prawn as well as the fried beef noodles. Both were delicious and both were authentic Vietnamese. We were very much satisfied, both with the quality of the food as well as with ourselves, being able to help a good cause. We ended off with Bia-hoi (Beer) to wash it all down…
We ventured back to the city and to the famous Hoan Kiem River where we took photos of the lake as well as the One Pillar Pagoda right smack in the middle of the lake.
Along a foot path recommended by Lonely Planet, we were able to take photos of the Martyr’s monument, Old East End Gate as well as the Dong Xuan Market where daily food supplies can be found. We also passed the black smiths street (whole street of black smiths) before heading to KFC (where else?) for dinner before our much anticipated water puppet show in the evening. This KFC was overlooking the centre of the city (pretty much a roundabout) with the Hoan Kiem Lake as the backdrop. So there’s actually a reason why we chose KFC for dinner….
Soon it was time for us to enter the theatre to watch the water puppet show. The show started with the Dan Bow player playing tunes akin to the chinese Er Hu. It is basically a stringed instrument with only one string. It was said that in the past, it was only played by males and that parents were worried that young girls would be attracted to Dan Bow players because of the enchanting tunes.
The show itself was interesting, with displays of the dragon, phoenix and puppets illustrating the legend. There was even small fireworks towards the end. Here is part of the show…
After the show, the puppeteers revealed themselves as the curtains lifted and they demonstrated (without the curtains) how they were moving the puppets behind the scenes. After the show, Kate and I walked past the shoes and bags street (literally lots of shoes and bags, Kate’s favourite) and we had supper at the City View Cafe. A little ex, but the view of the night was great. We had a pizza and some drinks to wind down the night.
Day 3 – Halong Bay
We started the day early (8:30am) and left on a 3.5 hours bus ride to Halong Bay Harbour. Along the way, we stopped at a ceramics statue exhibit place and had our toilet break there. Coke was ex. $1.5 a can.
We took a small boat to our junk boat. Again, we were pleasantly surprised as we entered our room. It was nicely laid out and looked really cosy, with an unexpectedly clean toilet. We were later led up to the dining hall to have our seafood lunch. Nothing to shout about but it was pleasant.
As our junk boat – Bai Tu Long, went near to the UNESCO heritage site of Halong Bay, we could see little islets popping up. It was real cool. There were many islets that resembled things like a monster’s mouth, a man’s face, horse, a fisherman and lots more. You just have to use some imagination to see them
Our first stop was the Surprise Caves or Hang (Cave) Sung Sot (Surprise). IT was a cave with natural rock formations. Also formed by streams of water. 2 natural formation that was surprising to see, was a couple as well as a heart. The climb up and down the caves was tiring. But the view of Halong Bay from the top was simply amazing, really worth the trip (all 3.5 hours bus ride and boat trip).
Day 4 – 2nd Day at Halong Bay
Kate and I woke up early this morning to enjoy the morning breeze as well as the view of the Halong Bay as well as its islets. Of course, we played a game to identify new ‘formations’ using our imagination and we discovered a koala bear, a horse / dog and a middle finger! We then went to the dining hall for an american style breakfast. Ham bread and juice.
The morning’s programme was a canoe trip. If you arent interested, you can opt to just remain on the small boat. Kate and I decided to just laze back on the boat while it took us to the sights. There was an enclosure that we were unable to enter because of the high tide. But we were told that it was a sanctuary inside with birds and vegetation flourishing. The boat also took us in and out of a cave and we saw some unusual formations such as a cave within a cave and the Luon Cave.
In the evening, we left for Sapa and we boarded the overnight train ride King Express Deluxe. Just prior to board, we managed to buy 1 litre of bia hoi (beer) for only 13,000VND or $1!
Day 5 – Sapa, Lao Cai, Cat Cat Village, Victoria Sapa Hotel
We arrived at about 5am in the morning at Lao Cai train station. There we caught a transfer bus to Sapa which was about an hour. We arrived at the Sapa Global Hotel and we had our breakfast there. Breakfast was nice and simple. But what caught our attention was the magnificent view of Fansipan mountain. The temperature had dipped to between 15-20 degrees so it was nice and cooling with surreal views of the mountains. Chillax.
Shortly after, we were introduced to our guide Chi for the day and she took us on a “lite” trekking trip. It was actually quite a trek! But before long, we reached Cat Cat village where we had some black pig satay (barbeque) and saw a small waterfall. We entered the village and ventured into a H’mong villager’s abode. It had a stench and there were corns overhanging at the ceiling. It was dark and litted only by the sun light. We saw some dyes for indigo and played some of the traditional musical instruments. Kate tried the weaving machine while we both tried to push a corn grinding machine. It was tough work.
After a short trek, we were back at the Sapa Global Hotel where we had our lunch. We were then driven to our hotel. Victoria Sapa Hotel. IT was a 5 star hotel (well at least to us). It had a marvellous view of a man-made lake and views of Fansipan Mountain as well. The room was spacious, with a bath tub and a balcony. The hotel also has a heated pool with nice views of lawned greenery. Sort of like a paradise right in the heart of Sapa.
We ended of the night with dinner at the restaurant and there was also a traditional performance of dance, music and singing by the H’mong people.
Day 6 – Lao Chai, Tu Van Village, Trekking
We spent this day trekking to home of the H’mong, Lao Chai and Tu Van Village. First off, we would like to warn all potential visitors that this trek is not for the faint of heart and can be treacherous at some points.
The trek takes you down into the valley, home of the H’mong and crossing some dangerous terrain. At one point, we were thinking hard to ourselves, why were we ACTUALLY RISKING OUR LIVES to see the village? There was one point where a false step would literally lead to our fall of death. Thank the Lord, we arrived safely!
Having said that, we have to mention that the views were fantastic. We also visited the Tu Van village, home to the Giay (pronounced at Tzai) people. It was nice to walk among these friendly people. After a day of trekking, both Kate and I had sore toes…
Day 7 – Chillax, Foot Massage
This day, we spent just hanging out at various joints and trying all the local street foods. We tried various fried spring rolls, fish noodles, pho and french pastries. Especially enjoyed the pastries as they were fluffy and flavourful. The street fried foods were tasty too (think all fried foods are).
We then headed to a massage parlour for foot massage. It only cost 4USD for 30 minutes! We also tried beer at Legends Beer (Expensive) and had dinner at our favourite Magnolia Cafe just across the street.
Day 8 – Going Home
Before heading home, Tom had a haircut for 40,000VND and we had more street foods including fried meat dumplings, banana and sweet potato fritters.
It was a very fruitful trip to just experience the Vietnamese culture and its friendly people. There were so many things to see and do and the food was simply amazing. It was worth every cent of it and we will definitely visit Vietnam again.
He says: Cheap beer, nice views, good food, what else can I ask for?
She says: Crossing the streets can be challenging, remember our tip right at the start of this post. Walk at a constant pace! I enjoyed the view of Halong Bay, Mount Fansipan and the village in the valley. Cannot be experienced else where.
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