Saturday, May 07, 2005

Banh Bao

It seemed like we ate a lot. On the way backed to hotel, we decided to buy some Banh Bao Dac Biet, or special steamed pork filled dumplings or special steam bun with meat, for VND 4,000. Too bad, the taste was not so nice.

Hanoi at Night

We didn't waste time to taste the life in Hanoi Vietnam, although it's late at night. Here seen busy traffic even at night in Hanoi Old Quarter Hoan Kiem district.

Hoan Kiem Lake (the Lake of Restored Sword), name derived from a 15th century legend of a magic turtle who loaned a scared sword to Le Loi (or Lee Thai To), the nobleman who led the Vietnamese against the invading Ming army. Following the momentous victory, the emperor was sailing on the lake when the magic golden turtle appeared to take back the charmed sword which secured the victory and restored it to the lake from whence it came.

The red, arched wooden Huc (Sunbeam) Bridge that leads to Ngoc Son Temple (Ben Ngoc Son), which built in the early 19th century on a small island on the foundation of the old Khanh Thuy Palace which itself was built in 1739, and is dedicated to Van Xuong, the God of Literature, although the 13th century hero Tran Hung Dao, the martial arts genius Quan Vu and the physician La To are also worshipped here.

Some Vietnamese prayed at a shrine in front of the Huc Bridge and Ngoc Son Temple, at night.

Booked Train Ticket to Sapa

We planned to do a day trip to Sapa, by ourselves. That's mean we needed to buy the train tickets to Lao Cai, the gateway city to Sapa. The problem was we were unable to buy the tickets ourselves. I visited Vietnam Railways website, there is no way to buy the train tickets online. Before we departed, I emailed a few travel cafes and tour agents in Hanoi, and they quoted me some prices that ranging from USD $3 commission to USD $20 for one soft sleeper train ticket to Lao Cai. I think it's quite expensive.

Initially I thought of asking Alan to help us to buy the train tickets, as he is going to buy the train tickets tomorrow anyway. But after worried that we might troubled his travel plan as we have to meet him again to get the train tickets, we decided to ask the Thanh Vinh Tourist Hotel to buy for us the train tickets instead. Luc started the price at USD $15 each, we bargained down to USD $14 each. I thought it's reasonable, as even if we bought the train tickets ourselves, it would cost about USD $12. So they're going to get us 2 lower berth (I specifically asked for lower floor, and they trustworthyly got it for us, other than return train due to change of timing) soft sleeper train ticket to Lao Cai on 8th May 2005 on 10:10 pm (LC1) and back to Hanoi on 9th May 2005 on 8:50 pm (SP2) (they initially bought us the train that departs on 7:00 pm (LC2) due to lower price, but we insisted on getting the later train).

Booked Halong Bay Tour

We booked a 2 days 1 night tour to Halong Bay with the Thanh Vinh Tourist Hotel that we stayed. The Thanh Vinh Tourist Hotel receptionist Luc quoted us USD $25, and no matter how hard we bargained, he just insisted didn't want to reduce the price, and guaranteed us that the price we got would be the cheapest of all. I believed him, until I reached the junk.

Why I would believed him? At that time I really believed what he said. This was partly due to the price that I gathered from the Internet which ranged from USD $29 to USD $100+. The cheapest that one can get, according various source is USD $15, without staying on the boat. So I guess it's quite fair to pay USD $25 for the tour with a night on the junk. Beside, we arrived in Hanoi quite late, and I got no time to go out to compare around.

One thing that I overlooked was itinerary of the Halong Bay Tour Package. Actually I did ask Luc about it, including whether the junk will goes to Hang Sung Sot cave, but he was unable to explain properly, so I took it as what I presumed. This was terribly wrong. We should have insisted on a definite answer.

The Halong Bay tour itinerary, which we supposed to follow:

Romantic HaLong Bay - Sleep Over Night on Boat (02 days - 01 night)

Day 1: Depart for Ha Long. On arrival have seafood lunch on boat, then cruises on Halong Bay by visiting Thien Cung & Dau Go caves. Kayaking in Halong Bay, swimming, visiting fishing village, candle lit dinner, music, sleep overnight on board.

Day 2: Have breakfast, then keep cruising on the other part of Halong Bay, have lunch in restaurant in Halong City before return to HaNoi.

Depart: 7:00 AM Finish: 6:00 PM

PRICE: 25 USD$ / person

Price includes: Air conditioning bus, junk boat trip, guide, entrance fees, meals, accommodation on junk, boat trip, but excludes drinks.

Everything looks good, but the actual travel was not as what was written above. More details follow when I started to write about the Halong Bay tour, with some of my thought and tips on how to choose which tour to Halong Bay.

Sinh To Trai Cay Fruit Shake

We walked past To Tich street. There are a few stalls selling Sinh To. Sinh To actually mean fruit shake with milk added, but in Hanoi, most of them is pure fruit shake, with ice added. We tasted Sinh To Trai Cay for VND 7,000. Sinh To Trai Cay consists of fresh strawberry, pineapple, coconut, avocado, jack fruit, durian or mung bean shake blended with ice and sweetened condensed milk. The staff there actually told us it's 'fruit salad'. Ate there was a nice experience as there were no proper table. We simply sat on the street on a stool.

Sinh To Trai Cay on the shelf. There is also stalls selling Sinh To Hoa Qua Tuoi, which we tasted later days.

First Taste of Vietnamese Food - Bun Thang

Bun Thang, also called Hanoi Chicken Soup or "Ladder" soft noodle soup, is a kind of rice vermicelli dish. Bun Thang includes lean pork paste, thin fried egg, salted shredded shrimp, chicken, onion, shrimps paste, and a little Belostomatid essence. Especially, Bun Thang bouillon, soup made from not less than 20 ingredients, and shrimps and meat must be very sweet and pure. The best place to taste Bun Thang is in Hanoi, and I was glad that we 'accidentally' tasted it on the first night we reached Hanoi.

Here seen the Vietnamese girl prepared Bun Thang for us. We tasted Bun Thang at 49 Duong Thanh street, which is opposite Hang Da market. The place is popular with local Vietnamese too. A bowl of Bun Thang costs us VND 13,000.

Thanh Vinh Tourist Hotel

We were introduced to Thanh Vinh Tourist Hotel when the hotel that we initially went to was fully booked. It's located at 10A1 Yen Thai of Hoan Kiem district in Hanoi, inside small alley which accessible from Hang Manh street or opposite the Hang Da market. Actually I didn't know the name of the hotel until I looked at the name card of the hotel, as the sign board only prominently displayed Sinh Cafe and Open Tour.

So is it a fake Sinh Cafe? I was not sure. I can only sure that they're not the 'real' Sinh Cafe. But it seemed like they're sort of reseller or tour agency for the Open Tour tour operator. Anyway I felt uneasy in a hotel that displayed other's logo and name more prominently than its own. But since it's already quite late, we decided to stay there instead of finding other hotels, which most likely most will displayed Sinh Cafe or Open Tour anyway.

The accommodation in Thanh Vinh Tourist Hotel was cheap. We paid USD $7 for a room with air-conditioning and attached bath room with hot shower, although the water pressure was low at times. The basic room with just fan and no windows goes for USD $5 and with windows goes for USD $6. The room was quite small, and the even smaller and narrower was the staircase. May be it's just the feature of the old houses in the Old Quarter.

The room was quite small, but comfortable nonetheless.

A very narrow and steep staircase inside the Hotel, we stayed at the 3rd (also top) floor.

Contact Details:
Address: 10A1 Yen Thai Hanoi Viet Nam
Tel: +84 (4) 8286926
Mobile: 0904 245010

By the way, the alley that makes up by Yen Thai and Tam Thuong (which accessible from Hang Bong street) has a lot of cheap accomodation.

Minibus to Hanoi

We met Alan and his 4 friends, all NUS students in Noi Boi airport. It was the third time he been to Vietnam. They previously came to Hanoi Vietnam for a community project. We decided to follow him to Old Quarter to look for hotel. We were taking minibus to St. Joseph's Cathedral to meet their friend Robin that reached Hanoi earlier. This avoided us the scam that the mini bus driver drops the passengers at the hotels that they can earn some commission.

Alan found a mini bus just outside of the Noiboi airpoort terminal, and agreed on USD $2 each. It was not the Vietnam Airlines minibuses that I initially thought of taking. The travel took about 45 minutes. The distance was not far, but the driver simply drove very slowly, and carefully. In Hanoi Old Quarter, Danish asked to be dropped at Real Darling Cafe. He was dropped at another hotel instead, also along Hang Quat street. We decided not to stay there, but followed the gangs of Alan to St. Joseph's Cathedral to find some ultra cheap hotel. End of the trip, we paid VND 30,000 each instead, a little cheaper than USD $2.

Hanoi NoiBai Airport

We finally reached Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport after 3 hours of flying. NoiBai airport is a small airport. But to my surprise, immigration and custom clearance is a fast, albeit long queue. And they did open up more counters when the queue got longer. Moreover, the immigration officers were very helpful. I tried to ask how to get to Old Quarter, but they simply didn't understand what's Old Quarter. Worse still, I couldn't read Hoan Kiem Lake properly. After showing them the map, they're so helpful to write me the Vietnamese of Hoan Kiem Lake, and told me that I can get there by taking bus no. 7 from outside of airport and then transfer to bus no. 9. They were simply so friendly and helpful. But we didn't go to Old Quarter by public bus, we went by mini bus instead.

I exchanged some money in the airport money changer. The rate here was not so good compared to the rate I exchanged later in a bank in Hanoi. Anyway, we had a hard time trying to find money changer in Hanoi. So exchanged money in airport was the most convenient way to me.

Noi Boi Airport Terminal taken on the last day of the trip. Ground level is Arrival Hall, you will see a lot of van and minibuses waiting. If none, a little walk to the carpark will see plenty of them.

Some Arguments with Adeline

We're not yet on the Tiger Airways plane but I already had some arguments with Adeline. I don't know why, but it seemed that every minor things and even non an issue can become a thing that made her impatient and got angry. This kind of incidents occasionally happened during the rest of our trip. Anyway, well, let's hope that things get better, and I will try to suit her as far as possible.

Tiger Airways Check-In and Boarding

Checked in Tiger Airways was fast and easy. Just providing the reservation number and it's all done. We were issued with boarding pass straight away. There was no seat number as Tiger Airways has 'free seating' policy, meaning you can choose wherever you want to sit, provided it's not yet taken. One minor negative point is that checked baggage and luggage allowance of only 15 kg, and additional 1 piece of unchecked or hand baggage plus a hand bag or laptop not exceeding 7 kg, 58cm x 38cm x 23cm in dimensions. Adeline needed to checked in her luggage as it's exceeded 7 kg. If exceeding 15 kg, prepares some money for excess baggage charge. Beside, officially it's not outside food and drink allowed, but they never enforced the rule.

Tiger Airways uses AirBus A320 aircraft. I found the leg room was quite comfortable. The rows of seat the lead to emergency doors have more leg room, and if you're seated by the emergency door you'll be asked to help operate the door in case of emergency. We initially sat on the row preceding the emergency doors. Guess what? The seat cannot be reclined. Luckily the flight was only about 70% full, and we moved to the rear of the plane that mostly vacant. If not it would be a very uncomfortable 3-hours flight.

During checking-in, we met with Danish who study Socialogy in National University of Singapore (NUS). He is a very interesting guy, and did a lot of preparation, including booked the hotel, where to get the best food and even learnt some Vietnamese.

Tiger Airways Airbus A320 that fly us to Hanoi Vietnam

Interior of Airbus A320 with pretty Tiger Airways stewardesses

Heavy Backpack Caused Delay

My Tatonka backpack was heavier than I expected. Just didn't know why I packed so many things till the backpack filled up. It weighed about 11 kg when I weighed it at Changi Airport. The heavy backpack delayed me for a while before leaving home, as I figured out how to reduce some weigh. Finally I decided to leave home my tripod. Due to this delay, I reached Changi airport only at about 2.30 pm instead of 2.00 pm initially planned.

Finally, depature time!

I am leaving my home now for the airport. The day waiting for finally arrived. See you Viet Nam!