Monday, May 09, 2005

Vietnam Railways Train to Lao Cai (Sapa)

We walked to the Hanoi Train Station (Ga Hanoi) from the Wing Cafe and Hotel in Old Quarter. It took us about 30 minutes to get there. It's not too far, but we spent some time to ask for direction. The Hanoi Vietnamese was very kind that all of them whom we asked helped us in a way or another.

There is 2 entrance to Ga Hanoi train station. Some guide books said you need to go to 1 entrance for train to particular cities, and another entrance for other cities. It might be true. But you can easily cross the railway track if you go to the wrong entrance. Any how we still needed to cross the railway track to get to platform in the middle. Ya, you have to walk across the track itself.

Bag Keeping in Hanoi

Most hotel in Hanoi will allowed you to keep your bags there, hoping that when you return, you will stay there. When we took our train tickets from Thanh Vinh Tourist Hotel, they also offered us to keep our bags there, plus free usage of bathroom. However, I would like to try out other hotel, and also the fact that I was a bit disappointed with the Halong Bay tour package that they gave us, we rejected their offer instead.

Then we found Wing Hotel and Cafe, under Minh Toan Hotel and Tourism Co. We booked with them a night stay after returning from Sapa for USD $8, bargained down from USD $10. They allowed us to keep the bag and usage of bathroom for free too. The receptionist there was a very cheerful and friendly girl, even promised us we can always knock the door if the train back from Lao Cai reaches Hanoi too early. What she didn't tell us was there is extra charge for early check-in.

Sugar Cane Juice

It's cheap here, and freshly made for just VND 2,000

Mien Luon

We had a Mien Luon for dinner at a shop at Hang Dieu before boarding the train, which costs about VND 7,000. Mien Luon also called eel soup with translucent noodles or eel cassava vermicelli in English. Mien (vermicelli made of cassava) threads are very long and tough, made from a kind of tuber plant called the cassava. The eel is chopped into small chunks and fried beforehand before being put atop, and the soup itself is clear and very lightly flavoured.

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater

Water Puppets, or Mua Roi Nuoc is an ancient art form that unique to northern Vietnam, which traces its origins to rice-farmer folk culture. Hanoi is the best place to watch Water Puppets performance which is origined from Hanoi. We watched it at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater at first-class seats which cost VND 40,000. There are second-class seats that costs VND 20,000. The differences being that first-class seats are in the front of the theater, and are given a CD that recorded musics played in water puppet performance. At the day we visited, there were show at 4 pm, 5.15 pm, 6.30 pm and 8 pm.

The traditional musicians, who also acted as story tellers and voice of characters during Water Puppet show.

The water puppets moved and danced in a shallow pool of murky water (to hide the mechanisms operating them) and were accompanied by the voices and instruments of a groupd of traditional Vietnamese musicians.

The theatre which water puppet performed. The show was entirely in Vietnamese, but it was very lively and understandable from its gesture.

The water puppets showed northern vietnam's agricultural practices and acted out Vietnam's history and mythology. Here was phoenix puppets.

Vietnamese water puppets performed dance.

The water puppeteers which stood behind the curtained backdrop during the show.

Some of the water puppeteers re-arranged the stage and cleaned the pool after the show.

The sales girl showed how a water puppet works

Monument in Vietnam

Vietnam is a Communist state. So there are few monuments in Hanoi that represent struggling of the people. This Martyrs' Monument is dedicated to all the soldiers who gave their lives fighting for independence. It's located at the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake.

Ngoc Son Temple

We reached Hanoi at about 3.30 pm. The train ticket to Sapa haven't delivered to the hotel yet, so we decided to catch the Water Puppet show if possible, which is right beside Hoan Kiem Lake. So while waiting for the Water Puppet Show to start, we had a walk to Ngoc So Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake.

Entrance to Ngoc Son Temple (Den Goc Son) was through Tam Quan (Three Passage) Gate.

The red wooden Huc (Sunbeam) bridge leads to the Ngoc Son Temple after Tam Quan Gate.

Vietnamese Hospitality

Once in Hanoi, the first things that we did was to have a sinh to fruit shake again, as the weather was hot. Here we met a Vietnamese girl Dien who paid for our sinh to! What a wonderful ordinary Vietnamse.

Traffic in Hanoi Vietnam

Traffic in Vietnam was really crazy. Basically they still follow a rule - drive on the right and stop while red traffic light. However, bike drivers were not obliged to wear helmet, and they just didn't have the habit to give way, to other pedestrians or other motorists. So what they did is (and they do have a great skill in) avoiding clash with other people or vehicles.

Which way to go?

Mid Way Stop

The minibus stop at this place Rong Vang Ba Tien mid way back to the Hanoi. It was not an interesting shop that basically just selling overpriced souvenir.

Halong Bay Tour Package Selection Guides and Tips

With so many tour operators and travel cafes / agencies operating tours to the vast Halong Bay, confusion tends to arise. It's especially so when the price for the tour packages can range from USD $16 to over USD $100. Here is my observation and guide on how to best enjoy and get the best value out of the Halong Bay trip.

Disclaimer: This article is solely based on my observation and experience on the time of my visit. It may be incorrect or becomes incorrect as time passed.

How's the tour behind the scene works?
To understand how a tour in Vietnam usually works, different between tour operator and travel agent must be understood. Tour operator basically operates the tour, while travel agent, or travel cafe usually just an agent or reseller for the tour operator. In Vietnam sense, Sinh Cafe (original) is a tour operator, and all other hotels, hostels, travel cafes, travel agents that usually also carry the name 'Sinh Cafe' are just the agent or reseller for Sinh Cafe.

Travel agents earn money via commission for each tour package sold. But sometimes you may be charged out ridiculous price if you give travel cafes such an opportunity. Beside, you have no control on the quality of the tour too, as the travel cafes can just promise anything, but cannot deliver as it's not them who operate the tour. Worse is they just have the intention to get your business with all sweet words.

According to Ha, whose husband Culi Cage owned Wide Eyed Tours, even tour operators sometimes also 'sell' their travelers to other operators, if they cannot have enough customers to start a profitable tour. In this case, again, you will have no control of the quality of the tour, and the itinerary might be different too.

Which is the 'Real' Sinh Cafe?
Frankly speaking, I also not sure. If you search for 'Sinh Cafe' in Google, the search results will have plenty of Sinh Cafes.

Of which Sinh Cafe Vietnam is believe to be 'genuine' Sinh Cafe.

I used to email Sinh Cafe - Open Tour or Sinh Cafe Travel - TransVietnam (depends on which website you go to), their response was pretty fast. I believe they're the same company with Sinh Cafe Travel & Tour or Vietnam Open Tour. They did give me a very detailed itinerary of their Halong Bay tour, with description of what will be done on first boat trip and the second boat trip on second day for USD $30, reasonable price if all itinerary is done. Too bad we didn't try it out as it's too late when we reached Hanoi.

Hanoi Tourism Service Company (Torseco Hanoi) is the parent company of Sinh Cafe. But the price on their website is not cheap either.

All contact details can be found on their website respectively.

What is Open Tour?
It's a bus service that run throughout Vietnam everyday, of which you can stop at anywhere as you like that the bus goes through, and stay as long as you want before continuing the trip. In Hanoi, Open Tour is used widely as Sinh Cafe to attract travelers.

I have limited budget, which tour should I take?
I met an Israelite Netidrori who said it's possible to get a tour to Halong Bay for 3 days 2 nights with 1 night on sleeping on boat for USD $16. I believe it's the cheapest price in town. He himself paid USD $28 just for the single room at another travel agency. What happened was he was assigned to sleep with another guy! Only after complaint that he managed to get to cabin to himself. So, that's your expectation if you choose lowest price.

The travel cafe is Eco Tours, located at No 9, Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem district. Phone no. is 84-4-9260815 or 9260715. Mobile no. is 09 12 227701. Email is

Is small group matters?
A lot of guide books stressed on 'small group' of the tours in order to enjoy more of the tour. It may be case during peak tourism season. I found the small group and big group on bus journey to Halong Bay is totally useless. The fact is, in small group, you will ride smaller minibus. In big group, most likely you will ride bigger bus. On junk may be it's better to be in small group, the only different is is it really the case.

Any mid-budget tour to Halong Bay?
Try Sinh Cafes that listed above, or travel operators that listed in various guide books. I don't suggest to book via your hotels or travel cafes, as you may pay mid-range price to get the lowest quality tour.

ODC Travel did email me with their itinerary. 2 days 1 night overnight on boat at Lan Ha Bay costs USD $35.

Or you may try Wide Eyed Tours whose we met the owner's wife, who also so coincidentally has a friend that Adeline also known in Singapore. She said they use Hai Ao Junk in Halong Bay, and charge mid-range price. They are located at 40 Luong Ngoc Quyen.

I want the best!
Yes, the various guide books list numerous of them. The most famous must be Handspan Adventure Travel Vietnam. Or you may book directly with the junk operator in Halong Bay itself. This way you may save some commission that earns by travel agency, but you have to figure out the way to go to Halong City yourself.

Is it possible to go straight to Halong Bay and book the boat from there?
Yes, I had been approached by several people to take up their boat when at tourist wharf in Halong City. One people quoted me about VND 60,000. But I am not sure if it's a junk or a boat, how long is the duration or what's the itinerary. I guess if you want to overnight on boat, it's better to take a tour from Hanoi.

On the Way to Hanoi

After leaving Halong City for just a while, the minibus crossed a bridge which exposed beautiful scene on the river, quite similar to that of Halong Bay. This inferior photo took thru the bus windows.

Vietnam is second largest rice exporter in the world. So there is a lot of paddy rice field in the countryside.

Lunch at Thang Long Restaurant

We reached Bai Chay of Halong City at about 11 am, earlier than usual. Later we had lunch at Thang Long air-conditioning restaurant. It's a hot day today. There were souvenirs sold here too, and the price just a bit more expensive than Hanoi, if you're not good in bargaining.

Bien Mo Junk

This was Bien Mo Junk that we overnite and spent the second day in Halong Bay. I would say it's of lower class.

Chat on the Junk

Today boat trip of Halong Bay was my biggest consent, as most Sinh Cafe or Open Tour tour package just stated that 'the junk will bring you to tour other part of Halong Bay' without any specific destination. So it turned out to be my nightmare, the junk simply brought us back to Bai Chay (Halong City) along the longer route across Halong Bay, with no stoppage at anywhere. So we can just sat on the junk and have a nice chat, other than appreciate the wonder of nature beauty.

Fishing in Halong Bay

We were not brought to fish as promised, but fishing has been livelihood for a lot of people in Halong Bay.

Just wonder how they fished, by using just a tiny line?

Another method of fishing with net.

More of 'Other Part' of Majestic Halong Bay

Headed back to Halong Cit to back to Hanoi, while the junk brought us to 'other part' of Halong Bay. There were lots of floating villages here.

Bien Mo Junk's dragon statue was different from the previous junk.

The Halong Bay limestone outcrops got every kind of shape you can think of. Here it looks like human face from the side?

The main disappointment during our trip of Halong Bay was lack of the junks' sail to complement the beauty of Halong Bay.

Some limestone and dolomite rock islets have opening at water level. Some can be kayaking thru. Some is the only way to go the enclosed secret lagoon behind it.

Pillar like rock formation, with the bottom level at sea level been corroded by sea water.

Interesting unique shape of structure in Halong Bay

Lonely small islet

Dramatic limestone outcrops

Magnificent Halong Bay where island itself is a limestone mountain that rises above the sea. And there is mountain after mountain.

Halong Bay with its calm water. Halong Bay really acts as a shield that stops all the violent wave, so it's hard to get sea sick in Halong Bay. Initially the route that the junk took was so close to open sea that the junk was swinging up and down, and soon I got sea sick. But once the junk was surrounded by Halong Bay unique limestone islands, it became stable again.

Our 'low cost' Bien Mo Junk

Enjoyable roof of a junk, but not ours....

Bien Mo Junk that ferried us, untidy, used for hanging clothes, and even water tank was here!

More of Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island where the junk pier located.

Other side of Cat Ba Island

Boat hawkers getting ready to search for 'prey'

Cat Ba Island

Floating village off Cat Ba Island links to Cat Ba Island via a floating bridge

The floating bridge were steep off the side of island, also served as pier for small boat

Cat Ba Island is adjacent and geologically similar to the islands and peaks of Halong Bay but sperated by a broad channel. It is an impressive array of limestone mountains, overgrown with jungle.

We're promised 2 hours on Cat Ba Island from Ha yesterday, but it was reduced to mere 30 minutes due to everybody didn't want to wake up, including the crews and also misunderstanding that caused by some crews that said we were not allowed to the island. So we just wondered around the wharf area. The houses here were similar to those in Hanoi, which are generally narrow in width but long, to pay less tax during old time.

View of Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island

Back to Cat Ba Island, Again

The boat sailed back to Cat Ba Island again, this time to pick up passengers who were transfered to hotel yesterday. Today it's not raining, so we had a better view of Halong Bay.

Cliff that appeared right out of water level

Lonely boat in Halong Bay early morning hour