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Asia Trip 2011: Day 4 – Halong Bay

Having done some exhaustive research the last few days, I decided that I wanted to splurge on my trip to Halong Bay. It would be a once in a lifetime deal, and if they made it to the New 7 Wonders of the World, the prices would surely inflate even more. We settled with the Galaxy Cruise at a price of $111 USD per person. It wasn’t our first choice, but since the boat was brand new (on the water since March 2011), we felt it was a good bargain.

We checked out of our hotel early that morning, and the payment process was relatively painless. We learned then and there that a 3% charge applies to all credit card transactions, but since we didn’t have enough cash to cover our entire bill (the three nights plus tour bookings plus train ticket to Hue), we had to shrug our shoulders on this one. The tour guide came to get us and 8am and seemed to be extremely rushed – I didn’t have time to use the washroom before I left the hotel. I mentioned to him that I would like to go before we set off, and he kept saying “20 minutes”. Finally, after an hour and a half of him saying “20 minutes” (and from the original estimate we should’ve been at the rest station by then), I told him I had to go. He didn’t seem very pleased, but asked the driver to pull over for me to use a WC. We ended up in a gas station. With the most vile toilet I’ve ever seen.

So I’m not complaining about the tour company and all, since I know they can’t control the state of washrooms outside of their specific rest areas, but seriously. This was terrible. If you’re eating, you should probably read this later. Basically, I went to the washroom assuming it’d be some squat hole, but it turned out to be an actual toilet. It smelled terrible, but that’s the norm. The warning bell rang when I looked to my right and saw a pile of crap that someone had just left there, on the ground. Right next to a toilet. Of course, curiousity got the better of me and I decided to look into the toilet, that apparently hadn’t seen running water in a long time, to find it completely infested with maggots. Most. Disgusting. Thing. Ever.

Anyways.

I ran out of there as soon as I could, and lo and behold the rest station was 20 minutes away. With proper clean toilets, with running water. It was like paradise. I wish I had brought my wallet in with me, because there was a fruit stand in there, and their produce looked delicious. They had baby pineapples (peeled and cut up) for 20,000 dong! I made a mental note to bring my wallet on the way back the next day so I could buy one.

We finally made it to Halong Bay by 12:30pm, and had to do some waiting around while the company shifted people from the previous cruise off the ship. It’s interesting how they keep everything moving, and you don’t understand what’s happening until you’ve gone through the entire process. Basically, they have people on the ship from the previous cruise waiting until the van arrives. Only then do they let those passengers off the cruise via a smaller motorboat and they swap places with the people on the van.

The boat party consisted of an Irish / Thai couple, a married couple from Indonesia, a young and old couple from Germany (who don’t know each other), two backpackers from somewhere in Europe (I didn’t get a chance to chat with them), and an Australian couple. It was small, and it was comfortable. It seemed a bit disorganized at first, with the waiting around, but once we got on the boat and got introduced to everyone, things started to settle down a bit. The food they served was okay. I read a lot of reviews from travellers saying that cruise ships in Halong Bay serve fantastic food, with great portions. But I didn’t really notice that. The food was good, I liked the variety and presentation, but we finished everything they served, and I’m sure A could’ve eaten more. We spent our lunch with the couple from Thai, and had a great time learning about their jobs as teachers there.

A and I had a lovely room on the lower deck. The roof deck had lounge chairs for sunbathing, and the middle deck had an open sitting area by the front. Overall, the boat is in great shape. Our two tour guides were very nice, and chatted with us a lot. After taking a small break to chill, we took the smaller boat out to the Surprising Cave. It’s basically comprised of three caves, with a lot of random rock formations. It’s beautiful inside, though some of it is artificially lit with colourful lights, ruining the atmosphere a bit. The views from the cave opening are splendid though. After exploring the cave, we got the chance to go kayaking around the area. The tour guide told us we had until 4:50 to kayak (it was 4:10 at that time), so we went off exploring as soon as we got into our boat. Apparently, right after we left, they changed their minds and told everyone to be back by by 4:30. Soooo A and I were kayaking around until well after it had gotten dark, making the most of our time on the kayak (that we were terrible with, it constantly veered left, and it was such effort to make it turn right). When we got back to the docks at 4:50, completely pitch dark, we found that everyone was already sitting in the travel boat waiting for us. They all thought we had gotten lost, and they seemed a bit grumpy. Whoops.

There was an option to swim when we got back to our boat, but it was completely dark outside and the water didn’t seem very warm, so no one took the option. I wonder if anyone on any boat would take the option to swim in such dark conditions. I also didn’t feel like the water was very clean… but maybe that’s just me. Instead, when we got back to our boat we took a break and settled down for dinner. This time around, we sat with with the couple from Indonesia, who were both vegetarians. I felt bad for them, since their food options were extremely limited. Most of the time they got tofu in supplement for our amazing display of pork or beef. Even they seemed really unimpressed. We also noticed a new couple that had joined us at the next table over. They had just come back from a two-day kayaking tour and were headed back to land with us. After dinner, we chatted with them and found out they were from Calgary! We ended up hanging out the rest of the time on the boat the next day.

The entertainment post-dinner was either karaoke or squid-fishing. While squid-fishing sounded really appealing, Jeff and Kathy (the Calgary couple) found from the tour guides that it was well past squid season, and the chances of us catching anything are next to nothing. But it seemed like karaoke was a pretty poor alternative, as the room quickly cleared out and the only people who were singing was the tour guide (a VERY bad rendition of Hello by Lionel Ritchie), and the bartender. We tried fishing regardless, but I was feeling pretty tired and congested, so I went to bed early out of fear I had caught a cold.

All rooms had A/C, which is great because every boat in the harbour left their engines on, and the air outside reeked of engine fumes. The beds were extremely comfortable, and the outlets accepted North American plugs, so we could charge all out stuff while we slept.

Asia Trip 2011: Day 2 – Hanoi

We woke up at 6:30am to be ready for breakfast at 7am. We had a full day of walking around the city to do, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was only open until 11am, so we wanted to get there quick.

After enjoy our pho breakfast (with fresh juice and a tea / coffee and some fruit), we set off on foot to the Mausoleum to pay our respects to the famous Vietnamese president. The mausoleum is open for 10 months of the year – the rest of the time it is closed for maintenance, and we were lucky enough to arrive shortly after its re-opening. It’s a bit of a walk from out hotel, and we got lost for a little bit as well since the streets are not in a grid format, but we eventually found our way there. The area around the Mausoleum is very large, and there’s a beautiful square out front which no one is allowed to tread on. If you ever plan to visit this place, remember to bring something to cover up – shorts and tank tops are not permitted. Cameras and electronics are not allowed as well, and large bags need to be checked in. There are guards everywhere, so you always have to follow the rules and they make sure you don’t wander anywhere you’re not supposed to be. We got in trouble for whispering as we approached the Mausoleum, and were motioned to keep our hands by our sides at all times.

The visit isn’t just for tourists though, several locals come to pay their respects often. The queue for this trip is quite long, so make sure you arrive around 9am. There are several other areas to visit once you’ve gone through the Mausoleum, including the stilt house that Ho Chi Minh used to live in, and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. There is also the beautiful One Pillar Pagoda in the area as well.

After our stop there, we made our way to the Temple of Literature. The site of the first university in Vietnam, this place holds several stelae (large stone tablets) used to track the names of exceptional scholars, all of whom were given their examination questions by the King himself. The Temple is also a place where locals go to pray to Confucius and his four favourite disciples in hopes that their children will have good grades and excel in school.

A was very confused to see several Chinese characters here. All the stelae were engraved in Chinese, as well as the phrases above the doors and gates. Every time I asked for a translation, he said it didn’t make any sense. I claimed I had a faulty translator, but there was nothing we could do about it. After visiting the temple, we walked to a highly recommended restaurant in our guidebook called KOTO for a quick bite.

From there, we slowly made our way to the French Quarter on the other side of the lake. I commented about how we hadn’t seen very many schools in the area, when we turned a corner and obviously, there was a school. We also wandered into what we thought was a department store, which turned out to be an electronics store and people followed us around until we left. We finally found the famed Hoan Kiem lake, where the emperor Le Loi received a magical sword from a golden turtle, which helped him fight off the Chinese. The turtle is one of the four prominent animals in Vietnamese culture, representing wisdom and patience. I thought that was pretty funny, since I had said that A’s mascot is a turtle, but more like this one. We tried to get tickets to the water puppet show (thinking it’d be a good rest), but they were sold out for the next two days! Now I’ll never get to see it :(

We took pictures at the Opera House and walked past the Metropole Hotel before finally deciding to take a break and head back to our hotel. After a quick bit of research, we jotted down the walking tour recommended by our Lonely Planet book, as well as an address for what a local blogger said was one of the best bun cha stalls in the city. Excited about food, we made the trek back out and walked up and down several streets, which mostly consisted of shops and stalls separated by their wares (an entire street devoted to toys or tin or altars). The baguette & chocolate place recommended in the guide book was nowhere to be found, and the bun cha place was not open. Defeated and hungry, we wandered back to our hotel area where I spotted a banh mi store. I quickly picked one up to tide me over until dinner.

We went back to our hotel and asked the receptionist where I could get some bun cha. She recommended a stall down the street that closed at 7pm, so A and I hustled down to the place for a quick dinner. They apparently charge more for tourists, since the couple next to us got coke and the same meal for only 100,000 VND whereas A and I paid 120,000 VND for just the meal. That aside, the food was so delicious that I ordered it again the next day (except I had the receptionist call ahead for us so we could get the local rate).

Pretty sure the rest of the night was spent doing nothing, since I don’t remember anything happening that evening.

Asia Trip 2011: Day 1 – Hanoi

After many months of talking and researching, A and I finally bit the bullet and booked ourselves a trip to Vietnam. It worked out fairly well for us, my parents were headed back to Hong Kong for an extended vacation and we would make our stop there first to drop off luggage and see family we haven’t visited in over 5 years. From there, we would fly into Ha Noi and begin our Vietnam / Cambodia adventure for two weeks, before heading back to Hong Kong, and then home.

Hong Kong was definitely a good place to stop over before heading to Vietnam. We were able to adjust to the time-zones better, we had a place to stay, and we always people to see / things to do / places to eat at. I was a bit sad to leave Hong Kong for our trip, but I don’t think I would be saying such nice things about the city if I was visiting there for a month. The traffic and amount crowds require some getting used to, coming from my relaxing city in Canada! But it was nothing compared to Vietnam!

When we arrived in Ha Noi, we had arranged for someone to meet us at the airport. The airport is 45 minutes away by car from the city, so some hotels offer free pick-up service if you stay three nights. Definitely worth it, since I heard so many stories of taxi scams. Traffic here is madness. Cars and scooters and motorbikes (the main modes of transport) all drive between the lines and take up lanes and cram into whatever small spaces they can just to move forward a bit. Honking is the common language here and everyone lays on that horn. The city is noisy and even more crowded than Hong Kong, and was very overwhelming when we arrived.

Something we found useful was to have a city map downloaded onto our iPad with the GPS on, so we could see where we were going in the car to the hotel. It helped us familiarize with the area a bit and gave us a good sense of distances to different areas of the city.

We stayed at the Charming Hotel (#15 Yen Thai Street, Hoan Kiem District). It’s off a small street that looks like an alley way, with several other small hotels surrounding it. The place was cute, the room was small, but it was clean and comfortable and the people were very friendly and helpful. We arrived too late to make it to the train station, so the hotel offered to book us our train tickets while we explored the city the next day. They also exchanged VND for USD at the going rate on the Vietcombank website. We ended up booking an additional Perfume Pagoda tour and Halong Bay overnight tour through the hotel as well, to save us the trouble of having to find tour companies.

Also, Charming Hotel offers free breakfast. There is the regular continental (toast and jam), the American (the continental with eggs), and pho. A and I picked the pho breakfast for each of our three days there, but it varied from day to day and the second day was probably the best bowl.

As it was starting to get dark, A and I decided to do a quick walk around the block before calling it a day. We wandered only two streets away when it started to drizzle. The locals began pulling off to the side, which was probably a warning sign for us, but we continued to walk because what’s a bit of rain to Vancouverites, right? Wrong. It began pouring, and we were drenched within seconds. The locals were apparently prepared for rain, and they began pulling out a rain poncho that not only covered themselves, but also covered their scooters. Then they got right back on the road and continued driving. The rain got so bad, that the streets started to flood up, and soon the road was probably ankle deep with water. We hid under a shop awning for about fifteen minutes, and when we realized the rain wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, we hoofed it back to a restaurant we saw while walking that had a few backpackers in it. Turns out, quite a few other tourists had the same idea, and we were lucky enough to pick up the last table.

When the rain let down after 45 minutes, we made our way back to the hotel, picking up some water on the way, and the day was over by 9pm.