Itinerary: Vietnam – Central Vietnam, 12 June – 18 July 2012

I had the opportunity to be part of a study abroad tour, and lived in central Vietnam for a bit. We did some cool side trips, so I will be reviewing those.

12 – 18 June: Hanoi

19 – 28 June: Hue

29 June – 01 July: Hoi An

02 July: Hue

03 – 11 July: Dong Ha

12 – 13 July: Dong Hoi

14 – 15 July: Dong Ha

16 – 17 July: Hue


Vietnam – Hanoi to Hue, 21 December 2004

The train ride was a sleepless one, as the train kept jamming its brakes, almost throwing me off my upper bunk, and of course, in the morning, I discovered that my wrist band from Sapa disappeared. 😦

Getting into Hanoi at 4am in the morning is one of the worst ideas in the world. As the train pulled into the station, all the touts wre already lining the platforms (how in the world did they get in?), waiting for the passengers to alight. In the mayhem, I lost the Korean boys, as there were more than one exit. Thankfully, two Canadian girls were kind enough to allow me to share the cab with them, though I ended up at Ma May, not exactly knowing what to do till sunrise, except to take the longest time in the world to eat my bowl of pho ga.

It must have been one of the longest waits for the sunrise in my life, as I paced up and down Hang Bac and Hang Be, waiting for the various shops to open up. After more touts circling round me and asking me to lodge at their hotels, that was when I decided to just move on from Hanoi, on the very same day, if it is possible.

Annoying as it is, morning is also an interesting time to watch Hanoi rise from sleep to work. At around 06 30, vendors gathered at the street market along Hang Be, selling stuff like fresh fruits and vegetables; overloaded motorcycles and cyclos also whizzed by, carrying things like a 2m high bouquet of flowers, and in the most hilarious situation– four dead pigs! This was a Vietnam that was oblivious to my existence, just humming along on its own. I think I like this Vietnam.

The magical hour finally arrived, and after some haggling, I finally managed to get my open ticket for USD 17. Perhaps due to my scare on my second night in Hanoi, I just stuck in the old town, passing my time reading, chatting with the guys operating the guesthouse, surfing the web, and buying novels. (Yes, I finally got the Da Vinci Code!)

Good bye Hanoi. I’m glad to be leaving. Maybe Hanoi will treat me differently when I speak her language.

Fresh Produce Market in Old Quarters.jpg

Vietnam – Sapa to Hanoi, 20 December 2004

I must have been forgotten by all the Sapa guides, as I was left to my own devices, for which I was glad, as my feet were simply too sore to move, and hence, I spent a leisurely afternoon at cool and calm Sapa, reading my book, chatting with people who came by, and watching the Singapore football team in action against the Vietnamese team. (or as I like to put it, watching my parent’s tax dollars roll)

It’s quite interesting to sit and watch the world bustle around you, you notice many amusing things, for example, two Korean boys running to the receptionist distraught, because they locked themselves out of their own room, or that ‘atas’ Singaporean yuppie trying to masquerade as a backpacker, when she ahd come back from Cat Cat (for the record, Cat Cat is the dead easiest trekking route that you wouldn’t break sweat over), bitching to all Caucasian males around me about the journey, whilst acting as if I didn’t exist even though I said ‘Hi’ to her in the morning. She’s probably a closet SPG trying to look “in”, amusing.

At approximately 16 30, I boarded the bus. Sleeping on the bus was a good idea, versus being awake, and watching the bus hurl down the winding roads of the mountain at 100+km/h. On the way down, the bus driver almost knocked into a toddler due to his fast and reckless driving, but instead of feeling apologetic, he seemed to thave hurled verbal abuses at the child’s guardian. Hmph!

Dinner was at Lao Cai, though the food served at the restaurant is an exact replica of what they serve at the Sapa Hotel, spelling mistakes intact. (think French Fried) Due to the nature of the crowds, I chose to seat myself near the two Korean boys. (yes, the same two who locked themselves out of the hotel back at Sapa) Perhaps due to their natural instinct to watch out for one of their own (Asians), they kindly walked with me to the train station in the dark, and offered to make arrangements for the three of us to get back to the Old Quarter together, since we were slated to arrive at 04 30. How nice of them!

I was thrown together with a Canadian couple in the train. They are pretty nice people, and we got a great laugh about the shoeshine boy’s sales jingle which went: “Uncle Ho shoeshine, best in Vietnam. No number one, no pay.”. That little tyke, who’s probably less than 10, was so persistant that he stood there and repeated his jingle for a full five mintues before moving on to the next cabin. Further disturbances of this nature was nipped in the bud, when the Canadian guy just bolted the door with a satisfied, “Ah ha!”

Knick Knacks on Sale.jpg

Traditional Knick knacks for sale in Sapa

Knick Knacks on Sale 2.jpg


Traditional Knick knacks for sale

Vietnam – Halong Bay to Hanoi to Sapa, 17 December 2004

A day summarised by journeys, the journey from Cat Ba back to Hanoi, followed by the journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai (a town bordering the Chinese border of Yunnan), which is on the way to Sapa, where the minority of Vietnam live.
The main incidents of the first journey involved the tour operator losing people in the group without even bothering! Firstly, they almost lost my Israeli friend at Cat Ba, and later, they lost the Polish guy at Halong, though we found him eating happily at the restaurant before us.
For the second, I almost missed the train, if not for the suggestion of my Israeli friend to leave my shopping at the guesthouse! But well, I was in time for the train. I shared a cabin with a friendly French family with an adopted Vietnamese child who couldn’t tear her eyes away from her Gameboy. Not even an offer of Tim Tams from me.
Pseudo Junks for Tourists
Kids Paddling around in Halong Bay

Vietnam – Hanoi, Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island, 16 December 2004

Today is a day-trip to Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s pretty nice, especially their massive caves, though their man-made looking ceilings make me wonder what was done to them. As someone commented, their use of light is pretty smart.

Halong Bay is a little like Koh Phi Phi magnified ten times, and its surrounding islands, except Thailand has more inviting waters than Vietnam has.

Meals? I don’t think they were fantastic or anything, and they consisted mostly of vegetables, and a boney fish, making me both hungry and miserable.

Something else also happened on the boat trip; due to the low tide, the bottom of the boat scrapped against the sea bed, and for a moment, there was a little panic about the seaworthiness of the vessel. But thankfully, all were safe.

On the way to Halong, seeing the villages and the elements of village life like the horse cart, the water buffaloes is refreshing compared to the huslte and bustle of city life in Hanoi.

By the time we reached Cat Ba, it was already dark, in fact, too dark to see anything, though I observed the amusing sight of floating homes having TVs as well! Looks like the TV has gotten a foothold on the lives of the Vietnamese, as I see it everywhere I go!

Dinner was the same as lunch, though post-dinner, I had yet another of those unpleasant Vietnamese encounters, where after the beer lady says 10 000 dong, ups her price rapidly to 15 000 dong when I produce a 50 000 dong note, and she kept insisting on that price! Thankfully this time round, I wasn’t alone, and hence, I didn’t get fleeced as I have been the past few days. I wish the Vietnamese would stop doing that.

Water Villages in Halong Bay – they have TVs!

Cave in Halong Bay

View of Halong Bay from the Cave

Halong Bay

Vietnam – Hanoi, 15 December 2004

Plans today were grand, but as usual, in much smaller scale in reality. Though I wanted to visit quite a number of museum, I ended up just going to Ho Chi Minh’s memorial and the Temple of Literature, trekking back to my accommodation on foot.
There must be something about English menus, but I stopped at the cafe by the Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s actually pretty nice to sit there and chill, enjoying the view of the lake.
After my late lunch, I decided to visit the Dong Xuan market, though I don’t like it as it was rather dim and crowded that I got worried about my possessions.
Today, I had my first taste of Vietnamese food, which included a bowl of pho, something resembling the local goreng pisang and a stick of barbequed meat. The pho tastes like the localised version of wanton noodles, perhaps only better and cheaper. The “goreng pisang” was also equally good, with the banana flesh meshed to the right amount and tastefully sweet; so was the bbq meat great and succulent– and they come cheap as well!
However, my experience with their local food markets wasn’t as funky. The smells coming from the markets is terrible, and there’s all kinds of trash on the floor, making me squemish. It almost feels as if I stepped on some animal’s brain.
Another experience that dampened my stay in Hanoi is the touts on the streets. First, it’s the cyclo driver who cheated me of 5000 dong under the excuse that he didn’t have any change, though I personally think he did. Secondly, when I sat down on a bench at Hoan Kiem Lake, some tout just started harassing me, using almost every method to get me to buy his stuff, failing which he started cursing me and trying to throw the book at me! That really ruined my day!

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

One Pillar Pagoda

Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) – one of the oldest universities in Vie tnam

Fresh Produce Market in Old Quarter

Vietnam – Hanoi, 14 December 2004

The flight to Hanoi was quite interesting. Towards the landing of the plane, I saw countless fields, more than what I have ever seen in my entire life, and moments before the plane landed, I saw a farmer working in the fields, with the necessary Vietnamese hat.

The “airport pickup” is rather interesting, even though it is kept to the letter, the spirit is missing; it basically involved a guy guiding me to the hotel via local bus and local taxi, rather my my pre-conceived chauffeurred car. But well, I got to sit on the local bus.

I think I must be crazy, as I just rented a bicycle and rode around the mad traffic of Hanoi, where all vehicles go everywhere and anywhere! Fortunately, I survived the crazy road conditions of Hanoi, and got some exercise.

Even though I planned on saving money and spending little, I ended up spending US100, though it’s supposed to covery my expenses for the next 5 days. Hopefully I won’t spend anymore money, and be back on track for my planned budget.

For dinner, I ate at a Western cafe. To date, I haven’t summoned up the courage to eat at their local stalls yet. Maybe tomorrow.

First impression of Ho Chi Minh City