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Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy – Hanoi, Vietnam

Continuation from Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy – Halong Bay, Vietnam

Chapter 1: Vietnam

Episode 3: Hanoi, Vietnam

When we arrived at 5.30am at Oriental Central Hotel, the door was locked. We sat outside of the hotel with our luggage, chasing mosquitoes away, until about an hour later when a staff reported to work and opened the door. We sneaked in and stored our luggage inside.

IMG_6909As we were unable to check in, we walked to the center of Hanoi near the Hoan Kiem Lake. The place was pretty and lively with people exercising everywhere. Cyclists, Joggers, Dancers, Aerobic lovers, and Tai Chi experts – you name it, they were up very early in the morning. It was an interesting scene. We joined the dancing group and danced our way. It was fun.

In Singapore, the first thing we do waking up is thinking what to have for breakfast. At least that’s what I think lol. Meanwhile, in Hanoi, we can see that the locals really enjoy exercising. I wish I could have the same discipline. As we all know, keeping fit and eating healthily is important to live life to the fullest.

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IMG_6896We walked around the lake and had breakfast at one of the restaurants. Nicky was excited when he found croissants on the menu, he loves croissants. The cappuccino was nice, but not the croissant. It was too dry with weird aromas. After our breakfast, we walked back to the hotel, which is in the heart of Old Quarter.

Oriental Central Hotel is a good boutique hotel. It is located close to the Hoan Kiem Lake, Opera House, night market, shops, and restaurant. The staff was friendly, always smiling, and helpful. However, this small property does not open 24 hours, and not all staff can speak good English. We encountered some miscommunication during our stay.

IMG_7362After checking in and freshened up, we walked back to the Hoan Kiem Lake and crossed the Huc Bridge to visit Ngoc Son Temple, which is located on a small island in the middle of the lake.

We then spent the whole day at the Old Quarter walking the streets just looking and soaking up, and immersed in the cultural experience. There were lots going on. We enjoyed looking at the beautiful old buildings, vintage stores, and authentic shops. The simplicity of life makes Vietnam so interesting. It felt like stepping back into the past.

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When we arrived Hanoi from Halong Bay, we explored the night market. There were loads of ornaments, clothes, souvenirs, and street foods. Prices were cheaper than the store and the sellers did not hassle tourists. The street food looks inviting and the whole concept of sitting outside restaurants with low seating chairs and small tables were simply amazing.

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The next morning, we were strolling along the west lake, when we stumbled upon Den Quan Thanh Temple. It is a small ancient temple with very picturesque old style Viet gate. In the courtyard, there were several people practicing martial arts.

Outside the temple, we took motorbike taxis to bring us to our next destination, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh District. There was a super long queue to pay homage to the Communist leader of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. Although Singaporeans are known for being ‘kiasu’, like to queueing up for everything ahead of time, I am not one of them. Queueing up drives me crazy. After taking a few photography shots of the vicinity, we went to the Temple of Literature.

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The Temple of Literature was the site of the first university and the shrine to Confucius. The buildings of traditional Vietnamese architecture are well preserved. During our visit, there were a few group of students attended the prayer for their graduation ceremony.

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Hao Lo Prison (Maison Centrale) was the last stop for the motorbike taxis. I was not keen to visit prison but Nicky thought it would be interesting. Having been to Alcatraz island in San Francisco, USA, and learning about the prisoner’s traumatic experiences, prison visits are never on my travel list.

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Hao Lo Prison was built by the French colonial government in 1880’s. It was supposed to house 500 inmates but when French was defeated in 1950’s, there were about 2,000 prisoners held. Imagine their state of living; overcrowding, brutality, grief, and suffering.

Hoa Lo Prison has played a significant part in Vietnam’s history, both in the French colonial period and during the war with the United States of America.

During the Vietnam War in the year 1967, USA Senator John McCain narrowly escaped death. His jet was shot down over Hanoi and he was badly injured. He endured five and a half years as a prisoner of war (POW). Senator John McCain pilot suit and parachute were displayed among the items exhibited in the museum.

Unlike Alcatraz, there isn’t much to see in this “Hanoi Hilton”. The museum is quite tiny but the little things they exhibited with historical artifacts and photos were interesting.  My chest felt heavy walking around, always felt this way when visited a place of misery. I told Nicky it’s time to leave.

IMG_7584We thought of watching water puppet or opera that evening but missed the show-time. So, we just walking around and getting lost, wandering the streets of Hanoi. We found many hidden beautiful and unique cafes. The two we stumbled upon was Café Pho Co and Café Nola. The place was so charming.

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IMG_6113 - Version 2Hanoi is an interesting city and we find it fascinating. We enjoyed the walks, the wonderful old buildings, architecture, the hustle and bustle of the street life, monuments, and the people. The food was delicious and varied, and the place has a wonderful vibe to it.

IMG_0823Interesting Places Visited:

  • Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son – wonderful, multiple visits to include early mornings
  • Hoa Chi Minh Mausoleum – long queue, only for those with patience and patriotism
  • Temple of Literature – nice ambiance
  • Hoa Lo Prison Museum – small but interesting
  • Hanoi Old Quarter – wonderful experience
  • Quan Thanh Temple – nice ambiance

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Travel Advice (notes from the hotels):

  • Beware of scams in Vietnam (we did not encounter this)
  • Do not touch anything if you do not want to buy it
  • Do not talk or smile to vendors if you do not want to buy anything
  • Be relaxed and confident crossing the road
  • Check the item(s) carefully before buying
  • Should not walk alone on the street after 11 pm
  • Be careful using your cell phone when on the street
  • Beware of pickpockets

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Memories of Vietnam

Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy – Halong Bay, Vietnam

Continuation from Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy – Sapa, Vietnam

Chapter 1: Vietnam

Episode 2: Halong Bay, Vietnam

IMG_7075 copyHalong Bay trip is not cheap. The mid-range price for a decent cruise was around USD400 for two nights. As a budget conscious and an adventurous person, I thought of spending three nights at Cat Ba island, where we can take a day or two trips to Halong Bay, or the surrounding bays from there. But with limited days, the luggage, transportation and such, that would be too much a hassle.

After checking all reviews, we opted on either Dragon Pearl or Signature Royal Cruise. I contacted Oriental Central Hotel, the hotel we’ve booked in Hanoi, on whether they have a package deal. The tour consultant came back and offered a tour with Signature Royal, which includes a van transfer to Halong City and a complimentary transfer to the airport.

IMG_7130The luxury van transfer from Hanoi was smooth and we reached Halong City after three and a half hours. We were warmly welcomed by the Cruise Manager, Vinh. He asked whether we have any food allergies, and preferences for special diets.  After about an hour wait, we were transferred to the main vessel where the crew gave us a warm welcome.

I have booked the smallest room without balcony, and it turns out to be more than perfect. The room has a nice layout and was beautifully decorated, with enough windows where we can take in the sights of beautiful Halong Bay and the surrounding areas. The ensuite bathroom is equipped with a Jacuzzi bath, hairdryer, and modern toilet (bidet).

After our delicious lunch, our itinerary was to go to Vung Vieng fishing village by local rowing boats to explore the daily lives of its inhabitants. As of many tour groups, which I always try to avoid whenever possible, it was difficult to get some people to be on time. Ignorance? Selfish? Vinh called their rooms to check on their participation.

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The rowboats took us to the village, toured the floating school, fish farms, and the oyster farms. We were shown how pearls are formed by salt water and fresh water, the culturing process, and the final products. There were no hard selling in the gift shop so I didn’t see the problems with this tour. I am always happy to see those beautiful intricate creations. I love pearls!

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In the evening, the cruise conducted a traditional cooking class. Guests were invited to participate and try their skills on making the Vietnamese Spring Roll. It was fun.

Unfortunately, during our visit, we didn’t get to watch the sunsets. However, the view was still beautiful with shimmering lights from the other boats. “We didn’t have a clear sunset but we have each other,” I overheard the conversation at the next table. So lovely…

IMG_7252 copyAfter our sumptuous barbecue dinner, we try our luck with the night squid fishing but it seems that the squids were disappearing from us too.

We woke up very early the next morning to attend sunrise Tai Chi on the upper deck. Nicky was fascinated with the exercise techniques as he felt relax and refresh. He told Vinh, the Tai Chi Sifu, that he will practice often at home. I’m not sure if he did.

IMG_0500aWe were part of a two-night stay, and so after our breakfast, we were transferred to a smaller boat that took us to Cong Dam area. All of us did kayaking which was so enjoyable. An older couple claimed that they had never been kayaking before. At first, they were a bit hesitant and just wanted to stay on the boat. The staff encouraged them to try and after a while, they really enjoyed their kayaking adventure. It became the highlight of their trip.

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IMG_0461We stopped at a nice secluded beach to relax and take some pictures, before kayaking back to the boat. Some guests swimming around the area, and others reading a book and sun-tanning on the upper deck. There was a cool breeze coming off the sea, and we were enjoying ourselves out here on vacation away from it all.

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Eating with our eyes first – beautiful delicious meal

The lunch was delicious, we had a set meal and I wondered how we can finish them. Being a small eater, I have never eaten so much food but it was too delicious to stop. Signature Royal Cruise pampers all their guests with attention to details.

For Halong cruise ship, it was a continuous cycle. The cruise takes new guests from the harbor, and the next day after breakfast, the two or three nights guests will be transferred to a smaller boat for the day tour while those who were on the last day of the cruise trip, will be taken on a tour of the cave. After that, they will enjoy their delicious brunch before transported back to Halong City wharf. New guests will arrive and the remaining guests will be cruising back to the main boat to join the groups.

In the evening, we had a great five-course dinner which was worth mentioning. The food includes pumpkin soup, pomelo salad with Halong squid cake, roasted chicken marinated in Vietnamese herbs, prawn and scallop with mashed sweet potato, lotus seeds sticky rice and vegetables, and a traditional sweet dessert. What more could one ask for? The food was magnificent and sumptuous. The scenery was breathtaking.

On our last day, after light breakfast, we were taken to Thien Canh Son cave. The scenery of Bai Tu Long Bay and Ha Long Bay from the top of the cave was stunning. The cave was simply gorgeous with the entire ceiling shine by thousands of glittering stalactites. The stone forms unique images which I thought was artsy.

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Signature Royal Cruise has various activities onboard. They have good happy hour specials, traditional cooking class, morning Tai Chi, night squid fishing, movies night, and many board games to keep guests entertained. The upper deck was nice for guests to relax, interact with each other, and scenery watching.

IMG_0578When we booked Signature Royal, we had no expectations. We had a great time onboard. The food was outstanding, the crew was excellent, and the service was beyond our expectations. It made our experience a memorable one.

Being recognized as the natural wonder of the world by UNESCO, Halong Bay is a worth visiting place. The scenery is splendid especially if one visit during nice weather. Imagine watching the beautiful sunsets over the bays, and the night sky full of stars… Do not miss out on this natural beauty.

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Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy – Sapa, Vietnam

Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy

“It is my dream to visit Kyoto – Japan, India, and Sapa – Vietnam,” Nicky said.

For some reasons, Nicky has to pack his bags and return to Italy. He doesn’t know when he can visit Asia again but for sure it won’t be anytime soon. He wanted to make this trip home worthwhile.

As I am tight with work, we can only choose two. So, after discussing the impact and such, we decided to visit Hanoi, Vietnam, which includes Sa Pa and Halong Bay. The next stop is Delhi, India, which include Agra and Jaipur.

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Chapter 1: Vietnam

Episode1: Sapa, Vietnam

Train Station Hanoy Lady W.M.

Train Attendant @ Orient Express (night train)

The nine hours journey to Sapa was an adventure itself. Although we paid a premium price, we couldn’t see the scenic landscape of the countryside outside the window as it was dark, and we had a poor night of sleep. The mattress was hard and unbearable.

As we arrived in Lao Chai, we catch a shared van to Sapa which stopped near the Holy Rosary Church. I remembered dragging our bags to Sapa Dragon Hotel. It was located a little uphill but this hotel was the best hotel we’ve had in Vietnam. Not only that it was conveniently located to the Quang Truong Square, shops, restaurants, and the route to Cat Cat Village, the service was also impeccable.  The staff spoke good English and was always friendly and helpful. So instead of a one-night stay, we extended another night.

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We were walking around for breakfast when we were approached by a lady of Black H’mong minority, Mamasa, who offered her trekking service. At first, I was a bit hesitant but Nicky agreed.

Our trail took us on wonderful cultural experiences. We ended up trekking through scenic rice terraces to the village of Ta Van of Giay minority, via Cat Cat village and Y Linh Ho, and Lao Chai village of Black H’mong minority.

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Although it was a minimally challenging trek from Sapa, both of us were so exhausted. Maybe because we didn’t sleep much on the train. I could see that Mamasa was also tired, she kept pausing to catch her breath, too weary to walk another step. It took us about four hours to complete the trek. I remembered paying Mamasa an equivalent to USD30 for the trek (for two persons). Mamasa was so happy to receive the money and immediately bought a cap in the shop. “For my son to go to school,” she said.

On that Saturday evening, Quang Truong Square was alive with the sound of music. Locals and tourists performing, dancing, and singing together. Music is a powerful force that always able to break through social boundaries. It was an amazing experience, truly unique. And so much love…

At the roadsides, there were many ethnic people selling colorful traditional clothes, bracelets, and souvenirs.

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Small children wearing traditional costumes sitting quietly, selling souvenirs and/or expecting tips in return of photographs. They were all so cute and looked tired but have been trained since young to help support the family. So, when some tourists started being friendly to the kids, took pictures with them, and then just walked away without any expression and buying/giving nothing, I was like…, “Fake. Heartless.” It doesn’t cost much to give at least 50 cents of your money. These kids have made an effort to dress up, sitting at the square almost the whole day, and smiling to your camera.

IMG_6455The next day, we thought of renting motorcycles to Bac Ha Sunday market but then when we heard about the cheap bus tour, we changed our mind. The cost of USD10 per person includes to and from 3 hours bus journey from Sapa to Bac Ha market, with a short stop at a traditional village, the border of China, and Lao Chai train station. This was indeed the most enjoyable trip, value for money.

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IMG_0005Bac Ha Sunday market has its own feel, which is hard for me to describe. Basically, the market is huge and is filled with Flower Hmong stallholders. We experienced interesting scenes of people selling cows, dogs, pigs, souvenirs, a wide array of colorful textiles, exotic produce, local food, and much more.

I wish we had more time to spend in Bac Ha market, I didn’t expect to like it that much. We enjoyed interacting with the people in the market. The short trip to the traditional village and border of China was also interesting.

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Nicky with fellow tourist from Japan

On our last day, we headed to the neighboring village of Cat Cat. Before reaching the entrance, it started raining heavily so we took shelter at the ‘Haven Sapa’ restaurant. That place was decorated with beautiful quotes and wordings at every section of the walls. The views of the mountains and rice terraces were breathtaking.

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Cat Cat village is an easy and interesting route for trekking. We encountered the locals going about their daily lives. And we managed to take some beautiful pictures of the mountains, rice paddies, waterfall, water buffaloes grazing leisurely, and even fellow tourists with their beautiful traditional H’mong costumes. We did not complete our trek due to time constraints. We had our late lunch and took scooter taxi back to our hotel. After packing, we catch our hotel complimentary transport to Lao Chai train station.

On our way back to Hanoi, our train carriage had problems with the air conditioning. It was very stuffy. A Chinese lady screamed at the operator and demanded to change cabins. It took me awhile to realize that the different rail companies are all part of the same train going to Sapa and Hanoi. They were only separated by carriages that latch onto one public train service, providing different decor and amenities.

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From her slang, I expected the lady to be a Singaporean or Malaysian (Gosh, I am so proud lol). She complained that she had asthma, feeling nauseous, could not breathe, and will die soon. Such a drama queen, we were laughing and enjoying the scene. All of us, strangers united in the cabin worked together opening the train windows to get some fresh air. After a short wait, the air conditioning was working again to everyone’s delight.

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Sa Pa Budget per person:

  • Train to Sapa/Hanoi by Orient Express (9 hours) – USD35 one way
  • Shared Van to Sapa (1.5 hours) – USD8 one way
  • Dragon Sapa Hotel – USD45 per night with breakfast
  • Sapa to Ta Van trekking with local (4 hours) – USD15
  • Bus Tour to Bac Ha Sunday Market (total 10 hours) – USD10
  • Cat Cat Village entrance fee (self-tour) – 50,000 VND (USD2)

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