Saturday, August 29, 2009

it's vacation time!

our destination this time round was vietnam - ho chi minh, hanoi and halong bay, for 6 days (22-27 aug 09). considered the option of signing up for group tour before (again) decided to just do it on our own. months before the trip we bought the airline tickets, sourced for hotels, booked halong bay tour, read reviews and travel guides.

the flight to vietnam was an early one, at 7am. luckily I was kiasu enough to start packing a few days in advance, because I ended up spending a few hours the night before the flight to troubleshoot server issues in office.

woke up blurry eyed on saturday morning, just 5 mins before the pre-booked taxi arrived. the meter had gone up to $5 before we managed to get to the cab :p

after 2 hours flight, at 8am we reached vietnam. welcome to saigon!

we arranged for airport pick up with the hotel, since there were quite a number of warnings on how taxis cheat tourists by bringing them to other hotels. first things that struck us: people in vietnam drives on the left, and they are all very, very good drivers. the traffic was maddening. people honk day and night, there're a lot of motorcycles, and they don't really follow traffic rules, if there's any. the best way to cross the street is to just go ahead and trust that they will avoid you.

after checking in, we walked to ben thanh market. it's a big building selling almost everything. we had a hard time deciding which stall to pick for having our lunch. every time we went near a food stall, there would be a few waiters rushing to us, offering their food and asking us to pick their stalls. finally settled down at one stall and tried their noodle soup plus chendol for drink.

ben thanh market was so HOT. most of the aisles were not equipped with fans. plus, bargaining was a must. after wandering around for a while, we stopped by at tutti frutti cafe just opposite the market. the ice water they served tasted really good :)

yoghurt was sold in grams. it was 25,000 VND per 100 grams. customers are free to pick their own yoghurt flavours from the dispensers, and scoop the toppings. the cup will then be weighed and paid for at the cashier.

refreshed, we continued our city tour. we walked to reunification palace..

.. to notre-dame basilica..

.. and to the central post office. the building serves as both post office as well as tourist attraction. it was constructed by gustave eiffel, the same guy who designed paris' landmark.

at night we had dinner at pho 24, the famous pho chain. ordered pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken). both tasted superb, thanks to the well done broth.

sunday morning - we had breakfast in the hotel. they even provided pho for breakfast, we could either prepare it ourselves or asked the staff to cook a bowl for us. then we walked back to notre-dame basilica for sunday mass. I searched high and low for the mass timings prior to the trip and managed to find only one timing - 9.30am. thankfully it was right and it was conducted in english. some songs were familiar. the church was super HOT.

our flight to hanoi was at 2.50 pm, and we reached noi bai airport about 2 hours prior to departure. we were moved to an earlier flight that was delayed. although we didn't get the seats we've reserved, but we arrived earlier at hanoi, avoiding the 2.50pm flight that was delayed as well.

noi bai airport was far from hanoi city centre, it took us 45 mins to reach our hotel by car. we booked 3 nights at hanoi elegance hotel 4, in the old quarter area. the facilities and the service exceeded our expectations. we were picked up promptly at the terminal (after calling them to inform that our flight reached 1 hr earlier), escorted to the hotel and greeted warmly. they provided welcome drinks and cold towels, given us a brief preview of the city complete with a city map, and escorted us to our rooms. the room's size was not that big, but it's well equipped with branded aircon, phone and tv. I was pleasantly surprised to see there was a desktop provided in each room complete with free wifi.

wifi-wise, saigon was much more advance than hanoi. in saigon, most cafes provided free wifi, whereas in hanoi it was quite rare.

a typical view in vietnam was people sitting on short stools at the roadside, eating food from the street vendors. the most common ones were pho (I wondered how they managed to eat pho in a hot day at the roadside without aircon), mixed fruit ice and porridge.

we joined the locals eating the mixed fruit ice on a hot evening, curious after seeing so many people flocking to this one vendor. they even provided valet service for the motorcycles :)

for 12,000VND, we got a glass full of fruit cubes - jack fruit, mango, dragon fruit, pear, watermelon, pineapple, avocado, etc. topped by condensed milk, it was served with a box full of crushed ice. we then mixed the crushed ice with the fruit. it was refreshing.

the following day, we were picked up at 8.30am at the hotel after a satisfying breakfast for our halong bay cruise. there were a total of 15 people in the group. the drive took exactly 3.5 hours through the busy hanoi city, along the red river. we made one stop for toilet break at a souvenir shop which sell local handicraft at outrageous prices. the tour guide was quite entertaining as he told funny stories along the way.

after the 3.5 hour drive and a short boat transfer, we reached the pinta gold junk. most of the rooms are located in the lowest deck. middle deck houses the central dining room, whereas the sundeck at the top most level has several spacious sofas/beds for sun bathing or just admiring the view.

the room itself was quite cramp - it contains 2 single beds that can be combined into a double bed, and bathroom. they used the electricity wisely - aircons were turned off at times we were not expected to be in the rooms. without aircon on, the room was stuffy. otherwise, it was nice - cooling aircon to beat the super hot sun, plus hot water too.

we were greeted by the crew, had our welcome drinks and given our room keys. we brought our stuff into the rooms, and gathered again at the main dining area for lunch. during the cruise we had 3 meals and 1 breakfast. the meals were equally sumptuous: 8 dishes, 1 steam rice plus fruit platter for dessert. the funny thing was that the steam rice was always given out at almost the end of the meal, when we're almost done with all other dishes.

food was great - the only complaint I had was that the drinks were not included in the meal. we had to order and pay separately for the drinks.

halong bay was mesmerizing..

we made one short trip to the nearby cave which is named surprise cave. initially I thought it was just a shallow cave, but turned out it was really huge with few chambers to explore. the interior was really unique.

then the boat sailed to another secluded 'corner' which was safe for swimming. I didn't take the plunge. people who did, said that it was nice - water was of the right temperature.

on the next day, we had breakfast at exactly 7am. then we had 1 hour to do kayaking. the water was really calm, perfect for kayaking. went through a few caves, saw schools of fish and crabs too.

had lunch on board before the end of the cruise. then we traveled back to hanoi city.

the following day was reserved for hanoi city tour. we visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, and presidential palace complex.. cathedral, hoan kiem lake, and of course the old quarter.

tạm biệt, Việt Nam!

No comments: