VIETNAM

Hue city tour

By on 16th June 2015

It’s been a while since I’ve updated our travel blog. This is because the past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind – we returned home from Asia, spent running errands, trying to see friends and family and get ready for the next leg of our travels in Europe. So now we are actually in Europe.

In spite of that, I am going to continue with our travel tales where we left off in Vietnam. My last blog post was a bit of a negative one, so this one is going to be nice and easy including lots of sightseeing 🙂

Once we both recovered from our bouts of travellers’ sickness we got back in the road and made our way down towards the middle of Vietnam, towards the royal city of Hue. In my previous blog post I described how we had to reorganize our onward journey and accommodation from Hanoi. The hardest part of that was getting our overnight train ticket changed at Hanoi train station. Vietnamese are not great at waiting in line. Even with the number system, where you have to take a number and wait your turn I had to become very pushy and stand my ground if I didn’t want 5 opportunistic locals to push in front of me. I took full advantage of my 5ft 9 frame and towered above the pushy Vietnamese passengers, guarding my position at the front of the queue.

The two tickets costs 1600000 VDN, about £53. Not exactly cheap, but cheaper than flying. Plus let’s think about it this way: back home £23 won’t even get me to London and back – a 35 minute journey.
The overnight train from Hanoi took 15 hours, which made this journey our longest so far. It wasn’t as comfortable as our overnight trip to Chang Mai, but it was definitely a lot more comfortable than our train trip to Koh Tao! This time we were sharing a teeny-tiny cabin with a Vietnamese tour guide, who was taking a group of 30 tourists to Hue; and a 29 year old Irish teacher who works in an English boarding school. We had a good chat with the Irish guy until he traded our company in for a hot single female. Meanwhile the Vietnamese guy withdrew into his bed by 9pm.. Not to cast stereotypes or anything…
On arrival at Huè the next morning we quickly found our guesthouse. It was quite a comfortable little place with lovely staff (working 24 hour shifts!!!) and a steal at only $12 a night.
Huè itself is a pleasant little town, but its draw for tourists lies on its royal history, its palaces, pagodas, and emperor tombs. The city lies by the Perfume River and is perfect for exploring on one of the many dragon boats that are lining up along the riverbank.

Our first day in Hue was spent walking around the city, being hawked by street-sellers, taxi-drivers, scooter-riders, cyclo-taxis, boat-tour-sellers, and so on… Somehow we still managed to get to the Citadel 🙂 . I did fall for the sad-puppy eyes of a pineapple selling old woman, so we bought some pineapple at over-inflated price, only for her hawker friends to jump at their chance and push us to buy some of their pineapples too. No ladies, I’ve just bought some, stop with the hawking!!!!!

The Citadel was very interesting though and we spent a few hours walking around it – or what remained of it, as most of it was bombed by the US in the Vietnam War. Of the 160 buildings that existed in the Imperial City, only 10 (!!!) remained. Hue itself is now declared a UNESCO site and the remaining buildings of the citadel have been restored.

 

 

We only had a couple of days in Hue, so we wanted to make the most of our second day by signing up to an all day guided excursion of the most popular sights. We briefly toyed with the idea of renting a scooter and touring the tombs around the city ourselves, but we thought the better of it considering the insane Vietnamese traffic.
Looking back on it it was the right decision as we got to see way more with a tour group.
The tour itself was incredibly cheap!: we did the Dragon-Boat tour and paid $5 each for the whole day! This included the pick up from our hotel, 8 hours of programs, a tour guide AND a buffet lunch!! I thought this was all a bit too good to be true, so I did some Googling before signing up and found out that this price will not include the entry fees at each and every place we stop. So we went to the sales office armed with this information and found out that in total the day would cost more like $20 each. We still thought this was a good deal and signed up. However as this arrangement was not made crystal clear at the point of sale, most of our tour group did not realise they had to pay for the entrance fees and kicked up a right fuss. An Irish couple even refused to get off the bus at a couple of the sights because they did not want to pay the fee.
We thought this was a bit petty and our poor tour guide had to explain over and over about the fees. Ultimately we are still only talking about a few dollars per sight, so if people would rather stay in a hot bus for an hour just because they don’t want to pay a few dollars, that’s up to them. But then again we did our research well in advance and knew exacty what we were getting for our money and what we weren’t. $5 would have been too cheap even by South East Asia standards…

Adam and I went along for all the programs of the day and had a very tiring, but packed full day!!!

We were picked up at the hotel at 07.30am and driven out of town to the first emperor tomb of the day, Minh Mang Royal Tomb, which is the final resting place of a Nguyen Dynasty emperor.
The tomb and its surrounding park offers some beautifully landscaped gardens and lovely architecture.

 

 

 

The next tomb we visited was Nguyen Emperor Khai Dinh’s Royal Tomb. This tomb was the most monumental in style and according to the local tour guide Khai Dinh’s tomb was purposefully designed to be difficult to visit: the tomb was built on the side of a mountain with 127 steps leading up from street level, not helped by the scorching mid-morning sun..!!
The climb was worth it though, the views as well as the tomb itself were spectacular!

 

 

 

The last tomb we visited was the Tu Duc Royal Tomb which was designed as a tribute to the fourth Nguyen Emperor’s life. Tu Duc is the longest-reigning Nguyen Emperor on record. Towards the end of his life, the Emperor retreated into his tomb, creating a fantasy-land where he could compose poetry, hunt, and console himself through his concubines.
I must say this tomb was the least impressive out of all three, and as we visited it towards the end of the day most people of our tour group including us were really tired and dragging ourselves around the grounds. The tour guide gave up by this point as most of the group just went off exploring and did their own thing.

 

 

 

Apart from visiting royal tombs we also stopped at a Vietnamese conical hat and incense making village, although to be fair as lovely as this sounded on the itinerary, the ‘village’ was in fact a row of stalls by the roadside where some local hat and incense makers could sell you some of their wares along with some other souvenirs. We bought some chopsticks from a very pushy lady, but we have got used to the fact that in Vietnam even if you buy stuff people are going to be pissed of with you for some reason. I can’t quite work that one out.
We also stopped at a local martial art troupe / school who gave us a ‘very special’ performance. They were actually really good, breaking tiles with foreheads and dancing with swords, etc.

 

 

 

After a rather lovely buffet lunch we continued by dragon boat down the Perfume River. We were taken to our last stop of the day, Thien Mu Pagoda, which is a historic temple in the city. It has seven stories and is the tallest religious building in Vietnam and it is regarded as an icon of Vietnam and a symbol of Hue.

Phew. And that concluded our day tour of Hue. We took a leisurely cruise back to town on the dragon boat and stumbled off, hardly able to walk from tiredness. We went back to our guesthouse and collapsed for the rest of the day. We were so exhausted that that evening Adam and I had our first real fight of our travels so far. Over whether to go out to a restaurant or just grab some noodles by the road. Real, serious stuff. To be fair by now we had been travelling for 6 weeks, spent every waking hour of that in each other’s company AND had both just recovered from travellers’ sickness. I think it was about time to have a tiff. 🙂

 

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VIETNAM

Hanoi Part 2 – The Bad

By on 8th June 2015

If this is your first time on our blog and you would like to read about Hanoi, please read my previous post first: Hanoi Part 1 – The Good. I really don’t want to depress you or put a downer on your upcoming trip to this part of the world. Also, if you are from Hanoi, I apologise, but please bear in mind this post only reflects our own personal experiences and opinions that stem from those experiences.

Hanoi was NOT kind to us. Actually, Hanoi kicked our butts!
In the previous post I wrote about all the things we enjoyed and appreciated about the city. I gave the lowdown on what to see and do if you have 2-3 days here.

In this post I want to write about how and why Hanoi turned a little bit sour for us. Ever since then Adam keeps referring to the city as ‘Hannoying’…

I am going to illustrate this post with some more lovely photos of the city, just to cushion the blow 🙂

 

 

 

We have to go back a little bit in time to when we landed at Hanoi airport. We had to get a taxi into town as there are no train services and since it was really late we did not want to experiment on local public buses just yet. We read upon Vietnam before we arrived and we were aware that we had to be a little bit more vigilant here as people would have more sophisticated techniques for relieving tourists of their money. So we tried to be very careful when negotiating our taxi fare into town. We had heard about how local metered taxis can be meandered with and so to avoid this we decided to arrange for a fixed price, prepaid taxi.

The guy in the office wanted to charge us $30, which we thought was really expensive. Our guidebook suggested that we should be paying around $13. Problem is, that as a new arriver you have absolutely no idea, how quickly prices may have changed, if your guidebook is already dated, if they guy is trying to scam you or if he is being genuine. We said to him that $30 was too expensive. He then quickly dropped his price to $25. I still thought this was expensive, but the guy was not going to negotiate it down any more, so we took it. (As we later found out, the journey really only costs $13 if you ask your hotel to arrange the ride for you in advance).

We gave the address to our driver and then experienced night time Vietnamese traffic for the first time. Well let me tell you you haven’t seen traffic until you have seen it in Hanoi! Apperantly about 11000 people die on the roads of Vietnam every year within 10 minutes we got a preview as to why. There were scooters everywhere and I mean everywhere! And they did not look where they were going, they entered the traffic on main roads without looking, we narrowly avoided them so many times. Lane discipline was non-existent, people casually did U turns on busy roads and started driving down opposite the direction of traffic on dual carriageways! Everyone was just beeping without stop, it was impossible to tell who was beeping who! It was mayhem and it was almost 11 o’clock at night…!
Our driver kindly found our hotel and dropped us. We walked in and were greeted by a guy at reception. We checked ourselves in by signing the reservations book. Straight after we signed the checking-in book the receptionists guy said that due to an unfortunate electrical fault we couldn’t actually go up to our room, I think it was something to do with the elevator maybe, I’m not quite sure, the guy was trying to explain it to us in poor English. But never mind, their sister hotel was just across the road, we can stay the night there. We were grateful that they acted so quickly and resolved this for us and followed the guy down the road to a backpackers hostel. However after about 10 minutes we were told we couldn’t stay there either, for whatever reason, I wasn’t quite following, but it was ok, not to worry, here is this taxi driver who would kindly take us yet another hotel. At this point we were pretty tired and a bit confused as to what was going on. So we just did as told and went with the taxi driver. After driving around for about 10 minutes in the back alleys of Hanoi, Adam and I were now suitably lost. We then came to a stop and were ushered into our third accommodation of the night. Here the receptionist confirmed that we will be staying there for one night and can go back to our original hotel booked first thing the following day.

We were calmed and reassured. All good. That is until we were shown to our room. Thank god it was late at night, and darkness so we couldn’t actually grasp the full horrendity of this room. The smell was enough though. We brushed our teeth in the bathroom and tried not to look at the musty walls and the dozens of flying insects crawling out of the them. That night we made sure the bathroom door was tightly shut and then proceeded to sleep on the hardest bed ever known to man. Now I’m quite adoptable and so far managed to get my head around the hard beds and squat toilets of Asia, but this was something else. I swear that bed was harder than the floor!! I would have happily slept on the floor, but by this time I was too scared to let go of Adam, so we both stayed on the ‘bed’. Needless to say we hardly got any sleep.

The next morning we woke up to a stale air in the room so opened the window to a backyard covered in rubbish. The insects were still crawling out of the wall, so we quickly packed up an went downstairs with our bags to get our promised taxi back to our hotel. And that’s when the receptionist said with a beaming smile: ‘Oh you don’t have to go, you stay here, the other hotel still not work, you stay here for 2 more nights…!’

By then it was clear as day that we were being scammed big time! The standard of this place was nowhere near that of our original booking and we were being charged for a far superior accommodation!! And trust me the original hotel wasn’t a five star either, but it was supposed to be way better than this one! Adam and I made a pact that if we were told we had to stay here, than we would thank them kindly, walk out the door, and find somewhere else. And so we did.

We were a little shell-shocked by this and a bit disappointed that our first night in Hanoi was such a let down. After that horrendous hotel and almost no sleep we felt like we should treat ourselves and walked into our first posh accommodation of our travels so far. The hotel was perfectly located in the old quarter of Hanoi by Hian Kuem Lake. And it was lovely! I had never stayed in a hotel where people open the door and operate the lift for you and basically do everything in their power to make you feel comfortable. We felt a little bit out of place there with out scruffy backpacks but the staff certainly didn’t make us feel anything but welcome. Once we sorted out our accommodation, we quickly fired off an email to Booking.com to let them know of our adventure the night before. Simultaneously we received an email from Booking.com to let us know that since we were a no show at our reserved hotel, we will be charged a cancellation fee!! Well I wasn’t having any of that, and we made sure their customer services knew exactly what had happened and that we checked in there. Credit to them, they acted as intermediary between us and the hotel and eventually the hotel acknowledged their mistake and backed off. Be aware though if you are visiting Hanoi there are all kinds of hotel scams going on, one of the most common one is when you get in a cab at the airport, give the driver your hotel name and they take you round their mate’s hotel..

Now that we had a shiny new accommodation sorted out we were able to enjoy Hanoi and do a bit of sightseeing.

 

 

Our bad luck in Hanoi didn’t end here unfortunately 🙁

One of the biggest attraction we had been looking forward to was visiting Halong Bay. This UNESCO World Heritage sight is one of the most beautiful and unique places on Earth. A bit wary of being scammed again we just booked a 2 day tour of the bay with overnight stay on a boat (a pretty standard affair) through our posh hotel. It wasn’t cheap, but we didn’t want cheap, we wanted to make sure we avoid any dodgy or dangerous boats. We were really looking forward to the trip, got our overnight bags packed and got an early night, ready for an early start.

Unfortunately something didn’t quite agree with Adam from the night before and we woke to him being really sick and unwell. I was starting to get really worried for him and so we decided to try and postpone our trip to Halong Bay. By this time we had our onward journey from Hanoi all arranged so I went on to spend that entire day reorganising everything and trying to track down medication for Adam. Adam spent that entire day in bed trying to get rid of whatever caused him to be so sick. Not fun.

Luckily I managed to get everything postponed by two days hoping that Adam will be ok by then.

Thankfully he got better by the following day and we spent another day sightseeing in Hanoi. However the story does not end here unfortunately.

In the end we never made it to Halong Bay. On the morning of our trip I woke with the same problem that Adam had two days earlier!!!! Lightning does strike twice it seems!! This time Adam had to go and tell the staff that sorry, we have to cancel our trip again, because this time the lady was ill 🙁 So embarrassing! And quite upsetting as by this time we were delayed in Hanoi by 5 days! This time I spent an entire day in bed feeling sorry for myself, and Adam had the joyous task to rearrange everything else. We couldn’t believe it.

 

 

By now we got so fed up with being in Hanoi that we decided we just wanted to go. We didn’t even care about Halong Bay anymore, clearly we were not meant to go there, some mighty power was trying to stop us by whatever means, if you believe in all that. It was just becoming too hard and we lost our excitement for it. I’m only glad we fell ill when staying in a nice hotel with nice bathrooms. Based on our first night’s accommodation, it could have been so much worse…

So as soon as I got better we packed up, made our apologies once again and left Hanoi. By cancelling our Halong Bay trip we were told we would lose the money we paid for it.

They say that if you travel for a long time you will always feel the least affection towards the place where you fell ill. Falling ill while travelling is almost inevitable, especially if you want to immerse yourself in local culture and the local culinary scene. Almost everywhere we went so far we tried to seek out the street food vendors and would almost always choose street food instead of a restaurant where possible. Since we never had any problems in Thailand and Laos we may have become too complacent and thought we were invincible. We suspect that it may have been the amazing pho we had by the side of the street the night before Ad fell ill. It’s such a shame, it tasted soooo good, and we look so happy eating it…

 

 

Of course this then leads me to another problem with Hanoi. Hygiene. It is entirely possible that the fresh ingredients in our soup were washed in unhygienic water. People seem to have worse amenities here than in Thailand, even in their capital city. But this also applies to their public amenities, like toilets. I had to use a public toilet by the lake one evening. Bear in mind the lake is one of the busiest place in Hanoi, both for tourists and locals, so I would have thought the toilet here would be kept in some kind of order. How wrong was I. I’m not going to go into details, but when I came out of there I almost cried….

Now I know most of these are just unfortunate circumstances, but another thing that was suddenly very different for us was people’s psyche in general. We had become used to mild tempered, polite, smiley faces in Thailand and Laos. It needed a massive readjustment from our part to get used to the way people were behaving towards tourists here – they were definitely a lot more pushy. Suddenly saying no once was not enough. There were hawkers everywhere, and if you kindly declined, at first they wouldn’t accept and then they would with a some mild hostility thrown in (of course there were exceptions to this, but in general this is the overwhelming impression we got). If you did say yes to buying some fruit from a street vendor, suddenly half a dozen others would be around you, pushing the exact same fruit towards you, telling you to buy it. And then you have to refuse half a dozen more, who then in turn will be annoyed that you’re not buying their fruit!! They are seriously getting their sales techniques wrong here… After a while you just stop ignoring them, your gaze down the floor, don’t even stop to look.
People here were also much more brazen when it came to charging tourist multiples of local prices. Charging foreigners more than locals is a common practise in Thailand and Laos as well, but in a much more subtle way, in a way that wasn’t in your face, in a way that made us travellers feel that we were contributing a little bit to the local businesses and it was fine. After all an additional £0.50 for us wasn’t much, but it could make a big difference to our tuktuk driver or noodle lady. But in Vietnam this practice was just ridiculous, where they would want to so obviously just rip us off, that many times we just said, ‘no chance, you’re having a laugh’…! Like the lady who tried to sell us a small bag of doughnuts for 150000 dongs. That’s £5. I wouldn’t even pay that in London.
Unfortunately all these experiences added up to Hanoi being the first stop on our travels that we did not enjoy as much as perhaps we should have and due to unfortunate circumstances we had to spend almost 3 times as long here as intended and therefore couldn’t wait to leave.

It’s a real shame, because time has allowed me to look at it from a different angle and appreciate the city for its beauty and uniqueness. I would no longer rule out returning here one day, if only to see Halong Bay.
Let me take this opportunity to thank the staff at the Gondola Hotel in Hanoi, where they looked after us so well and with such compassion after our awful first night and through both of us being poorly. If I ever come back to Hanoi, this is where I will be staying, no question in my mind. They actually managed to arrange for a 50% refund on our cancelled Halong Bay trip and then went out of their way to get the money to us. Thank you.

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VIETNAM

Hanoi Part 1 – The Good

By on 4th June 2015

For me Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is a tale of two cities: there is Good Hanoi and then there is Bad Hanoi. I don’t think Adam has made it quite as far as Good Hanoi yet. 

It took me a long time to figure out how to write up our experiences in Hanoi. Pouring it all out into one essay would have resulted in a mega-long blog post, which is why I am separating it into two. I think taking my time over this means I can actually write about the good things with enough distance to allow me to have more perspective. And I personally think it is nicer to start with good things, so here we go.

I was really looking forward to coming to Vietnam. Thailand and Laos are quite similar in a lot of ways and Vietnam promised a big cultural change for the first time in 5 weeks. We had our visas, we had our flights, we were ready to go.

And what a big culture change it truly was from the get go! Everything from the people’s psyche, attitude towards tourism, the customs, the day-to-days, the way traffic ‘works’, the towns, the cities, the imagery – everything just suddenly was pushed up a gear and we weren’t quite quick enough to embrace the change! All about exactly how this culture shock affected us in Hanoi will be the topic of the next post.

In this post, I want to tell you what I liked about Hanoi and how to spend 2-3 days here if you ever visit.

I loved the busy city, even though it was madness! This is the first place I have ever visited where the traffic on the road is almost like some weird and fascinating tourist attraction, motorbikes like swarms of bees coming at you from every direction. I loved that I was horrified, mesmerized and entertained by it all.

 

 

It took us one whole day where we just learnt how to cross a road 🙂 By day two we were OK, or shall I say Adam was ok and I got dragged across a lot by the arm. Here you have to forget all that you know about the rules of the road as a pedestrian. There is no green man to aid you across a busy road either. There are pedestrian crossings painted here or there, but I’m not exactly sure why as no one actually respects them, no one stops, no one even slows down! I am also unsure of why they even bothered laying down pedestrian walkways, because pedestrians are not even safe walking on these; scooters, even cars routinely just drive up on them in order to go round someone else in their way. Most pavements are also lined with bazaars and stalls and people sitting on the floor taking up valuable walking space with spreading their wares for sale. And then I haven’t mentioned the noise yet. The constant beeping, the non-stop honking, how do they even know who is honking at who and why??!!

As a pedestrian you have to learn that if you want to cross the road, you just have to step off the curb, and go. Walk with intent. Do not stop when you see scooters heading straight for you, just keep on walking. Let the traffic find its way around you.

Once we mastered walking, we went exploring. Hanoi may be a crazy metropolis, bus as far as capital cities go it is also quaint, with a certain small town charm. This is no more evident than in the Old Quarter.

This is the historic centre of the city and it is so full of life, motorbikes, ladies in conical hats pushing their bikes loaded with fruits and flowers, or balancing a pole across their shoulders with overpacked baskets hanging from them. There are food-stalls and souvenir shops, slim, crumbling buildings which even though they are in such bad condition give the old quarter it’s unique look and charm. Apparently this area was established by commerce guilds hundreds of years ago, and each street belonged to a particular guild selling particular merchandise. While this may have changed slightly with modern times, the street names still refer to this old system: Hang Gai (silk), Hang Ma (paper), Hang Bac (silver), etc.

We visited Bach Ma Temple in the Old Quarter, which is the oldest temple in Hanoi. Most Vietnamese identify as Buddhists in religion, however their temples look very different to those we saw in Thailand and Laos. There is a definite Chinese influence and gifts of offerings are on abundance around the altars in a much more obvious and elaborate way then in other Buddhist wats we’ve seen so far.

 

 

After walking around the Old Quarter we made our way to Hian Kuem Lake, which acts as a central gathering point for the people of Hanoi. We visited the lake both in the daytime and at night and while during the day it’s a peaceful park at night people gather here to do exercise, bring their families here, eat ice cream, youngsters gather in groups sitting on benches, lovers holding hand by the lake and in general it’s just a nice chilled out space for all.

A pretty red bridge across the lake leads to a small island. You can enter for a small fee, I think it was 30000 dong (£1). There is a temple on the island with a pretty garden and a stuffed giant turtle in a glass box…

 

 

Across the lake is the French Quarter with wide boulevards and tall trees and lovely buildings with French shutters. There are buildings that would make you think for a minute that you have been transported to Paris suddenly…

We went to two museums that we both really enjoyed: Hoa Lo Prison and Vietnam Military History Museum. Hoa Lo Prison has a thought provoking exhibition about the revolution for independence from the French in the 50s as this is where Vietnamese revolutionaries were kept. The Military museum has an impressive collection of war aircraft and jet fighters in the grounds and there is also a citadel you can walk up and enjoy the views over Hanoi.

The beautiful St Joseph Cathedral is a stone’s throw from Hoa Lo Prison. It was built in neo-Gothic style and would fit right in England or France.

And lastly we visited the Temple of Literature, which is an old university in lovely grounds. Degree ceremonies are held here regularly, there was one on the day we visited.

 

 

One evening we visited the famous Vietnamese Water Puppet Theatre. I was so chuffed that we managed to see this; I remember seeing it once at Sziget Festival in Hungary where a Vietnamese troupe visited and performed with their puppets and it was great to see the real thing 🙂 It only cost us 100000 dong (£3.50), there are about 4 performances each day, they only last about an hour. But beware the seats are super small, Adam had to ask if he could sit on the stairs at the end of the row as he just could not fit in. While the audience in the theatre was mainly made up of Western tourists the seats were obviously designed with the much smaller Vietnamese population in mind. The performance was accompanied by traditional Vietnamese music and singing. 

Another evening we went to the famous beer corner, where you can buy local beer for 5000 dong (£0.15 !!!) The place was rammed full of people drinking this cheap beer. I don’t really drink beer and Adam didn’t like the taste of it all that much, so we moved on after a couple of drinks. This place is definitely where all the tourists and travellers had been hiding…

 

I loved the food in Hanoi, especially pho, which is a clear broth with noodles, spring onions, beef and other greens that you can add as you wish. Spring rolls were also super, we tried lots of different types, fried, fresh, they were all amazing. A big bowl of pho can be bought from a street food stall for 40000 dong (£1.30) and spring rolls go for 10000 (£0.30) per roll. Tasty and a bargain.  

All in all Hanoi is a lovely city, easy to explore on foot and once you get your head around how the traffic works, it is a lot of fun to just walk around and explore. And of course to stop here and there for amazing local food.

 

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