Friday, March 26, 2010

Travelogue - Hanoi

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 - Hanoi

Our trip to Hanoi was organized by Raph (this was my 3rd trip with him). You can count on him to search for budget deals. Again, we took MAS flight to Hanoi (RM 605 return flight, cheaper than AA ) – at 10.45 am. It was a 3.5 hours journey. We were served delicious nasi lemak for breakfast (I liked the environmental friendly meal packaging).

We arrived in Hanoi at 1.10 pm local time (Hanoi is 1 hour behind M’sian time). We were greeted by our guide – Sony (don’t know the spelling, but that’s how we called him) and sent to our hotel – Platinum Hotel at Hanoi’s Old Quarters about 45 minutes from the airport. We passed through the wide Red river and acres of rice fields. Hanoi was the capital of North Vietnam from 1954 – 1976. Read more about Hanoi here

Encik Sony

Red river

Rice fields

Platinum hotel

Our little hotel was a cosy little building nestled in between rows of shophouses. Our hotel was in the wedding shops area which sold green glutinous rice cakes as dessert and erm, sort of ‘bunga telur’ (door gifts to wedding guests).

Our cosy little room. Comfy bed

Bunga telur

Green rice cake

After checking in and settling down, we went for a walk to the Hoan Kiem Lake, passing by the Dong Xuan market (and ahem, made a short detour) on the way, just 5 minutes away from our hotel. The market sold all sorts of things – nuts, coffees, clothes, cloth, bags, souvenirs etc. It reminded me of Ben Thant market in Ho Chi Minh, only smaller.

Dong Xuan market facade

Inside Dong Xuan market

Moving bakery

Hanoi roads (as in other cities in Vietnam) are chock full of motorcycles, and they don’t really follow traffic rules, so it was quite challenging to cross the roads. If you want to manouvre your way there, you have to think and act like them. One exception though, the drivers / riders here drive / ride slowly. So they actually did give way to pedestrians. And the amusing thing is, although they don’t follow the traffic lights, the follow the speed limit! On the highway to Halong Bay the next day, our driver only drove at about 80 km/h. Another thing is, because there too many vehicles on the road, the air pollution is also quite bad, so we bought ourselves fancy masks (unlike the H1N1 surgical mask in M’sia) to survive the Hanoi roads.

Fancy Masker

Motorcycles of Hanoi

Took some pictures at the lake, then we turned back to the hotel to catch the water puppet show at 6.30pm There’s a pagoda at the middle of the lake which was connected to a bridge but we didn’t go there as we didn’t have time.

Hoan Kiem lake

The water puppet show consisted of 18 segments, starting with the music prelude (I loved the sound of the traditional monochord stringed instrument of Dan Bau). It tells the story of farmers in their village - harvesting their agricultural produce, insterspered with legends of the Dragon Dance, Lion Dance, Phoenix Dance, Fairy Dance, Unicorns, handing over a magic sword to a giant Golden Turtle (Zairul would love this) and Dance of 4 holy animals. See more here

The puppets are half submerged in water, with the puppeteers controlling their puppets from behind a bamboo screen. Yes, the puppeteers get wet as well, as they stand in waist deep water. The puppet show was accompanied by traditional songs played live by musicians and sung by 2 female vocalists in Vietnamese. Although we didn’t understand a word, we were still entertained. Najmi especially liked the puppets, she tought they were cute. I didn’t take pictures / vids as it was mentioned that we need to buy a sepearate ticket for recording. But then many other people were seen recording anyway.

In the water puppet theatre

Aftrr the show, we went for dinner at Nisa Restaurant – a halal eatery run by a Malaysian originally from Johor. He has stayed in Hanoi for more than 6 years and married a local there (who also served as one of their waitresses). Nisa is the name of one of the owner’s 2 daughters. He was planning to open another restaurant, naming it after second daughter soon.

The food price was quite expensive here, but then again, there was probably only 2 halal restaurants in Hanoi – Nisa and an Indian tandoori restaurant. We didn’t come across the tandoori restaurant though during our stay in Hanoi. I ordered myself the beef rice noodle or pho (pronounced fur) – it’s a bit like kuey teow sup, only the kuey teow is thinner.
After dinner, we headed back to the hotel to rest.

Owner of Nisa ~ the bald one

Excellent pho. Very bitter Vietnamese tea. More bitter than its black coffee!

Sat, 27 March 2010 – Hanoi – Halong Bay

After our self prepared breakfast (brought from home) – we only took some bread and boiled eggs from the hotel breakfast buffet, we walked to the An Nour mosque – about 10 minutes walk from our hotel. It was built in 1890 by Indian traders and renovated in 1950. It serves the few Viet Muslims and those from the embassies. We saw a sign in Bahasa at the mosque – must be the works of some Malaysians. The imam is an ustaz from Afghanistan.

Masjid caretaker (in white)

After that we made our way to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum to see the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s first president under the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), governed by the Vietnamese Communist party after defeating the French Union. Read more here

Cameras are not allowed in the mausoleum though. On the way to the mausoleum, we also passed by Lenin square, Presidency Palace and Ba Dinh square and the Malaysian embassy. Unfortunately, the queue was 2km long ! School children, students as well as tourists were already queueing. The mausoleum opens at 7.30 am, so we should have started out earlier.

School children queuing to HCM mausoleum

We decided to forego Uncle Ho. Some arguing ensued between us and Sony due to our decision, but it was soon settled amicably. Hopefully we could visit it another time, if we had any chance to go to Hanoi again. We went to Hadong silk village instead, about 45 minutes away. The rest of the gang was delighted with the shopping trip. (Malaysians love to shop don’t they?). As usual, we were shown the silk worm and silk embroidering machine. Silk cloth here are sold at USD 3 / meter.

Silk thread

Silk shop galore at Hadong

After the shopping, we went back to Hanoi for lunch at Nisa again. This time we had set lunch of Malaysian food, just OK. We tapau-ed the leftover food for dinner at Halong Bay as there’s no halal place there.

We left for Halong Bay at around 3pm. It was a 4 hour drive to Halong Bay at 80 km/hour. Yes, drivers here follow the speed limit. The scenery along the way was beautiful with the green rice fields, but because we were running late, I figured we would only stop by to take pictures on the way back to Hanoi the next day instead. We did stop by at the mandatory rest area with an (expensive!) souvenir shop that we must pass through in order to go to the restroom.

Rice fields otw to Halong Bay

We arrived at Halong Bay in time for Earth Hour. But the people here didn’t shut off the lights though. We were brought to a pearl shop first before we could check in. The ladies were again delighted and sprang back into action after dozing off in the bus. Some bought pearl cream, ginseng cream and pearl rings, bracelets and necklaces.

Arriving at Blue Sky hotel, we spreaded out our tapau-ed food from Nisa for our dinner – and thankfully, it was enough for everyone. It was a funny sight though – like a group of village people eating their own tapau food at a hotel! We got stares from other hotel patrons though. But of course we asked for permission first to bring in and eat our own food at the café. We had to pay for the 2 tables though, but it was nothing much.
After food and check-in, we went for a 1.5 hour foot massage at funnily named massage parlour – MTV massage, yes complete with the MTV logo. I wonder what MTV has to do with massaging eh? Hmmm…

Massage parlour

Nice welcoming flower at massage parlour

First we had our feet soaked in hot (very hot, I had to ask them to cool it down) water mixed with herbs, not quite sure what herbs, but there was no fragrant smell. No smell actually. We were also given head, back and shoulder massage and they also applied a very cooling cucumber face mask. Not the best massage I have had – I still preferred the one at Krabi – the second massage trip and also body massage at Ho Chi Minh. It was also more expensive than my previous massage sessions – at RM54 or USD15/person.
After the massage, we went straight back to the hotel – no shopping could be done as the shops were already closed. It was already 11.30pm Msian time!

Ready to sleep...

Sun, 28 March 2010 – Halong Bay – Hanoi
We started early today at 7.30 am after (self prepared) breakfast – as usual only took the fruits, boiled eggs and bread. While waiting for our bus, we were swarmed by street peddlers selling pearls. I think the pearls are originals as I did test them – by scratching the pearls onto a mirror – and it left a white powdery stain. If it was a fake, no stain would be left.

Murah! Murah!

We were then brought to Halong Bay to board our traditional boats or junks. They are engine powered, but they also have sails. The sea was calm so no one in our group got sea sick. Our boat drifted off slowly along the limestone outcrops at Halong bay. It was like Krabi, but the sea was calmer. I thought Krabi waters was greener though. Nevertheless, the bay with its natural wonders plus the stalagmites and stalactites of Thien Chung cave is a Unesco World Heritage site. The cave reminded me of the one in Kunming, China but smaller. The lightings in the cave made the scene more breathtaking. We absorbed the serenity and cool air of Halong Bay and wished that it would not end so soon. We also stopped by at a kelong (fish farm) before arriving at the cave. Let the pictures do the talking.

Junks lining up


Thien Chung cave

After visiting the cave, we went wack to our boat and was served a sumptuous seafood lunch. I loved the dishes sooo much that I had 4 helpings of rice! Loved the sotong goreng tepung (fancy name: fried calamari), steamed fish and spinach. Luckily I am allergic to prawns, or I would have walloped everything on the table! We didn’t even try the appetizer – the spring roll and went straight to the main dish, so we just tapau-ed it.

Then it’s time to head back to Hanoi. I felt it was a bit too short – it would have been nicer to stay 2 nights at Halong. Tourists could also choose to stay onboard the boats and during summer, tourists are allowed to jump into the bay to have a swim. It was a bit cold now though at 18 C, so no one swam.

On the way back to Hanoi, we stopped again at the same rest area, only this time it was on the other side of the road. I also asked to stop by the rice fields to take some pictures here. Saw that some of the farmers here still used traditional methods to flow the water in the canal by scooping.

Scooping water to the canal

At Hanoi, we went to Ba Dinh square to take pictures. Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is situated at the square, but it is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Ba Dinh square is alos off limits when the mausoleum is opened for visit. The mausoleum is guarded by 2 soldiers at the door who had to stand still for an hour before the guard change.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
We then checked in back to Platinum hotel and got back the same room on the first night. We had our dinner again at Nisa (we are providing them with brisk business!). After dinner, we were ‘sent’ back to our hotel via a trishaw (or cyclo) ride. The cyclo could only accommodate one person, so our group of 13 went back to hotel on a cyclo each. They took us around the streets of the Hanoi old quarters. Many Hanoians were seen eating dinner on makeshift stools and tables outside the shophouses (while they probably amused themselves by seeing 13 Malaysians on cyclo rides passed them by). We were told by Sony to tip the cyclist (the cyclo ‘driver’) 20,000 dong each (about RM4) as they have already been paid by our tour agent. Some demanded for more so we just dashed up to the hotel.


When the coast was clear, we went down again to go to the night markets (like pasar malam) in front of Dong Xuan market (the main market is closed at night). We bought some souvenirs here, only to find out the next day when we visited Dong Xuan market that the night market selling price is more expensive! So if you are planning to shop, do buy at the Dong Xuan market instead which opens from 7.30am to around 6.30pm
Or, if you plan to shop for Vietnamese stuff, do it at Ho Chi Minh instead – at Ben Thant market. There are more choices, and they are cheaper.

Monday, 29 March 2010 – Hanoi – KL

Our flight back was at 2.10 pm local time and we had to check out at 11am, so we still had time for last minute shopping. We went to Dong Xuan market for the last time and boosted Vietnam’s economy by finishing our dongs there. I managed to finish all my dongs at the market. By 10.30 am, we headed back to our hotel to pack things up and ready to go to the airport by 11am. We had already done our online check in the previous day at Halong Bay, so there was still ample time to check in our bags at the airport. With online check-in, we only need 1 hour prior to flight time. As we would only land in KL almost around maghrib time, we performed our solat at the airport, finding an isolated corner below a staircase. We found an airport staff sleeping there, so we had to politely ask him to move a bit to give space for us, and he obliged, then went back to sleep. That was quite an experience!

Thank you for the sweet memories Hanoi!



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