Haiyan changed direction and went northwards towards China, with occasional whistling of the wind heard throughout the night. Woke up to a drizzling morning and the plan to go outside for breakfast was scrapped as we didn’t want to get wet. So we joined my mom and aunt at the Panorama restaurant which was crowded since no one wanted to eat out. My wife ordered noodle soup but it only came after we asked about it and the waiter admitted that he had forgotten, and when we cancelled the order, the noodles were the delivered. After breakfast, made the best use of the toilet and the internet and checked out for our transfer at 10am. Flight was scheduled to be on time despite the typhoon news.
On the van as we moved out of the old quarters, I can’t help but noticed a nicely decorated wall made of mosaic tiles for like the longest distance. Took a shot of it after some 5mins of driving, and then I saw the Guinness book of records sign. Must had been the longest mosaic tiles decorated wall in the world. Weather wise, it seemed to have improved since the day before.
The journey to the airport was short as traffic was light. The queue at the Singapore airlines counter was already snaking and we thought that our checking in the night before was a good move as the internet check in counter had only a couple in front of us. But what we didn’t expect was the inefficiency of this counter. We literally saw the “snake” disappear even before we could reach the counter! Too bad.
The waiting area was small and there were surrounding shops selling more or less the same stuff. The incredible thing about buying at these places was that they actually charge higher if you bought in VND compared to USD. Something that costed USD3 became VND75000, which came up to be about SGD4.8, equivalent of USD3.8. The plan about exhausting the VND here was gone in smokes since it was simply not of value to buy anything here. In the end, we ended up sitting and waiting out the time till boarding which was also delayed slightly due its late arrival. Yup, no free wifi. Boarding followed and 3hrs later, home sweet home.
This concluded a self planned family trip. All in all, it all turned out fine though there were some hiccups along the way. However, there were limited activities that could cater for all groups and this one was one that could most likely cater for most age groups.
Morning alarm was set at 715am but we woke up at 745am, the lethargy accompanied the tired muscles from the day before. When we went back to the panorama restaurant, there wasn’t as many as people and lotsa of empty spaces, and food variety was more than the first time we were there. Overheard someone ordering eggs and so we ordered some scrambled eggs and we were given one big plate of it. Outside the weather was still foggy with occasional small droplets of rain. Haiyan the superstorm had passed the Philippines and touched down on central Vietnam and moving towards our direction and thus there were just an unease of bad weather for our trip.
The guide arrived early and after we busied ourselves getting ready, we got up a smaller minibus (but still spacious for group of 4) and off to 2.5hrs drive to Trang An.
Similar to the drive to Halong Bay, it was more or less a sleep fulfilling drive as there wasn’t really much to see on the road, except for some farming with sparsely dispersed animals like ducks and cows. Apparently it was a good day for wedding as evident for the many wedding cars that we saw on the way. Guess the fortune teller wasn’t accurate enough to foresee the coming of Haiyan. Fell asleep and was woken up by the irregular bumpy roads near Trang An and a another 20mins later, we arrived at location.
We were met with a view reminiscing of the one from Halong Bay, thus a nickname of Halong Bay on land. A visit to the toilet to discharge to inventory built up over the drive and we head to the pier where all 5 of us boarded the little boat for the rowing tour. The view was nice but the gloomy weather didn’t do photos justice and did not turn out like the ones from Halong Bay. There were a total of 9 caves but we could only go thru 6 as the water level was kinda high. This was evident when we were going through the first cave and some points it looked as we were about to knock our heads if we didn’t lower them. It was really quite challenging to maneuver around the tight spot but the boat rower was good. Sometimes she used he legs to paddle when her arms got tired. The whole journey took about 2 hrs and at times the rower could interchange between rowing with arms or legs. We too at times picked up the paddle to help to row the boat especially during the time when there was a drizzle coming along, and we had to quickly don on the raincoats. The gust was strong that my aunt’a umbrella had flipped over a couple of times. The bearing typhoon not only brought the gloom, the drizzle and also many tourists who had to cancel their plans as we understood that Halong Bay was closed today due to Haiyan. One of the affected tourists from a boat said so, from one of the loud conversation across boats that we had while rowing back to the pier.
Tipped the boat rower for her hard work and safe journey and proceeded to lunch at the only restaurant that was available. We were given a Vietnamese menu and also an English menu and both prices were different, obviously for the English ones because they had to convert the menu to English and that costed money (of course you knew the reason). The food was informed to be not delicious and so we just ordered something to get by. There was free wifi though. The guide was there to help us with when the bill came and she noticed that we were charged the English menu costs and she got them to changed it, some Sgd9 of savings.
After lunch, we were driven to Hoa Lu to visit the forsaken temples that was used to worship the first 2 emperors of Vietnam, both in temples not to far from each other. The temples were pretty run down from years of neglect but still drew many visitors to it. Both temples had the same layout, just that one had more elaborate design of the bed than the other. This tour didn’t take very long and we were soon on the bus, not before getting some fruits from old lady seller for under Sgd1 (quite a couple of then around). The journey back, the skies darkened and more drizzle – not sure what to expect.
Back at the hotel, took a quick rest and we were out for dinner. Searched the tripadvisor and Restaurant 96 was one if the names that came up amongst the recommended and was an easy 5 mins away. The drizzle was stubbornly going on and on and thus we had to arm ourselves with unbrellas and myself a raincoat. We were brought up to the second floor and seated close to the window. It was a nice little establishment but busy with guests most of the time. It took a while to decide on the dishes but after we made the orders, it took really long to arrive and the dishes wasn’t what was expected – we ordered pumpkin soup which came without the pumpkin and cabbage with came with another type of vegetable. The food was ok though. I guessed the kitchen wasn’t fast enough to sustain the number of guests and there were also tourist groups that came into this restaurant for dinner. The price of the dishes were affordable but we were just not satisfied with the speed at which the food was served, comparing with Avalon that we had previously.
After dinner, my aunt wanted to go for a full body massage and we went to a nearby spa. She went for the 1hr massage while the rest of us weren’t interested left her there and went to shop for souvenirs to bring back to Singapore. Amongst the things that we bought were weasel coffee, lotus seeds and green bean cakes. Along the way, we also saw some raincoats going at Sgd1.2 each and I thought it was the really thick and durable type and so we bought 3. The aunty selling to me was adamant not to give it to me for anything less than the Sgd1.2 and so I didn’t bother much since it was so cheap. Then as I changed out my current half body raincoat to the new one that we just bought it was only that I found out that it was the really thin cheap PVC type. It was too late then but what’s worse was when we made our way to Hang Gai street, we noticed another raincoat store and they were selling then for just Sgd 0.6! We then knew that we had been had, but heck it was just cheap and we just laughed it off. Bought a thicker type of raincoat for Sgd3.6 and it looked really durable.
The Hang Gai street was part of the Old quarters that was known as an attraction in Hanoi. But most likely due to the rainy weather and it was already late Sunday evening, there wasn’t many stores opened, just a couple of toys stores that were on the verge of closing. We gave up and went looking for a coffee house to get some Vietnamese coffee and ended up at Long Van Thuy Ta. The coffee served was nice though mine, the special Thuy Ta coffee, looked nice but didn’t taste as impressive as it looked. Spent some time chatting about our tour the past few days before we went back to get my aunt who didn’t have a clue on how to get back to the hotel alone.
Back to the hotel, we packed in preparation for the flight home, though we weren’t sure if Haiyan would have any impact on the schedule of our flight. Could only prepare and hope the weather would improved the next day.
The alarm woke us up at 530am and I got up to look out of the window, hoping to catch the morning sun peeking thru the peaks. What I saw was foggy skies, as what the guide has informed the day before. Not giving up, I went to the top deck for a while. It was the still the same even after waiting for a while. The fresh air wasn’t enough to replace the sleep that I missed and so I proceeded back to room to sleep. Autumn skies were expected to be like this.
7am the guide went around to knock on our doors. Breakfast was served and it was a simple one yet delicious. We sat with German guests and talked about Munich and Oktoberfest and also about travels in Asia. After breakfast, went back to the room to get shoes and proceeded onto the transfer boat that brought us to the shore of the Sung Sot cave. It was the biggest cave in Vietnam and there were already a lot of people on the stairs leading to the cave. My mom and aunt could do this activity as there were many people and the queue was moving really slowly. This cave was a little different as it had quite a big opening unlike the rest that we had visited previously. The temperature didn’t feel as cool as the enclosed ones but could be because of the steps climbing and the number of people in the cave. There were 3 chambers in the cave, the third one being the longest of the 3 and having a rock that was shaped like a “special finger” as the guide puts in but we all knew it looked like a penis. The walk around the cave was pretty straightforward with a few stops where the guide tried to explain how some of the formations looked like animals and dragons and Buddha. Upon exiting the cave, there was a nice viewpoint where we took a few shots and down the steps and across the wooden walkway before heading back to the transfer boat. This was the end of the cruise activities and as we packed our bags and vacate the rooms immediately after returning, we checked out at the bar counter and waited the 1hr travel back to the harbour. Just before reaching the harbour, the crew gave a demonstration on how they crafted out the beautiful fruit sculptures that accompanied the delicious meals that was served. Wowed at the incredible skills of a chef!
When the ship came to a stop, we had to wait about 15mins for the transfer boat to arrive that brought us to shore. Then it was a short 5min walk and across the road to the lunch restaurant. Apparently a lot of people come here for lunch, most likely some collaboration with the cruises. Lunch was served shortly after but wasn’t as nice as those that were served on the cruise. Drinks as usual had to be paid. There was a feedback session in the form of a survey paper and then a 1hr wait for the bus (bigger this time) which made us really sleepy after the heavy lunch and then we were on the way back to Hanoi.
The rest stop was similar to the one while going the towards Halong Bay, things were equally expensive and we didn’t get anything as it would definitely be cheaper in the city.
Arrived at the hotel at almost 5pm and we were the first stop fortunately. Re-checked in and was upgraded to from a suite to a deluxe suite. It was not much of a change but an increase in the size of an already big room but we weren’t complaining. After settling down, snapped a shot of the setting sun, checking on Tripadvisor on the recommended dinner places, we left for the Hoan Kiem lake and the Ngoc Son temple.
It was a 5 mins walk though we needed to keep a lookout of the road signs in order not to get lost. We found out that google maps with in built phone GPS worked and that helped in the navigation especially when moving to another location. The temple visit was short, and due to a lack of guide, we didn’t really see much and it was also getting dark. We proceeded to the water puppet theatre (Thang Long water puppet theatre) to purchase the tickets for the 630pm show. The tickets were issued just like old times cinema with the manual marking of seats on a layout plan. Since it was still early, we decided to walk around the various shops that were selling souvenirs and these were at a more affordable prices compared to the cutthroat rest stops that were using charity as an excuse to rip off tourists. Bought a couple of cheap bags and went off to watch the water puppet show.
It was a 1hr long show that had a nice broadway theater Vietnamese style kinda feel. There was a band for the show and a stage that was filled with water, thus the name water puppet. Though there was no commentary in English, it was by no means boring. In fact I found it pretty amusing as simple stories were being told via the actions of these puppets and it was amazing how they made the dragon spit water and the tiger climb the tree. Getting pictures were not that simple since we sat somewhere in the middle and the stage is not very bright and thus puppets moving, the images often become blurry. Still tried my best as I had to pay an additional of Sgd1.20 equivalent for bringing in a camera.
After the show, we went in search of a restaurant known as the Green Tangerine. Found it hard to find as this was not specifically identified on google maps and we had to ask a tour company rep in one of the stores when she helpfully pointed out the location for us. We were pretty impressed with the deco and it looked pretty formal which made us pretty uncomfortable while inside the restaurant. The waiter informed that the place was fully booked and we needed to wait till 8pm before we could get a seat. Furthermore, after looking at the menu, it seemed like it served French cuisine which we didn’t think that we could appreciate and that led us to go to another recommended restaurant, Avalon cafe lounge, just 3mins walk from our location.
We weren’t sure if it’s location but upon looking up, the name was shown quite obviously and we just proceeded in that direction. Soon we saw a stand with the menu and the waiter there and he brought us around to another street where the entrance and the lift was. This restaurant consisted of 3 floors where they were quite a number of seats with stunning views of the Hanoi city and the Hoan Kiem lake. By the time we arrived, the restaurant was quite full and thus we just settled in a 4 seater in the restaurant. Placed order for the food and it was served pretty quickly, and the food was decently good too! Having good food in a chic design restaurant that came with good view at affordable prices definitely was the key to the large number of guests at the restaurant.
We left satisfied and the walk back was also easy, with the GPS. The streets were still very busy with many bikes and pedestrians on a Saturday night and it was pretty safe too. Got back to the room to surf as there wasn’t internet while out at Halong Bay. It was time to return the thanks to all the well wishes!
Woke up really early as we were embarking on a trip to Halong Bay. We have packed our day bags to bring along to the cruise and leaving the main luggage with the hotel since we would be returning to the same hotel after returning from Halong Bay. Ate the breakfast at the 10th floor known as the panorama restaurant. It had an alfresco option where you could get to eat on the balcony for a full city view. When we arrived at the hotel there were many people already there and there were hardly any seats. And they were severely short handed as tables took some time to be cleared. The variety was pretty limited but we could order noodle soup.
After breakfast and check out, we waited at the lobby for the Alova Gold cruise bus to pick us up. It was about 830am that it finally arrived. It was a mini bus that already had 7 people on board. Then it was a long drive to the harbour at Halong Bay, some 4hrs away. The guide gave a short intro on Hanoi and Halong Bay, explaining the origins of the name and that Hanoi was the rising dragon and Halong bay being the descending dragon and even gone on to explain about the differences between the western dragons and the Vietnamese dragon which was kinda funny. Then it was snooze time to the rest stop which was a store selling some local produced goods, some of which was made by the local disabled community. It was a tad bit expensive though. After using the restroom, boarded the bus and continued towards the harbour.
Another 2 hrs later and we arrived at the harbour. The guide went to purchase tickets and we were brought to board the small boats that ferry us to the cruise which was anchored further out at sea. After transferring from the small boat to the small cruise, there was a short briefing together with a welcome drink and then checking in our rooms. Since it was a small vessel, the rooms were also small but adequate. There were some restrictions on the usage of hot water and air con (only available at certain times). After awhile, we met on the small eating place for our lunch, which was pretty good compared to what we had previously the night before, all that time the ferry made its way into the bay.
Before long we were already busy snapping photos as we passed the various peaks protruding from the water. The weather was amazingly good and different from what we had in Hanoi and thus the photos really turned out stunning.
Spent quite bit of time on the top most deck to take photos until it was almost time to disembark to small boats that brought us to the shore of Tiptop island. Once there, another round of instructions, and then we had to climb some 400plus steps. It was a tiring climb but somewhere at 150 something steps, there was a view deck for people to rest and admire the view at an elevation not seen at the cruise level. We continued all the way to the top most shelter where the view was awesome! There were many people there admiring the view and taking photos so it was a challenge to find the time and good spot and then take a good shot.
We went back down to a sheltered area where both my mom and aunt was sitting as apparently they didn’t make it up to even the half point view deck and was too tired and so sat there waiting for our return. After a while more, we went down to the beach and took more shots before heading back the harbour, up the transfer boat and back up the ferry.
The next activity was kayaking and only I participated since my family members didn’t know how to kayak. Went off with the tour guide and some other cruise members towards a hole in the bottom of the mountain of a rock and pass under it. We then arrived at an enclosed area surrounded by these tall rocks. There was a family of monkeys, wondered how on earth did they end up there in the middle of no where. Kayak a bit before going back the same way to the ferry. It was really tiring even though there wasn’t much of a current. Probably was just my lack of skill. It was already sunset and as hard as I tried to kayak back to the ferry to take photos, I knew I was far from doing so and then I just shot from my kayak.
Upon returning, went up to the top deck and joined my wife as she was just chilling, listening to mp3 and reading a book, admiring the sunset. We laid on the deck seats for a while before going back to take a bath. After that, we were informed about the cooking class and arrived late though we didn’t really missed much. They were just learning how to roll a paper spring roll which we knew how from the first day at lunch. Soon after the spring roll rolling and eating, dinner was served. This time round there were about 8 dishes and were still kinda full from the spring rolls and happy hour drinks that we had. After a long dinner, the crew prepared a special surprise and brought out a birthday cake and together with the remaining guests at the dinning area (although the guide tried to get more guests to the dinning area to celebrate with us). Sang a birthday song, made a wish, blew the candles and cut and split the cakes.
After the desert, we ordered some drinks and I had a Saigon beer in the cool winds of the evening before retiring to the cabin for a good nights’ rest.
The flight was scheduled at 8am, which means that we had to be at the airport at 6ish. We were just packing the night before and with just 5 hours of sleep, we were awake to embark on our trip. This trip was a family trip with my mom and my aunt. Had breakfast at 5 and was driven to the airport by dad and met up our aunt whilst waiting in a pretty quick moving line at the Tiger airways counter.
Almost forgot the insurance we bought online with Changi airport’s free wifi. Then it was boarding that was quite efficient too. We were seated near the end of the flight and amongst some Vietnamese on their way home, not the most civil lot as they were pretty loud and we were awoken by their constant chatting over their voices. Flight was early and airport was quite empty at that time of the day. We cleared customs quickly but had to wait awhile for the luggage but everything was smooth. Only the cloudy/hazy weather was a little disappointing as this would potentially be a photo wrecker. Made a beeline to the little lady holding a card bearing my name – our guide and it was a 1hr journey to our hotel.
While we arrived just before lunchtime at Authentic Hotel, the room wasn’t ready. So we left the luggages and walked to a nearby gold shop to change SGD to VND. The rate was pretty good too, something like SGD 1 to 16950VND. After that, walked back to the hotel where the bus was still waiting for us and went to lunch at a food court concept location, Quán Ăn Ngon, where different varieties of Vietnam food was sold at affordable prices. We ordered spring rolls, fresh and fried, Chee Chong Fun, duck noodle and wanton noodles. Spring rolls were good as expected, rest was ok.
We were driven to Temple of Literature where we saw a large number of young people wearing similar costumes. After enquiring more from the guide, we then understood that these people were graduates that just graduated and they were all here to take photos for their graduation. It had recently became a trend for graduates to come to the first university of Vietnam to commemorate the occasion, with the temple built in worship of Confucius. Though it was quite a sight at first, it became a nuisance in terms of photo taking. They were just everywhere!
The next stop was to visit the residence of the founding father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. Luckily, graduates were not really related to this attraction. However, the mausoleum was closed for maintenance and thus not open for us to see Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body. As the guide was giving us the details of the mausoleum ( such as the reading of the Declaration of Independence and the National Day and his death falls on the 2nd Sept), we managed to catch the changing of guards at the attraction, which was a really simple affair unlike some other ones such as the one in Buckingham Palace. This also takes place every hour so it was not really that surprising to see this activity take place.
After this, proceeded to walk to the presidential residence painted in yellow which we can only see from the outside. It only opens for receiving of VIPs from foreign countries and though we meet the foreign countries criteria, we were not classified VIPs. The compound consisted of various other buildings and a huge pond and some of the places where HCM previously stayed. Walked about the compound was easy. As we moved around the pond, we saw a fish jumping out of the water. It looked as if it was catching the hovering dragonfly above the water surface. Pity I did not manage to capture an image of it.
After exiting the compound and walking behind the mausoleum, we came to a single pillar pagoda that sat in the middle of a little pool of water. Interesting little attraction but did not spend too much time there. Since it was still early, the guide brought us to another location before going back.
Dong Xuan market, one large market that sold different varieties of goods, ranging from food to clothes to accessories to toys at really cheap wholesale prices. I tried looking for socks but didn’t like the designs. We got a really cheap giraffe soft toy for something like Sgd1.80 for our dog. I guess my mom and aunt had a nice time there since market was probably their “thing” though they didn’t buy anything too. We left the market after awhile and boarded the bus at the main road some walking away, since it was too big to enter the busy road leading to the market.
Once back at the hotel, we continued with check-in and paid the guide for the tour. We would continue the tour with them on the fourth day again but so far it had been busy but fulfilling day. Once in the room, we were really happy with the room, it was huge, nicely designed and clean at a decent price of Sgd 130ish per night. Only major problem was that the wall between the rooms were not very thick and we could hear the neighbors’ tv from our room. We had to call twice to the reception to first call them to tune down the volume and second time to get the hotel rep up to visit the room and request them to lower the volume. The other issue was that each room was only given 1 card and I had one time stupidly locked ourselves out of the room and request the hotel rep to let us into the room
We took a quick shower and proceeded out to the main road, armed with a photocopied map from the hotel and some notes made by out guide on our present location and a recommended dinner location. It was a straightforward direction to the restaurant but not easy since the map didn’t have all the names nor the exact location of the restaurant. We walked till we reached a decent restaurant and asked for the directions to the Highway 4 restaurant, shamelessly, but they were gracious to point us to the right direction.
Highway 4 was a nicely designed restaurant in a old 4 storey building. There were smoking and non-smoking sections available and we were seated at 3rd floor, some more exercises required on the already tired legs. The theme was designed like a Japanese restaurant, where we were seated on cushions with a low table but there is a space cut out under the table for the legs to be placed. Food was not too expensive and we ordered some Ala Carte dishes, the taste was not really fantastic though.
Took the same way back to the hotel and along the way, there was a dessert store that sold us local desserts that looked vaguely like Singapore “Dao Suan”. We sat on the little stools outside the store and using a higher stool as a table, we ate to our fill. It was quite tasty too.
Continued back to the hotel which ended the really long 1st day out in Hanoi. There was “Starmovies HD” channel but has nothing really interesting, so we slept early.