Dreams - Fotografické služby

Vietnam - October/November 2010

11.11.2010 19:55

When most of people hear Vietnam, they usually think of millions of people selling cheap fake T-Shirts and often don´t believe that it´s a country offering unbeatable sceneries and both the sea and mountains. I was one of those. But after having seen most of the ´usual´ Asian countries Vietnam immediately got its position on my list of destinations I definitely had to visit.

On Friday eve, after spending full working day in the office and meetings, I flew over to Singapore (as usually to chill-out a bit- for recommendations see the blog for Cambodia/ Borneo) where I´ve spent one night. Following day the journey  continued to Saigon (Ho-Chi Min City) and then straight to Hanoi. As for Saigon, I´ve decided to leave it for the very end of this trip, subject to good weather, as there was not too much I wanted to see here really, However I was full of expectations of Hanoi, both as of the city itself and as the gateway to the countryside too.

The first thing which will surprise you in Vietnam is the local currency, called Dong. For 1USD you get about 18,000 Dongs so at least once in your lifetime you´re becoming a multi-millionaire. At the first sight prices are very reasonable to us as e.g. the taxi from Hanoi airport to the city centre costs USD13 and this is journey of about 50kms. When coming from Europe most of the flights will arrive in the evening so there should be no traffic at all then, meaning the journey should take about 40mins. However when coming during the day and heavy traffic, allow at least 90mins for the traffic - and the traffic is really heavy everywhere with limited by-pass options so don´t leave the transfer to the last minute as you could easily miss your flight.

The following day we started straight in the historical (Old) quarter of Hanoi which is just amazing. The streets have really not changed a much since the beginning of 20th century and considering the number of trees and lakes you can find in Hanoi, you won't get the usual  impression of a megalopolis with 10mil people you do expect and Hanoi seems to be a very pleasant place to live. In the Old quarter there's difficult to highlight particular spots as all of those are just great - so the best deal is to walk all the streets with no particular plan as on every corner you will discover someting completely different. From a fruit market, local restaurant (try the local specialty called Pho - a noodle soup served with either chicken or beef and local vegetables) or a small local gallery, offering a contemporary art. 

After the Old Quarter you can go on with the French Quarter which is just next to it - even it's was not as attractive to me anymore there are still few places worth to be seen - like the Opera (with lovely bakery Paris Gateau just opposite the Opera's main entrance where you can get a delicious French pastry and coffee for something like USD2).

From here you can continue to the Hoam Kiem lake which is actually the centrepoint of Hanoi - both to the locals and tourists. Here on a small island connected with a red bridge you can visit the Ngon Son temple. Another nice spot here is the Turtle Mountain which is a small temple of a separate island right in the middle of the lake. Or you can just sit at the water and relax absorbing the lovely atmosphere here. What really surprised me were the tens of newly-weds coming here for a photoshoot, confirming the fact it's a very popular spot for the locals too. If you want to have an 'aerial' view of the lake, come to the round-about just next to the Ngon Son temple where there's a five storey restaurant with beautiful views.

From here you can continue walking on the other side of the lake towards the St. Joseph Cathedral (corner of the P Nha Chung and P Nha Tho streets) which is a local variation of the Paris' Notre Dame. In the surrounding streets you can find plenty of great restaurants offering any cuisine you might like and also many local tourist agencies which I strongly recommend to use when planning to go somewhere outside Hanoi (see below).

After this we took a cab to the West Lake (Ho Tay) which was about 10mins drive. Here you can visit the Tran Quoc Pagoda. Apart of seeing the Pagoda and the adjusted temple you can have another nice walk by the lake which is most probably best in the evening during the sunset.

It bacame the evening in the meantime we have again taken a cab and went back to our hotel and to have a dinner in one of the local restaurants nearby (and to buy some fruits and water in the local shop). To be honest, I never understood the local taxi drivers much - despite all of them do have a meter (which sometimes you need to push them to turn on), one has been charging us USD2 and other one USD4 for the same journey. There was always some kind of excuse - starting from the fact that this is a bigger car which uses more fuel to the fact that it's a traffic jam and we need to wait more. Which doesn't have any influence on the price though as they don't charge you for the time spent but for the journey driven. But this is a simple fact you need to accept.

As I was always planning to use Hanoi as a local gateway point for the countryside trips,  in particular the famous Halong Bay and the Perfume Pagoda, I've stopped in one of the local travel agencies based in the Old Quarter during the afternoon to book a trip with them. Having not known how it works in Vietnam that day, I didn't believe the lady in the agency that it's more convenient to buy a full package from them. Halong Bay was the first place to visit to I decided to book only a return transfer from the agency, using their share minibus for 14 people. This was for USD19 return, allowing 1 night stay at the Halong City. Should you opt for a private car (which would be definitely more faster and pleasant experience though), expect USD100 for a return trip in 1 day or USD200 for return any other day.

The minibus picked us up at the hotel at 7.30am and it took another hours until we collected all the other passengers and were off to the Halong City. Morning traffic in Hanoi is really a nightmare so it took another hour to get out of the city and additional 2,5hours to get to the seaside. At about 13hrs we finally reached the harbour at Halong Bay where all the other passengers were boarding the travel agency´s own boat for either 1 or 2 nights stay in between the islands. We took a cab to our hotel which is truly and oasis in this city which is truly just about the Halong Bay spot. Otherwise there's absolutely nothing to do here and you don't even have too many restaurants/ shops to choose from in order to get some reasonable or good food. After checking-in, we walked back to the harbour (about 15mins) still believing we can get some small private boat which will take us whenever we want. BUT there are no small boats at all. You can either choose an organised group or tour on a shared boat or rent a private one - but it will be a big boat with capacity for 20people or so. Having been hunted by couple of guys at the entry to the harbour, we started to talk to the most trusted one who first came with the offer of USD100 for a 4hrs ride on a private boat. As bargaining is a common sport in Vietnam, I managed to get a deal of USD40 which was a very pleasant surprise. 15mins later we have already been boarding our boat and went off to the sea. The scenery is just amazing with almost 200 island coming out of the sea. The boats usually follow 2 routes in between the islands so there's little or no individual variation you can get. The first stop was on a floating village in between series of islands which is nice but having seen this in Cambodia already, it was nothing special to me (well, of course the scenery was great). The stop was planned for about 30mins, allowing the locals to sell you enough souvenirs, Coke and fruits. As we weren't interested in this one, we wanted to depart almost instantly but the crew diseappear. After 10mins they finally turned up and understood that we want to go. After few minutes of really lovely scenic ride (despite it was quite difficult to take pictures sometimes as the islands in long distance were in permanent mist) we have been adjoined by another ship where 2 Vietnamese ladies came onboard and started to offer us some souvenirs again. Having seen that the ship has turned around and was heading towards the harbour again, I have asked one of the ladies whether we're going back to the port already as we're on the way for 60mins only. She first said yes, then no and finally that she doesn't understand English. And of course 10mins later we ended up at the jetty with engine switched on and nobody from the crew being able to talk to us. This was sort of principle break for me so I decided to look for the guys we bought the trip from before. Being quite lucky to find him, he was obviously surprised to see us as probably most of the tourists don't come back and complain. He confirmed that the tour should have been for 4hrs and not only an hour and the the captain has probably misunderstood. So I asked him when will we get remaining 3hrs ride. First he was not willing to offer this but at the end he confirmed that he will pick us up in the hotel at 7.30am the following morning. I also asked him to give me some money back as a guarantee that he will really turn up- first he was again denying this but then he gave me 100,000dong (USD5).

The following morning, despite my honest doubt, a driver turned up in the reception asking for our names and took us to the harbour. However to a different one or I should rather say to a jetty at the city promenade. Here we have found out that we're joining an organised tour for about 20guests and had to wait for all the others to arrive. And then at 8am we have discovered that the tour should take about 6hrs, meaning that we would miss our check-out in hotel. So we decided to call the guys again - and he said he never promised a private boat to us and that we should either take it or leave it. Considering we will miss both the check-out and our bus back to Hanoi, we had to deboard and walked back to the hotel. Have also tried to locate the guys at the regular harbour to give it a last try but obviously he wasn't there anymore.

This was a very negative experience which, I have to say, has truly influence my entire understanding of Vietnam - the deal is never guaranteed really unless it's through an official company (even this was a regular boat operator too...) and whenever you can be overcharged because you're a foreigner, you will be.

However Halong Bay itself is definitely a great place to see and definitely worth to pay a visit- just be sure you check the weather first so the visibility will be good and rather buy a complete package from a travel agency.

In the afternoon we again took the lovely 3,5hrs ride back to Hanoi. Whilst being in our room already we have again called the travel agency to book the trip to Perfure Pagoda for the following day. This we have negotiated for USD35 including minibus transfer, boat ride and entry to the Pagoda.

We have been picked-up at 8.45am instead of advised 8.15am, this time it was a minibus for 12people with all seats occupied. The journey this time took us 2hrs with 1hrs to get out of Hanoi for 1hrs for the ride to the countryside. In a small city My Duc we have changed to a small rowing boat for 6people. The boat ride takes about an hour and is happening on a river surrounding by one of the best sceneries I've ever seen - basically the same shape of hills you can see in Halong Bay but in a more compact size. Additionally, the further you're getting from the small city/jetty where you board the boats, the cleaner the river gets - so you after 20mins ride you end up with clear waters.

The Perfume Pagoda, apart of being the most sacred place in the whole Vietnam, is actually a complex of many pagodas. After the 60mins boat ride you get to a small port at a foot of one of the hills which is sort of a gateway to all the pagodas around. The most important and sacred one is however on the top of the tallest mountain - so expect about 1000 steps to be climbed. Ot you can take a cable car, if it's running... The Pagoda is truly a magical place as it's being build in a massive cave at the top of the mountain - so after reaching the top you need to descent again on a 200steps stairway again. And the size and setting is really a breathtaking one... After spending some time in here we have taken the same route back to My Duc with experiencing sunset while still being on the boat - again a very nice experience.

Having seen all we wanted to cover in the Hanoi area, we have checked the weather forecast for the other areas of Vietnam. Unfortunatelly it was still raining heavily in Central and Southern regions, creating some siginificant floods too so there was no reason going there. For the Northern part (which is the city of Sapa, the weather forecast was most sunny but wth degrees of about 3-6 degrees which we didn't have equipment for), we have decided that it's time to move on and leave for Thailand. We have luckily seen all the key sites on our list (Hanoi, Halong Bay and Perfume Pagoda) so it was rather a successful  trip.

So what to say about Vietnam? Definitely a place worth to pay a visit however if this is you first Asian country to visit, rather start with Vietnam and then move to other Asian countries like Thailand or Cambodia. As already said, tourists are considered as an easy target how to earn good money here and some people do behave quite roughly. So if you have a comparison with other countries already, this might influence your point of view on the country itself. But definitely don't let even these my lines distract you from going here as it's definitely a great place to see.

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