Why does “Indochina” seem so romantic to me? Just reading and thinking about this word send shivers down my spine. It depicts a far away land that is full of mystery and nature. It’s a travel word that lulls me to sleep and bring me to exotic places. Of course to most of you, Indochina is just a geographical term that refers to a continental portion of the earth now known as Mainland Southeast Asia (Philippines not included because it’s not in the mainland, right?). It basically refers to a group of countries that were influenced by India and China and physically bound by the India in the west and China in the north, ergo Indo-China. Gets? Haha. Indochina corresponds to present-day countries of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Also Malaysia and Singapore to some degree. (Indonesia, even though it sounds like Indochina is not included.) I wanted to go to travel each country that is included in Indochina. Again with the dream of this exotic place that’s alike yet different from my home country, the Philippines.
By April 2018, I have visited all of the countries of Indochina except Myanmar and Laos. Don’t worry, they’re in the works. When? Who knows? Who knew I will travel to Vietnam and Cambodia and that it will actually push through with all the things that happened to me and my family for the past few months of 2017 and 2018. It was a very challenging time but God made a way to send me to these journeys that I thought will just pass me by. I didn’t know it then but they will serve a bigger purpose in my life. This is me waxing poetic to my travels again, and you should to. Travels have different meanings for us. It just so happens that my Vietnam and Cambodia trips were eye-opening and healing, in a way.
August of 2017, my high school friends and I started planning for a trip together. You see, ever since we graduated high school 17 years ago (yes, SEVENTEEN), we haven’t gone to a trip together whether that be outside our home province of La Union or the Philippines. There were the occasional meet-ups for dinner and coffee in San Fernando or Manila but other than that, we went on separate ways and gone with other groups of friends to other places and countries. I found myself in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, my friend Florence in Abu Dhabi, UAE, my friend Camille in Manila, Philippines, my friend Catherine in Baguio, Philippines and my friend Mary Grace in La Union, Philippines. We don’t get to see each other that often. After all of us got married, we got busier than ever (but not busy enough to attend each other’s weddings!). We were back to our respective countries and back at work when we chatted in Facebook and came to terms with the possibility of a travel outside the Philippines. We were ecstatic! We were in the “let’s just do this!” phase and we got to researching. Did we ask our husbands first? Uhhhhh. Hahaha! This is a women only journey. Hahaha.
At first, they gave me the task to make an itinerary for 5 days, 3 countries. MADNESS! They wanted to visit Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia in 5 days. HELLO?!? Bibili lang ba tayo ng suka sa tindahan mga bes? (Are we just buying vinegar in the nearby store, friends?!) Haha! They told me we will just go to the temples and take a picture and that’s it. Having been to the temples of Thailand a few years back, I told them how we can’t just go in one and that’s it. It’s never “that’s it” in these Thai temples. They are temple complexes and we need a day or two to be able to see, not even everything, but the temples worth seeing. Also, traveling to one country to another usually takes a day if it’s by land. Florence has an aversion to flying so she kept on begging us not to book inward flights (between countries) apart from the flights from and back to Manila. After a few back and forth chat messages, we scrapped Thailand and focused on Vietnam and Cambodia. Great, I haven’t been to these countries. They also managed to make the days longer and make our trip one week because the dates coincided with holy week in the Philippines and it’s a holiday.
We decided to go to Vietnam first before Cambodia. Vietnam or the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula. It’s probably the center of Asia as it’s surrounded by most countries like China to the north, Laos to northwest, Cambodia to southwest, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia somewhere around it. That’s why it’s the perfect beginning to an Indochina trip. From Vietnam, you can go anywhere around it. Lonely Planet probably has the best description of Vietnam: a land of staggering natural beauty and cultural complexities, of dynamic megacities and hill-tribe villages, Vietnam is both exotic and compelling. TRUE THAT.
Now, there are two main cities in Vietnam that are popular with tourists: Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) and Hanoi. Others like Hoi An and Hue are great too. We had a decision to make: which of the two big cities are we going to visit? We can’t do both because of time and distance. I probably was the one who made the ultimate choice here because there’s only one thing that I wanted to see in Vietnam: Halong Bay. And Halong Bay is in Hanoi. I am not going to to Vietnam and not see Halong Bay. I’m not sure about my friends but Halong Bay is one of my dream destinations. Just looking at the pictures of its glistening waters and thousand islands sends me to a serene place where I know I can enjoy a time free of worries and stress. That’s something I cannot get from going under the Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh (I’m not even sure if I fit in those, haha). Also, Ho Chi Minh is a dizzying city; it’s fast-paced and bustling, while Hanoi is rural and chill (except when you’re crossing the roads). Maybe next time Ho Chi Minh!
HANOI IT IS!
Now, as Filipinos who live in the Southeast Asia neighborhood, we have dibs to cheaper air fares. So it’s wise to connect a trip to Southeast Asian countries with a vacation in the Philippines. It’s better to come from Manila and fly to Hanoi than fly from Riyadh to Hanoi. Of course not all of our readers are Filipinos so I’ll be giving your options in a while. For those coming from the Philippines, Cebu Pacific Air fly to Hanoi a few times a week. Other airlines that ply this route are Thai Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Singapore Airlines, etc. It’s not wise to choose these though because they’re more expensive and have stops to their home countries.
My friends and I settled for Cebu Pacific Air. We got a good deal since we bought our outbound ticket when the airline was on sale.
Flight Ticket from Manila to Hanoi via Cebu Pacific Air (one-way):
PHP 2,599 (approx. SR 200) each
We only need a one-way ticket because we’re going to Cambodia next and we’ll fly out from there to Manila. Travel time from Manila to Hanoi is around 3 hours. We chose an evening flight so that we can just sleep on the flight leaving at 9:50 PM and arriving at 1:00 AM the following day. We traveled last March 29, 2018.
As far as I know, there are no direct flights from Riyadh to Hanoi. You can catch a flight in Emirates which has a stop-over in Dubai. Or you can go through multiple airlines that has stop-overs in various countries like Saudi Airlines to Oman Air to Thai Airways. Travel time to Hanoi from the Middle East is a minimum of 11 hours including the stops. Prices are crazy expensive at this time.
At first, my friends want to go backpacking. This is a budget tour after all. They wanted to DIY the trip and stay in hostels where we’ll be sharing dorm rooms with other people. Now, there’s nothing wrong with backpacking and I admire people who can do it. It’s just that I’m old and I’m high-maintenance. Kidding. Hahaha. My friends realized they don’t want to share bathrooms with strangers and so we started scoping for Airbnb flats. We had a lot of choices but being fickle-minded, we realized it might be better to go for hotels. I was again tasked to do an itinerary with PHP 10,000 budget for both Hanoi and Siem Reap. There’s just a matter of choosing where you want to go and what you want to do. It’s doable, of course, because that’s what I prepared at first.
In the DIY itinerary I prepared first, we’re in charge of our schedule. I just allotted time and money per day for each activity we want to do and each place we want to visit. Here are the highlight activities and places in Hanoi, Vietnam and the approximate prices for each.
Guided City Tour on Scooter: USD 60 (approx. SAR 231 / PHP 3,200)
Old Quarter Food Tour: USD 17 (approx. SAR 66 / PHP 900)
Halong Bay Day Cruise: USD 59 (approx. SAR 230 / PHP 3,000)
Hoa Lu and Tam Coc Tour: USD 29 (approx. SAR 112 / PHP 1,500)
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater: USD 5 (approx.SAR 20 / PHP 250)
There are a lot of activities that you can DIY like the city tour and the food tour but knowing how to cross their streets first and navigating your way in Hanoi is a must. Haha! It’s quite easy when you get the hang of it. Anyway, I will applaud you if you go this route. Most hotel accommodations in Hanoi are affordable. I’ve been eyeing Hanoi Capella Hotel during research because it has a nice location; near to the water puppet theater and the lake. Their rates are USD 135 (approx. SAR 520 / PHP 7,000) for 4 nights/5 days on a room for 3 persons. Most 3-star hotels have the same rate. Of course, if you want to splurge, five-star hotels like Movenpick, Intercontinental Westlake, Sheraton, Pullman, etc., are there to cater to you. I suggest getting an accommodation in the Old Quarter where most of the actions are at.
As for my friends and I, we didn’t DIY. So whatever I listed above, we did but they were included in a tour package. We figured out we didn’t want to worry over the details. We just want to arrive and let them take us to these places without us worrying how and when to get there. My friend Camille found a tour package from Hanoi Royal Palace Hotel. Their tour itinerary fit our schedule in Hanoi perfectly! So for USD 269 each, we have the following:
Three nights/four days accommodation in Hanoi Royal Palace Hotel – Suite City View room (triple share)
Private return transfer from hotel to Hanoi Airport – (car good for 4)
Half day city tour with English speaking tour Guide
Overnight Halong Bay Tour with Galaxy Premium Cruise (with cave tours and kayaking)
Roundtrip shuttle bus from Hanoi to Halong and back to Hanoi.
Full day Tam Coc & Hoa Lu tour with English speaking tour guide (includes transportation, lunch, and biking)
This package costs USD 269 (approx. SR 1,035 / PHP13, 700) per person. Not bad considering the effort and time that go into it. Instead of a day cruise in Halong Bay, we were staying overnight on the cruise ship. Might as well take advantage of this because our tour guide told us that by 2020, they might stop cruise ships from overnighting in the bay. So yup, go now guys!!! We had a few complaints but I guess they were minor considering how the hotel took care of us and our requests. More of that in my Vietnam entries. All in all, we will recommend this tour package for those who don’t want the stress that goes into DIY-ing an itinerary.
Since the Philippines is part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), we have a mutual understanding with Vietnam (naks, close kami eh). So we do not need a visa prior to going if we’re only staying for 14 days. Just arrive in their airport and go through immigration. That’s it. No further requirements needed. But if you’re staying for more than 14 days, Filipino passport holders need to get a visa by applying online at Vietnam Visa On Arrival. After applying online, obtain the approval letter to pick-up the visa at the airports in Vietnam.
Other nationalities can check here if they need to obtain a visa prior to going to Vietnam: https://vietnamvisa.govt.vn
It’s a bit expensive to apply visas online. USD 25 for the application and another USD 25 in the airport for stamping. Before applying for Vietnam visa, make sure that your passport has at least 6 months validity counting from date of arrival and also some blank pages left for the new stamp. Visa on arrival option is ONLY applicable for TRAVELING BY AIR to Vietnam. Meaning you can’t get it at the land borders.
What To Bring
Vietnam has a complicated weather, depending on what region you’re going. In Hanoi, May to October is hot and humid with high rainfall while November to April is cooler and dry that’s why our March trip is good. Of course the weather is important; it dictates what kind of clothes to bring. For us, we had a mix of pants, shorts, shirts, and dresses. Here’s a rundown of the essentials:
- Backpack, if you can pack all your essentials to a backpack, go for it.
- Below-the-knee skirts, pants, dresses, you’ll never know when you’ll go inside pagodas and temples
- Durable shoes, I found that TOMS are the perfect fit for a travel to Southeast Asia because it’s light, comfy, and dries easily (just in case it gets wet); it’s also closed for visits to the temples and important places
- Scarf or shawl, which can keep you warm when it’s cold, cover your head when it’s hot, or just cover your shoulders for conservative places
- Travel Adapter, you can borrow from the concierge but if you’re a traveller, you know this is a must!
- Battery Pack, because OF COURSE you can’t go low-batt on destinations like this!
- Sunscreen, protect your skin from the harsh UV rays
- Hat, it is hot in these tropical places
- Bug Repellant Lotion or Spray, rural areas are home to many insects and mosquitoes
- Medicines, tablets for diarrhea, stomach pains, headaches, etc. and creams for insect bites and muscle pains
Because we only got the airfare with 7kg cabin luggage, we had to do with a small luggage. At first, I was confident I can fit every thing into a Herschel backpack and I did but I thought about the pasalubong (souvenirs) that I’ll be bringing with me back home so I decided to bring a cabin luggage. Like what we always say in The Pink Tarha, it pays to list down the clothes you’ll be wearing every day. OOTD di ba? I swear this has saved me from the hassle of bringing too much clothes that I won’t be wearing anyway. Plus, it also makes for better photos, haha.
So, that’s it! You’re ready for a great tour to Hanoi, Vietnam! WOOT!
Just a recap of the things we spent in Saudi Riyals:
Airfare: SR 200
Tour Package: SR 1,035
Food (that are not included in the package): SR 200
Vietnam has a bustling street food market. Every where you go, you’ll see people eating in the side walk. Their food are delicious btw and worth trying! They’re so affordable!
Souvenirs: SR 100
For souvenirs, go for the paper cards, 3-in-1 Vietnamese coffee (for a taste of the real Viet coffee), and the usual keychains, ref magnets, etc.
TOTAL: SR 1,535
Also, instead of having a reunion event with friends from way back, why don’t you just go on a trip together? Reconnecting and bonding for a few days will do you good. You will learn more about each other. I did!