I love me some puns! Haha. I wanted to use Pho-nomenal or Pho-bulous but “unphorgettable” seems a much better choice to describe my trip to Vietnam. Of course, I’m using a pun: PHO is a Vietnamese noodle soup and I want to use it on this Vietnam travel entry because it’s so suitable right? Haha. Anyway, if you haven’t read my Planning For Vietnam entry, maybe you should go there first so that you can come here empty of questions on how to go there, what the itinerary is, how much the budget should be, etc. By the time you read this entry, I want you to just enjoy the photos and my stories. Okay? Let’s go.
So Vietnam. My high school friends and I flew to Hanoi, Vietnam on the evening of March 29 this year and we arrived a little over 1:00 in the morning the following day. Because we availed of a tour package, we just have to arrive at the airport and everything is already taken cared of. They will just have to whisk us away to our hotel and destinations and that’s it. Armed with our luggage and small bags for the essentials, we arrived groggy yet excited for our first country in our Indochina trip. Honestly, I couldn’t remember much of the Noi Bai International Airport apart from the fact that my friend Camille had to run down the escalator to get her luggage which was already going round and round the baggage carousel by the time we emerged from the immigration counters. Since we’re Filipinos who are staying in Vietnam for 5 days only, we didn’t need a visa prior to arriving.
We changed some of our US dollars in the airport to Vietnamese Dong. Did you know that you can become a millionaire in Vietnam?!? Haha. USD 1 = VND 22,774. 1 SAR = 6,073 VND. We changed USD 200 first so we got VND 4,554,771! Wow, milyonaryo na kami guys!!! Hahaha. One of the mistakes we made was not rent a pocket wifi. We could have rented one from Klook for USD 5 a day and brought that with us throughout our trip. We also didn’t buy Vietnam sim cards because we didn’t find it necessary. We were only staying for 5 days. Anyway, the hotel assured us they have wi-fi.
A guy from our hotel, the Hanoi Royal Palace Hotel 2, was waiting for us in the arrival area and off we go! There’s nothing much to see on our way to the hotel. When we arrived at the hotel, we noticed how small yet tall it is. The lobby had dimmed lights and we were surprised to find two guys sleeping on the corner of the lobby. The receptionist didn’t mind so we thought it’s normal. (Turned out they were hotel staff who don’t have rooms of their own so they resort to sleeping in the lobby area. We found out this is a norm for staff, even in cruise ships.) We found our rooms to be smaller than what was on the photo in their website; the bathroom looked dirty! And the space to move around was almost non-existent.
Anyway, we were too hungry to bother (otherwise I would have created a fit) and asked the receptionist to find a 24-hour restaurant that can deliver food. And they did!
OMG VIETNAMESE FOOD IS AMAZING!!!
I’ve had Vietnamese food before in the Philippines but that tasted nothing compared to the food we had on our first day in Vietnam. The fried spring rolls, buncha, fried rice, etc. were all friggin’ delicious!!! These just made our trip so much worth it! It was expensive though but that’s because it was delivered and it was already 3 in the morning! Haha. We paid around VND 500,000 for it. But so goooood!
We had to wake up at around 6:00 PM to get ready. Breakfast in the hotel opens at 7:00 AM and we have to catch a tour coaster that will bring us to Halong Bay at 8:00 AM. With just 2 hours of sleep, we ate like zombies; the food in their breakfast buffet were minimal but some of them like their fried rice and dry noodles were tasty. I kept coming back for the fruits because they were sweet! Anyway, by 8:00 AM, our tour guide was already in the reception area fetching us. When they say you have to be in the lobby by 8:00 AM, you should be there. Okay?! My friends didn’t get the memo earning us the term “3 GIRLS!!!” from the tour guide. It’s what he would shout when we’re running late again. And again. Anyway, off we go to Halong Bay!
When you want to see Halong Bay, you have to go to Hanoi. However, it doesn’t mean that Halong Bay is in Hanoi. Or somewhere near it. It’s actually four hours away by land travel! Hanoi is more like a jump-off point where all tourists to Halong Bay come from. Halong Bay (Ha Long Bay) is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Quang Ninh Province in Vietnam. The main feature of this popular tourist destination is the thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes that dot it. There are day trips to Halong Bay but we opted for the overnight trip included in the package to see more of Halong Bay and its surroundings. And also, to experience the cruise life.
Our coaster took in a few more guests from various hotels in Hanoi before finally traveling to Halong Bay. We spent the four hours in the bus mostly sleeping; there’s nothing much to see in the roadside. There were two stop-overs and both of them in huge souvenir shops selling various crafts that Vietnamese people are known for. I was mostly enthralled with the Vietnamese hand embroidery. Groups of Viets were lined up in one part of the shop doing needlework. The brightly-colored pictures on cloth were stunning! The craft is a 700-year-old tradition that young girls learn in school. Of course, embroidery is tedious work; the art pieces that come out of it are expensive. As much as I want to buy something from the shop, I had to pass. (We were on a budget right?)
There were also a lot of jade and mineral rock products, scarves made up of different fabrics, and imported goods. Or imported goods in other countries but not in Vietnam because they are made here. Haha. There were souvenir items in these huge shops but we resisted the urge to buy them here because we do not want to spend money on souvenirs on our first day in Vietnam; also we found out later on that they were expensive compared to the smaller souvenir stores found in the streets of Hanoi. So, just grab a quick snack and move on. A can of soda costs around 50,000 VND.
We reached the Halong Bay Port around 12:00 noon. We passed through the first dock where ferries for day tours were. Then we came upon the port where most cruise ships were. They were many! We ogled at all of the ships; some have fancier designs and some even have retro fittings to them making them look like ships from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, haha.
We found out that our cruise ship is the V’Spirit Classic, which is one of the options listed to us in the tour packages (along with Galaxy Cruises). Vietnamese Spirit tries to embody their name with their wooden junks designed to honor the traditional style of their heritage. But their ships are also fitted with contemporary deluxe cabins and facilities that make it comfortable and convenient for guests. Each of their cabins has sea-view windows and private bathrooms.
Our ship was a bit run-down. It’s certainly not new and has seen its better days but it was adequate. The cabins were on the first floor while the second floor is where the restaurant is, along with more cabins and the control station. On top is the sun deck. The wood is polished and the staff is friendly and warm. Though most of them don’t speak English, they understood English. We rode for 2 minutes in a small ferry to reach the door of the ship. We were ushered to the second floor for a quick briefing. With us were around 15 people more; most of them Westerns and a family of Filipinos. While the staff got ready for lunch, we were given our cabin keys. My friends and I were given the cabin on the second floor near the restaurant. The cabin was small with barely space to maneuver ourselves and our luggage around. It was a double bed and one single pushed to the walls. I love the huge window though! It has a clear view of our surroundings!
Lunch was served around 1:00 PM. They came in a set and OMG VIETNAMESE FOOD IS TRULY AMAZING! We had the best lunch on the cruise ship! They came one dish at a time letting us savor the flavors and textures of each viand. The food was mostly seafood and vegetables; freshly-prepared and cooked in the ship. They were all so delicious but special mention to the Cucumber Salad and the Fried Crab in Farsi-Style. They were heavenly! It was a very filling meal, befitting for a welcome to our overnight experience in the middle of Halong Bay.
After lunch, we had the opportunity to check the sun deck and chill. In summary, it was a time to take photos and take in our surroundings! Seeing Halong Bay is a dream come true for me.
Halong Bay or Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Quang Ninh Province of Vietnam. 500 years ago, noted poet Nguyen Trai, described Halong Bay in his verse Lộ nhập Vân Đồn as “rock wonder in the sky”. Rock, because of the many rock-like limestone karsts and isles that come in various shapes and sizes. The limestones have a history of over 500 million years of formation. Halong Bay is a biodiversity zone which includes a tropical evergreen biosystem teeming with flora and ocean and sea biosystem. Seeing Halong Bay in person tugged at my heartstrings because it’s so serene and peaceful.
The legend of Halong Bay is equally beautiful. It is said that the gods sent a family of dragons to protect Vietnam against invaders. The dragons spit out jewels and jade that turned into the islands and islets int he bay. They linked together and form a barrier or wall against the invaders. After the battle was won, the dragons chose to stay in the bay. The place where the mother dragon descended was named Halong Bay. Thus, Halong (or Ha Long) means “descending dragons”. (Why does this sound like a movie title to me? Haha!) The various islands, islets and caves in the Bay are teeming with numerous tales too. I guess this drew me to this place. The folklore and tales are what give meaning to places. I love stories like these and I hope they get passed down to the next generation, and to the next.
After resting for some time, we were called again to board the small boat to tour the Hang Sửng Cốt cave located in the middle of Halong Bay. There was some climbing in concrete stairs involved in this, haha. You know what that means: I hesitated a few minutes before finally relenting. Sayang naman kung hindi ko makikita, andito na ako diba?! (I didn’t know it was a practice to a bonggang stairs climbing later on.) The stairs are quite steep and it was lined with trees that provided shade. It was a HOT day after all. There were many tourists at the entrance of the cave and it was a bit hard to keep up with our guide. Good thing, he stops from time to time to tell the history and stories of the cave. The cave has three chambers; each bigger and more spectacular than the previous.
The first, outer chamber is called the “waiting room”. The passages to the next chamber are a bit narrow so if you’re claustrophobic, there will be moments when your courage will be tested.
The inner chamber is called the “serene castle” with formations resembling animals, sentries, etc.
Sung Sot means “surprising” and it was said to be because visitors got awestruck with the light reflected in the moving water that causes formations inside the cave to seemingly come alive.
The inner chambers have two main highlights: the “theater hall” has many stalactites hanging from the high ceiling. I can almost hear an orchestra in this distance welcoming the guests (feeling ko lang naman).
Inside is what actually blew me away… a chamber so huge, so immense that thousands of people can probably fit inside. Light flows from the top and it looks like an apparition will descend from the heavens. Can it be that a dragon will come and visit? Haha. It’s so melancholic inside this chamber. The texture of the walls, the seeping light in every crevice, the formations of stalactites… it’s truly an amazing feat of nature. The Sung Sot cave is just one of the many caves in Halong Bay. We didn’t have enough time to visit others but if you choose to stay longer when you visit, maybe you can.
After the cave, we were led to another big island in Halong Bay where we were given the chance to either swim in the beach or climb Ti Top Peak. Of course, like every unfit person out there, we chose to climb the Ti Top Peak. Hahaha. You see, if you’ve ever seen a picture of Halong Bay, chances are that photo was taken from the top of the Ti Top Island. Those pictures of Halong Bay’s panoramic view were taken by tired individuals who had to climb hundreds of steps to the observation deck in the summit. So you know what I’ve gone through to take these photos! Haha.
It was quite an effort to see that 360-degree view. From the beach, there’s the summit which you need to CLIMB.
We were huffing and puffing and I could feel my heart about to burst out of my chest. It was so exhausting to go up uneven steps and no one told us that the mid-point of the Ti Top has the same view as the one on top. So halfway is not too bad. Also, there are so many people on top that you can’t get a nice photo without a head here and there peeking through the corners. We couldn’t get a group photo without photo bombers everywhere! We just took a break to catch our breath, took some pictures, and went down immediately to avoid getting squished by the crowd even though our legs were still numb and shaking from the climb. I don’t want to complain like a baby but seriously, when you are in the halfway platform, take your photos of the bay and climb back down! Haha!
Sunset time is obviously the best time to go. We went back down to the beach and lounged in the sand for a while. We watched the locals play football.
We went back to the ship and enjoyed some tea, fruits and biscuits on the upper deck. The wind was catching up and it was colder. We had a very nice meal after that and enjoyed our iced Vietnamese coffee before going to bed.
We promised to attend the tai chi class in the morning (like 6:00 AM) and retired to our room. Halong Bay lulled us to sleep gently.
Obviously, we didn’t wake up in time for the tai chi class. Hahaha! We had a breakfast of pho and a cooking class where we were taught to make Vietnamese spring rolls. Actually, I don’t consider this as a “cooking” class since no cooking was involved. We only rolled ingredients in rice wrapper and that’s it. We get to eat our “creations” though.
While eating lunch, the cruise was already moving towards the harbor. A few minutes before 12:00 noon, we said goodbyes to the staff of the cruise ship and disembarked from the ship.
We waited for 20 minutes in the harbor and checked the stores for souvenirs.
Their paper crafts are quite astounding! I loved these cards and bought a few of them for souvenirs. Our coaster arrived and off traveled four hours back to Hanoi.
We arrived in Hanoi around 5:00 PM and so we decided to venture into the town after checking in at the Royal Palace again. My friends and I walked towards the Water Puppet Theater that so happens to be located near the Hoan Kiem Lake.
When you go to Vietnam, you’ll notice a lot of motorbikes. People use motorbikes more than cars. And it’s quite a challenge to cross roads because of motorbikes whizzing by all the time! The trick is quite simple. If you’re crossing the street, just cross! Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Don’t look left and right while in the middle of the road. Just hold your head high, step into the road and walk fast, steady, and straight. The secret to this is that you will not be the one to adjust for the motorbikes zooming all around you. The drivers of the motorbikes will be the one to slow down and avoid you. Makes sense right? We’ve tried it a couple of times on our walks searching for food and fortunately, we left unscathed. Haha.
Watching the presentation in the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is one of the touristy things to do in Hanoi. Water puppeteering is a tradition that dates back to the 11th century, from a time when rice paddy fields were flooded and villages would make this an entertainment for their families and friends. They stand waist-deep in the water with puppets and perform. It’s quite intriguing how they do this so we went and bought tickets to the show. On the way there, we passed by through the Hanoi Old Quarter (Quang Truong Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc), a place where restaurants and coffee shops abound. It was the weekend when we went there and so there were a lot of people milling about. The area is popular because it serves as the center of leisure for the Hanoians. There were activities for kids and the adults can just chill in the benches near the Hoan Kiem Lake. We enjoyed the revelry in the streets!
Tickets to the Thang Long Water Puppet show can be bought in advance. When we went to buy our tickets for that night, we thought they were sold out but the ladies sold us tickets for a later time and so we got to watch it.
It’s better though to get tickets earlier because you need the front seats to see the puppets better. They were a bit tiny from our seats near the end of the theater hall.
The water puppet performance is accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music with wooden objects like bells, flutes, and horns, They also use drums. They sing the stories acted out by the puppets. Most of these are folk tales and legends that’s why I liked watching the puppet show. Their tradition and culture are so close to the Philippines, particularly to the place where I grew up where most of the folks are farmers.
Some of you will probably find the show boring. Some people in the audience were nodding off already, haha. There are some segments that were slow and repetitive and if you’re not into performance arts like this, you won’t probably enjoy it. But if you are, then you’ll be amazed by the simple effects and tricks they use to put on an entertaining show. Okay, so I’m going to cut my story short here. It’s looking like a novel again! Haha.
On my next entry, we visit other tourist places in Hanoi and also eat more good food. And, we also found a Harry Potter cafe. Yup, in Hanoi of all places! See you then!