City of the rising dragon and marvelous limestone
01.03.2010 - 05.03.2010 24 °C
Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is rapidly catching up with its southern counterpart, Ho Chi Minh (HCM) city. This city was just as chaotic as HCM city with the endless traffic filling up the streets almost every parts of the city at least until the end of the office rush hour on daily basis. To cross the road from one end to the other, it can be very challenging and stressful, so get ready to be bold when doing this in Hanoi. Arriving at Noi Bai Airport around 1 in the afternoon, the weather was hot with temperature as high as 30 degrees though it was the spring season. Travelling from the airport to the city centre was surprisingly without much hassle. There were many transport options available in which the easiest would be with the airport taxis, which are white in colour costing anything no less than USD15. The less costly options would be through the airport shuttle bus which cost around VND30,000 or less than USD2 for one way trip. The bus stops very near to the Old Quarter or the backpackers' street as well as the landmark of Hanoi, the Hoan Kiem Lake. The journey from airport to the city was only about 50 minutes. It left the airport with more than half the seats empty, which could sit up to 40 passengers or so. When the bus reached the city, I got down just at the centre of the Old Quarter near the Red River area. Being first time in Hanoi and second in Vietnam, it was a challenge to get to the right place to settle down, what's more with the language barrier. My first encounter was with a motorbike taximan. As I opened up the conversation by asking him on the directions to the Hoan Kiem Lake, it was evident that he couldn't speak english. The only words that were uttered by him that could be understood by me were "moto" and "hotel" with some hand gestures and short writings on a small piece of paper on how much it costs. After a quick thinking (it would be better to walk and explore a little bit), I thanked him and continue to walk to ask the people around for directions to my intended destination hoping that I will encounter someone who can understand simple english. I have some ideas on where I should head to, to book the room through some research on the net, so I hope I could get to the place I want to. As I walked on, I noted a coffeeshop with a sign board reads "Trung Nguyen" on top of the entrance to the shop. Having done some research on coffee, the name "Trung Nguyen" was never a stranger to me. This is the place for a cup or two of vietnamese coffee when you travel to Hanoi or Vietnam. The franchise of this brand name which originated from the central highland of Buon Ma Tuot has been so significant that almost all coffeeshops in Hanoi are the franchisee of this coffee. It is also widely available in prepacked boxes at shops along the streets around Hanoi. This shop I went to was operated by a family of 3, husband and wife and the mother-in-law and was located just opposite Boss Hotel. I initially ordered a cup of coffee with milk from the in-law but she couldn't quite well understood me, then, the daughter appeared from the 1st floor repeating my "order" and that was when I was relieved that I have finally got the right person that could lend a helping hand in giving the right directions and get my coffee prepared correctly. We had a brief chat while I was sipping off the coffe. Though she could only converse limited english, she was very friendly and tried hard to understand each and every word uttered. I told her that I would like to go the specific street. She got up and while she walked out, she told me she was getting the help from her "network" who later was known as the owner of the Boss Hotel. This guy was only in probably his mid 30s but is an owner of a 3 star hotel. Impressive I thought. So, there he was bringing along a copy of simplified city map ready to offer his help. He asked me what was the price range of accomodation I have in mind. I told him what I had wanted. He gave a thought and then shown me on how to get to Ngo Huyen. It was already about 4 and I decided that it was time to leave and head to the place suggested. I thanked the both of them after paying VND15,000 for the coffee. Quite costly considering the fact that it was half filled in a small glass cup, which I noticed later that this has been the norm where all coffees are only half-filled instead of full. Weird?
Just a short walk accross two streets, Ly Thai To and Dinh Tien Hoang from Lo Su, where I came from, I reached Hoan Kiem Lake just in front of me. The atmosphere around the lake was busy, with people sitting on benches chatting with friends, tourists walking about looking for best spots to snap pictures, locals and tourists walking in pairs, groups and single heading to their respective directions while traffic on the streets was decribed earlier as "mad" with endless honking. Bangkok was notorious for its massive traffic congestions while here in Hanoi, its large number of motorbikes on the streets. On the right side of the lake, was where the white HSBC building located with trendy cafes on the ground floor of the building catering to the travellers. In front of this building there was a roundabout and as I walked further down to the left of HSBC, this was where the Bao Viet Bank building is, along Le Thai To St. Further down on the side lane of Bao Viet was the Bao Khanh lane, which was a L shape lane where the inner lane has some Australian style cafes and restaurants as well as hostels available. On the main lane, most vietnamese restaurants are found. I continued my walk up to Hang Trong, where here were the 3 stars hotels located mostly refurbished to attract mid range travellers. At the intersection was Hang Gai, where you could noticed some jewellery retailers and a vietnamese traditional "greenbean cakes" bakery were located. At another intersection was Ly Quoc Su St, where the St Joseph Cathedral was located. Ngo Huyen was located at one of the side lanes here. This lane was filled up with mostly 2 stars hotels, budget hotels, backpackers hostels, travel agents, sundry shop and a coffeeshop selling "pho". In my opinion, this is the backpackers' street of Hanoi with many foreigners in particular westerners, europeans and australians holed up to stay, mingle with fellow travellers, enjoy bottles of beers and to party all night long. The original buidlings here were 2 storey shops for private dwelling but most had been converted into hotels and hostels as well as travel agents with extension of up to 6 storeys. The infamous Hanoi Backpackers Hostel was located here and was known to be the busiest hostel at this area with its premise extended to a 2nd building on the opposite direction. The dorm bed costs as little as USD5 or 7. There was also a Sinh Cafe travel agent here but I noticed that Sinh Cafe travel were found almost every place around Hanoi city centre in particular the Old Quarters and it seemed to me that the main owner of this travel company has franchised its name to the others. Therefore, the quality may not be of the same standard as the original one.
The hostel I stayed was towards the end on the lane which was much quiet, as this was slightly far from Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. For the amount paid, about VND300,000 a night, with breakfast and internet service provided, this was a good bargain coupled with its clean room and bathroom. Ground floor with 2 rooms, 1st and 2nd with 3 each and 3rd floor with another 3 but 1 reserved for hostel's staffs. Not too many rooms available, so more relax and peaceful. Immediately after checking in, I had already booked for the tour to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu in Ninh Binh province, south of Hanoi for the next day. This hostel do not doubled as travel agent but it does provide tour bookings in which it collaborates with established travel agent to serve the needs of the guests who stay here. This was an added value service provided by the management and also provide the convenience for hostel's guests. As such, it is fully recommend place to stay for the complete range of service provided including free city map. Dinner at one of the pho restaurant in Ly Quoc Su street was full with many locals as well as travellers during dinner time. For VND22,000 a bowl of beef pho, that was something with good value with generous portion of pho as well as well prepared beef briskets, which has plenty of it.
The next day, after breakfast at around 8, the tour guide arrived at the doorsteps of the hostel. He was all ready to greet me as I have been waited at the entrance for his arrival for the last 20 minutes. After some short introduction, I was ushered to the tour van with some of the tour members already seated inside. There were a few more others needed to be picked up from here, so, it took about additional 30 minutes time to get all in before the departure to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu. The journey took about 2 hours before reaching the 1st destination Tam Coc. The traffic along the way was brutal to say the least with many vehicles cutting its way notoriously, drivers driving impatiently and the constant honking by drivers of these vehicles as if there were no traffic rules. Traffic was rather slow due to slow moving vehicles just as the van got out from the city, where it was rather busy but it managed to reached Hoa Lu on time. Hoa Lu (pronounced Hoa Ler) is an ancient capital during the rule of King Ding Tien Hoang of the Dinh Dynasty and later, King Le Dai Hanh. This ancient city is surrounded by mountains of limestone hills as well as rice fields scattered all over the old city on the base of the limestone hills as well as open land. There was a temple in rememberance of King Dinh which has a main entrance arch, a small garden, an open compound and a main temple with the structure of the king placed inside for the visitors to worship. Most visitors will placed some monetory notes while they pray in the hope that their wishes may come true. At the time of visit, there was construction works being carried out to built an impressive large main gate to the King Dinh's temple. While the main gate has been 90% or fully completed, the road leading to the temple has yet to be. On the opposite direction of the temple across the road that leads to Tam Coc, there was a small restaurant which also provide bicycles which were neatly parked on the side of the restaurant. An additional USD5 will be added on should you chose to cycle from Hoa Lu to Tam Coc. Out of the 14 tour members, 8 including me decided to venture out with the bicycle. It would take approximately 1.5 hours to reach Tam Coc from Hoa Lu with the bicycle. It was a great and exciting adventure though the weather that day was hot with temperature hovering around 30 degrees. The sceneries along the journey was marvelous due to the fact of the whole area was covered with limestone hills and rice fields, thus, the entire journey was well worth it though it was equally tiring due to the heat and long journey. The journey mostly covered on small untarred and uneven and some muddy terrain which made the tour very safe because it was not done on busy roads. It also gives opportunity to get close to the nature and a good view of the hills and the fields where pictures can be taken clearly and closely making the pictures look good and authentic. Lunch was provided and the final destination of the cycle tour would be the restaurant serving our lunch. After 1.5 hours of cycling, we reached the restaurant at the Long Hotel, Retaurant and Bar in Tam Coc for lunch. This hotel was fronting the pier of Tam Coc where all the small boats or sampans will take visitors for a river tour around Tam Coc to witness the magnificent limestone mountains along the river, also dubbed as the inland Halong Bay. Buffet lunch was served with varieties of nice vietnamese and asian food, including fresh and deep fry spring rolls, vietnamese noodles, rice, fried chicken, grilled muttons, salad, desserts and fruits. After lunch, its time to set on the small boat with 2 people serve as the rowers while up to 3 visitors allowed to get into the boat. Ideally, it caters for 2 persons each boat, including the rowers, 4. I was in the boat with another 2 Australian girls. The journey was very pleasant as the sun was not too hot while the scenery was amazing. Many boats were seen going up and down the rivers with some moving up while some returned from their trips. On the left and right side of the river, along the limestone hills are many the rice fields. This explains why Vietnam can be one of the major exporter of rice apart from Thailand. In fact Hoa Lu and Tam Coc itself already have such huge rice fields covering its land, what more with the other areas of the provinces around Vietnam. The journey took about 2 hours. On the turning point of the kayak tour, there were some floating traders where these traders will pursuade visitors to purchase drinks, fruits and snacks for the rowers as they were tired with their work and that the drinks will help to reduce their tiredness. The 3 of us decided to contribute VND30,000 (each with VND10,000) with drinks and fruits. The drink was given to the lady rower while the Australian girls enjoyed the fruits. This river kayak provides another opportunity to photographed the nice and marvelous limestone hills which were very picturesque. The journey back to Hanoi took another 2 hours and when the bus reach Nanoi, it was already 6.30pm. Dinner was a vietnamese style hamburger that came with a frnech loaf with fresh lettuce and tomato with choice of omelette or chicken or beef chunk. This was at the intersection of Ly Quoc Su and Ngo Huyen where a vietnamese lady set a stall just by the side of the lane and was popular among the foreign travellers. It costs only VND10,000 for a piece.
The next morning, I was all geared for another trip. This time it was the Halong Bay cruise for a day tour. Here we have the Vietnamese boasting about the UNESCOS's World Heritage award to be proud of. As usual, after breakfast, the guy from the tour agent came. This was another guy, in his early 20s, young and baby faced look. As he came and introduced himself, we immediately proceeded to the tour bus, as there were still other members to be picked up. There were about 16 of us but not all were included in the tour as some had chosen to just booked for the transport and self-arranged for the cruise as well as other sort of tour services arrangement upon arrival at the pier in Halong Bay. The journey to Halong Bay was much pleasant with nice views along the way, while traffic was less hectic, though the ugly incidents of drivers' behaviour were still evident. There were many rice fields all around the places while houses and shophouses were all equipped with the Vietnamese national flag. The red cloth with the bright shining yellow star were all flagging nicely as the weather was cool with light winds blowing which made the atmosphere such a patriotic feel. I thought , this has got very close association with how nationalistic the vietnamese were in fighting against the US dominance led by Vietnam's independence hero, Nguyen Sinh Cung. It took about 4 hours of travel from Hanoi to reach Halong. Upon arrival at the pier, it was so busy with many travellers alike including locals from all other provinces withing Vietnam. Many of the junks and boats were docked at the pier awaiting for their passengers to board them. Some had returned from the island such as Cat Ba and ready to pick up new passengers for the day. These boats were indentified by unique names including Ha Noi 8, Ha Noi 10, Viet Anh 28 and all sorts of others. After we got the boat ticket ready, it was all set to board the boat and begin the Halong Bay journey. The journey started slowly with the boat sailing quietly out from the pier that would take those on board to witnessed the many pictureque limestone hills and the Thien Cung cave tour. Legend has it that, many years ago, the Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon down to earth to protect Vietnam from the invasion of its enemies. The place the Mother Dragon landed was Halong Bay. The Mother Dragon in her conquest to arrest the invasion, brought along her children dragons, where Bai Tu Long was where these smallers dragons landed. They decided to stay on and not returned to Heaven when they had completed their duties and that was how Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long were formed. There was also a visit to the floating fishing village where visitors could buy varieties of seafoods and get the cook in the boat to prepare them just in time for lunch. The seafood were fresh as they were just captured freshly from the water but the price can be costly. Lunch was served on the lower deck of the boat with dining tables and chairs. There were several dishes served such as cabbage, steamed fish, fried beancurd with sweet and sour sauce and deep fry spring rolls with hot steam rice. However, the portion served were liitle too small for a table of 5 people, some tables with more people while no drinks were served, unless you pay for it. After lunch, the boat continue its journey with many opportunities to snap photos on the nice background of karst hills. We then reached the Thien Cung cave. This cave has been carefully preserved by the authorities with steps leading to the cave constructed to the upper level of the karst hill. The interior of the cave was lit with neon lights to brightened up the cave. Some of the staglagmites and staglatites resembled some animals can be seen here. Upon getting out from the cave, there was a viewpoint overlooking the bay from the cave and the scene was beautiful. The cruise, lunch and the cave adventure were completed in about 5 hours which were nevertheless satisfactory for me. By the time the bus reached Hanoi, it was already 830pm.
There were plenty of shopping for everyone to get something in Hanoi. Along the Hang Dao-Hang Ngang St, there was a weekend night market set up along the 2 streets right up to Dong Xuan Market. You can get variety of shopping goodies and with good bargaining skills, you should get something really on good price. During the day time, Hang Dau and Hang Ngang, there were many shops selling tshirts, clothes and other consumer goods perfect for gifts or souveniers for family and friends. Over at Dong Xuan Market, this is the place for the ladies as there were loads of such accessories suitable for them found here, while over at Hang Buom, this is the place to get vietnamese coffee.
Hoan Kiem Lake is the landmark of Hanoi, which was true if you stay around the Old Quarter area. You will most likely encounter this lake on daily basis throughout your stay. And the attraction of Hoan Kiem Lake is not only its scenery, but also the Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) Temple in the middle of the lake surrounded by a people's park in which it has a bright red bridge across the lake to allow people to access to the main temple. This temple was built in honour of military heros and famous vietnamese scholars, such as the army general Tran Hung Dao and scholar Van Xuong. Confucian artist, Nguyen Van Sieu helped to restore the temple and constructed a Thap But (a big stone with brush look alike shape) and Dai Nghien (a rock resembles a writing pad). There was also a 6ft long tortoise in a special room dedicated to this structure in the compound of the temple. Entrance fee was VND10,000. Ho CHi Minh Museum was built in rememberance of the independence fighter, Nguyen Sinh Cung or Ho Chi Minh together with his comrades who had relentlessly unified the people of Vietnam to gain victory against external forces. It was a 2 storey building and inside, there were many photographs of Uncle Ho as well as his colleagues dsiplayed inside the museum ranging from the house he lived-in in various countries such as Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, Guangzhou and Guangxi, China, Hong Kong and France. The photos included those of which he engaged the people through a very personal approach including addressing the people thorough small group meetings and village visits to explain the struggle of Viet Minh force to gain independence. There were also original copies of the vietnamese first newspaper productions, the memorandums of independence under the communism, photos of conventions against foreign invasions and many others photos collections on the fight of Viet Minh and Viet Cong against the US and the southern Vietnam government. Entrance fee was VND15,000.
The One Pillar Pagoda was located adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. This pagoda was built by King Ly Thai Thong. The king who was childless dreamt of the Buddha giving him a baby boy while seated on a lotus flower. The king then married a young girl who gave birth to the king's first child. Then a monk advised the king to build a temple with a pillar in the middle of the pond which was same as the one he dreamt of. It was built of wood with single pillar resembling a lotus which is a symbol of purity in Buddhism. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a huge memorial building in whom the late Vietnamese independence fighter and chu tic (president) Ho Chi Minh's preserved body was being placed in for visitors to get a closer look at the late Vietnamese president. There were guards manning the main entrance of the mausoleum. The mausoleum has a very large open square for military marching purpose as well as to cater for other official ceremonies with a giant flag pole standing graciously on one side of the square. Van Miieu or Temple of Literature is another important historical sites that should not be missed out when in Hanoi. This is actually a Confucious Temple in which the 1st national university of Vietnam that produced the doctorates during the Ly and Tran Dynasties. Due to the difficulty of the exam's nature, only few of such doctorates were able to get through the exam and names of such successful scholars were being crafted on the stone steles. The architecture of the temple had been inspired by the chinese influence of the Confucious birthplace of Shandong province, China. It has several courtyards with the 1st and second having gardens filled with trees and ponds on the left and right side of it. The 3rd courtyard has a large pond in the middle of it with the left side where the stone steles were located. The 4th couryard was an open space with the main Confucious Temple towards the end of the Van Mieu boundary, which has a small concourse are for to offer prayers before entering the main temple. This was one of the most important historical buildings that was most visited by travellers or visitors around the globe. Over at the West Lake (Tay Ho), this is where the Tran Quoc Pagoda being located. This is one of the most beutiful pagoda in Hanoi due to its location which was sited in the middle of the romantic and nice landscape of West Lake. It was constructed during the Ly Dynasties of King Ly Nam De. It is the most important symbol of Vietnamese Buddhism and being one of the oldest pagoda in Hanoi. Inside the pagoda, there were many statue of Buddha trimmed with gold which represents the Vietnamese sculptural art masterpiece.
Hanoi is a city that has many faces, a combination of old and modern living experience. Its has a very strong connection with its northern neighbour though the language has a wide distinction between them. Still, it offers plenty of travel adventure that get travellers alike close to nature with its wonderful limestone hills, large ricefields, great lakes and spectacular landscapes in the countrside. The people on the overall, were friendly and down to earth, though in comparison to Thailand, there is still something lacking among the Vietnamese. Traffic was as chaotic as ever but this will not be a major point that should erode anyone's liking of Hanoi.