Sunday, December 16, 2018

Charmed by Hanoi: A two-day itinerary


The red bridge on Hoan Kiem lake at twilight

It's been two weeks since I returned from Vietnam, and I think it would be a good idea to create a post for anyone who wants to visit Hanoi, or cruise along Halong Bay. Also the fact that I managed to catch a terrible cold, is plenty reason to do this. If I need to stay in bed all day, what's better than to put a new post out there? 

I was in Vietnam for five nights (including my arrival in the country late at night), but in this post I will put forth a comfortable 2D-2N itinerary only for Hanoi. A 1N-2D Halong cruise actually takes up almost two days, and I will write about this in my next post. 

I didn't book any guided tours at all in the city, but for anyone who prefers tours, I will suggest two great options at the end of my post. 


Stay 

I stayed in the Old Quarter at a lovely hotel called the Hanoi Golden Moon Hotel. This is a budget/mid-range option in a location that is perfect if you want to do most of your sight-seeing on foot. Having said that, there is no dearth of good hotels in Hanoi, so if you want to splurge on a more luxurious experience or go budget in a hostel, do by all means. You won't be disappointed! However, I would strongly recommend staying at the city-centre because this is where all the action is, so the Old Quarter, or a hotel facing the Hoan Kiem lake would be best. And, if your pockets are very deep, you may consider the iconic Sofitel Metropole Legend Hanoi in the French Quarter. I did go to see the building, but then that's as far as I could go with my budget! :)


Day 1. Let's get started! 

I started early in morning, and after a hearty breakfast of fruit, pho, coffee, and an assortment of other delicious tapas-like-items, I stepped out to greet Hanoi. The first whiff of a new place is exhilarating, and I turned to my Google maps and headed towards the Hoan Kiem lake. 


Some cities have a certain charm about them. 
Hanoi is one such place.

The weather was perfect, not too cold but there was a nip in the air, the sky clear and bright. I could almost see the red bridge in my mind's eye, and after a seven-minute walk through the Old Quarter labyrinth, there she was.


Tourists and locals alike flock this part of the city 

The Hoan Kiem lake is literally heart and soul of this beautiful city, and rightfully so. 


Tranquillity 

I must have spent more than a few hours strolling around the lake, occasionally getting a bite to eat (and trust me, you will be spoilt for choice!). 


Tree-lined pavements and benches
are everywhere

In Hanoi, you are never too far
from a souvenir shop

The bridge across the lake takes you to the Ngoc Son temple. (The entry for foreigners is 30,000 dongs.) 


At the temple site


At the end of the bridge, you will enter an enclosed space that houses a specimen of a beautiful giant turtle that died in 1967. At the time of death, he was believed to be 900 years old! History buffs, you can find read about his death here


This turtle is said to have weighed 250 kg


Turtles are generally revered in this part of the world, and have been since the 15th century when Emperor Ly Thai defeated an invading Chinese king using a magical sword that was bestowed upon him by the Gods. Legend has it that the day after his victory, the emperor came upon a giant golden turtle swimming on the surface of the lake in Hanoi. The creature snatched the sword from the king and supposedly restored it to its divine owners. Ever since the Hoan Kiem lake has been known as the "Lake of the Restored Sword". Many believe that catching these giant creatures will bring good fortune, while others believe that the original turtle still lives on in the the deep waters of the lake. 

If you come to Hoan Kiem in the morning you will find runners, joggers, and amblers but as night falls it turns into a place of fun and games. There are street performers, both locals and expats, lots of light everywhere, music and dance, and lovely people everywhere you look. A walk around this lake will also take you to the Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry is an age-old cultural art form that is being revived in Vietnam today. 


A marathon was being run the day I visited the lake

Kids enjoying a day out

In the evening, the most buildings around the lake
are lit up. Every thing looks festive

This is also the best place to hire cyclos, which are cycle-powered vehicles, and are a fun way to look around if you are not in the mood to walk. Cyclo tours are also quite popular, I believe, and can be booked through most tour agencies, or you could simply negotiate with a cyclo pusher on the road. I took a cyclo ride from the Opera House to catholic church. It was such a fun ride, because you sit in front (as opposed to the the cycle rickshaws in India that are pulled from the front. 





I spent quite some time at the French Quarter admiring the the majestic Opera House building, and the grand Sofitel Hotel. The character of Hanoi changes completely when you move from the Old Quarter to the French Quarter. The colonial French buildings are reminiscent of Paris and it did honestly remind me of the latter. Wide roads and well-paved footpaths characterize this part of the city. Unfortunately there were no shows at the opera house on the days I was at Hanoi. Had it been otherwise, I wouldn't have missed it for the world! 



I had my first little treat food here in the French Quarter, a stone's throw from the Sofitel Hotel from a little hole-in-the-wall shop selling icecream. I chose the chocolate-coconut flavour in a crispy cone. Yum! This costed me 15,000 dongs. 


The first of many

A sweet cyclo driver took me to the catholic church. 

Ah, Saint Joseph's Cathedral... This is a beautiful 19th century church built in a Gothic style, and was the first structure built by the French colonial government in erstwhile Indochina. The resemblance to the Notre Dam is uncanny, and it takes but one look to notice how closely the two resemble each other. 


This church kind of appears out of the blue,
with its towers almost sneaking up on you,
when you least expect it. I was enjoying my
cyclo ride, when all of a sudden the church
seemed to have risen from ground

The old wooden benches are shiny and strong

Inside the church, the stained glass
windows are lit up by the warm
winter sun

Near the church are a large number of boutique shops. I found most quite overpriced but did spot a cool one selling old propaganda poster prints. Now those who know me, I dig that stuff! And luckily enough the price was just perfect. I can't wait to put it up at home!


This shop is about 50 metres to the left
when you face the church,

For lunch I devoured a Bahn Mi, which is a kind of Vietnamese Subway with grilled meat and vegetables. 


My Bahn Mi lady

I idled for a while amidst the lanes and bylanes of the Old Quarter that sell everything from food to fashion, light fixtures to souvenirs. I bought my first box of coffee this afternoon before retiring to my hotel room to rest. 


Snails and shells! Yum! 


After a couple of hours, I ventured out for a long walk to visit train street.


Train street

Train street, or should call it selfie central? For those wondering, this is the name given to the street through which a daily train from Sapa passes by. This train goes right through the heart of the city, from the middle of a crowded market place. Is it worth a visit? Well. It was fun. The junction is now a tourist hotspot with a few cafes and pubs. I had my first egg coffee by the road at one of the cafes, with at least 30 other foreigners who materialized and dissipated within minutes of the train passing by. When I reached around 18:15 there was almost no one. But people started trickling in at around 18:45, and after the train passed through at 19:15, they had all disappeared in the blink of an eye! But I must say it was a pretty LONG train!


Empty cafe chairs that filled up minutes
before the train arrived


And, she is here!

I purchased a jacket on the way back. A nice, fluffy, inexpensive NorthFace jacket from one of the many, many Made in Vietnam stores scattered across the city. Some dinner and then it was time for a movie in bed and a good night's sleep.


Day 2: Ba Dinh Square and more

I covered a fair bit of ground on my second day in Hanoi. I started the morning with a lavish breakfast at the hotel. I hear it's one of the best in this price range! I cannot compare but will say this much. Breakfast was excellent!

I hopped on to a taxi and headed to the other side of town. 

Tree-lined pavement that lead to the
Presidential Palace
Presidential Palace. Interestingly I was told that the
privilege of using the front gate of this building is
reserved for the heads of states of only a few countries
of the world as a mark of respect. Even the Vietnamese
president is said to enter the building through a side gate!

Selfie time outside the Ho Chi Minh Museum


After a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and mausoleum, I walked across to the One Pillar pagoda. This was somehow a major challenge because I had forgotten the Vietnamese name for this pagoda and my offline Google map wasn't giving me accurate directions. It took me more than an hour of aimless wandering across the massive boulevard facing the mausoleum, around the stunning yellow presidential palace, innumerable photos, coconut water, and a delicious steamed bun stuffed with pork and eggs, to finally, FINALLY, reach my destination! Needless to say, by this time I was pretty exhausted and in need for some more food and a place to relax - none of which I found, at least at that point!


Steam bun stuffed with tender pork and quail eggs.
This tasted a bit like a Tibetan tingmo, but better
because it is filled with mouth-watering goodness!


Eventually I found my way into a little restaurant and ordered a lime soda and a bowl of noodle soup. Wasn't too hot, I 'll admit but it did the job, and I found the right road to take me to the Temple of Literature. You must also visit Hi Chi Mihn's Stilt House when in this area. A small, traditional stilt house made of wood near the Presidential Palace where the president spent the last part of his life. 


In all, this is a great area to walk through. Most of the buildings here are works of art, and pavements are lined with trees. The Hanoi Citadel is also a short walk from this area, and a must-visit.



Temple of Literature

To return to the Old Quarter, I hailed a scooter taxi and this, I feel, is the best way to get around if alone. It's cheap, and it's a little crazy, but in Hanoi there always seems to be a method to the madness, so the traffic never really worried me. 

Towards the evening I visited the markets, and enjoyed some music around the Aldo square, before heading to dinner at little restaurant in the Old Quarter. 


Sweet and spicy grilled meat with a hint lemongrass
for 15,000 dong. Absolutely delicious!

Panorama shot. Shopping, food, and people 


Jenga, anyone?

Recommended Tours

The Hanoi Hop-on Hop-Off bus is a great way to see Hanoi, and ensure you don't miss out on any "important" spots. They have double decker open roof bus, so if that is the kind of thing you dig, I would say it's a good idea. 

The second thing I would recommend would be a walking tour through the Old Quarter, or perhaps a street food tour. 

But however you choose to see Hanoi, it will charm you without fail. It's just one of those cities that will make you happy, it will treat you kindly, and it will make you smile as climb into bed after a long day.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Goodbye Siem Reap

It might seem comical but the thing that really lead me to consider a trip to Cambodia was a horse ranch. Don't get me wrong, the temples were a big part too but if it weren't for the horses I may never have decided on this destination.


Ok, I think a little back story is needed here. Back in 2015, I was working on a horse encyclopedia at DK that involved sporadic research on different horse breeds, their origins, and so on. I like horses (who doesn't?) but I would be lying if I took a keen interest in studying horse lineages! Hell, I didn't even know there were so many different breeds of horses across the world. Did you know the tiniest horse breed, the Falabella, is actually the size of a dog! Yes! They are that tiny, and oh so cute!! I did fantasize about owing one; maybe then I could walk Cheeku and little horsey together at the park! It was during one such day while reading about Cambodian ponies I came across the name of a horse ranch in Siem Reap. A quick search on TripAdvisor and I knew I had to visit one day! It took me three years to make it come true.


When I started planning my itinerary, I did include a two-hour trail ride in my list of things to do, but it wasn't right on top. The temples took up a lot of time, and logically it made more sense to visit Angkor over a ranch, and so I did. As I watched the sun set across Angkor Wat I felt a sense of calm wash over me. Over the next two days, it was a mix of exhilaration and fatigue as I scrambled over boulders at Preah Khan and climbed steep wooden stairs at the Bayon, among others. Once in a while I would stop to picture in my mind's eye the magnitude of the construction centuries ago. Our builder homes start to crumble within half a decade. But here, the relics of this grand civilization are standing tall and proud hundreds of years later. They have weathered the ravages of time, and in turn become even more beautiful.


Sunset at Angkor

Beautiful carvings on the stone walls


Angkor: tall and mighty


This place is a must-visit for a good reason. A very, very good reason. Words don't do justice to how incredible Ta Phrom is .

Aah Ta Phrom. I visited this temple at sunset and managed to beat the crowds, so at most times it was just me amidst these incredible living structures.


I am a sucker for sunset photos 


At the light at the end of the corridor gives the illusion of a mirror


And i posed


The fellow who made me pose


These roots... And I couldn't stop marvelling at them


The Bayon. I think I landed up at the time when the rest of the town did as well! It was crazy crowded, so much so that I couldn't take any photos without stumbling over someone else. But that little issue aside, well worth it.


But to anyone who visits this town, do not forget to enjoy Siem Reap. The great magnificence of Angkor is a thing of the past and must not overshadow the living life of this bustling town. Unexpectedly I landed in town during the annual water festival, so that gave me an extra something to look forward to in the evenings - the explosive boat races along the Siem River, the beautifully lit streets, fireworks, dance and music. Perhaps in my own city, I turn into a cynic rolling my eyes at a lot of festivals, but this has been bit of a wakeup call for me. (Next Holi I will not sit in my room!)

Wat Bo pagoda 

Bridge across the Siem Reap river lit up on the occasion of the water festival 

Rain dance and soap sud

Pub street had... well... pubs! Lots and LOTS of them 

Grilled beef. This aroma followed me through the time I spent in this town. I did not try it out, but I am quite certain beef-lovers would relish it



Today, I leave this town. This beautiful town that made me feel happy and safe and eager to explore. It helped me overcome some of my anxieties, and helped me ease into comfortable solitude. But before I could finally say goodbye, I knew I had one last place to visit. And so under the blazing Cambodian sun I trooped 1.5km to the horse ranch to say hello to at least one horse. In other words, I walked all the way to take a selfie with one horse who would have me! I decided against a ride. It was too hot, and besides I needed to pack my bag and check-out. But visit I did, and the whole trip kind of came together a complete circle.


He was the kindest of all the horses I greeted. He let me stroke him and in return sniffed my neck.


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Why does food taste so terrible on a flight?

Why does airplane food taste so terrible? I wasn't sure if I felt that way because of the underlying stress that I was experiencing or if it was genuinely bad. My copassengers seemed to have polished their plastic trays clean - relished or not, I cannot say, but they did eat. I, on the other hand, picked at my little plastic tray with rice and some form of inedible curry, before deciding that I just could not eat that stuff. Perhaps I should have opted for the seafood meal or the Asian meal instead. Nah, I am certain. It was really bad! The fruit however was delicious. Three large slices of tropical fruit, each better than the first. Luckily for me, I had already tasted dragon fruit previously, and so there was zero worry about it being an exotic fruit that could trigger some sort of an allergic reaction midair. I am paranoid, am I not? But then again, I have a few solid reasons for my paranoia. And, to be fair to myself I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone, wasn't I? I deserved a pat on the back, and I was going to give it to me, even if my pre-booked meal tasted like crap.

If trains could move fast enough, I would never get on a plane ever again!

Small joys. That sight was pretty incredible 

The terrible food apart, there was also the air conditioning that was bothering me. I was sitting in my thick coat with a fleece blanket at my feet. Even then, my feet were cold. It reminded me of office when I would sit curled up at my seat, with my pink, floral shawl wrapped around my shoulders and arms, and every bit of me that it could possibly cover. And just like that, I had to brave it, and I did just that.

The warmth of Siem Reap was beckoning me, and I couldn't wait to set foot on that beautiful, ancient land. I couldn't wait to see my tuk-tuk driver standing outside the airport holding a placard with my name on it. I couldn't wait to step into my cosy little room, the one that I paid for with my hard-earned money. My very own. To be completely honest, I did tear up a little now and then thinking of how far I had come, figuratively speaking. It wasn’t the distance, but all my other battles that I had fought, to be in this position, to make this claim: I hate airline food! Even this hate suddenly seemed beautiful. The tiredness from sitting in the craft, and even if I would reach my hotel room and make myself a cup of hot cup noodles that I carried from Delhi - all of these things were little rewards in a way. This was all a part of my big, adventure, and I knew it was going to be grand!

One look at those white sheets and I was in love.

Charmed by Hanoi: A two-day itinerary

The red bridge on Hoan Kiem lake at twilight It's been two weeks since I returned from Vietnam, and I think it would be a good i...