Sunday, December 30, 2018

Cruising along Bai Tu Long Bay

So, what is it like to cruise along the stunning limestone isles of the Halong and Bai Tu Long region? 

When I decided that I wanted to visit Vietnam, I always knew that this is something I most certainly wanted to experience. I am not a cruise junkie. In fact this was my very first overnight experience off shore. The only other "big boat" I can recall, is the hour (or was it two?) long journey I had taken on those gigantic steamers that ferry humans, cattle, along with massive buses, trucks, and all, across the vast Padma river in Bangladesh. But, that was an entirely different sight - a story for another day! 


My travel mantra is simple. Since I cannot possible garner every travel experience the world has to offer, I would like my very limited ones to be as diverse and as distinct as possible. And, that is how the cruise happened. 



Eerie, mysterious, gorgeous...

If only I could put in words the sense of peace that washed over me, as I lay on the sun deck under the bluest of skies, sun on my face, with the gentle whirring sound of the boat... but I cannot. All I can say is that it was beautiful, and calm, and serene. The sunrise (and sunset) was spectacular, and I will proudly proclaim that I managed the monumental task of waking up at 05:30 to watch the sun rise! 



Panorama shot of sunrise

There isn't much to do on a cruise, really. I am extremely averse to group activities that many tours entail. Luckily for me, this one didn't have any of that - except meal timings, kayaking hour, and the visit to the cave. Most of my time I could be one my own, sitting at the restaurant on the deck, or lounging on one of those super comfortable sunbeds, soaking in as much peace and quiet as I possibly could. Funnily, I was the only solo traveller on a cruise that had three honeymooning couples, and five more couples/ families. Ah, well. I loved my me-time. 


Sun deck: See that man with his feet
up in the air. He was snoring!

My only regret was that I couldn't spend enough time in my cabin - if you can call it that. The gorgeous room was larger than many hotel rooms I  have stayed in, and the bed - oh the bed! You just sink into it, and want to stay there forever!




I wouldn't call this a cabin! There was a jaccuzi
in the bathroom!
But then again, the outdoors was gorgeous. I was lucky to be there on a day when the weather was just perfect. Not a drop of rain, clear skies, and calm waters. My kayak behaved very well all through, and I had no trouble leaving the oars occasionally to click a few pictures!


My kayaking buddies






Limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites

I took this photo (see below) from a clearing near the entrance of a cave we visited. The cave was kind of dark, as would be expected, but you could admire the stalactite and stalagmite formations inside. For a split of a second, I was transported to my incredibly tiresome geography class in school. Why could they not arrange study trips to real caves to study that stuff? I would have learnt a great deal without doubt!



See the two peaks? Well, guess what the term
for these two, umm, peaks, mean in the local
language. Boobs! So, explained our cruise guide.



The verdict

In all, an experience worth every penny, and a fitting end to my overseas trip. But, would I cruise again? Probably not, at least any time soon. My thirst for luxurious cruises has been quenched for now. I wouldn't mind sailing on rough seas next time, or maybe an expedition to Antarctica or a cruise along the Caribbean islands, perhaps?



INFORMATION BYTE Where to go: Halong or Bai Tu Long

Most 2-day 1-night cruises take you to one of these two areas (Halong or Bai Tu Long). I was distraught over this decision -  which one to opt for? But I realize now this need not be very difficult. Option 1 is visiting the UNESCO heritage site with a more spectacular landscape but accepting the fact that there would be tons of other cruises alongside you. This is Halong. This part of the bay is generally much more crowded and you must be prepared to have all your photos dotted with other cruise ships. The other option, is visiting the Bai Tu Long route, and this is the one that I chose. The limestone isles here are slightly smaller in size, and in fact the term Bai Tu Long literally means "baby dragons descending", while Halong refers to the mama dragon! However, the thing that sets apart Bai Tu Long is the fact that it is still somewhat untouched, more pristine, with very few cruise ships sailing along this route. Ultimately, it boils down to personal choices, but for me, I know I made the right decision.

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.