Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Part 3: Hue, Hanoi, Halong bay

18.12: Phnom Penh -> Saigon
19.12: Saigon
20.12: Saigon
21.12: Saigon -> Hoi An
22.12: Hoi An
23.12: Hoi An -> My Son -> Hue
24.12: Hue -> Hanoi
25.12: Hanoi
26.12: Hanoi -> Halong bay -> Hanoi
27.12: Hanoi
28.12: Hanoi -> Kuala Lumpur

24.12: Hue -> Hanoi
Pacific Hotel, Hanoi. Booked at the Hanoi airport counter. US $25 for a room with A/C, TV, fridge, no fan, Internet line which however does not work when I check in, attached bathroom with hot shower + bathtub. Room is very noisy (street noise even after midnight) and the building is old and has no elevator. Room can't be darkened properly (curtains are too thin). However there has been some effort to decorate nicely the room. Buffet breakfast included. Overall the room sucks (too much noise, too thin curtains, Internet is not working).
Weather: in Hue overcast and cool the whole day. It rains in the morning until 12pm. 17°C in Hanoi at the airport when I arrive at 11:20pm.

The alarm clock wakes me up at 9am. I get ready and manage to leave the room around 10am, then have breakfast in the lobby (simple breakfast, bread with jam and tea). Then I briefly check my emails. I accept the offer of using the hotel's car for US $25 to do a trip to the major sights of Hue. I haven't seen any taxis in Hue so far and I guess it will be very useful to have my own transportation to quickly get from tourist attraction to tourist attraction.

We leave around 10:40am and drive to the citadel. By the time we arrive at 10:55am it starts raining. Never mind, I have an umbrella with me. The citadel is modeled around the Forbidden City in Beijing and is relatively big (400m x 400m). Somehow nice, but not comparable with the Forbidden City in Beijing. Basically it's a complex with several pavilions and temples. The rear part of the citadel is empty or contains buildings under restoration. It's a pity that the weather is bad, because with sunshine and a blue sky the citadel would look much better.

At 12:30pm we drive to the second place, the (Thien) Linh Mu pagoda, which is sort of a nice tall pagoda overlooking the Perfume river (why is it called "Perfume river" ?). We only spend 15 minutes there and at 1pm drive to the next spot. It's great having a car + driver ready for you all the time.

The next place is a pagoda somewhere in the forest, where we briefly stop. We then drive to the tomb of Tu Duc, arriving there at 1:42pm. This tomb is in my opinion not so special, could be skipped in favour of other sights in Hue if time is short. It is essentially a set of pavilions and a pond. The 55000 dong of the entry ticket are bad value.

Around 2pm we leave for the next place, the tomb of Khai Dinh (we arrive at 2:15pm). This one is a more interesting structure, in a very scenic setting in the hills. You essentially climb up a staircase, and on each level there are very artistic structures. This tomb was built in the 1920s with cement instead of bricks.

At 2:40pm we drive back to the hotel and arrive there at 3pm. I ask the reception why we haven't visited a number of attractions. They reply that the Gia Doc tomb is closed, but we can drive to the Minh Mang tomb for an additional US $7. Ok, so we leave and arrive at the tomb at 3:20pm. The Minh Mang tomb is very nice, in a beautiful setting. It is sort of a small version of the citadel, meaning that you pass through a number of walls and pavilions, before finally reaching the pond, on whose other side is a hill with the tomb. I'm at this tomb until 3:50pm, then drive back to the hotel.

In the meantime it's already 4 something pm and I still haven't had lunch. The hotel staff has put an Ethernet cable into the room, but unfortunately the Internet connection does not work. So I connect again my notebook computer to the LAN ín the lobby and download my emails.

After that, around 4:40pm I go into town and finally have some food in a good place in the road leading to the bridge, near the Sinhcafe travel agency (you walk away from the river, pass by the five star hotel in the skyscraper until you find on your right side sort of a bakery (boulangerie) where they have some cakes in a display). Excellent pastries, try the chocolate choux.

After a long and comfortable meal, I walk to the Sinhcafe travel agency and ask about flights to Hanoi tomorrow. There are three, at 8:30am, at 2:40pm and at 9:15pm. The 2:40pm is the most comfortable but it makes me lose an entire day, as I basically would arrive to the hotel around 5pm, shortly before sunset. With the 8:30am one I'd be in the hotel around 11am at the earliest (if there are no delays) - the morning would be gone and I'd have to wake up very early. I ask if the 9:15pm flight today is still available. Some phone calls, some discussion and finally at 6:55pm I have the ticket.

I rush back to the hotel, pack my things and check out. At 7:30pm I drive to the airport, arriving at 8pm. The airport is almost empty. The 9:15pm flight with Vietnam Airlines is delayed. We only board the plane at 9:25pm, then however the plane (a Fokker 70, the manufacturer of this plane no longer exists) only takes off at 10pm, because of some problem with the electrical system.

In Hanoi I'll have almost four full days available. I'll need max. two to visit the city, so I might make an overnight trip to somewhere - either Sapa or Halong bay. Sapa is probably more interesting, but it's a tough trip and involves spending two nights on a train, doing two days of trekking (the trip offered by the Sinhcafe) and the temperatures in Sapa should be down to 5°C according to the girl in the Sinhcafe travel agency. The trip to Halong bay on the other hand would probably only make sense if the weather was nice.

In any case it's cool being on the flight to Hanoi this evening, because this allows me to optimise the time. Flights are great - they make you save so much time.

We land in Hanoi at 11:15pm. By 11:40pm I'm in a taxi with a hotel reservation (did the booking at the airport). The taxi costs 150000 dong and the trip to the hotel takes about 40 minutes, even if there is no traffic.

25.12: Hanoi
Pacific Hotel, Hanoi. In the morning finally we manage to get the Internet connection working (you have to enter fixed IP adresses), so I decide to stay, even if the hotel is not very noisy. I manage to sleep with ear plugs
Weather: sunny the whole day, with some haze. Warm enough to walk around with shorts during the daytime. In the evening you need long trousers and a long sleeves shirt.

I wake up at 7am, then continue sleeping until 9am. I get ready, then discuss with the travel agent and the hotel the room situation. They suggest to move me to another room, but all rooms are noisy. In the end they manage to get the Internet connection working, by entering a fixed IP address, so I decide to stay.

Because of this discussion I only manage to leave the room at 11am. I spend the day sightseeing in Hanoi. The city centre is pleasant, nicer than Saigon and consists of lots of well-preserved colonial buildings and communist architecture. It is small enough to be explored on foot, although after a few hours of walking I get tired and take a taxi.

There seems to be a taxi meter scam in Hanoi. Some taxis have meters which probably are 'tuned'. For instance I pay 50000 dong for a taxi from the Hoan Kiem lake to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which seems pricey considering that the distance is short. In the evening I pay 22000 dong for a taxi from the hotel to the Hoan Kiem lake (which is ok), but on the way back the meter of the (other) taxi hits 22000 dong after less than 1 km.

After some research I decide to do a day trip to Halong bay tomorrow (US $17) and a day trip to the Perfume pagoda the day after tomorrow. I sleep at 1am.

26.12: Hanoi -> Halong bay -> Hanoi
Pacific Hotel, Hanoi. The receptionist forgets to give me the wake up call...
Weather: sunny with a thin clouds layer in Hanoi, out of Hanoi the sky is more or less covered by a clouds layer. Some blue sky for one or two hours during the cruise in Halong bay, overcast after that. Not cold (I'm wearing shorts), but not warm enough to swim for my taste.

The alarm clock wakes me up at 6:30am and I get ready and have breakfast. At 7:50am the minibus picks me up. It's a Ford transit with four rows of seats (3-3-3-4), which until 8:20am fills up completely with 13 travellers. A bit of a problem for me, because my legs are long.

At 8:20am finally the trip starts. The drive takes three and a half hours with a brief stop in a souvenir shop. Interestingly lots of buses and minibuses stop at almost the same time at this souvenir shop. It looks as if all tours are the same (yesterday, when I booked, I got the impression that this tour was different).

In any case it's a very long drive (four hours to go, three and a half to come back) for just four hours in Halong bay, so it might have made more sense to take a two days trip instead of a one day trip. The guide buys the boat tickets for us (cost is 30000 dong) and we get on the boat. The boat is actually not too bad, even if yesterday the lady in the Pacific hotel claimed that her tour was better (some other boats have some chairs on the top deck, but that seems to be the only difference).

After some manouvering, finally at 12:10pm we leave the harbour, together with all other boats (they all leave at the same time!). The sky opens up a bit and the sun shines through. The scenery is not bad, actually very nice, now that the sun shining.

At 12:40pm we reach the bay with the fish farms, where some 'boat people' live and raise fish. There is even a floating school. At 1pm the lunch is ready and all 15 travellers assemble at three tables. The lunch is actually good and luckily there is enough food (in addition to several dishes they give us a big pot of steamed rice, with which we fill our stomachs).

After lunch, at 1:40pm, we board on a smaller boat, which for an additional 30000 dong will bring us to some caves (for half an hour). Overall nice setting, almost identical to the scenery near Krabi in Thailand (except that in Krabi the sky is blue right now). Essentially this Halong bay is like the area in Pha Nga in southern Thailand. Very nice, but skippable if you have already seen the Pha Nga area in southern Thailand.

We then proceed to a bay where we visit two caves: the Thien Tung (grotto) and the Dau Go caves. The Thien Tung cave is beautiful and huge, with coloured lights illuminating the rock formations, as in the Reed Flute cave in China. Wonderful cave. The Dau Go cave is a huge open cave, which sort of reminds me of the Deer cave in Malaysia.

At 3:45pm we get back to the boat, which then brings us back to the Halong city. There we get again on the minibus and around 7:40pm we are back in Hanoi (after a brief stop, again in a souvenir shop, but these tour operators have to make a living after all...).

In the evening I don't do much, besides booking the Perfume pagoda tour for tomorrow and going through today's photos.

27.12: Hanoi (daytrip to Perfume pagoda)
Pacific Hotel, Hanoi.
Weather: overcast in the morning, the sky opens up a bit in the afternoon. Dry and cool (but not cold).

Somehow I manage to wake up too early at 6:15am, sleep again and get woken up by the alarm clock at 6:50am. I get ready, have breakfast and at 7:55am the minibus for the daytrip to the Perfume pagoda picks me up. Then the minibus picks up the other travellers and then waits for the replacement tour guide, so that we finally only leave Hanoi at 8:45am and drive to the Perfume pagoda.

At 10:20am we arrive to the village next to the Yen river, where, after a short 25 minutes break, we continue by boat to the pagoda. The boat is a rowboat made of metal sheets. Woman (local farmers) row these boats in a forward rowing mode (as opposed to the standard backward rowing mode).

The scenery of the Yen river reminds me of the scenery of the Li river in China. It takes almost one hour to reach the destination (we arrive around 11:45am). There are some souvenir stalls, some food stalls, a restaurant and a 300 year old pagoda currently being restaurated. We visit this pagoda, then have lunch.

After lunch, at 1:05pm we walk to the cable car station. The guide explains that there are currently ongoing works on the path leading to the Perfume pagoda, so we have to take the cable car for safety reasons. The cable car costs 60000 dong, which is a bit pricey considering that the distance is short.

At 1:35pm we are at the hill station and from there walk to the cave which contains the Perfume pagoda. The pagoda is very simple and consists of a shrine inside a cave. Nothing special actually and I wonder why this is rated so highly. We spend some time at the cave, then walk back to the hill station of the cable car. From there we descend with the cable car and at 3:20pm we take the boat back to the village where the minibus is waiting for us.

At 4:45pm we start driving back to Hanoi, where we arrive at 6:20pm. In the evening I don't do much - have dinner in a restaurant, withdraw cash from an ATM, walk around the souvenir shops looking for a present for Shirley (find nothing suitable) and then walk back to the hotel. There are many shops selling (counterfeit?) branded bags, with some of these cheap bags being of good quality.

In the evening there are big problems downloading the emails and surfing the web. Lots of sites, including Yahoo and my site, are inaccessible. Through the news site at spiegel.de I learn that today there was an underwater eartquake near Taiwan which severed some underwater cables and as a consequence a number of east Asian countries, including Vietnam, are affected. Apparently Vietnam only has 30% of the bandwidth usually available. I sleep at 1am.

28.12: Hanoi -> Kuala Lumpur
Hotel: home of Shaun, Shirley's brother in Shah Alam
Weather: same as yesterday: overcast in the morning, the sky opens up a bit in the afternoon. Dry and cool (but not cold).

I'm woken up by the street noise before 9am, hang around a bit in the bed, then get up and get ready. Shortly before 10am I'm down in the lobby and manage to get the last breakfast. Then I check out and at 10:40am start sightseeing Hanoi.

The first stop is Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam, a combination of a Confucian temple and the site of the first Vietnamese university. The temple is quite nice and is full of tourists and tour groups. I'm there until almost 12pm, then take a taxi to the Hoan Kiem lake. The taxi driver has faked his meter, which becomes apparent when shortly before arriving the meter suddenly jumps from 39000 to 45000 dong - a 6000 dong increment, when the standard increment is 1200 dong. I tell this to the taxi driver and he asks, ok, how much do you give me. We settle on 30000 dong (meter showing 48000 by the time we finish the discussion). This is already the third taxi with a faked meter here in Hanoi (out of a total of four taxis I took!). This is really crazy and I can only recommend to either avoid taxis or know what the distance is (fare is 8000 dong/km in Vietnam) so that you can check if the fare is plausible.

At the lake I visit the Ngoc Son pagoda, which actually is nothing special. Then I walk to the old town and have a sandwich and some pastries for lunch. 45000 dong for a chicken sandwich - that's almost the same price as in Germany.

At 1pm I continue walking around the old town. This is supposed to be the most beautiful part of Hanoi, but in reality it is very messy. Narrow streets with motorbikes parked on the pavements to that you have to walk on the street, where motorbikes and cars honk at you because they want to pass by. Cramped and dirty, with exhaust fumes of cars and motorbikes and smell of petrol. The buildings themselves are so-so, some are interesting, but most are not, and everywhere there are wires on poles spoiling the sight (electricity wires, telephone wires etc).

At 1:45pm I visit the house in Ma May street 87. Kind of cute, contains now a handicraft shop. Then at 2pm I jump into a cyclo (costs the same as a taxi) and head to the Truc Bach lake. Here it is more pleasant, there are some open spaces and you can relax for a while. It is here that I fully understand how messy the old town is.

I'm at the lake for a while, then walk to the Quan Thanh pagoda. Beautiful pagoda, with beautiful decorations inside. At 3:30pm I realise that it is late, so I take a moto-taxi back to the hotel, arriving there at 3:45pm. There I order a taxi to the airport. Should cost US $10 according to the hotel staff.

At 3:55pm the taxi is here and we drive to the airport, arriving there at 4:45pm. The international airport in Hanoi is actually very small for an international airport of a capital. I queue up at the AirAsia counter and finally at 5:20pm manage to check in (US $28 excess baggage charge - 7 Kg a US $4/Kg). Then I briefly go outside for a photo of the airport and after that I rush to the gate. There is a US $14 departure tax. In total the ticket with AirAsia costs US $205 - not so cheap after all.

Punctually at 6:05pm the plane, an Airbus A320, takes off. The plane is about 60% full (somewhat over half). The seat rows are very cramped. Very difficult and tiring to write on the keyboard of the notebook, because the seat rows are just to close to each other. And I have a subnotebook. I can imagine that it would be impossible to use a full size notebook on such a plane.

Upon arrival in the LCCT airport I call Shirley. After half an hour Shaun arrives with his car, with my sweet wife and cute little daughter...

Copyright 2007 Alfred Molon