South East Asia 2017 - Day 27: Ha Long Bay to Hanoi


Thursday 31 August, fine, 31°

After a good nights sleep we got up at 5am for the sunrise.  Given that one of the reasons people come to Ha Long Bay is to watch the sun rise over the islands of the bay, it was surprising that only 1 other person got up to watch the sun rising in the golden sky.

After sunrise we went back to bed for a while and then got up for breakfast at 7am.  At 7:30am we jumped onto the transfer boat to try a bit of morning fishing, using the traditional long net technique, combined with banging with wooden sticks on the hull of the boat to scare the fish into the net.  We came back at 9am after a couple of attempts at setting the net, with 3 small fish and 2 small crabs, so it didn't work that well.

We had to pack up our cabins next, to check out at 9:30am, before the boat cruised back through the islands to near the wharf at the northern end of Cat Ba Island.  We had lunch on the way, but otherwise we just relaxed and chatted on the top deck.

At about 12:00pm the speedboat arrived to take us back to the harbour at Dao Tuan Chau ( after a few stops to clear fishing line from the propeller) , and we waited for our bus to arrive to take us back to Hanoi.  

The 24 hours we spent on the boat were amazing, with stunning scenery everywhere you looked.  It fully lived up to the expectations we had.

We headed back into Hanoi on the same route we came on yesterday, although we stopped at a different statue / clothing / jewellery factory shop this time ( as you drive along you see dozens of these places which are all designed to get the passing bus traffic ) . 

We arrived back into Hanoi, over the Red River, back into the heart of the Old Quarter at 4:30pm We were first to get off so we checked back into our hotel ( Hotel Rendevouz ) at, dropped our bags and headed to Highland Coffee for a drink and to watch the traffic chaos around the roundabout.

At about 5:30 we walked to Ho Hoan Kiem Lake to shoot the sunset and then wandered back up the west side of the lake and found a little restaurant in a quiet side alley for dinner ( 2 dishes and 2 beers, D130,000 / NZ$8 ).

We crashed back at the hotel at 8pm.  My finger is now pretty swollen and sore, but the scenery, good food and beer certainly helps.  

Another long day awaits us in Hanoi tomorrow, with a late start to our train journey south.


South East Asia 2017 - Day 26: Hanoi to Ha Long Bay


Wednesday 30 August, rain, fine, 30°



So today was to be a big day; a visit to Ha Long Bay was one of the principle reasons the we had come to northern Vietnam.  Today was the day to see if it was all that we had read about.  We had also read a few horror stories of how bad some of the overnight boats were, but we had also heard that you got what you paid for, so by buying a more expensive package we hoped to have a better experience.  If you haven't heard of Ha Long Bay you have probably seen photos of it and not realised what it was called.

We got up at 6:30am and went upstairs for breakfast, then back to the room to pack ( we are returning to this hotel again tomorrow night, but we needed to take all our gear with us to the boat ).  As we were still packing our bags at 7:45am ( on target for the pickup at 8am ) we got a knock on the door and Ben ( our guide for the 2 day trip ) arrived to pick us up.  So we finished packing in a rush and headed down to the lobby to await the bus ( Ben had come ahead of the bus, and when we were ready he rang the driver to get him to come down our narrow street to get us. This minimises the stopping time in the street, and the number of horn toots that would follow. )  We jumped on the bus ( we were first on ) and spent the next 30 minutes navigating the streets of the Old Quarter, picking up other people.  There were numerous other mini buses doing the same thing for other tour companies as well.

So we left the Old heart of Hanoi in the rain at 8:30am and drove east, through Bac Ninh, and towards Ha Long Bay.  There was the compulsory stop for a toilet break at a huge statue / clothing / trinket factory shop at 10am, and then back on the bus, and we carried on.  Given the massive number of buses and tourists making this trip out to the same port for Ha Long Bay the route seemed to be very hap-hazard, with a mixture of motorways, normal city streets and a lot of roads that looked like they have been under construction for a while, without ever being finished.

As we arrived at Dao Tuan Chau harbour at 12:30pm ( which is built on an island just off the main coast, with a causeway connecting it to the main road ) the rain stopped and the sun started to peek through.  We jumped off the bus and instead of scrambling aboard our cruise boat from the shore we got onto a small speedboat ( seating 8) and headed out into the islands for which Ha Long Bay is famous for.  Our boat for the night was moored out in amongst the islands so we jumped on board and grabbed a seat in the dining room to await the rest of the people to arrive via the speedboats 2nd trip.

The boat consists of 3 levels: a deck which covers the entire top level of the boat, the level below this has the dining room / bar at the rear, 4 cabins with an external walkway down each side, and the wheelhouse for the captain at the front.  The bottom level has the engine at the rear (with the area for the crew and the kitchen ) and 4 more cabins.  The levels are connected by 2 sets of external stairs at the front ( one on each side of the boat ) and a set of stairs in the dining room between the lowest and middle floors.

So once we were all on board ( except for 4 people who were doing a 3 day / 2 night trip and were on their 2nd day, and were off on a excursion ) we headed off.  On board were us, another NZ couple, 3 guys from Ireland, 2 French girls, 2 guys from Belgium.  The 4 people already on the cruise were a couple from USA and 2 German girls.

We headed south through the islands in the sunshine and into the Lan Ha Bay area ( which has similar scenery to Ha Long Bay, with the limestone Karst islands appearing to float on the water, but is a lot quieter in terms of boat numbers ) and we stopped at a floating platform. After transferring from our cruise boat via the transfer boat that we have with us, we jumped into some double kayaks for a paddle at 3pm.  We headed up a bay and then through a series of caves and out into lagoons which are fully enclosed by hills, and then back to the platform at 4pm.  The whole area is very peaceful and quiet with quite clear water, but is unfortunately spoilt by the amount of floating rubbish ( plastic bottles, pieces of polystyrene, shoes and other trash ), but even so it was nice to be in such an out-of-the-way place.

Once we were back on the boat we headed north again to find our spot for the night.  After we arrived and anchoredvsome of the people chose to jump off the boat and have a swim ( ours is the only company that allows this apparently) the rest of us just sat and watched.  Sunset came at 6:30pm and was pretty but very quick, and then it got dark soon after that.  We even saw stars tonight for the first time in a couple of weeks.  We had a brief spring roll making lesson with Ben before sitting down to dinner on the top deck, some of which was cooked on the barbecue in front of us.

The night was pleasantly warm, but not hot, so we sat around talking and enjoying the view, and peace and quiet.  That was until a 'party boat' came and parked about 100m away from us.  The party was in full swing so it was a little noisey, but not too bad.  We could also see other boats in the area around us, but from what we have heard we were in a quiet part of the bay.

At about 9:30pm I decided to head downstairs to bed.  There was quite a bit of dew around so I was trying to be careful heading down the steel stairs that led to our cabin on the middle deck, but somehow I slipped on the 2nd to top step, fell against the right hand handrail and skated down the steps on 1 foot.  To be honest I was thinking as I headed down the stairs that this was not going to end well, and would probably be the end of the holiday ( we had been talking earlier to another couple about how bad the emergency care was in Vietnam ).  So when I reached the middle level and stopped ( instead of carrying on down the next flight of stairs ) and I was still on my feet I was quite relieved.  I then realised that my left hand ring finger hurt, and as I turned to look at it I expected to see it sticking out on a 45° angle to the rest of my fingers.  Again I was relieved to see it in the right place, but it felt like I had hit it pretty hard on something on the way down.

At this point the captain ( who spoke little English ) poked his head out of the wheelhouse which was next to the stair I had just surfed down ( it also doubled as his cabin ) and looked at me with concern.  " I am Ok ", I said to him while at the same time holding my left hand in a bit of pain.  I thought I would head into the cabin and run some cold water on my left hand to try to numb it down a bit.  

As I got to our cabin door I realised my ring finger was bleeding so I figured I needed some first aid, so I went into the dining room and told Ben what had happened, and that I needed a plaster and some ice for my finger.  At this stage I was quite relaxed about the injury and thought it would probably be sore for a few days.  Again to be honest it could have been a lot worse so I was still relieved.

Liz then came down to find me and at that time I started to feel a bit light headed so sat down.  After a while of sitting with my head between my knees I apparently fainted ( my eyes rolled back and my face lost all colour ) so I got lowered onto the floor to stop me falling further.

After about 20 minutes of this I felt ok again, my finger had been taped up and I had taken a couple of aspirin for the pain, and decided it was time to go to bed and see how it felt in the morning.  It was certainly a more adventurous end to the evening than I had expected.

Meanwhile the party still went on at our neighbours boat....but I went out like a light when I hit the pillow.


South East Asia 2017 - Day 25: Hanoi


Tuesday 29 August, rain, cloudy, 29°

We got up 5:45am, after our late night, and walked around Ho Hoan Kiem Lake ( the wrong way, apparently everyone walks clockwise around things in SE Asia, we were walking anticlockwise ).  Took some photos of the temple and old tower in the middle of the lake, but mainly just shot people doing their morning exercises.   We headed back to the hotel at 7am and up for breakfast on the top floor ( very yummy pancakes ).

After that we headed down to the reception to book our Ha Long Bay trip.  We looked at the options and decided to go with Legacy Tours who operate a 1 night trip that takes in Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay (US$135 ea / N$175 ea ).  We also booked another night at our hotel ( Hotel Rendezvous ) for when we return to Hanoi after the trip.  We have already booked the train out of Hanoi for the evening after we come back from our trip, so that is our next few days travel sorted.

We headed out at 8:30am and dove into the Old Quarter of Hanoi.  Our hotel is located on the southern edge of the Old Quarter so we were straight into the hustle and bustle of the area.  The Old Quarter is what you expect SE Asia to be, lots of little shops selling all sorts of things, narrow alleyways, motorbikes, and people.  And it feels authentic, not like a tourist attraction.

We hit a couple of the "must see" spots. The Ancient House, Bach Ma Temple and then carried on just walking through the streets until we got to St Josephs Cathedral.  This feels a bit odd in the middle of Old Hanoi but it is a nice church and a nice refuge from the noise and activity outside.  We stayed inside for a while taking photos, then went across the plaza to Cafe Cong ( a Viet Cong themed chain of coffee shops ) at 10:15am for a coffee and cake.

Something we have noticed in SE Asia is that the staff in cafes and shops always seem happy, and there is always a lot of friendly interaction between staff members, and with customers.  We get the impression that these jobs are seen as good jobs and the staff seem happy to be there.

We carried on waking south and headed to Hoa Lo Prison ( the "Hanoi Hilton" ), paid our D30,000ea / NZ$1.80ea and went in. Most of the prison exhibition is about the imprisonment of the Vietnamese under the French rule, but there is a section on the American Airmen who were held here under the North Vietnamese Government.  The exhibitions were a little heavy on the sentiment that the "righteous, brave and committed" comrades rose up and defeated the French dictators, but it was interesting none the less.

We left the prison at 12pm and walked back to the Old Quarter and found a JoMa for lunch.  After refuelling we decided to walk to the Ho Chi Minh complex where his tomb and museum are located.  It was nice walk through a nice leafy area of Hanoi, past Embassies and upmarket shops.  It was a hot walk though.

When we arrived it looked like everything was closed and we interpreted from the signs ( not in English ) that Ho was away in Russia being repaired so there was nothing open until the end of September. So after a wander around, dodging the touts trying to give us a tour of what was open, we grabbed a taxi ( D300,000) and headed back to our Hotel at 2pm.

At 4:30pm we wandered down to the lake and walked across to the temple on the island, Den Ngoc Son, for a look around ( D30,000 / NS$1.80 ea ).  This temple is under construction ( as is most of SE Asia ) in the quiet season, but is still a stunning little spot.  We walked around some of the streets around the lake then back to the hotel briefly to grab some camera gear, then out again to Highland Coffee to sit on their balcony overlooking the lake and the busy roundabout.

We left at 7pm and walked around looking for some dinner and found a little restaurant that served Pho, which is what we were both wanting.  As a sign of the type of people Vietnamese are, Liz ordered spring rolls, but didn't realise that they were the uncooked version, so when they arrived she wasn't keen to eat them.  When we came to pay the bill they refused to let us pay for the uneaten rolls, as they obviously weren't what Liz wanted, and they then proceeded to give us some free fruit to try from the street vender that they were talking to as we left.  This experience certainly rebalanced the taxi driver from last night.

We walked back down to the lake again then back to the hotel at 8pm.  Another early start for our trip to Ha Long Bay tomorrow so time for bed.

South East Asia 2017 - Day 24: Vientiane to Hanoi, Vietnam


Monday 28 August, fine, 32°

I had another early morning and got up at 5:30am to walk down to the river to shoot some sunrise / morning activity shots.  The night market had been completely cleaned up and there was no sign that it had even been there ( this is a nightly night market so there is a lot of work involved in setting up and packing away everyday ).  There were the usual runners and cyclists out this morning as well as the pumping beats of the exercise groups.

I wandered back to the hotel at 7am, and we grabbed some breakfast and headed out at 8:30am for a walk along the river front and then stopped for some fresh lemonade on the way back to the hotel.  We caught up with some admin and checked out at 11am.

Today was to be a bit of an admin day, so we walked to Toh Lao ( which is a 'co working space' where you can rent internet access in an office environment ) and we grabbed 5 hours worth of internet ( and air-conditioning ) for K30,000 ea / NZ$5 ), after we had woken up the 2 staff working there ( yes, we were the only ones there ).

We spent the next few hours catching up on things like these blogs, sorting photos etc.  We grabbed lunch at the cafe on the corner ( more french food in SE Asia ) and then back to the admin.  We left about 3:30pm and walked back to the hotel ( where we had left our bags ) after a quick stop at Black Canyon Coffee for a drink.  Our car for the airport arrived at 4:50pm so we jumped in and headed through the rush hour traffic to the airport which only took 30 minutes.  

We had to wait for the check in desk to open in this quite small international terminal then we checked in, headed through immigration and security and into the waiting lounge.  There are only 3 gates at Wattay International Airport, but ( like most airports ) there are construction works underway so presumably it is about to get bigger.   After a while the other plane due out this evening left for China so the waiting lounge emptied out to a few dozen people, but then our plane arrived and people disembarked into the lounge and waited to reboard; we think the flight had come from Phnom Penh so these were transiting through Vientiane  So what looked like being an empty flight now looked quite full.

So we boarded at 7:15pm, and took off at 7:45pm ( again an early departure for our 8pm flight ).  After a good flight over the mountains we landed in Hanoi at 8:45pm ( 1/2 hour early ).  

As I mentioned in an earlier blog we had arranged our Visa documentation already, so as part of the US$85 package we were met in the immigration are by a man who took our passports, US$25ea visa fee etc and took them over to the lodgement desk.  After a short wait he returned with our passports with the visa inside and we went through the immigration desks.  We had heard of some people spending an hour or so getting this visa processed so we were happy to have paid the US$84 to get help with it, and have it done in about 10 minutes.

We grabbed our bags, drew some Dong ( D16,000 = NZ$1 ) , changed our remaining Kip to Dong, and headed for the door.  We went to the taxi stand and grabbed the next taxi.  This is where the fun began.

After the driver confirmed we were happy to use the meter we headed off on the expressway towards Hanoi.  I often use Googlemaps while we are travelling by bus or taxi to get an idea of where we are, and tonight in the taxi was no exception, I was curious to get an idea of the layout of the city as we travelled through it.  This proved to be a good decision.

Our route was to take us from the airport, which is north of the main part of the city, to our hotel in the Old Quarter which is in the east of the city.  In simple terms we had to travel south on the expressway until we hit the main modern part of the city then turn east to the area where our hotel was located.  It should have been a 45 minute trip at this time of night.

So we trundled down the expressway and then exited at the CBD, and then we headed west ( not east ), I wasn't too bothered as I thought there must be a reason why the direct route to the hotel couldn't be used.  After a few hundred metres we turned south ( we were still north of our hotel so this was still fine) and then after a while we headed east towards the hotel.  At this stage we were probably twice as far from our hotal as we had been when we left the expressway.  I started to think we were being given the "dumb tourist" route.  

While we were heading in the direction of the hotel now we had been driving for an hour and were still a fair way from where we needed to be.  When we turned south again and started to head away from the hotel I had had enough and told our driver ( who was on the phone again at the time ) to take us to our hotel now, he waved his hand in the direction we were traveling and said ' yes, yes, this way', I said 'no, it is this way' and pointed in the actual direction of the hotel.  He turned towards the hotel and slowly made his way in the right direction.  He then turned on Googlemaps on his phone to get directions to our hotel ( which he obviously couldn't have used earlier as it would have shown he was heading the wrong way ).  After fighting our way through the busy streets of the Old Quarter we pulled up at our hotel.  

The trip had taken 1 1/2 hours from the airport and the meter read D490,000 ( he had stopped the meter about a kilometre from the hotel to stop the cost getting any higher ). Liz jumped out and grabbed the bags from the boot, while I told the driver that I wasn't paying the metered fare as he had taken us all over the place.  He quickly said "350" meaning D350,000, meanwhile Liz went in and grabbed the concierge from our hotel to help us sort the right price.  I explained to him where we had been and he said D350,000 was about the right price normally, so I paid that and went into the hotel.  It was now 10:45pm, instead of the 10pm that we should have arrived so it wasn't a great end to a long day.  In fairness D490,000 is NZ$29 and the proper fare was NZ$21, but there was a principle involved.

Anyway we checked in and went up to our room, dropped our bags and then headed out for a drink and some food ( we had not been given a meal on the flight, so we were a little peckish ). We hit the nearest Circle K convenience store got some water and chocolate and went back to our hotel at 12am.


South East Asia 2017 - Day 23: Vientiane


Sunday 27 August, cloudy, fine, 32°

We got up at 7:30am and went downstairs for breakfast.  Most hotels we have stayed at put on a mixed breakfast with western and asian food, and today was no exception with egg and toast, as well as noodles, on the menu.

We grabbed a tuk tuk at 8:30am and headed out to Pha That Luang.  This huge gold covered stupa is the national symbol of Laos, and sits in a massive complex with other temples and museums about 3km from the centre of town.  So after we paid our K10,000 ea / NZ$1.60 we entered the walled stupa and had a look around.  All that gold was pretty hard to look at in the early morning sun, but it is certainly an impressive sight.  We then walked across and had a look around the neighbouring That Luang Tai temple ( and I had my photo taken with some random guys who presumably had never seen a sweating, bald, white guy before ) and then into the entry to the temple on the other side of Pha That Luang.  

After an hour or so we headed back to the tuk tuk and driver, who had been waiting for us to return, and headed back towards town to Patuxai park.  This driver had a different version of the pronunciation to our driver last night, so more confusion ensued about our proposed destination. Anyway we arrived at the right spot and we paid our driver for his time ( we had agreed K100,000 / NZ$16 to Pha That Luang and back so we just paid him that even though he only took us back 1/2 way to the hotel ).

 We walked to the Patuxai monument and paid K10,000 to enter and climb up to the the top.  There appears to be stairs in all 4 of the legs of the monument, although only 2 are used ( 1 for up and 1 for down ).  When we reached about 1/2 way up the monument we found an entire open floor the same size as the footprint of the monument, with trinket sellers set out around the out side.  And after the next flight of stairs was another entire floor of trinket sellers.  There we no windows in either of these floors so it can't have been the nicest place to spend the day, but at least it was cool in there.  We carried on up to the main viewing level on top of the monument, and then up some more steps to the higher viewing level.  There was another level above that but we declined the extra exercise.  After scanning the horizon on all sides ( in a fairly low rise city climbing up 20 odd metres gives a pretty impressive view in all directions ) we headed back downstairs and out into the park.  

There were lots of photographers wandering around in their photographers' vests ( you can see their pink vests in the first photo below ) offering to take photos of people with the monument in the background, and then after shooting the shots they would rush over their cars and print them out and hand the A4 print straight to them. The photos looked good, and they seemed to be quite busy too. Oddly they only seemed to be targeting the locals (i.e. non white faces ) for this service and none of them even looked at us. 

We then grabbed a cold drink in the shade ( and learned that the website on the Pepsi cans is ) before walking back down Ave Lane Xang to a shopping mall, Tao Mall, that seemed to have more that it's fair share of gold sellers.  The locals apparently favour the very yellow looking gold, so there was plenty of that on show.  How 30 shops selling what looks like the same product can survive in one mall is a mystery.  We bought a small gold elephant for our collection at home from one of the trinket sellers for K60,000.

We then walked to another mall about a kilometre away, the "Vientiane Centre", but it took about 45 minutes as to get there we had to negotiate our way through the local bus station.  With no footpaths and with cars, buses and people going in all directions, mixed in with venders selling fruit, meat and clothing, it was a challenge to get out the other side.  We had a look around the mall ( it was nothing special ) and then grabbed a tuk tuk back into the centre of town and had lunch at a JoMa's Cafe @ 12pm.

After refuelling at JoMa's we walked along the road to Wat Si Saket at 12:30pm, waited for the ticket seller to come back to her hut, paid the K10,000 ticket price ( seems to be the common price today ) and went in.  This temple complex is the oldest in Vientiane and it was quite different to the more showy temples that we had seen earlier in the day.  After a walk around and another cold drink purchase we headed out on the streets and walked a couple of blocks to That Dam.  This is not what the name would suggest but is a temple / stupa which has had a roundabout and modern buildings built around it, and is covered in foliage.  Very strange to see in the middle of a housing area.  We then walked back to the hotel to have rest again at 3pm.

We left again at 5:30pm and walked 3-4 blocks down to the Mekong riverbank to have a look through the night market.  This was massive and had a real friendly family vibe to it, so we wandered around for a while, Liz bought a Louis Vuitton wallet ( honestly it is real, not like the Chanel one that had the C stuck on back to front! ) for K30,000 ( $4.50 ).  Seemed like a good price for a LV wallet.

We also walked up to the embankment overlooking the river where there were exercise classes underway ( they were open to anyone to join for free ) and lots of people walking and cycling on a pleasant Sunday evening .

We grabbed dinner at a little restaurant on the way back to the hotel; I would give you the name of the restaurant but it was written in Laotian so I can't write it here.  As an aside the terms Laos, Lao and Laotian seemed to get used interchangeably at times, but as best I can figure it out Laotian is written by a Lao person from Laos.  

After that I grabbed a mango smoothie and Liz got an ice-cream and we walked back to the hotel.  Vientiane grew on us a bit today, it has a relaxed friendly feel, and the people seem very social.

We have almost another full day in Vientiane tomorrow before our evening flight so we will explore some more.