Category Archives: Vietnam

I don’t know whether “backpacking” is fit to describe my type of travel in Vietnam but I believe it’s between being a backpacker and a flashpacker.


The Great Vietnam Trip: Did Halong Bay Live Up to Expectations?

Click on respective links to read Part 1 and Part 2 of the “The Great Vietnam Trip” series.

When you are travelling, you lose track of the time.

While on a 16-hour train from Hue to Hanoi, I could hardly remember which day it was. The train ticket, however, served as a reminder that we were entering the fifth day of our 10-day backpacking trip.

The train took off from Hue Railway Station at 2.45pm on the forth day and was scheduled to arrive in Hanoi at 4am the very next Morning.

That means we got to “save” money on accommodation for the night.

Both Cat and I were given the upper berth, which we HATED because the configuration came without a ladder. Every time we had step on the lower berth bed as support to climb onto our bed.

THAT, is freaking horrible.

You just don’t wish to disturb the person sleeping on the lower berth or accidentally step on him/her while climbing up to your bed. Can you imagine having to climb up and down in the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping, trying not to wake them?

I didn’t and still don’t like doing overnight on trains. If anything I would prefer the sit-up-all-night seat on the train or even a sleeper bus.

On a more positive note, sharing the same cabin with us were this great and helpful Australian couple, Lindsay and Susan.

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Lindsay is a retiree who now helps out his wife in organising netball trainings to students. This Lindsay guy sure has a great sense of humour and he kept telling us stories of him when young!

When night approached, a baby from the next cabin was heard crying. Being a thoughtful and caring person Susan was, she offered us a pair of earplugs each.

There were three pairs of earplugs in the pack she bought (Susan has to be someone really good at planning by judging how detailed she was) and there were four of us in the cabin. Therefore Cat told her she and I could just share a pair, so that she and her husband could have a pair each.

However she said, “Don’t worry about it. One of Lindsey’s ears is deaf anyway, so I don’t think he needs any.”

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At that moment, I felt like jumping off my bed to send Susan some hugs.

Many a times when situations like this happened to me, I would ask in my heart: what did I do to people to deserve such good treatment?

That served as a great reminder to always be nice to people and to give more than I take.

We had HORRENDOUS dinner served by the personnels on train. It cost 50,000 VND (RM9) per pax. We had no choice but to live with that option because we didn’t prepare our own dinner.

The next morning, I was woken up numerous times by the screeching sounds of the train. I woke up again at 3.30am to find myself unable to sleep, so I decided to read a book.

Barely 15 minutes into reading my book, what I believed was a Hanoi folk song, which Cat didn’t seem to enjoy but I found beautiful, came playing loudly on the radio. It was especially loud on the upper berths as they were closest to the speaker on the ceiling of the cabin.

I heard the word “Hanoi” several times in the song so apparently it had to be about Hanoi.

We arrived at the Hanoi train station at this hour:

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4.10am, and drizzling!

A cab driver came to us and offered to take us to the “center of city” that wasn’t far away. The rate he quoted: Freaking 200,000VND, or RM32! Blatant rip-off.

In the end we resorted to the motorbike taxi option for only 20,000VND (RM3.20) per pax. We were on two motorbikes.

See the difference?

When we asked the drivers to take us to the center of city where we could find travel agencies, we were pretty much giving it a shot. We knew that it was unlikely shops would open at that kind of ungodly hour.

But then again, most shops would be opened by 6am so worst comes to worst, we would just wait until they were opened.

Upon requesting where we wanted to go, one of the drivers nodded profusely, which gave me a feeling of assurance. At the same time however, I was also worried.

Unknowing exactly where the drivers would take us to, I was a little scared they would do something to us – later the bikes actually passed through dark passages in between shops and we didn’t even know where we were heading.

Thankfully my worries were short-lived when they stopped us in front of a shop with a signage that read “SINH CAFE TRAVEL”. This reliable travel agency that comes with own accommodation service is more popularly known as Hanoi Family Homestay.

The shop was closed, and one of the drivers was calling somebody.

About five minutes later, a lady came hurriedly from one corner while rummage around her bag for keys. Her name is Huong (which is loosely translated as “Perfume”), who runs  Hanoi Family Homestay.

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Huong is a super hospitable and considerate lady who would make customers feel just like home. And also VIPS!

On one side of the wall in Huong’s travel agency, a slogan plastered across it went, “You are a family friend, not just a tourist!” That was indeed very reflective of our experience.

We wanted to spend the rest of our journey to tour around Halong Bay and Sapa, but preferred something more budget, so we sat down with Huong to go through the slew of packages available while negotiating what would be best for our budget.

She took out a pencil and a piece of paper to carefully detail the number of days we had left and the possible activities we could do on each day. I especially love the idea of a customised tour package and itinerary that fits our budget and time!

While Cat and I made up our mind about the tour package, she made us some coffee, which came in really handy as it had rained a while ago and the weather was chilly.

That’s Huong in the picture below preparing us coffee.

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After Cat and I had decided on the package, it was already half past five, so she ushered us to the a guest room upstairs to take a shower and rest while waiting for the Bus to Halong Bay to arrive at 8am.

We lazed around the room for quite a bit. After all we just had a long, boring journey in the train. Afterwards, we went down to be told our breakfast would be served in a while. On the table that had an old-school Spice Girls poster, Huong had readied for us a plateful of sliced dragon fruits and watermelon!

AWESOME OR NOT?

Came 7.30am, Cat and I went out to withdraw some cash as the cost of Halong Bay and Sapa tour had exceeded our budget and the amount we brought.

Withdrawing from ATM in Vietnam proved to have a much, much lower exchange rate than buying Vietnamese Dong in Malaysia. So the next time I visit Vietnam again, I’m definitely withdrawing my cash there.

This is no advertorial but I was so impressed by Huong’s service that I feel obliged to return her a favour by recommending Hanoi Family Homestay here.

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If you’re in Hanoi and looking for a reasonable tour package to Halong Bay or Sapa any beyond, you can drop by Huong’s shop at this address: 2B Bat Su, Hanoi, Vietnam. Or call her at +84 91 239 12 81.

Opposite Huong’s travel agency is an interesting shop selling rattan ladders (owner was seen playing iPad away):

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Fast forward to our Halong Bay tour. It took us about 4+ hours to get from Hanoi to the Halong city.

For some reason Cat and I were arranged to follow another group and tour guide instead but we liked our original guide better! I didn’t mind group members though, except for a drama king and queen (more about this later) in our new group.

Within the Halong city is this port, where you get to see probably hundreds of ships and boats. That alone could tell you how commercial Halong Bay is, and of course the volume of tourists flocking there is another indication.

From the port, we took a speedboat to our ship – one of the many Papaya Cruises – that was about 5 minutes away. From there the ship went even further in the bay where limestone monolithic islands can be found.

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Each of us paid a total of 1995,000VND (RM320) for the Halong tour, and with what we had paid we got to we share a cruise ship with 14 other tourists.

Did our experience live up to the RM320 each of us had paid?

Before I conclude, let me show you the condition of our room on the cruise ship:

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I had no issue with the room itself – it was clean and had a romantic atmosphere, except for the mattress that was to me a little hard. What bothered Cat and I though, was the annoying engine room right below us.

It gave off such noisy sounds and heat the whole day, except during the night time when they turned off the engine. We requested for a change of room but to no avail because there was no more room available.

All meals during our 2 days/1 night on the ship were provided in our cost, but all drinks were on our own.

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In terms of food, it was much better than what we were served on our Saigon dinner cruise. BUT, dishes were a bore as they served pretty much the same food for both lunch and dinner.

I didn’t find the operator of the cruise ship very attentive or careful. We were sharing meals with a Chilean couple – Patricia and Christian, whom we chatted a lot and shared much laughter with:

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Patricia and Christian don’t take seafood and had thus requested for non-seafood meals to be served to them. In spite of the advanced request, for two meals in a row they still served them seafood.

As most of the dishes came with seafood, Cat and I ended up finishing what Patricia and Christian couldn’t eat.

We felt bad for them. When I requested with our tour guide to provide them with some non-seafood dishes, he gave me a very helpless stare as if nothing could be done. All he did was topping up existing dishes that didn’t have seafood inside.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Christian found a hair in his rice and that was also when he decided he had lost his appetite and no longer wanted to eat.

Patricia and Christian were probably the most down-to-earth travellers among those on the ship. We chatted from travelling to education system to the societal and economic conditions in our countries.

Nevertheless, there were these annoying Canadian friends (girl stressed they were not a couple) – Martha and James or whatever his name is, who were such attention-seekers. They babbled non-stop ALL. THE. TIME. as if they whole world only revolved around them:

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I do think they make interesting teachers though (they are currently interning at a school in Hong Kong) due to their animated and attention-seeking nature.

From this point onwards I shall just focus on pictures taken at the Halong Bay and let them do the talking.

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A last picture of our cruise ship before we were ridden back to the port on a speedboat:

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So the question is: was our Halong tour worth the RM320 each of us had paid?

While I didn’t regret having paid that amount, I would rate my experience a 6/10. Maybe that was also why we paid only RM320 and not some RM500 like certain first-class packages may cost.

The Vietnamese government should definitely do something to protect the UNESCO-endorsed site from being polluted too much. While we were cruising and kayaking around the Halong Bay, apparently there were many empty bottles and other litters floating on the water.

That was such a let-down. Otherwise Halong Bay is a heaven on earth.

Speaking of kayaking, I forgot to mentioned how it felt so surreal to be able to kayak around the islands in the beautiful Halong Bay. Definitely one of the best experiences I will never forget.

Another thing that almost slips my mind is that we were so damn lucky to have picked the right day to go to Halong Bay.

When we went heading back to the port on the second day after the end of our tour, tourists arriving on the same day who who just got on their ships were being forced to return because a storm was expected to come that midnight.

HOW LUCKY WERE WE?

Entry on Sapa tour can be read here.


The Great Vietnam Trip: Where (Not) to Visit in Hue

Warning: A long entry, and a picture depicting non-halal food that maybe offensive to Muslim readers.

During our 10-day backpacking trip in Middle and North Vietnam, Cat and I covered: Hoi An (Quang Nam province), Hue, Halong Bay (Quang Ninh province), and Sa Pa (Lao Cai province).

In other words, we were heading northward.

In the previous entry, I mentioned about taking a sleeper bus from Hoi An to Hue. The downside of the sleeper bus option was that there were only two bus rides from Hoi An per day: one at 7.45am and the other one at 3.30pm.

As we were on a tour to My Son and could not be back by 3.30pm, we therefore had to forgo the intention of taking the 3.30pm bus and opt for the 7.45am one early next morning.

That also means that when we arrived in Hue, it was already 1pm or so.

We didn’t want to spend much time in Hue and decided to just visit a few places before leaving for Hanoi the very next day on a 16-hour “soft-sleeper” train (will blog about this in the next entry).

We didn’t spend much time in Hue, but definitely spent a little too much money on a tour there.

Ok lah to be fair, maybe it wasn’t all that expensive by Malaysian standards, but still a little overpriced by Vietnamese standards. PLUS, I feel the experience didn’t justify what we paid for.

What happened was we were persuaded by a tour agency into booking a chauffeur driver taking us to 3 prominent but nearby sites: the Tomb of Khai Dinh, the Imperial City (Citadel), and Thien Mu Pagoda. The charge alone cost us RM100.80 and this had not yet included the entrance fees.

Not saying the agency was cheating, just that we were rushed into making an almost immediate decision due to time constraint – we had to visit all three places before the night fell.

Oh well, nothing is perfect I guess but nevertheless I’m still thankful to have been able to see the signature spots of Hue before leaving.

The luxurious car we sat in:

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For some reason Cat looks like an aunty trying to shoo away a cat or something haha. Forgive me, Cat!

Tomb of Khai Dinh

It had to be the most impressive site we had visited in Hue!

The bombastic-looking royal tomb was built from 1920 to 1931 by a Nguyen emperor (also last member of the Nguyen Dynasty) called Khai Dinh, who is linked to the second site that we visited – the Imperial City.

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Since we didn’t hire any guide to explain about the mausoleum, I actually found out later on the Internet that there are 127 steps up from the street level, and they were purposefully designed in order to make access to the crypt more difficult!

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I was totally impressed by how well the mausoleum was maintained and also the tiny details they carved or decorated on the building surfaces.

Almost a century after building it, the tomb of Khai Dinh was, during my visit, still in an amazingly proper condition, with no visible damages whatsoever!

From the courtyard of the Tomb of Khai Dinh, occupying both sides of the forecourt are each two rows of stone bodyguards, as well as some stone elephants and horses.

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