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I have done much research on Vietnam on the net once I have decided to visit this country despite its current bird flu problem. I read more people died of road accidents than bird flu in Vietnam ! On our second day in Hanoi while on the way to Halong Bay , I witnessed two major accidents.
I gather much info about this beautiful country from Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum. Many thanks to those who have given constructive advice and useful info. I must say TT is one of great travel info forums. Then again, there are touts too. You need to be careful of what you read. Be careful of scams too. I experienced twice myself. Stories below.
Arrive in Hanoi late evening. Stay two nights in Hanoi . Proceed to Halong Bay for a 2D 1N trip. Back and stay one night in Hanoi . Take 10 hours night train to Lao Cai and then an hour ride to Sapa for two nights stay. Back to Hanoi and take 16 hours night train to Danang on the same night. Take an hour taxi ride from Danang train station to Hoi An for a 2 night stay. Fly back to Hanoi from Danang (due to lack of time). Stay last night in Hanoi before coming home the next evening.
Certainly, this holiday trip involves much traveling than any holidays we have taken so far. Is it a hassle ? I do not think so. My wife, Joy does not think so. Only my daughter, JH complaints about it. I reckon she has too much of good life in Singapore .
In retrospect, I should go to Sapa first before Halong Bay . Why ? The night train from Lao Cai reaches Hanoi at early morning at about 5am. At such early hour and with all our bags, where are we supposed to go ? I had no choice but to rent a day room to rest and bath. We learn from experience
This is a must-see when visiting Vietnam – many mention in the TT. I must agree. It is a beautiful place with scenic landscapes and mountainous villages dotted around. Sapa itself is a small town full of hotels and restaurants. From here, you can book your trekking tours or market tours from the various travel agencies around. We paid for US$40 jeep trip to three villages. Standard of living in the villages was poor and very manual. Despite of the hard living, I notice the villagers appeared happy with the simple and care-free way of life. We were here for two nights and had enjoyed ourselves tremendously for its cool weather and sheer beauty.
We also did two treks on our own to Cat Cat Village and Ham Rong Trek. Both are easy treks which do require much effort. It takes about half day to do the Cat Cat. On the way, we met many trekkers like us.
While in Sapa town, you will be constantly asked by the villagers in their traditional Hmong /other minority group costumes to buy something from me. If you buy something from one, the whole group will surround you to persuade you to buy from them. Cannot blame them. This is their only trade to earn a living. Noticeably, these sellers are female. I also note the three standard questions these girls will ask you :-
a) what is your name
b) where are you from
c) buy something from me
Strangely, these girls speak good English. Most of them learn it from tourists. For the second question, we were mistakenly taken as Japanese or Koreans. I suppose my country is just too small in the world map. When we mentioned Singapore , the first reaction was ‘very clean’. Are we ?
We took the train (SP1) from Hanoi at 9.30pm to Lao Cai after about 10 hours ride. From Lao Cai, another hour of bus ride (25000VND) to Sapa town. It is not difficult to go to Sapa yourself.
This is the World Heritag Site. It is a must see when you are in Vietnam . I know why because it was surreal. Giant craters of rocks scattered around the bay. We were on a 2D 1N trip (US$36pp thru ODC).
On our boat, there were 16 tourists with 8 crew members and a watch dog named Tiger. Not sure why, Tiger was not too friendly keeping to himself all day. Only at night, he was active.
We went kayaking, swimming and exploring caves. Other than these activities, you spend your time on the boat relaxing and just enjoying at the natural beauty of the surroundings. Personally, I feel two days should be enough for this kind of trip. Too long, you will get bored. Too short, it will be too rushed to enjoy it.
Each cabin sleeps two. The cabin is small and not soundproof. Bathroom is attached but basic. All meals are provided. Food is not excellent but acceptable.
This unique place comprises of 36 streets. Each street is unique for its special product. On one street, you can find all the shops are selling shoes. On the other, craftsmen are making tombstones. Ancient meandering streets are each named after the crafts and specialty trades traditionally practiced by original artisan’s guilds in the 13th century. What makes it more interesting is the incessant flow of traffic and non-stop honing! There is no one way traffic on these narrow streets. Everything goes. It is amazing the thousands of scooters just move along without any hitch. Men of various size, ladies in skirt, young and old – they are riding the scooters. Motorcycle-taxi riders are waiting for people to hire. Cyclo-men are shouting to tourists to book their trishaws.
Many of the buildings in the Old Quarter are very old, some antique. Most are narrow buildings but very long inside and both sides of building are not painted. I noticed some are very well decorated inside. Many stall vendors carrying their wares in two baskets are seen everywhere. Fruits, sandals, nuts, snails, cloths – you name it, they have it. Food stalls line along the street pavements are plenty. Everything is done on the streets. Cooking, washing, eating…..Vietnamese are indeed very entrepreneurial. When it starts to rain, you can see vendors running to sell raincoats to you. One thing I noticed missing in Vietnam are the big Amercian names – KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks…
This is indeed a very interesting place to wander around. Wandered around we did and lost our way all the time!
Hoan Kiem Lake ( Lake of Restored Sword)
Probably the most famous landmark in Hanoi city. It was once part of the Red River . A beautiful setting where you can take a slow stroll around. Early morning, I saw many joggers running around it. If the traffic pollution is reduced, that will be wonderful.
Old quarter is within walking distance. Nearby, there are some shopping centres and supermarkets.
Night train from Hanoi to Danang was very long but not too hassle. We bought the soft-sleeper ticket which was the right choice for the 16 hours ride. As Hoi An has no train station or airport, Danang is the base to Hoi An. An hour ride from Danang train station brought us to Hoi An town. On the taxi ride, we saw school girls in their traditional white An-Dao uniforms. Beautiful sight.
Hoi An is small unique town famous for its tailors. So many of them that I lost count. Now I know why people go to Hoi-an for their cloth. Comparatively, it is cheap to have your shirts or pants tailor-made there. I made my first shirt for US$10. The second shirt was US$8. Joy made the most. Be sure to bargain hard. There are just too many tailor shops there. There are shoe-making shops too. Hotels and restaurants are plenty to choose from. The beautiful and well maintained old buildings are a sight to behold. On the country side are the miles and miles of green paddy fields.
It has an area of 60 sq km and population of 81000. On 4th Dec 1990, the UNESCO inscribed Hoi An on the World Heritage List.
My Son – this is a side trip from Hoi An. 30000 VND for each person for the trip. Entrance fee is 60000 VND. Built by the Champa Kingdom between 7th and 13th centuries. My Son was designated a UNESO World Heritage Site in 1999. Weather was too hot on this trip.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – it is located in the centre of Ba Dinh Square. The embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh is preserved in the cool central hall.
Temple of Literature, Hanoi – was built in 1070. It is located to the south of Thang Long Citadel. The temple is featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese dong banknote.
Through vietnamstay, I have booked Phan Thai hotel (rec in TT) in Hanoi old quarter for two nights stay. Unfortunately, I do not have any confirmation of it despite my repeated queries. I have no choice but to book Lucky Star hotel ( 11 Bat Dan St , Hoan Kiem, Hanoi ) through asia-hotels. Lo and behold, when we arrived in Noi Bai airport, there were two placards bearing my name! Sorry, Phan Thai – could not go with you although I wanted to. This is where I met my first scam.
Lucky Star provides free shuttle service for her staying guests from airport to the hotel. The representative, a young and entrepreneurial man, who came to fetch us told us if we did not mind to go in a taxi than bus. Bus – long wait. Price ? US$5.00. I agreed knowing this was his own arrangement.
Lucky Star is one of the many mini hotels you can find in old quarter of Hanoi . Most of the hotel buildings are narrow but very long inside. At US$20 + 15% tax for triple sharing and simple breakfast included, Lucky Star is a basic accommodation. Would I stay there again ? No because there are much better hotels to be found at this price. I must say that rate of hotels in Hanoi is very attractive. Cheap compared to other cities.
Phan Thai hotel ( 44 Hang Giay St , Hanoi ) is my first choice and stay we did. Big room at US$22 with breakfast included. I was told it should be US$27 for triple sharing but to hotel mistake, it was US$22.
Anh Dao Hotel (37 Ma May St, Hanoi ) –(rec in TT again) is a nice hotel with big room. At US$17 with breakfast for triple sharing, it is worth it. Need to book advance as it is very popular.
Thang Long hotel (52, Cau Go St , Hoan Kiem Dist, Hanoi ) is the day room I rented for US$10. Basic hotel.
Over in Sapa, I took a chance by not confirming any hotel booking (quoted US$27 for one night). A blessing in disguise. When we arrived in Sapa town, cold and early, a few steps away where we alighted was the Mountain View hotel (54A Cau May, Sapa). As a matter of fact, the caretaker was still sleeping. At US$10 for triple sharing, it is worth it. There are plenty small hotels/guesthouses in Sapa. In fact, the town looks very commercialized which greatly catered to tourists. Everyone wants tourist money.
In Hoi An, by twist of fate, we stayed in Thanh Xuan hotel (22-23 Nhi Trung St, Ba Trieu, Hoi An Old Town) which I have not heard of. The taxi driver stopped at this hotel to ask for way to my destination. Was it deliberate ? Once stopped, two very sweet receptions came to greet us and invited me to see the room. Since it was a nice room and at US$18, I decided to take.
As far food is concerned, we did not have the courage to try the side street vendor food stalls. Why ? Food was foreign to us. Afraid we might not able to take it. All meals were taken in small cafes or restaurants except one. Early morning just arrived from Lao Cai to Hanoi , we tried the congee from a street vendor. To our surprise, we liked it. 5000 VND per bowl.
Little Hanoi sandwich bar ( 21-23 Hang Gai St , Hanoi )– just right at the corner of a street. Serve good sandwich and platable spaghetti. So good we went there twice.
Little Hanoi restaurant (9-14, Ta Hien St , Hanoi ) – good Vietnamese dishes with reasonable price. Interior decor is also very unique. A small plate of fruit dessert will be served at the end of the meal.
Golden Land Restaurant – went in by chance. Food is good but price is little high. Still affordable.
City View Cafe (5th Floor, Dinh Tien Hoang St , Hanoi ) – Nice view and food is good. I tried the ‘Cha Ca ‘- a famous Vietnamese fried fish fillet that comes with plain white noodle and a small bowl of overpowering smell of fish and shrimp sauce. Needlessly to say, it was left untouched. Just could not take it.
Highland Cafe and pub – just a floor below City View – simple food. More of a pub to me.
Restaurant Cafe 96 ( 96 Bach Dang St , Hoi An, Quang Nam ) – was introduced to this small and quaint restaurant along the waterfront by word of mouth. Food is good. The chef/owner introduced to us Hoi-an speciality dish called “Cao Lau” – thick flat noodle in soup with bean sprouts, other vegetables with sweetened pork ( Singapore version of char chiew). Joy likes it a lot.
Banana Leaf Café ( 88 Bach Dang St , Hoi An, Quang Nam ) – not far from Club 96. I had the best version of spring rolls served here. We all like the food here very much. BTW, the food comes in plates not on banana leaves.
In Sapa, we had most of our meals in Ann Dao restaurant. We went in because this restaurant was always packed. Why ? Food is good and very reasonable priced. It serves mainly Vietnamese dishes.
We fly Tiger Airways, the only budget airline that flies to Hanoi from Singapore . This is free seating and food/drink need to be purchased.
In Hanoi old quarter, the best mode of transport is by foot. If you are tired, there are motorcycle-taxi and cyclo-trishaw to take you around. Be sure to agree on a price before boarding. I was scammed into paying too high for being naive. Thinking it was a metre-taxi, we took the taxi from old quarter to Hanoi Railway Station. A mere 20 minutes ride that charged me 174000 VND (US$11.00) !! When I paid 200000VND to the driver, he returned the change of 30000VND ! What a generous man ! I paid 160000VND from old quarter to Noi Bai airport (an hour ride). I know there is an airport bus which is cheaper. However, I know not the details.
Vietnam Airlines and Pacific Airlines also ply along domestic cities in Vietnam . You can save some money if tickets are bought directly from these airline offices.
Train leaves Hanoi all the way to Ho Chi Min City, stopping along major cities like Hue , Danang,etc. As a matter of fact, I went to Hanoi Railway Station hoping to save money by purchasing the tickets myself. Unfortunately, language was a problem here. In the end, I gave up and went to a travel agency.
MISC (this section covers anything as the title implies)
Travel agency used – ODC Travel – I joined Halong Bay tour with them. I also bought all train and airline tickets through them. Service is good and reliable. However, if you can purchase tickets yourself, you can save a substantial sum.
Waterpuppet Show – An entrancing display of marionettes dancing on the water. No visit is complete without watching it, hence, an overwhelming response by tourists. It is a sellout every day. We needed to book the tickets in advance. 40000 VND for first class. Nice and interesting.
Weather – The first two days in Hanoi were cool and pleasant. We were very glad. Subsequently, it turned to humid and hot but bearable. We are from Singapore , you know. Hoi-an was unbearably hot and dry. Sapa was pleasantly cool and comfortable.
Drinking water – We bought our drinking water from shops and supermarkets. I find the price is cheaper from supermarket than those small stalls catering to tourists. For example, a 1 litre of La Viet (was told the best) bottled water sold 7000VND in supermarket but 10000VND in small stalls.
Exchange rate – At the time of my travel, the rate was US$1 = 15800 VND. Strangely, I got better rate in Noi Bai airport at 158500. Big US note gets better rate. I like the 10000VND best. Probably the color red attracts me. I also saw a jellewery shop in old quarter that accepted SGD. The best bet is USD.
People – Generally, the Vietnamese are friendly and helpful. Many times when we were lost, we were able to get help when we asked. Most of them are slim. Hardly see any overweight Vietnamese around. Also hardly seen are Vietnamese women in shorts. Most wear skirts or long pants. What you will see most are the conical hats worn mostly by the women.
Safety – To be honest, I was a little apprehensive before we were there. A few days later, my fear had gone. Relatively, it is a safe country to travel. I saw many lone travelers.
However, one needs to be alert. A small incident nearly marred our holidays. On the first day of arrival in Hanoi in late evening, after checking in, we decided to take a look at one of the streets in Old Quarter. It was very crowded. Out of blue, Joy was shocked to find her small backpack on her shoulder was being zip-opened by someone. She knew it because there was a little bell on the zip. Fortunately, she turned around in time to frighten the ‘thief’ away.
Ticket price – All tickets bought thru ODC Travel
a) Train leaving at 7pm from Hanoi to Danang = US$34 pp (448000VND=US$28 if buy yourself)
b) Pacific Airline leaving at 9.20am from Danang to Hanoi = US$57 pp (59714VND=US$37 if you buy the ticket yourself)
c) For train from Hanoi – Lao Cai – Hanoi = I think it was US$37pp (cannot remember clearly)
Baguette – Sold almost everywhere. Personally, I prefer the Delifrance version back home which is not available there.
Hotel registration – Simple. Hand in your passport to the receptionist. No form to fill. No deposit required. When check-out, pay and get back your passport. Quick and easy.
Lift – Do not expect to use the lift in the many mini hotels in Old Quarter. There is none. We had to walk up the stairs with our bags to the fifth floor at Anh Dao. Mind you, these were narrow and steep stairs. Luckily, in Phan Thai there was a llft available.
Medicine – It is essential to bring it from home. I was glad I brought. Due to the drastic change of weather, I caught a flu. Fortunately, I was able to recover soon to enjoy the rest of the holidays. Both Joy and JH also caught flu. I guess it was from me.
Clothing – For this trip, I had brought along a few shirts intending to give away after wearing it. I am happy to see that the villagers of Hmong tribe in Sapa had gladly accepted it. Bring sweets for the children if you are going there. They love it. Lovely children, poor but cheerful 
Useful links :
Tigerairways – the budget airline we took
Vietnam Airlines Flight Info – another resource to check airline info.
Vietamstay – the online hotel booking which does not require you to provide credit card details.
Seat61 – a great site for train travel all over the world.
Thirteenmonths – website of a young couple. Delightful and informative articles. Great pictures too.
Asiahotels – another online hotel booking site. I like the travellers’ tales in this site.
Weather search – check this site to find the weather of the country.
Currency converter – useful site to convert any currency.
Thorn Tree – great travel forum from Lonely Planet. Beware of touts.