Written by MichaelJM on 02 Nov, 2011
We’d stayed in Hanoi for two nights and were about to leave the Moevenpick Hotel (see separate review) to stay overnight on a boat, before returning to the Moevenpick for a final night in Hanoi. We knew that we were in for a long drive…Read More
We’d stayed in Hanoi for two nights and were about to leave the Moevenpick Hotel (see separate review) to stay overnight on a boat, before returning to the Moevenpick for a final night in Hanoi. We knew that we were in for a long drive to Halong bay from Hanoi but hoped it would be interesting and give us a fair glimpse of the Vietnamese countryside. Although we made good progress for the first part of the journey we were to discover that the majority of the journey would be on narrower roads that were extremely bumpy. So much so that we all felt physically assaulted by the time we arrived at Halong Bay.We fought through the waves of motorbikes that dominate the roads in Hanoi and that challenge all the rules of driving etiquette. Cyclists would drive the wrong way down the one-way streets, cut right across the route of traffic, disregard traffic lights and surround cars almost to the point of intimidation. We even saw them driving the wrong on dual carriageways. Foolhardy? Well they didn’t seem to think so and we didn’t see a single accident nor any evidence of bumps and dents to cars. Perhaps this apparent chaotic style of driving actually has rules that aren’t immediately evident. After the chaos of the city we were soon in to the countryside and enjoying the sight of workers in the Paddy fields completing the second rice harvest of the year. We saw Water Buffalo pulling carts and a couple of people riding buffalo across the field. The scene was certainly evocative of what we had stereo-typicalised life in Vietnam. There were women carrying baskets on yokes slung over their shoulders.On the dual carriageways alongside large new factory developments we saw women selling bread at the side of the road, groups of youngsters who’ve decided to park up their motorcycles and have a chat with their mates. It wasn’t unusual to see rice drying on the road side (or even on the road) with tyre marks through the rice. At one point the rice had a water buffalo trampling over it and it takes no imagination to know what happened next! But as our guide explained where else could they dry the rice!We saw countless weddings being held in makeshift marquees in small villages and were able to enjoy mile after mile of authentic Vietnamese life. At one place our guide stopped so that we could take photos of the rice pickers in the paddy fields.We were surprised at the range of different businesses that sat cheek by jowl with one another. There could be a food shop next to a small welding business, a motorbike spares shop next to an open air butchers. They seem to sit comfortably next to each other, but our western expectation would be that food shops are separate to industrialised units. For several miles the railway line ran alongside the main road almost touching distance from houses and when we had to stop at the crossing we were amazed at how the oncoming traffic formed a phalanx in front of us. As soon as the train had passed and the gate manually opened by the railway employee the revving traffic edged to each other with "nerve" being the only reason to give way. What a bizarre process.One feature of travelling by road is the "stack ‘m high" principle that motorbikes, vans and lorries seem to adopt. We narrowly missed a shower of bricks from a lorry, saw a motorbike swerve to avoid a bombardment of melons that had spilled out of a large pannier on another bike and narrowly missed the wreckage of the "coming together" of a motorcyclist and a cyclist. The riders had "escaped" but the carnage had been left behind. However, incidents as these do not phase the intrepid drivers as they continue to recklessly overtake, and lean on their horns to give themselves protection (in their own mind) from the oncoming traffic. We saw motorcycles laden up with hundreds of cartons of eggs (and make no mistake I am not exaggerating), mattresses, wardrobes, baskets of live animals (including ducks, dogs, chickens) all heading for market and slaughter. There were bikes pulling trailers of pigs and cows and of course some were loaded with up to four riders. The sight of the vehicles on the road is indeed truly remarkable.You need to be made of stern stuff to survive the rigours of the Vietnamese roads, the severe breaking, the last minute "body swerves" and the incessant horn pipping. We have lived to tell the tale and fight another day. Close
Our journey from Hanoi airport to the centre of town and our hotel couldn’t have been any different to the journey in Laos. In Laos the road trip was tranquil and without incident. The main Laos Road was narrow and fairly free of traffic and…Read More
Our journey from Hanoi airport to the centre of town and our hotel couldn’t have been any different to the journey in Laos. In Laos the road trip was tranquil and without incident. The main Laos Road was narrow and fairly free of traffic and the airport layback and free of unnecessary administration. Indeed we were checked in and passed through immigration in less than 10 minutes. By contrast, even with our pre-arranged letter of entry we had to be processed. We were directed to one end of a long office where we had to present our letter of entry (visa approval) to the official alongside our passports and photographs. Each official had their own clearly defined task – so the first one took the passport and letter from us, then they were handed over to another who checked the passport and photos before printing off a visa. This bundle of papers was then given to another who stuck the visa into the passport and stamped and dated the visa before passing the whole lot across to the next person in the chain who entered the information on to the computer data base. The final step was for another official to check the complete passport and visa photograph against our "true likeness", collect our $25 a person and then present the passport back to us. What a time consuming process!Next we head off to immigration control where our passport is again checked and stamped. We’re then home and dry, through baggage reclaim and customs where we are met by the guide who will look after us for our whole stay in Hanoi and the surrounding area. Efficiently we are guided towards the awaiting people carrier and settle down for the 50 minute ride to our hotel.It was warm but the rain was persistent so we were able to appreciate or indeed see much of the countryside. Our guide told us that the rice in the Paddy fields on this stretch of the road had been recently harvested. This was the second harvest of the year and the fields would now remain dormant until next year’s planting.We had now had a glimpse of the simple farming existence of many Vietnamese but soon our senses would be bombarded with brash advertising hoardings. Signs of the world of capitalism. Now we were beginning to understand the contradictions that a "People’s republic" offers to its people. Once the free economy was introduced then people’s wealth varied dependent on how hard they worked. The country was available to offer manufacturing services to the wealthier world and business came the way to many Vietnamese people. But the country is still governed by communist party members. Vietnam offers that interesting insight into two contradictions working alongside each other. It’s up to you to decide what you think about that! The traffic congestion was horrendous and this was emphasised by drivers recklessly ignoring traffic lights, disregarding one way systems and generally lacking in driving courtesy or protocol. Or perhaps the protocol is that you just do your best to avoid others!After our 2 hour journey we couldn’t help but admire and respect the driving skills of our driver who had got us, unscathed into the centre of Hanoi in driving rain.What an interesting start to our stay in Vietnam. Close
Written by Hun Ohm on 20 Mar, 2005
Things To Do in Hanoi – A Shortlist, Part One
By Hun Ohm
We spent a total of six days in Hanoi. Too much? Well, the northern capital has enough nooks and crannies to merit this amount of time for exploration, and it also serves…Read More
Things To Do in Hanoi – A Shortlist, Part One
By Hun Ohm
We spent a total of six days in Hanoi. Too much? Well, the northern capital has enough nooks and crannies to merit this amount of time for exploration, and it also serves as decent regrouping point in between journeys. For example, when not exploring the many streets of the capital, we arranged multi-day side trips to Halong Bay, Cuc Phuong National Park, and Kenh Ga (see other upcoming entries), and shipped parcels home. We also finalized our arrangements to exit the country and begin our travels in Laos.
However, you may find yourself without six days to spend in Hanoi (or perhaps no desire to spend that much time there). If either is the case, we think that you should consider including the following destinations on any itinerary. Without further ado, the shortlist:
Stroll the Old Quarter
The old quarter of Hanoi is famous for its "36 streets," which are all named after the thing they used to sell (onions, silk, shoes, herbs, fish, baskets, incense, combs, hats, tin, drums, coffins, bricks, chickens, beans, oils, scales, bottles, etc.). The streets don't really sell what they're named after any more, but certain items are concentrated in certain areas. The streets are not particularly wide, and there seems to be just as much traffic here as in Ho Chi Minh City. To make matters worse, everyone parks their motorbikes on the sidewalk, which only leaves a path about two feet wide for pedestrians. However, that area is usually taken up by vendors, or shopkeepers just hanging out, or people eating, so basically it’s impossible to walk on the sidewalk and you have to walk on the street.
If you can put up with the traffic, you will quickly realize that the district is very interesting to explore. You can browse and purchase just about anything you desire from souvenirs to dried noodles, but make sure to bargain politely. Since there is always a high concentration of tourists, some locals can demand exorbitant prices with an almost otherworldly persistence. However, we did meet a few genuinely helpful and nice storekeepers who were quite friendly. Also, the price-gouging is kind of "part" of the Vietnam experience, so don’t get too ill-humored about it if you can help it.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology has excellent displays of the many ethnic minorities (a.k.a. hill tribes) that live in the country, including dioramas, displays of various textiles and artifacts, videos, and an outdoor collection of reconstructed houses in various styles. The houses are immense and very impressive – don’t skip them! The museum is very well done and a must-see, especially if you don't make it to the northern mountain regions during a trip to Vietnam. Even if you do decide to do some treks in Sapa, you should stop by this museum first to acquire a base of knowledge about the various groups you will encounter, which will vastly enrich your experience. The museum was created with the help of the French and is in our opinion one of the best museums in all of Southeast Asia in terms of design, display and content.
You should take a taxi to the museum, which is about 20 minutes from the Old Quarter. The entrance fee is 10,000 dong.
Temple of Literature
This complex was built many centuries ago to honor scholars and philosophers. It was also the site of Vietnam's first university. The collection of buildings and courtyards is a peaceful retreat from the streets of Hanoi and is worth a visit for the traditional Vietnamese architecture and peaceful ambience. We liked the rows of stelae balanced atop stone tortoises, tall golden cranes, and statue of Confucius at the back. An old wrinkled and bearded gentleman, reading the morning newspaper in traditional clothing and looking exceedingly scholarly, completed the picture. Entrance fee is 20,000 dong.
Afterwards, cross the street and do a little shopping at nearby Craft Link. The prices may be a bit higher than the typical stall, but the quality is high, and the proceeds support the artisan community.
Water Puppet Show -- Not Just for Kids
We thought the water puppets sounded childish, but since everyone recommended the show, we gave in and bought tickets at the municipal theater across the street from Hoan Kiem Lake (just south of the Old Quarter). We were very pleasantly surprised by the delightful collection of local folktales performed by wooden puppets that seem to "float" on water. The puppeteers are quite skilled at making the puppets seem life like and full of personality, and the band that accompanies the puppets was first rate. The skits are short and amusing -- the perfect antidote to any possible boredom. And of course you have never seen a puppet show where the characters, including dragons, fairies, fishermen, and farmers, glide over water like angels. 40,000 dong gets you good seats and a cassette of music.
We liked the show so much that we even bought a pair of water puppets in the Old Quarter the next day to take home with us.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex
Uncle Ho's embalmed body is usually on display for all who want to see him here. However, not for us, as he was in Russia for his annual maintenance. Oh well. Other sites in the complex included the One Pillar Pagoda and Uncle Ho's Stilt House. The One Pillar Pagoda was much smaller than we expected it to be, so a bit of a disappointment. The stilt house was interesting, but we had to file by in a line as if we were waiting for a ride at Disneyland. The complex was very crowded, and a number of the venues were closed, much to our chagrin. Overall, the whole complex was a something of a let down, especially since we didn’t even get to see the main attraction (morbid as that may sound). Nonetheless, we feel the complex deserves a visit, particularly because Uncle Ho played such a pivotal role in shaping the country.
Written by Ishtar on 05 May, 2005
Romance is a very subjective issue at times, particularly when it comes to trains. I have always loved traveling on the rails, perhaps ever since I was introduced to Tokyo’s bullet trains some years ago. Foreseeing this journey, we had booked our tickets for the…Read More
Romance is a very subjective issue at times, particularly when it comes to trains. I have always loved traveling on the rails, perhaps ever since I was introduced to Tokyo’s bullet trains some years ago. Foreseeing this journey, we had booked our tickets for the Ha Noi/Saigon return by train with a couple of stops in between through VietnamStay.Com who had the wisdom to advise to fly north and train it south; they also disabused me of my folly that I’d be able to do Sapa and Da Lat in addition to planned stops in Hue and Nha Trang. It’s good to dream, isn’t it?
The rail system was built by the French and spans some 1100 miles north to south; parts of it were destroyed during the hostilities, and a week prior to our arrival, we had heard of a derailment. I don’t think dynamite could have stopped us. The station (Ga , borrowed from the French gare) in Hanoi is crowded since almost everyone heading south over some distance uses the train. You will want to take the Reunification Express "E", first class tickets, and try to book the lower berths, though they cost slightly more than the upper. Expect to pay five times more than the locals for the tickets you purchase. If you are doing Hanoi/Saigon all the way, it will take you about 40 hours. Do Not lose your ticket after you board: you will need it as they come around to collect them, and give you some plastic card which makes you legit until you get off, at which point, the ticket is returned to you. Since we had more luggage than a circus troupe, we had help from a number of people who wait just for these kinds of situations. Our cabin always seemed to be in the 10th car, and numbered 27 or 28. Have a look at the photo so you can assess the arrangement. If you like complete privacy, then purchase the upper berths as well as the lower, but we wanted to get "real", so our co-travelers included an American hippie mother and her son, a newly married couple from Australia, and two business men from Taiwan. The stories are unique and inimitable.
Depending upon the time of your departure, you will be allotted two bottles of water, lunch and/or dinner, clean bedding, including a sheet, pillow, and blanket (neatly folded on the berth). If you’re tired enough, as I was, you’ll sleep. If not, bring reading material, or a camera, and get busy. It’s not a smooth ride, but the glimpses caught from the wide window more than make up for any inconvenience. You will traverse immense fields of rice, and appreciate the enormous labor that goes into working the land for this crop. Corn will also pop up, as will farmers, oxen, chickens, hovels, colorful grave sites, and the ubiquitous conical hat. Early morning will greet you with piped in Vietnamese music, which really made me feel out worldly. A cart eventually comes around and serves coffee, corn nuts, chips; skip everything but the coffee and wait for the next cart which will have sweet bread with "built-in" jelly, pho, and cookies, which I found more suitable for the morning hour.
Now what about the rest of the train, the bathrooms, the "dining car", second-class and miscellaneous items such as bringing your own toilet paper? We had the luck of the Irish every time, since there was a Western toilet right next to our cabin; make sure you have toothbrush, toothpaste (there is ample soap, so pass on that), wet towelettes, and either toilet paper or tissues, because chances are, there will be none in the toilet. The washbasins are in a separate compartment, and actually, there are two sinks, side to side, to allow for more than one person to go through the ritual. Squat-style toilets are more prevalent in the train, and though we didn’t use them, we took pictures of them. If you are sensitive to odors, bring Lysol or some such thing. As these are air-conditioned cars, the train staff was not thrilled to see us opening the windows in the hallway; however, Mr. Photographer, Chuck, was shooting like mad at 40 miles per hour, and I must tell you, he caught some breathtaking countryside. As I cannot do it justice here, please go to link . Scroll down the page and hit the Vietnam word. Please also note that all the pictures are subject to copyright laws.
I found it relaxing to stick my head out the window and drink in the scenery; I was still at the stage where I was occasionally pinching myself.
First class is quite a distance from the dining car, and if you don’t mind walking through the corridors and the car connectors, opening and closing doors, and having the entire Vietnamese population staring at you, then do what we did. Go for a walk. Businessmen usually occupy the first-class car, or well-to-do families (such as the one we met in Hue, but that’s another journal). Second-class cars usually emit that unmistakable ngoc mam, which takes the credit for the marvelous taste it imparts to most dishes. However, when in concentrated form, a whiff of it might make you wish you could stop breathing. In second class, the berths are not as padded as the ones in first class, and open doors will let you glimpse entire families occupying a cabin, feasting on a meal, slumped on each other, trying to sleep, or reading. There were also three cars that had reclining armchair seats with ample legroom, for those who either must economize or are doing a shorter distance. Finally, the dining car, which is what I called the true "Orient Express". Despite posted signs requesting "no smoking", some folks just can’t seem to exist without a cigarette dangling from their lips. Here, people come for coffee (heavenly with condensed milk), pho, bun cha, and an assortment of pre-packaged snacks. This is also the area where they store your journey’s lunches and dinners. The seats are wooden, as are the tables; and for lack of space, we sat side-by-side sipping our coffees. Another word of advice: don’t attempt to walk back with your food or drinks; the movement of the train is such that you may arrive with nothing at the bottom of your cup.
We were getting off at Hue, and this is where one appreciate the advice of traveling lightly: they don’t give you a heck of a lot of time to get off! Forget anything you know about orderliness; there are travelers waiting to get on, and they will barrel right past you to get seated. I almost did not make it off the train, as I couldn’t get to the exit. Thankfully, one of the staff spotted me and dragged my luggage and me in the opposite direction.
Don’t expect trains to be on time. If they do announce a delay, such an announcement may not be repeated, even though there could have been a revision in the original time. If you don’t have the luxury of time, as in number of days, the train ride may not be for you. However, it afforded us an intimate look at the daily life of Vietnamese outside of the major cities, and after all, isn’t that what we all want to capture?
Written by Ishtar on 22 Apr, 2005
Is it with puzzlement or a bit of envy that we look at ex-pats? Actually, there isn’t much difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant, except that oftentimes, an immigrant arrives to a designated country by design rather than by choice. In our travels over…Read More
Is it with puzzlement or a bit of envy that we look at ex-pats? Actually, there isn’t much difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant, except that oftentimes, an immigrant arrives to a designated country by design rather than by choice. In our travels over the last few years, I had met them from all corners of the globe: they had intended to just come on vacation, or had been assigned a short tour of duty or some such thing. Here in Hanoi, and subsequently in Ha Long, I had the pleasure of interviewing two gentlemen, on separate occasions, both of West European origin, who willfully settled in Vietnam. In an attempt to draft you with the magic of Vietnam, I am transcribing the two dialogues below.
My first queries were directed at Kurt Walter, General Manager of both the Hanoi Press Club and Emeraude Cruises, during a most pleasant lunch we shared at the Restaurant on the premises of the Press Club. He is a fairly young, handsome and dynamic chap who is married, for the second time, to a native Vietnamese.
I: How long have you been here?
KW: It’s about eleven years now; this is the right time to be in Vietnam. I don’t want to hop around anymore.
I: Why the right time now?
KW: Tourism is expected to double in the next two years; this is home to me now. Hanoi is the "real" Vietnam", whereas Saigon has been too westernized, first by the French, then by the Americans.
I: So you prefer Hanoi
KW: It’s very crowded as you have seen; also, now people are buying more cars. It costs about US$8,000 to purchase a small Daewoo.
I: What did you do before joining the Press Club?
KW: I was Food & Beverage Manager from 1994 to 1996 at the Saigon Floating Hotel
(Ed note: Saigon Floating Hotel was a barge that had been towed all the way from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the banks of the muddy Saigon River)
I: We were frankly a bit concerned at first about coming to Vietnam, with a bit of a scare regarding the avian flu epidemic.
KW: The US blows everything out of proportion….(pause)
I: How do you recruit non-managerial staff at the Press Club and Emeraude?
KW: We are involved with an organization called KOTO , which essentially helps underprivileged kids so that they may be intergrated into meaningful jobs in luxury hotels, for instance.
I: Who comes here for lunch? Or dinner?
KW: Everyone can come here anytime; we are now having a special springtime in Paris at the Restaurant right here; downstairs is mostly deli food. Our Chef was at the Hilton for sixteen years. He and I collaborated on a book called "The Food of Vietnam", providing financing and the photography.
KW: Last year, the Press Club won the prize for "Best International Restaurant" in Hanoi. We appeared in the Vietnam Investment Review. We have offices which are available for rent for businesses; we hold banquets, do catering, have party events.
I: Who owns the Press Club?
KW: Two French brothers own the Club; it was also designed by a French woman, and I don’t remember her name at the moment. In 1910, the original steamer that cruised Ha Long Bay was built by the French. We are inviting people to publicize our activities.
I: Did you attend the recent New York Times Travel Show in early March?
KW: No, I was not aware of this show. Please do send me the information about it.
I: How has the "doi moi" policy changed Vietnam in your opinion?
KW: Well, first of all, there are many more landowners than are reported; capitalists are everywhere, but they still represent a small percentage of the populace. But more people are coming to Viet Nam than ever before.
I: Tell me what sorts of people take the "Emeraude Cruise"?
KW: Predominantly French people; middle-aged and retired. And Australians. We go out no matter how many people are booked for the cruise, except when we prepare the boat for dry dock. We have 39 cabins and can accommodate 78 people.
I: Do you think people are discouraged because of the visa restrictions coming into Vietnam?
KW: Well, I don’t find it very easy, nor are U.S. customs very friendly to me when I come to the U.S. At least here, they are friendly. It has become such a hassle to come to the States.
The next day, aboard the Emeraude, I met Captain Dominique Malet. He was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of his time before we left the shore. To facilitate dialogue, I spoke to Dominique in French
I: How long have you been here?
DM: 30 days; I got the job through the Internet.
DM: I’d like to introduce you to the real captain of this ship, Captain Tuan Long. ( TL and I shake hands; I learn that in order to obtain official registry for the ship, you must have a native captain on board.)
I: What is the greatest depth at Ha Long Bay?
DM: About 30 meters.
I: The music is so 1920’s, isn’t it?
DM: It’s done on purpose.
I: Is your family here with you?
DM: no, they are still in Lyon, but they’ll be joining me soon.
(We continued this the next day, as it was time to depart.)
I: Dominique, this cruise is too short
DM: they are planning to have yet another cruise that will do Hanoi, Nah Trang and Ho Chi Minh City.
I: I can’t wait that long, Dominique, seriously.
DM: No, no, no, this could happen as early as 2006, but it will require a different type of vessel, of course.
I: Of course.
I: Do you miss Lyon?
DM: Oh, no! This is a dream--imagine, at my age, being able to do this! Great weather, great food, great job. Oh, no!
Folks, mark your calendars!
The Emeraude is a product of one man’s quest into history who was so intrigued and fascinated by the beauty of the boats he had seen in Hai Phong harbor that he embarked on a two-year search which took him to the French Maritime Museum,…Read More
The Emeraude is a product of one man’s quest into history who was so intrigued and fascinated by the beauty of the boats he had seen in Hai Phong harbor that he embarked on a two-year search which took him to the French Maritime Museum, where he was able to locate the family that had built the original vessels. This man is Eric Merlin, and indeed, his vision has enabled the replication of the original "Emeraude", which, along with its sister ships, Perle, Saphir, and Rubis, transported passengers through the enchanting waterways of Ha Long Bay.
Without getting too historical, let’s recall that the early part of the 20th century saw the entirety of Vietnam under French Colonial Control. Long before, a Bordeaux family by the name of Roque left the Old World in search of fame and fortune and found it in Indochina. The Roques were the engineers of the charming steamers, which so captivated the mind of Eric Merlin.
Painstaking measures have been taken to recreate the authenticity of the original vessel; French architects were commissioned to fashion the boat based on original photographs housed in the Paris Maritime Museum. Two million dollars later, it is safe to say that the Emeraude reigns alone as the largest steel craft in Ha Long Bay, fitted with current safety measures and evoking an historic and romantic past. Its maiden voyage was in December of 2003, and it has sailed daily since that time.
Cruising the breathtaking Ha Long Bay aboard the Emeraude is unlike any other experience, as mood, furnishings, architecture converge to recall the grandiose era of one of France’s most prized colonies. The serenity and limpid waters of the bay clasp 1969 limestone monoliths, half of which have been named by the Viet Namese according to their likenesses. Their majesty tend to take one’s breath away, whether espied from the Sun Deck, which is the uppermost on the ship, or your cabin’s porthole. Nature splendor is offered in an almost equally luxurious floating habitat, and what better way to experience the Bay of the Descending Dragons?
You may select the only suite on board, or any one of 38 deluxe cabins: within each are en suite private bath with shower; individual temperature control system, separate sink area with hot running water opposite which you can find your closet and shelving areas for your wardrobe. The beds are made with crisp white linens and sport reading lights (as if you’ll have time to read!); blankets are provided together with plush towels and toiletries. Cabin walls are covered in grass cloth and adorned with photographs of the times. Soft music, evoking the 1920’s era, can be heard throughout the ship. A small souvenir shop of local arts and crafts, as well as honorary "Emeraude" sweatshirts and caps, can be found on the main deck.
There are other enticing amenities which make this the cruise of choice: a 6 am Tai Chi class on deck, which will not only relax you and ready you for the day ahead, but also avail you of the most captivating sunrise of your earthly life. Onboard massages which can be delivered to your room, and believe you me, you will slip into something between bliss and a comatose state after you’ve succumbed to the hands of the seemingly guiltless masseuse. If you spared yourself the massage, join the others in a joyful kayak romp as the Emeraude drops anchor for a while. Can’t boil water? Heck, you can learn how to make tomato roses, among other delicacies, if you avail yourself of the afternoon cooking class. Everyone’s invited, including children.
Best of all the extracurriculars is the visit to the Sung Sot Grotto, which the French dubbed "Grotte des Merveilles". The name describes the reactions of visitors as they enter the 3 chambers of the grotto, which was discovered in 1911.
Last but not least, is the food. Chef Lien, originally Chinese, has an impressive resume of prestigious Hanoi based restaurants and hotels. He brings that expertise to the Emeraude, in constant cooperation with the Press Club, which assists in training and delivery of foods. On your cruise, you will enjoy three delectable meals: lunch and dinner on the first day, and a European breakfast on the next day. An entire journal can be devoted to the flavors and aromas of these meals.
Thus your itinerary on the classic cruise looks something like this:
DAY 1 HA LONG ARRIVAL - OVERNIGHT CRUISE (LUNCH/ DINNER)
12pm: Arrive at Emeraude Pier, Bai Chay – Ha Long City.
12-1pm: Welcome cocktail and check in on the Sundeck, presentation of the trip.
1-6pm: The Emeraude cruises through Ha Long Bay towards Bai Tu Long Bay, Tip Top Island and other scenic locations including Yen Ngua, Con Coc Mountains and a floating fishing village.
1-3pm: A Vietnamese lunch based on fresh seafood is served between 1pm and 2:30pm in the Emeraude restaurant
3-4pm: Optional excursion to Sung Sot Grotto (Grotto of Surprises) , weather and tide permitting. We provide French and/or English speaking guides to escort you. For those wishing to spend a relaxing afternoon, surrounded by this unique landscape, the Sundeck and its bar is the perfect location. Afternoon tea with pastries on the sundeck or in the restaurant and an aperitif before dinner for pre-booked of minimum group of 15 people.
4-5pm: The Emeraude cruises to the Trinh Nu (Drum Cave) & Hang Trong (Virgin Cave) grottoes, where we anchor for the night
5-7pm: As soon as the cruise anchors down, swimming is possible from the back of the boat. Rental kayak is available and allows you to visit both grottoes.
7-9pm: Vietnamese dinner is served in the Restaurant. After dinner, the Sundeck is waiting for those looking for an unforgettable, romantic evening.
Accommodation and overnight on board.
DAY 2 HA LONG SUNRISE CRUISE - DEPARTURE (BREAKFAST)
6:30am: Tai Chi Class on the Sundeck
7am: The Emeraude sets sail once again, heading toward Tuan Chau Island, passing the islands of Dinh Huong, Ga Choi, Dau Nguoi , through the breathtaking scenery of the bay leading for Halong City
7-8:30am: European breakfast is served at the Restaurant
To see more photos of the Emeraude, please click on this link
We had been in Vietnam for close to 2 weeks now, and each day brought exhilaration and discovery beyond what we could visualize. As every trip has its high points, I had studied Ha Long Bay prior to arriving here, together with some of our…Read More
We had been in Vietnam for close to 2 weeks now, and each day brought exhilaration and discovery beyond what we could visualize. As every trip has its high points, I had studied Ha Long Bay prior to arriving here, together with some of our other anticipated stops. If Vietnam were a woman, then Ha Long would be its little black dress. For all who are contemplating this magnificent country as your next destination, do not forego one of UNESCO’s most glorious World Heritage Sites.
However, covering the 180km from Hanoi to the bay is an adventure in itself. We had a driver from the Press Club come to pick us up at our hotel at around 8:30am. Since this cruise includes a night onboard, you should be prepared to have a change of clothing, toiletries, etc., whatever it is you need to carry you through till the next morning. If you arrange for the cruise through an agency prior to arriving here, which is recommended, they will similarly organize your transportation from Hanoi to Ha Long. As suggested earlier, do look up VietnamStay.Com , as they do promote the Emeraude Cruise and have a host of affiliations with various hotels and resorts throughout the country.
The van was fairly comfortable, though the best seats had been entirely appropriated by two women who were also going on the cruise. One of them was the creator of the Bonjour Paris! website, and the other was a photographer who was still using her trusted 35 mm camera. The day was London foggy, and it was difficult to see the famed limestone formations. Despite weather conditions, 18 people were expected to participate in the cruise. We had learned from Kurt Walter, general manager for Emeraude Cruises, that the ship has 39 cabins and can hold upward of 78 people, which is greater than any of the other vessels that ply the same waters and offer an overnighter.
We were getting away from Hanoi’s maddening traffic and onto a highway, but it is impossible to escape the kamikaze cyclo drivers and motorbikes. It’s a national hazard, this whole bike and traffic thing, as no one really obeys any law and rarely are there traffic lights. It is horrifying at first, but it does become routine after awhile, and you’ll start walking right into traffic like everyone else. That particular day, we witnessed two motorbike accidents; they occur daily.
I was riveted to the window, trying to capture with my mind’s eye the great dichotomy between brand-new, exquisitely colored, mahogany-door/window housing with dilapidated, haphazardly assembled shacks sharing the same sidewalk. This type of seesaw landscape is very common in both Hanoi and Saigon. It is also not unusual to see very elaborate gravesites, either in groups or stand alones, at very frequent intervals. Most families who live in rural areas are extended families and can span all of nine generations. The colorful tombstones they build for their deceased are an integral part of their life and tradition; since these are costly by relative standards, after a period of 3 years, the bodies are exhumed, the bones are washed, and they are re-interred into a smaller space so that the larger plot can be re-used and so on.
Ninety minutes had passed, and I suddenly noticed something different about our driver: he never honked his horn. For the last 2 weeks, every cab driver we have had seemed to be drawn to his horn beyond his own will; the constant honking can drive you mad at times, as it is totally unnecessary. Especially if you are occupying a lane that rightfully belongs to the other side of the road!!
We stopped at Dong Trieu Pottery Village to stretch our limbs, and I’d say you can look, but don’t purchase. The prices are determined in US dollars, the first indication of a tourist trap; the second is that you’ll find other tourist buses stopped here as well. At this point in our journey, I had seen too much pottery, lacquer ware, and embroidered art and knew my price ranges. Everything here was either triple or quadruple the prices we had seen in other places. If you are really set on pottery, the best place to go is the Bah Trang Village, which is about 25 minutes out of Hanoi and totally amazing.
We all took different directions, and I went to examine rows and rows of unfinished pottery; it was actually much more handsome than the finished pieces, as I could imagine how I would paint it or adhere papers to it and give it a personal touch. Most of the action was happening inside a huge showroom, and toward the rear section were young people, whom we were told were handicapped, working hard at the art of embroidery. This amazing art has been a Vietnamese specialty for ages, and I will tell you exactly where you need to go to get the most breathtaking pieces. We happened to stumble on the very center that produces it in Nah Trang. More on that later.
It is interesting to note that less haggling takes place in the north than in the south of Vietnam. It’s an interesting dynamic that has a lot to do with socio-economic conditions and cultural background.
We climb back into our van and pass through several villages before emerging into the city of Ha Long. I feel a chill inside as I peer at the limestone formations jutting out of the land; I had seen the photographs countless times, but was now driving on a road flanked by those incredible land formations, every one of which had a different shape and size. Some looked forbidding, while others gently sloped into the land and softened their appearance through rounded peaks. Banana trees shot out in clusters and would then disappear.
A phenomenal amount of construction is in progress around the bay; it is obvious that investors are banking on this area becoming a major draw for the tourists pouring into the country. Hotels and resorts are being built, and if I had to run a bed-and-breakfast, I’d love to do it here. Ha Long does boast a few four-star hotels, among them the Heritage Ha Long, the Bach Dang Hotel, the Plaza (no relation to the New York Hotel), and the Vuon Dao Hotel, which sits right on the shore. For alternative lodgings, please check this chart.
From the water, the coastline could easily be mistaken for the French Cote d’Azur, with pastel-colored buildings, a kind of cornice by the waterfront, and souvenir shops alternating with photo-developing services. Kodak makes its mark here in Vietnam. I was really astonished to spot what looked like a group of the "bateaux-mouches," which are so popular on the Seine in Paris, anchored at bay when we arrived. Have a look at the photo below and see what I mean.
Making it to the pier from the van has its trying moments; prepared to be assailed by street hawkers with a zillion postcards, necklaces, T-shirts, embroidered napkins, and whatnots. I must look like easy prey, as I am always the one in the group that is surrounded by them, and no matter how many times you say, "no thank you," it’s always, "Madame, postcards, really cheap, one dollar" and an "okay, how much you pay"-type deal. We are held all in a small area, where they take a head count for the cruise and match folks to their luggage and their cabin number. From there, there is a long pier to be negotiated, at which end is a launch that will transport us all to the Emeraude, which we can see from shore. The day is yet full of promise.
Written by bettybetty10 on 17 Jul, 2008
We got this walking map from the hostel around the corner from our hotel. It was great, and it had a top 10 things to do in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. One of them was to visit the famed "Fruit Shake Street". After an early dinner…Read More
We got this walking map from the hostel around the corner from our hotel. It was great, and it had a top 10 things to do in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. One of them was to visit the famed "Fruit Shake Street". After an early dinner one night, we thought a fruit shake would be a great dessert, so we walked over to the Old Quarter. We turned onto this short street, and we just saw tons of locals (teens, families, young professionals, older people) sitting on short and small plastic stools on the street, madly scooping up fruit/ice out of glasses, and drinking fruit shakes! The women serving were working like crazy, cutting fruit, pouring condensed milk, working the blenders. One woman called us over and wiped off two stools for us. We sat down, and just pointed to the glasses of fruit that were on the counter (we didn’t know that Vietnamese word for "fruit shake, or any fruit for that matter). We assumed that they would pour all the fruit into a blender and make it into a shake, but in fact, they just gave us the glasses, served with a long spoon and a bowl of shaved ice. After watching some of the locals, we spooned the shaved ice into our glasses of fruit and mixed it up with the condensed milk at the bottom. The fruit was a diverse mix, including pieces of avocado, apple, dragon fruit and more. It was good, but probably not the best fruit experience I’d ever had. But it was amusing, and fun, and there was a rush (and slightly terrifying), sitting next to the zooming motorbike traffic. It was also great for people watching!Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the street, but if you pick up a certain map, you’ll see it. Close
Written by Hun Ohm on 27 Mar, 2005
Hanoi Side Trips
By Hun Ohm
There are a number of worthwhile side trips that can be made using Hanoi as your base. We opted to use Handspan Adventure Travel to help arrange our overnight journeys, and we were not disappointed. Here’s a brief recap…Read More
Hanoi Side Trips
By Hun Ohm
There are a number of worthwhile side trips that can be made using Hanoi as your base. We opted to use Handspan Adventure Travel to help arrange our overnight journeys, and we were not disappointed. Here’s a brief recap of a few of our experiences:
Halong Bay is on nearly everyone’s list and is definitely a must-see in the north. From what we heard and read, it’s really not worth it to do Halong Bay "on your own." Arranged tours can take you there for roughly the same amount of money, and you will not have to contend with the hassle of getting to the bay from Hanoi or negotiating a ride on a boat to check out the limestone formations.
Heeding this advice, we visited Halong Bay on a three-day trip using Handspan Travel Agency (highly recommended, see separate Handspan review). Handspan seems to have the best boat (the Dragon’s Pearl) available for their Halong Bay tours, and it is well worth paying a little extra money (compared to other travel agencies) for such facilities. Our room was nicer than many of the hotel rooms we stayed in in Vietnam and was tastefully decorated. The dining room was well appointed and the food was equally good. The sun deck at the top was perfect for reclining and watching the scenery go by.
The main attraction of Halong Bay are numerous tiny to medium-sized limestone karsts/islands that rise dramatically from the water. They are partly covered by little trees and shrubs, and partly exposed limestone. The formations are so numerous that when you look at bay, you see many "layers" of islands, which fade as they recede in the distance. Also, there seems to be a fine haze most of the time, which adds to the sfumato effects.
The first day, we stopped cruising long enough to visit a large cave "grotto" inside one of the islands, which, while a bit gaudy in terms of lighting, was much bigger and more impressive than we expected it to be. After the cave, we cruised a bit more on the boat and were treated with a view of the setting sun that was peeking out from behind just enough cloud cover to allow you to gaze directly at it with minimal squint. The evening was capped off with a little swim just at sunset.
The next morning, we transferred to a small boat which took us to Cat Ba Island, the largest, which is surprisingly rather developed, with lots of little hotels and many fisherpeople (mostly they catch squid). We did a very good 2-3 hour hike which included refreshments at a local person's house, complete with photo of Ho Chi Minh over the alter, a couple of jars of snake wine, and a poster of Michael Jackson from his Bad days. The hike went over some harvested rice paddy fields, empty peanut fields, and some forested hills. At the end we had lunch at our local guide's house, which was quite delicious with the best spring rolls that we had in anywhere in Vietnam. We spent the rest of the afternoon at an adequate, if unspectacular, local beach.
The morning of our third day we boarded a boat (smaller than the Dragon’s Pearl) for the ride back to Halong City for lunch. Unfortunately it was a bit cool and foggy so the views weren't as good as the first day, but the beauty of the bay still astounded.
Overall cost: approximately $72 per person
Shorter excursions are available.
Cuc Phuong National Park
We also made a short overnight trip to Cuc Phuong National Park to visit the endangered primate center and have a short hike into the rainforest (a rather tame hike on a paved path, which we weren't expecting!). There are many international biologists at the center who are studying the primates and they have many different species that you can see. Some have been injured and are recuperating, and some have been bred there. It is very educational to see all the different types, not to mention quite fun to see them swinging like, well, primates, from branch to branch.
We stayed in rooms available on the national park premises. They are large huts with private bathroom and two large beds – perfectly functional, but nothing more. We ate dinner at the park restaurant. You might consider skipping Cuc Phuong unless you can do a more extended hike into the forest. But try not to go by yourself or leave the trails, as it would be very easy to get lost. At the time we were there, the officials were looking for a foreign couple who had abandoned their moped in the forest and were nowhere to be found! The next day, we headed to Kehn Ga.
Kehn Ga -- "the other Halong Bay on the rice paddies"
Most tourists go to Tam Coc to see the "Halong Bay on the rice paddies," but we had been told that that area is completely overrun with tourists and the enterprising vendors that are sure to accompany them. Thus, we opted for a leisurely boat ride on a river at Kehn Ga, which is a different part of the same region. The scenery was amazing, and we were the only travelers there for most of the morning.
The river snakes through limestone formations that soar out of the landscape in sometimes breathtaking fashion. Along the riverside, you can see people going about their daily life. Sadly, much of the business in the area is actually involved in destroying the limestone formations to use the stone industrially. Thus, you can see many rock formations half chipped away, their bottoms clouded in the dust that is raised by all the jackhammering. We also saw women gathering the riverweed for a delicious meal, kids dancing and playing, and a few graves built atop small formations in the water. Afterwards, we visited the old capital of Hoa Lu where there are a few well-preserved temples from the period just before the capital was moved to Hue. Along the way, our van was delayed for a few minutes as we waited for some workers to set off some dynamite charges, presumably as part of their ongoing quarrying efforts. It's difficult to predict what effect the continuing development of Vietnam will have on its natural beauty resources, but we are crossing our fingers that the country will be able to find an appropriate balance.
As noted above, we did the trip as part of a two-day excursion from Hanoi that included the first day at Cuc Phuong National Park. Although the Cuc Phuong portion was of minor interest, it enabled us to arrive at Kehn Ga early in the morning when boat traffic was very light.
Overall cost: approximately $88 per person Close
Things To Do in Hanoi – A Short List, Part Two
By Hun Ohm
Look, we know. Any short list with a "part two" is kind of a contradiction, right? But so it is with the options in Hanoi. Here’s the rest of the…Read More
Things To Do in Hanoi – A Short List, Part Two
By Hun Ohm
Look, we know. Any short list with a "part two" is kind of a contradiction, right? But so it is with the options in Hanoi. Here’s the rest of the best:
Ipa-Nima Shop (2 locations -- 59G Pho Hai Ba Trung & 17 Nha Tho)
This store was created by Christina Yu, who gave up life as a lawyer in Hong Kong to live in Hanoi as a fashion designer. Her bags are sold in the U.S. and Europe for hundreds of dollars and are often featured in Vogue, In Style, and many other fashion magazines. They are fun, funky, sparkly, leathery, fringed, feathered, quilted, and much more. You can get her locally made bags here for a fraction of the price overseas and 100% of the quality. If you love bags and fashion, you must stop here for a browse (and possible purchase).
Man Eats Dog
One of our guides in Halong Bay gave us some details on the ins and outs of the dog meat industry. Apparently, 6-month-old dogs are the cut of choice, though even old curs can have their day on the table (she advised us not to worry about the tough chew, as green papaya can solve anything!) Among her many theories, she had one as to why there are not too many stray dogs on the streets of Hanoi (unlike Thailand) -- consumer demand. She may be right; we only saw well-kept pets in town. She also let us in on her big business idea: have the strays from Thailand shipped over to Vietnam where there is a constant market for fresh meat in the second half of each lunar month. We're not sure how the Thais would feel about this joint venture.
After strolling through the local market in the Old Quarter several times, we came across a small stand that sold freshly roasted puppy dog. We wouldn't have known this except for the fact that they had the severed heads placed on display as well, with the snout skin pulled back so that we could see the fangs. A bit disturbing, though at the time we had still been considering at least checking out dog meat alley (a.k.a. Pho Nghi Tam, which is 10km north of central Hanoi), a street with 60-some-odd dog meat restaurants. We never did make it to that street so can’t vouch for it, but if you have any interest, it’s there. As they say, when in Hanoi...
Walk down Hang Manh/Pluck a Dan Bau
If you have the time and a soft spot for street wandering, make your way to a street named Hang Manh (a few streets west of the northern tip of Hoan Kiem Lake). Down the road, you will come across various antique shops -- good for browsing, not so good for the pocketbook. Keep going, and you will hit a few music shops that house both traditional and Western instruments. We particularly liked the Vietnam Musical Instruments Shop (16A Hang Manh), which displayed some interesting pieces. Indeed, we purchased a wonderful dan bau (a traditional monochord which can produce, among other things, tones that echo Ry Cooder’s "Paris, Texas" soundtrack). The total cost (including shipping) was approximately $90, and it arrived in the States intact. The manager was friendly and happy to let you test out the store’s wares.
Stroll the Shore
Hoan Kiem Lake is a little lake just south of the Old Quarter with a nice big path running along side it. Consider taking a leisurely walk around (30-45 minutes depending on your pace) to recover some serenity within the cityscape. In the early mornings, locals exercise around the shore; you might join them. However, if you’re not up to the early start, check the lake out later in the day. Start in the late afternoon, heading south down the western shore. Slow and easy should be the pace. If you need refreshment, bravely cross the street to sample some decent ice cream at Fanny Ice Cream (48 Pho Le Thai To). Continue going around the southern tip of the lake and turn back north. Try to snag one of the benches on the eastern shore to watch the sun begin to set over the water. Feel the heat leave the air. See Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower) in the middle of the lake? Good. Now say farewell to Hanoi. Close