Sunday, February 20, 2011

2011 February: Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City Walking Tour

Travel Date: February 18, 2011 Destination: Ho Chi Minh City I’m on my walking tour around the city. Started at the Independence Plaza just behind the Blue Diamond Hotel. The entrance is 40000vnd and the English booklet is sold at 10000vnd.
Independence Palace (also known as Norodom Palace, Norodom Palace) 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
At around 9.40am, the English guided tour started. Since there is a conference being held at Ground floor, we were not able to see it. We continued to roam around at the 2nd and 3rd floors (reception areas of the President, Vice President and First Wife). Then we checked also the 1st and 2nd basement – were mostly used during the war related activities. After passing the park and Pasteur Road, I reached the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Take note that the church closes at 11am and opens again at 3pm. Just across it is the Saigon Central Post Office. Here you could buy the post cards and other local products. There are many restaurants near the area as well. I walked further to see Rex Hotel, then visited again Saigon Center and had a quick stop at Ben Than Market. I stayed at the hotel until 6pm, and went straight to the airport. I’m now at the boarding gate, waiting for my flight. Food at the airport is expensive, the bun or sandwich costs 3usd-8usd, water inside the boarding gate costs 2usd. I decided to buy the water on my flight back to Manila for only 50php.
I don’t want to say it, but would consider Piolo as the highlight of my trip, hehe!. Thank you to my family who again allowed me to do this adventure alone. Thank you to my tour guides Dinh (Halong) and Minh (Cu Chi). To the hotel employees and cab drivers thank you for keeping me safe and for being very accommodating.

2011 February: Vietnam: Cu Chi Tunnels

Travel Date: February 17, 2011 Destination: Cu Chi Tunnels I thought it was already a good deal, but “my guided tour did not reach my expectation” – this was my initial comment. An old man looked for my name at the hotel reception. We walked about less than 5 minutes to get in to the bus service on the next street. It took us an hour to reach our first stop – it was a factory of wall decorations (with not so clean toilet) – is this what they call “for refreshments”? At 11.45am, we arrived at Cao Dai temple. The guide let us walk for less than 10 minutes since their bus need to park at the parking area. He did not lead us inside the temple. Tourists should remove their slippers/shoes before going to the temple. We are guided to go on the second floor. After 45 minutes and returning to the bus, some of their co-guides were playing cards inside our service and our guide is not attentive to welcome his tourists. Then, along the way, we were notified that there is no lunch provided for the tour – they took us to this very lousy restaurant. I think they could offer more than that. By 2.30pm we finally reached Cu Chi Tunnels. Here, he guided us along the way. He explained all the human traps and how Vietnamese live and try to survived during the war.

I will already tag my day as an average tour not until I saw this very famous and familiar face in front of me. I’ll not convince you to believe me nor I’ll post photos for any evidence, but I saw Piolo at Cu Chi Tunnels that afternoon.

Vietnam: Dai Nam Park

Travel Date: February 16, 2011 
Destination: Dai Nam Park 
This is my journey to Dai Nam Park. I started to wait at Ben Than Bus Terminal at 8am. Bus 616 arrived at 8.40am (be ready with other people bumping you, old beggars, lottery ticket sellers, motorcycle drivers looking for passengers, the noisy horns from all types of vehicles, and the loud voice from the terminal guide). The fare is 20000vnd (80php) for 1.5 hour bus ride.

Vietnam: Arrival at Ho Chi Minh City: Blue Diamond Hotel

Travel Date: February 15, 2011 
Destination: Hanoi Airport and Ho Chi Minh City 

It started to rain, the forecast said it will drop at 7 degrees Celsius that day. I’m now heading to the airport. I booked my airport transport at 15USD for a travel time of almost 45 minutes. 

It was totally crazy in the airport, most were in their bubble jackets, boots, scarves, hand covers, bonnets and I’m with my ear muffs! It was freaking cold at the airport especially as you pass by the doors. The check-in counter for Jetstar is located at the Arrival area – not so nice location, hard to find and simply causes the tourists to be confused. 

My flight was in an hour delayed. Upon arriving at Ho Chi Minh domestic terminal, it was only after an hour when the bags were made available at the rotating belt. No foreign exchange counter is available at the domestic terminal, but it is easier to find a taxi here. 

I took a metered Mailinh Taxi and paid for 95000vnd going to Blue Diamond Hotel. On my first afternoon at Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), I was looking for a restaurant, I already reached Saigon Center Mall and they only have cafes. 

Finally, I found Pho 2000, I was able to eat rise and pork. 

At the Hotel desk, they asked me if I’ll be leaving my passport to them. I told them, I’ll take it back – they asked permission if they can make photocopy of it as the police might ask about it. (Still wondering about this…) And she made a note, that I should keep it safe in my room and not to bring it when I go out. I booked this hotel from which gives a cheaper deal. 

The assigned room to me is 704, they had rooms until the 9th floor. I’m totally impressed in my room, very clean, well-lighted, with small window (nothing to see outside), small cabinet with air freshener and hangers, slippers, refrigerator, thermos, daily supply of 300ml mineral water and tea sachets, cable television with English channels, double size bed with clean pillows and wireless internet connection. The bathroom is with hair dryer, toiletries, clean towels and bathtub. The breakfast is served at the ground level on 6.30-9.00am. The manager here is very attentive, good selection of food, lots of fruits and good drinks (coffee, tea, soya milk, fresh milk, orange juice and water). There are computer terminals on this area also. 

2011 February: Vietnam: Halong Bay

Travel Date: February 14, 2011 Destination: Halong Bay Valentine’s Day is the same date for my visit to Halong Bay, still cold at 10-12 degrees celsius. I booked this from the same Hotel. The guide picked me up at around 8.30am. It took us 2 hours before we reached our first stop for some refreshments. Aside from simple restaurant and high-priced biscuits and drinks, they also display a lot of local products (vases, bags and other woven items).

Again, another 2 hours before we reached the pier. We were re-grouped and separated from those having one, two and three day Halong Bay Tour.

We passed by the lime stones that formed to a dog, etc. We stopped at the fishing village were we took our lunch from our boats. Some of the locals are offering different fruits from their own version of floating market. Then we visited Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises) – this is so beautiful in the pictures. But realizing what they have done to the cave is so interesting - it looks like man-made, but they claim it to be a natural resource. The stalactites and stalagmites are so dry, there were walk-ways for the tourists and they installed lights in between rocks. Did they cut-off some stones to do the walk-ways?

We reached the pier at 5pm in the afternoon, it was passed 8pm when we arrived at Hanoi proper. Additional Information: For those planning to take take a day tour or over night tour at Halong, kindly read this news article. The accident happened on Wednesday morning (2 days after I went to Halong Bay):

2011 February: Vietnam: Hanoi: Flight, Hotel and the Old Quarter

I got my tickets last year (April 2010) for this February 2011 travel to Vietnam via Cebu Pacific for about 3500php. Since both countries were members of ASEAN, us Filipinos don’t need visa anymore. I don’t know anything as to what happened to Vietnam wars, on how recent it is or on the effects on simple families living there – until I had a quick chat with my friend. I would consider this as one of my hard core Asian trips, still willing to go to Cambodia given a chance. But will not try the farther routes of Laos, Burma or India.

Travel Date: February 13, 2011 
Destination: HCMC Airport and Hanoi Old Quarter 

My flight from Manila left at 23pm, and arrived at HCMC Airport at 1am. There is a time difference on Manila and Vietnam, it is one hour earlier in Vietnam (GMT+7). I’m already expecting to be sleeping at the airport since my next flight going to Hanoi is at 6am. But I never thought that the airports in HCMC shuts down.

From International Terminal, you have to out of the gates, turn left and follow the signs going to Domestic Terminal. All the entrance gates going to the Terminal are closed. No lights, few people outside – so where am I going to sleep here? On the not so clean chairs outside an open area lobby with the mosquitoes biting me? No way! I went back to the International Terminal, hoping that this is open, I thought that the escalator is also not working, but you just have to step on it for it to work. No lights anymore as well, nor air-conditioners, but there are one or two helpers in some of the restaurants at the Business Lobby. Not until I reached the area, were I suppose to be an expensive restaurant, I saw one sleeping on the floor with pillows from the dining chairs, also a family starting to nap as well. Then I decided, that this is the best place to stay for at least 3 hours of light sleep. At 4am, after some refreshments, I headed to the Domestic Terminal again, still closed but more people are waiting outside. For 6am flight, they opened the check-in at 5am, people were like rushing on the lines – luckily I’m the 3rd one who was able to check-in. This is the first time I has experience that upon setting my feet at Tarmac, we have to take short bus trips going to the Airport building. Why? It was freezing cold – 10 degrees! Another thing I noticed, there is no Arrival Card to be filled-up for the Immigration.

At Hanoi Airport, there are lots of people – International and Domestic Terminals are on same building on a smaller area. There are also more than 3 Foreign Exchange counters to choose from.

After doing my errands, I tried to find my Hotel pick-up driver. It was a long 45 minute drive from the airport to the Old Quarter. “What took you so long?”, the concierge asked me, haha! I’m staying at Thaison Hotel II. The manager is kind to offer me free breakfast even if I just arrived at their hotel. The hotel is clean, offers free internet, also has guided tours desk, with service elevator and with rooms until 7th floor. The room is well lighted, cabinet is with 5 hangers, tea cups, water thermos, toiletries (tooth brush, soap, shampoo, sewing kit) are available, soft double bed with 4 pillows, and a massage shower – a very nice place to stay. What I don’t like are the towels, the ants on the floor and having no English news channel.

As I finally settled and had some rest, I’m now ready to roam around the Old Quarter. I started at Hoan Kiem Lake, paying 10,000vnd you’ll find their temple and different kinds of Buddha statue they worship. Nothing is special I found on this place, but paying 40php for the ticket is not a loss. I continue to walk further until I reached St. Joseph’s Church. It was an old church and also picturesque.

If I’ll do it again, I would now choose Ho Chi Minh Temple over Tolia. I was looking forward on seeing cheaper North Face jackets in Tolia – and all was just a disappointment. The sizes they have were too big, some were obviously fake (especially those that are in the streets). Walking at the Old Quarter, is so a good experience, you see: most of the people seated on the street side simply just watching people as they pass by, a lot of local products (bags, woven wall decorations, etc.), restaurants offering small stools and pho and of course a lot of motorcycles coming from all directions.

I was also able to watched the Water Puppet Show in Hanoi for 60000vnd.

Here is what Hanoi looks during the night.