Monday, April 19, 2010

Holiday in Hanoi – The Capital City of Vietnam, 2010

It’s the time of the year again, people! The family getaway moment! I loved it for sure! And this year’s escapade was to the historic city of Hanoi, Vietnam!

There was no obvious reason why we chose Hanoi. We just thought of going up north this time, so, Vietnam it was! As usual, I made the whole arrangement myself (I am so proud to tell you this actually), from the point of flight reservations up to the hotel and ground arrangements. I did a lot of browsing prior to the travel, mainly to hit upon the best bargain for hotels and tours, and to find out some travel tips i.e. Hanoi must-see places and the do’s and don’ts when visiting Vietnam.

We arrived at Non Bai Airport Hanoi in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday the 27th. It was in March. When we landed on this beautiful land of Hanoi, the weather was at approximately 17 degree Celsius. It was during the early bout of spring, which explained the chilly weather at that point of time. As we exited the Main Door, the hotel pick-up was already waiting for us, with my name on the placard, “Miss Aidee Shauki”… And for that instant I felt, oohh… I was a tourist here!!! :-)

After half an hour ride from the Airport, we reached our little-yet-lovely boutique hotel called ‘Asia Palace Hotel’ at the French Old Quarter, at Hoan Kiem District. The hotel was delightfully nice. The room was comfy and clean and the staffs were amazingly warm and helpful. The hotel was located just 5 minutes away (by walking) to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and just a few steps away from the many retail outlets selling all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs.

The best part was it was also just next to a Halal Restaurant, the Nisa Restaurant. It was one of the main reasons why I booked this particular hotel. This is so important to us as we have learnt that it could be difficult to find a Halal Food Joint around here. True enough! I was glad that I did my homework well. So, I officially declared that Nisa Restaurant became THE place for us to dine whenever our tummy started to growl. And as expected, we met a lot of Malaysians there too. One thing I like about being away from home, the Malaysians became really friendly and approachable. I guess, when we’re a minority, there’s solidarity. The feeling was just great. Malaysia Boleh!

After a quick refreshment at the hotel, we started our discovery of Hanoi. We intended to watch the Water Puppet Show but we were not that lucky. Tickets were all sold out for that day so we had to purchase in advance for the next day’s show. After purchasing our tickets, we then flagged down a cab and headed to the ancient Temple of Literature.

The Temple of Literature, or locally known as Văn Miếu, is a Temple of Confucius in Vietnam. Although several temples can be found throughout Vietnam, the most prominent and famous one was this one. Years ago, it was assigned as a university, the first in Vietnam it seemed. It was told that the university functioned for more than 700 years. There were list of names engraved on the turtle-like stone stele. The steles recorded 2,313 students graduating as doctorate scholars. This ancient Confucian sanctuary is now considered one of Hanoi's finest historical sites. The landscapes of the five courtyards in the temple were gorgeous too with each of them decorated with a pond. The entrance fee was VND40,000 per person (approx. RM8).

Next stop was the great Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda. They were situated next to each other but the compound was so huge, we had to walk all over the area in order to get to see both of them. By the time we arrived at the site, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was already closed for visitation, unfortunately. We were told by the guard that it is opened only from 8am to 11am. We decided to come back the next day because my hubby was too excited to witness the great Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body that was laid to rest in that Mausoleum. We snapped some pictures outside of the Mausoleum and at the Ho Chi Minh Square and then we walked ourselves to the One Pillar Pagoda.

The One Pillar Pagoda, or Chùa Một Cột, is a historic Buddhist temple in Hanoi. The temple is built of wood on a single stone pillar with 1.25 m in diameter. It is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, which is a Buddhist symbol of purity, since a lotus blossoms in a muddy pond. With much historical background, this is one of the must-see places if you happened to be in Hanoi.

Just behind the Mausoleum, we then explored the site of the great Presidential Palace, a huge building in a striking yellow paint. It was built around 1900 and 1906 to house the French Governor-General of Indochina. It was not open to public but at a fee of VND15,000 (RM3) per person, tourists can walk around the ground and snap some photos of the lusciously beautiful gardens. This well-guarded area consisted of the old Ho Chi Minh’s Office, his collection of cars and a wooden stilt house overlooking a big carp pond. It was a very huge area indeed. So tired we were after completing it, we headed back straight to the hotel and had our early dinner at where else but Nisa Restaurant.

Night at Hoan Kiem was joyful and interesting. After the hearty dinner and refreshing ourselves back at the hotel, we continued discovering Hanoi at night by foot. The night market at Dong Xuan Street was our target for the night! A very good spot for a quick bargaining :-). Half way down the road, my son was already asleep on the stroller. But that didn’t stop us from completing our mission. We continued walking in the midst of the crisp chilly air hopping from one shop to another along the ever-crowded night market. There was always something we found interesting to see or to buy.

Hanoi sleeps early so we had to shop fast. By 9pm most of the shops were closed. So, we stopped at the lake and sat on a bench facing the calm water to just enjoy the moment. Relaxing by the lake after the long shopping rendezvous was the perfect treat for us.

We continued our journey the next day, as planned. We managed to get inside the Mausoleum after 45 minutes of queuing. The queue was astonishingly about a kilometer long. We were lucky because the weather was just nice… quite cold actually, so we didn’t mind queuing in. There were thousands of people wanting to make their way to see and show their respect to the late Ho Chi Minh. When we went in and saw the body laid down peacefully before our very eyes, we thought that the hassle of queuing up was truly worth it. There was a kind of mixed feelings, which I myself couldn’t explain. The ambience was rather poignant but you could feel the pride of the achievements the late Ho Chi Minh brought to the people of Vietnam. Oh yes, NO PHOTOS!! We had to leave our camera (even cell phones to some) at the guard house, and picked it up at the exit. The guards were so strict, you can’t fool them :-).

We were just in time for the Water Puppet show soon after the visit to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. After settling ourselves at the seats in the theatre, the show started and we simply enjoyed the performance that lasted for about an hour. It was smashing. Obviously, we couldn’t understand a word from the narration because everything was uttered in Vietnamese but somehow or rather we really enjoyed it. It was also hilarious at some point! This is definitely a must-see show, trust me! The ticket was at VND40,000 (RM8) only. Just seat back and enjoy the 17 folk stories that have been beautifully narrated and perfectly choreographed with puppets in the water.

Oh yes, let’s talk about Hanoi and its road traffic! I must warn you that crossing the streets in Hanoi is an act of faith and an experience you won't ever forget. Their roads were literally wall to wall traffic. There were hundreds (or thousands) of bikes, cars, handcarts, buses and of course their popular ‘cyclos’ (a rickshaw-like transport) criss-crossing the road. There were very few traffic lights, and even if there was one, it served not much of a purpose. Nobody follows the traffic lights anyway. So, if you need to cross to the other side, my advice is just do it, and keep a steady pace while you’re at it. The vehicles will somehow dodge around you. And of course, in Hanoi, every bit of traffic movement comes with very loud honks. It seems everybody’s honking. You wouldn’t know to whom it was meant to so just be extra careful.

And their cyclos… you must try it! It could be pricey for one ride so one good advice here, negotiate the price and agree on it first before you jump onto one.

Same goes to their cabs. The cab drivers are very good in manipulating you to pay a higher price. Never trust their meter-reading machine. Two types of cabs that you can rely on are the Hanoi Tourists Taxi or Hanoi Taxi. The rest, don’t bother to flag them down. We had our fair share of being cheated by one of them. The same distance we paid earlier for only VND50,000 (RM10) became VND700,000 (RM140) later. At least we were quite lucky, after the brief argument my hubby had with the cab driver on the ridiculous fair (obviously we wouldn’t agree on the high amount), some Vietnamese came to our rescue. It was impossible to speak to them because most of them can’t speak English. Sign language would lead you to nowhere too, at times.

Somehow, amidst all the hassle and difficulties that we faced, on the bright side, this capital city of Vietnam has so much to offer. The rustic charms of the ancient sites and the beauty of its history made you feel satisfied and longing, and it will always be a part of you. We enjoyed the trip to bits despite the discourtesy of the cab drivers and their insane road traffic. The chilly weather was a perfect complement too.

Ohh… the food, of course! You can get a taste of the popular Vietnamese Beef Noodle ‘Pho’ everywhere at any local cafes. But for Muslims like us, we had to resort to Nisa Restaurant and the best of Vietnamese offerings could be found there too, along with other Malaysian, Indonesian and Indian cuisines.

At the end, what did we shop for? Fridge magnets (and dozens of it too), T-shirts, handbags, Hanoi hats, Vietnamese coffee, semi-precious stone bangles, bookmarks and silk coin pouches. Most of them were meant for giveaways. :-)

We were told that October 2010 will officially mark 1000 years of the establishment of the city. On this occasion, Hanoi has been named as one of the world's "Top Destinations 2010". We’re glad that we’ve been to Hanoi this year :-).

* Halong Bay’s Trip up next. Stay tuned!*

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