“Xin Chao Vietnam! Day 1: Walkathon Galore”

Hello readers (I hope there are still people reading this blog despite the lack of new posts for QUITE a while). I personally haven’t been in much of adventures in a while. But fortunately for the month of August  and October I was able to take out my flip flops and travel to two different locations. Bohol and Vietnam. This one’s about the later.

This was what I said when I booked my ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam last October 2012. Yeah, I normally book a year in advance. This particular trip was an impulse buy honestly. I heard there was a sale and VIOLA, I booked it with my credit card. I intended to have this trip as my first solo backpacking trip but I am glad that my friends came along with me after hearing my plan. Apart from my friends availing cheaper flights than me, it was all good.

Now, backpacking is actually an uncharted territory. I was able to travel light, just one bag for max of 3 to 4 days stay but never with a back pack. I just liked the term backpacking really so I decided to try it. I visualized a Dora the Explorer-esque traveler without the bangs and the cheerfulness and soft spoken creatures and inanimate objects. Honestly, having a talking map would have been helpful.

So we had a lot of time to prepare for the trip but never really got too much of the planning. A month before the trip, we already had talks but three things were definite: we will be going to Hanoi then taking a day in Sa Pa and we will be staying at a dorm room hostel (May De Ville Backpackers Hostel). The places of interest were all laid out for us but since one from our group already went to Hanoi, we decided to just follow his previous itinerary.

Manila to Hanoi was supposed to be a three hour flight but since PST is advance by an hour, we arrived in Hanoi at around 2:30-ish Vietnam Time. It’s a good thing we booked hotel transfer from our hostel as there were no taxis available and everything is closed. We got to the hostel, checked in and snoozed a little to brace ourselves for an entire day of walking. It was nice to be in a room with 6 double deck beds. It feels like we were in a dorm room in college. Well, my friends were from the same university.

Our accommodation in the hostel comes with a free buffet breakfast. I’ll tell you about the May De Ville Backpackers Hostel in another post.

So we got up at around 10 am Hanoi time, cleaned ourselves up and had breakfast to finalize our itinerary for the day from the map that hostel gave us. We finished planning by 11:30 then we were off with the intention of walk all thru out the day.

Hoan Kiem Lake was first on the list as it was the nearest from the Old Quarter. We had to walk around three blocks to get there. Now, I think everybody knows this already, the transportation of choice in Vietnam is the motor bike. Not the ones you use for motocross. More like to scooters you would see in Italy. And they come in NUMBERS! As in they are PLENTY, BOUNTIFUL, NUMEROUS, and other synonyms to many. Majority of them are for personal rides. But there are some that are used as delivery vehicles for all sorts of products: bouquets of flowers; pieces of bamboo; sacks; even several cases of bottled drinks (about 12 cases!). I even saw a picture of a motorbike transporting 4 live pigs (well, I think they were alive). I guess the Vietnamese deserve some credit on their motor biking skills and overall balance despite numerous and heavy loads. I personally think, they should come up with an annual festival on packing, and racing several motorbikes. It’s a good idea right?

A tip when crossing the streets: don’t look at the incoming traffic. Look straight ahead and slowly walk. This will make the drivers see you and slowly maneuver their way around you. Just make sure to cross when the coast is clear that is.

So we got to the lake after a few blocks and it so nice. Trees lined up the edge of the Hoan Kiem Lake with the cool autumn breeze blowing. It was I guess the perfect time to go walking around the city. There were a lot of people at the lake. I guess it’s a must go destinations for both tourist and Hanoians a like to enjoy the day. A few meters down the lake, we saw the Ngoc Son Temple easily noticeable because of it’s tourist filled red bridge as the temple is located in the middle of the lake. We decided to skip it as we have a lot of time to spend in Hanoi.

After getting our fill of how Hanoians spend their time in the park, we proceeded to walk to the Temple of Literature. Based on the net, this was the oldest university in Hanoi. It was indeed interesting to on how other countries schools look like. Well, it was a long walk from the lake so I had time to look at the infrastructures and establishments along the way.

I guess in a way, majority of Asian cities all look alike, only the look of the people and language differs. I personally have been to Singapore (which looks like Makati City) and Kuala Lumpur (which is a mix of Makati and Manila). Hanoi, which kinda looks like a CLEANER Manila, differs in their buildings. They are quite narrow but tend to be long. And I really mean it being clean. We encountered several homeless people. Only two in total. What caught my eye was this barber who has shop at a corner of the street. He just had a chair and a mirror and was snipping away his customer’s hair. We saw two of them also. Now, as a tourist you might want to take a snap of this barber shop with a barber in action. We did but we had to hastily walk away as the barber demanded to charge us for the photo. If you can, do it simply and inconspicuously.  We passed by the railroad tracks as well and it was same as what every rail road track in SEA.

Did I mention it was a long walk? I guess you figured it out as I have described and observed quite a lot before getting to the Temple of Literature. Well finally, we had reached it. We saw the back part of the school and from my perspective it was quite big and spacious inside. Entrance cost VND 20000. The

Temple of Literature is composed of interconnecting courtyards and is really picturesque. There is a courtyard with man-made ponds with lotus plants. Another has a big central pond. Another have soft shelled turtles carvings carrying blocks with inscriptions that I don’t understand. There are signages but it’s in Vietnamese. I think you can rent an audio tour device from the entrance (I saw one group of tourists with a guide there).  One is a big courtyard with rooms. Then a temple and at the end of the complex was a place where women played traditional Vietnamese instruments. Don’t miss this show. It is really nice! There would be a lot of photo opportunities in the Temple of Literature if you’re a cam whore promise.

After exhausting our cameras in the Temple of Literature, we made our way to the Hanoi Flag Tower then the Army Museum which was right next to each other. Conveniently, there was a store of Highland Coffee right next to both attractions. Being that it was already past 12 noon in Manila, our group was definitely hungry. We decided to eat lunch first before going to the museum. You know what that means: it’s time to eat Vietnamese food!

In the menu was pho bo and pho ga as well as the famous Vietnamese coffee. I went for pho ga as I was feeling cold from the autumn breeze. I was in shorts and flip flops only and I could have sworn that my finger nails were almost violet by that time. Some hot soup would definitely help my insides. From what I know, pho ga is a rice noodle soup with chicken. I didn’t know if you had to put condiments to make it better. When it came, it was a big bowl that came with a plate of fresh herbs. Now, I’m not a botanist or chef but I could sworn the herbs were coriander, mind and basil. Am not sure but as a tip, don’t put too much herbs. It’s not supposed to be a salad (LOL!). The broth was not that good actually but I put in mind that this is not authentic. What I consider as authentic are food from hawker places. I didn’t try the coffee but based on my friends it was good.

After eating we went to the Army Museum. Entrance is VND 20000. This museum holds items that were used in the Vietnam War: weapons from guns to rakes with sharpened spikes, land mine, tanks, air planes and jeeps. The rest are pictures taken during the war. The main building holds a few exhibits but you can still visit other buildings for more. I personally did not enjoy this museum mainly because I was really not interested in the war. I felt also that there was a ghost of a little girl who was following us at the second floor of the museum. Plus the debris of destroyed planes were a bit gory as well as I felt that they were some of the reason for death soldiers. It’s I psychic thing I guess. The Flag Tower was not that much for us also.

We walked (yet again) to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which were around 3 blocks from the museum. It was still breezy and drizzling as well so imagine the cold. I had to wrap my scarf around my waits to cover my legs for warmth. I basically looked like I was wearing a skirt but who cares, I was cold and I know I can work it.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was BIG. This was where Ho Chi Minh was laid to rest. Fronting it was a wide and spacious park for events most probably. Guards in white uniform guard the mausoleum and are not shy to blow their whistle for anyone who crosses the yellow line or to tell of anyone who is a bit noisy.

The One Pillar Pagoda was next on our list. And based on the map, it was just near the mausoleum. But it was one hard pagoda to find. I guess part of the experience of travel is to get lost at one point. Well we asked for instructions but I guess we misunderstood it and went on to find a coffee shop.  After buying coffee, and using their restroom, we asked for directions and we were able to find the pagoda. It was really unnoticeable as it is small. But really nice also for pictures. You have to remove your shoes/ flip flops if you want to climb the pagoda as a form of respect.

Afterwards, we walked past the Presidential Palace (taking photos is not allowed) to reach the West Lake. It was a long walk! But a bit nice because of the weather. We got to the lake but had to take about 30 minutes as our feet was aching from all the walking that we did. We just enjoyed the view and talked among ourselves. Well we got offered by two ladies carrying fruits plus two ladies offering developed pictures or postcards I think. We turned them down unfortunately as we were all too tired. They were persistent though. We made our way to the Tan Quoc Pagoda but did not enter anymore. I think we had our fill our pagodas for the day. But we found some men fishing from the lake.

I think we walked about miles in one day so imagine how exhausted we were. We had to take a break again by around 4:30 PM at a café near the Truc Bach Lake and rested our feet. A friend and I went around looking for money changers as we had Philippine peso and the hostel won’t accept it to change for VND but unfortunately, we fail.

SO, to Pinoy’s traveling to Vietnam, here a very important tip for you: CHANGE YOUR PESO TO DOLLARS before hand to avoid hassle. Thankfully, my parents gave me some USD so I had something to use.

After resting our feet we decided to walk back to the hostel but it was so far away that we gave up walking and hailed two cabs. Based on travel guides I’ve read, we had to be careful in riding taxis but we didn’t have any problems. It was safe. Arriving back to May de Ville, we slumped down on their benches, definitely exhausted from all the walking. But we decided to head out again for dinner as we were all famished. We passed by this hawker place on the way to the Hoam Kiem Lake and decided to have dinner there.

It was the Thanh Hop restaurant which in my opinion is the best place to eat in Hanoi. Not only it is authentic, it’s also very cheap. We ate there for 6 meals. It was that good.

Now , I know about two Vietnamese dish, the pho and bun cha. Pho restaurants are available in Manila as well but it was really pricey so I didn’t bother. Bun Cha on the other hand, I learned from Samantha Brown, travel goddess, in one of her shows. It’s supposed to be this burger like patties that are grilled over open flame. That was what I know. So I concluded that it was sort of a burger/ sandwich like dish. But I was wrong. I was served with rice noodles and dipping sauce. Spring rolls were also available.

Since I idolize Samantha Brown (I think she’s a good presenter and have the best job in the world. I would kill to be her assistant), I had to try bun cha. And it was SO GOOD! I am salivating as am writing this. The dipping sauce had a sour taste to it. Based on the restaurant’s owner, you but the meat and rice noodles in the sour dipping sauce then eat it. And it is SO GOOD! It’s good enough to make sing “Bun Cha wish your Girlfriend was Hot like me”, I swear. I also ordered spring rolls so I was full. I never thought I would be full with just noodles but it surprisingly it’s enough.

After eating, we went back to the hostel to freshen up and decided to go out again go drinking local beer. Good thing we just had to cross the street to get to the bars. Unlike bars we see in Manila, the seats were really short.  We ordered Hanoi Beer which tasted the same as San Miguel beer which were also available in the bars to our surprise. It was a really good experience as there are other tourists in the bar. One was rather drunk and asked me for cigarettes which I gave willingly as he was really drunk was having a discussion with his girl (well I think it was his girl). We moved to the outside to do some people watching but had to move back in because it was drizzling. The bars also offer free WIFI by the way.

After downing one bottle each we decided to call it a day and get a good night’s rest. Words can express how tired I was but my eyes were definitely full with sights that I saw that day.

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