Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Ho Chi Minh City.  Southern Vietnam and more touristy than Hanoi.  Flight on United Airlines cost $2550 total (including taxes and surcharges).  The single entry visa was $640 HKD per person.  Hotel – Alagon Hotels in District 1, it’s 3 hotels in one: Central, Saigon and City Point .   Alagon Central Hotel would be our home for the next few days.  Each hotel has a different entrance with a different price point but they share the same dining hall so the breakfast buffet is the same.  Ho Chi Minh is different than Hanoi, it’s more metropolitan and international so everyone here is out to make a fast buck.  Remember this.

breakfast buffet spread is broad.

breakfast buffet spread is broad.

We ordered the hotel car to pick us up from the airport, $20 USD.  I didn’t want to fight with taxis after arriving in the dead of night at 1am.  We settled on District 1 but on arrival noticed a ghost town for Friday night.

Tourist Knick Knacks – Ben Thanh square but bring patience and poker face.  Ben Tanh is the premiere tourist mecca open-air-market.  You will not find locals shopping here as it’s also rip-off central.  The food vendors are pushy and expensive with terrible quality.  The streets surrounding Ben Thanh also sell the same knick knacks at a significantly lower price point without the need to feel ashamed by lowballing.  Walk 2-3 blocks away to Saigon Square and you find the retailers offering the same wares of Ben Thanh with fixed pricing.  One example is the North Face backpack.  North Face manufactures a lot of their products in Vietnam so there is ample supply for fakes and factory seconds.  Vendor in Ben Tanh offered the bag at 900,000 VND, vendor across the street outside of Ben Tanh gave a price of $450,000 and at Saigon Square $340,000.  With the first two options, you can negotiate.

War Remnants Museum – gory.  It’s a good way to spend one afternoon.  Go early to beat the crowds.  The War Remnants museum closes for lunch from noon to 1:30.

Cu Chi Tunnels – 250,000 VND to book through the hotel.  We 14 others on the tour with us.  At the Backpackers district, the same tours can be found for 80,000 but the group size will be much larger.

Pho Hung for pho.  Do not mistake Pho Ong Hung for Pho Hung.  Pho Ong Hung has the fast food cafeteria decor with the multiple locations.   Pho Hung is reminiscent of the NA Vietnamese restaurants dining standards.  2 people with large bowls of pho and a coconut – under 200,000.  Each bowl of pho was in the 70,000 range.

Pho Hung in Vietnam HCMC District 3

Pho Hung in Vietnam HCMC District 3

Stay away from the Vietnamese pancakes.  It’s a crepe with the contents tossed inside.  Nothing special.  Greasy and terrible.  The waitress knew as soon as she took our order that we saw through the fraud.  60,000 for a small.  Lunch time on a Monday and zero local clients, all tourists.

vietnamese pancake

vietnamese pancake

IMG_20150921_143429

Dinner.  428,000 + 50,000 tip.  Steamed lemongrass clams, morning glory with garlic, fried squid and beef porridge.  Restaurant is located on the corner of Nguyen Trung Truc and Ly Tu Trong in District 1.

IMG_20150920_192153 IMG_20150920_195430

it's similar to Chiu Chow style soup rice.

it’s similar to Chiu Chow style soup rice.

Pedestrians need to pay attention while walking the sidewalk and motos use it to take short cuts and avoid traffic.  Not a care in the world.  I did not have time to dine at Lunch Lady.

scooters everywhere even on the sidewalks

scooters everywhere even on the sidewalks

 

Advertisements
To start the day.

To start the day.

It’s nothing buy rice paddies when you go on the trekking tour.

$80/person for the overnight sleeper bus or $135 for the overnight train.  Ditch the overnight train.  You can negotiate the price.  There is a wide discrepancy with guests, I paid $80/person while another couple paid $68/person.  Your hotel will always state they offer the best price but do seek out other travel agents on the streets.  I find the agents working inside hostels to offer the best pricing.

The hotel is not special.  It was built to cater to tours and in dire need of a renovation.  Everything is old so it feels quite nostalgic.

The highlight of the tour is the homestay when you spend one night with the local family.  They make the best food.  I did not take photos of the rice paddies and scenery.

Sapa, Vietnam, Homestay food. Hand rolling the springrolls.

Sapa, Vietnam, Homestay food. Hand rolling the springrolls.

frying spring rolls

frying spring rolls

A real wood fire kitchen. The food tastes better.

A real wood fire kitchen. The food tastes better.

my sapa hotel burger. looks like everything was frozen and re-heated

my sapa hotel burger. looks like everything was frozen and re-heated

should have eaten in town rather than enjoy the free meal.

should have eaten in town rather than enjoy the free meal.

fried rice. Yuck.

fried rice. Yuck.

The food inside the town of Sapa is better than the food that is included as part of the tour package.  Do not eat the free food at the hotel unless you enjoy chicken, rice and sauce.  A net positive experience at the restaurants around town.  Sapa is close to the China border so if you enjoy Chinese cuisine you will find something to like in Sapa.  It lacks the refined finish of HK cuisine and most things are over seasoned but the cheap beer washes everything down.

I ordered fried noodles and got fried instant noodles.

mee gorang noodles?

mee gorang noodles?

Spring rolls are good but lack the savory meat filling found in the home stay iteration.

Vietnam restaurant quality springrolls.

Vietnam restaurant quality springrolls.

Chop Suey, still better.

Chop Suey, still better.

I forgot to take photos of the indigenous people, dependent on tourism for their survival.  They make wonderful trinkets and knick knacks.  I bought a passport holder and other things to take home.  Everything was cheap so I did not bargain.

Sapa homestay's dog. dirty.

Sapa homestay’s dog. dirty.

Hong Kong’s work culture is conducive for the need to get away at any possible moment.  All the social dining and networking puts a real strain on down time so long weekends provide the perfect excuse to leave the hustle and bustle of the constant bright lights prevalent in a financial centre to an area of relaxation.  Flights within Asia are cheap out of HK airport playing a central hub and the ability to arbitrage the strong HK dollar to areas with less developed infrastructure.  Vietnam is one area to spend time.  To watch the development of Vietnam is to see a country in a constant state of flux.  Vietnam and Philippines had all the potential to beat China but squandered it only to now stand at odds with its giant neighbor.

Communism in the current model is at odds with its roots when you trace it back.  It’s a model that only works in the very beginning when you rid the past regime and make everyone equals but over time the discrepancy between haves and have-nots widens to such a point that it is poignantly obvious in Vietnam.  Case in point, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  Ho Chi Minh’s explicit instructions were to cremate yet by doing so the regime lacks the demi-god for the people to admire which is now prevalent in Communist societies where the founding fathers are perfectly preserved.  Lenin, Mao and Ho.

Vietnam Airlines and Cathay Pacific has flight shares for the route between HK and Hanoi.  Book the Vietnam Airlines ticket to reap the cost savings.  The food is nothing to rave about it.  Vietnam Airlines being one of two national carriers should use the chance to introduce passengers to Vietnamese food.  It must be too much to ask for Vietnam Airlines to force feed their culture down my throat as I was served the following nothing to rave home about airline food.  The flight to Hanoi at less than 2 hours makes it a rival to Taiwan.  Hanoi runs along the same longitude line as HK so expect similar weather.  Ho Chi Minh City is further south so you’ll find Tropical weather.

bad airplane food

bad airplane food

Vietnam now has in place Visa on Arrival (VOA) whereby you have your local Vietnam hotel/guesthouse/website send over a copy of your passport to the government so your Visa is issued at the airport when you land.  This makes the process easier for the consumer and less onerous than inundating their consular office.  The cheapest VOA procedure can be found online for $10-$15, use this as a guide to negotiate with your hotel.  They will do it for the price you dictate as all they do is submit a copy of your passport photo to the office in Vietnam.  The hotel/agent will send you a copy of Visa on Arrival Paperwork. Once you land at the airport, it’s a $45 USD fee for the visa office to process the paperwork.

Once you land in Hanoi (you realize the airport is brand new and a gift from the Japanese government) it’s a gauntlet to get outside.  You will pass through legions of taxi drivers and agents that would love to take you to your hotel for a fee.  Their idea of your hotel is to tell you the hotel is full/closed so they will take you to another hotel.  The smart thing to do is to book the first night at a hotel/guesthouse and have the hotel/agent send a car to grab you, $15-$20USD.  The hotel sent a Toyota Land Cruiser with air conditioning.  Our hotel told us specifically to do everything within the confines of the hotel, if you take a cab then have the taxi driver go into the hotel to settle the bill so it keeps them honest.

$8000 VND per beer.  $10k for a bag of peanuts

$8000 VND per beer. $10k for a bag of peanuts vs. tourist beer garden $15k/beer

Hanoi is full of street food vendors.  My first first meal was the nammer sub –  Banh Mi @$10k.  The guy told me $10k and charged me $20k.  I elected not to fight it.

The majority of the pho at the street food vendors was of the chicken variety which lacks the taste and depth of beef.  Beef Pho tastes better but it’s hard to find and may only be available in the mornings.  If you see something you think you may like to eat, do it.  Do not wait and return later in the day as most street food vendors shut down and close up shop once they sell out.  Beef Pho was easy to find for breakfast but tough to find after lunch.  Chicken Pho is available at any time throughout the day.  Salad rolls and spring rolls are lunch time food.

street food chicken pho

street food chicken pho

noodles without soup

noodles without soup

The best meal in Hanoi:

bbq meats in soup, rice noodles, spring rolls and plate of herbs

bbq meats in soup, rice noodles, spring rolls and plate of herbs

It can be found on 23 Bat Su street in the Old Quarter.

bat su and hang bo street

intersection of bat su and hang bo

One thing I notice is most street food vendors only do one dish and do it well.  There is no menu, you sit down on the plastic stool and they bring the food over.  They don’t ask what you want nor how you want it cooked.  You eat what they put in front of you and that’s it.

Drip Coffee with Milk.

$25k/cup for ice drip coffee with milk

$25k/cup for ice drip coffee with milk

Accommodations.

There’s a large variety when it comes to accommodations from guesthouses to hotels.  Hostels cost $4 USD per night, guesthouses mascarading under airbnb will cost $20 while hotels start at $30.  My first night was at a guesthouse off airbnb for $20/night, Hotel Hibiscus.  Hibiscus is in the Old Quarter by the Cathedral.  The location is right by all the backpacker hotels but not central to the nightmarkets and night life of the Old  Quarter.  Hibiscus has all the amenities to classify itself as a hotel with a bed (water-resistant linens), tv (sony flat screen), mini-bar and shower yet none of which comes together properly for a real hotel experience.  It’s more of a guesthouse with decent furnishings.  There is a complimentary breakfast every morning of the local cuisine.

The tail end of the trip was spent in a legitimate hotel, Spring Flower Hotel.  All the amenities of creature comforts that one comes to expect from hotel.  They even upgraded us to their junior suit.  The location is more central to the overall foot traffic prevalent in the Old Quarter with authentic dining options right outside the door.  It’s a short walk to the nightmarket which takes place from 7pm to late every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

General Observations.

Beware of scams.  Most travel agencies in Hanoi will have some form or another Sinh Cafe in their name.  Sinh Cafe is a travel agency with stellar reviews on trip advisor, their competitors start up shop beside them and on the same street with identical name and colours.  Always ask for the price prior to handing over money and always negotiate.  There are legitimate tourist tshirt shops: Ginko and Papaya, which are made in Vietnam.  The nightmarkets will have similar tshirts (also carrying the made in Vietnam label) but significantly cheaper (kirkland white tshirts are only 30,000VND which is $1.50 USD).