From north west to north east of Vietnam and Halong Bay
02.12.2019 - 27.12.2019 17 °C
Monday (2/12/2019) - After more than half a year of waiting, the time has finally arrive to start this trip. The flight to Singapore was at 11.55am and while waiting, it had started to become cloudy and drizzled a bit. After a bit over 2 hours, we landed at Terminal 3 of Changi airport so I had to take the skytrain to Terminal 2 to catch my next flight to Hanoi. By the time I reached to Terminal 2, it was just in time for boarding already. The flight was supposed to fly at 3.10pm but it started to rain heavily so all planes couldn't take off. We were just sitting in the plane doing nothing and by the time the planes were allowed to take off, there was a queue for each plane to fly off. So while waiting, I watched Godzilla: The King of Monsters and then fell asleep for a while. By the time I woke up, the plane finally took off at 4pm.
After the delay, we landed at Hanoi International Airport at 6pm instead of 5.30pm. There was a long queue at immigration and while waiting, we witnessed the changing of shift for the officers on duty at that time. Both officers that have finished their shift and those who were going to start their shift stood up and bowed to us. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos. I managed to buy Viettel sim card before going out of the airport to find the driver arranged by Mr Thiep to pick me up. The wind was pretty cold but still manageable even though I was wearing a short sleeve shirt. Hopefully during day time, it would be this cold also. It took 45 min to reach to Viola Royal Hotel and Spa. Mr Thiep was already there waiting for me to receive the rest of the balance and we discussed about tomorrow's program as well as a few places stated in the itinerary.
After the discussion, I went to my room which is nice but very small but I guess that is how buildings in Vietnam area since they tend to be narrow but goes many floors upwards. After unpacking some stuff, I went out and checked what was around. There were a lot of tourists everywhere, shops and restaurants. I went around looking for a decent place to eat and finally settled for an ok looking local restaurant. Food was not bad and reasonably priced. I just hope I don't get diahorrea tomorrow. After dinner, I slowly walked back towards the hotel and along the way, I stopped at a souvenir shop to buy some magnets, postcards and bookmarks. After shopping, I headed back to the hotel and packed for tomorrow before going to bed.
Tuesday (3/12/2019) - Today I will meet up with Mr Bien who will be my guide for the next 20 days. I woke up 6.20am to prepare for breakfast and check out since Mr Bien will come to pick me up at 8am. Breakfast was on the 6th floor of the main building and it is buffet style though with not many choices of food. The wind was colder than yesterday night so I hope it won't be too cold throughout the whole day since we will be out in the open areas most of the time.
By 8am when I went down to the reception area, Mr Bien was already waiting for me. The driver also came to pick us up and I was surprised that we will be using Fortuner throughout the whole trip instead of the standard Innova. Mr Bien told me that it is better to use Fortuner since we are going to the mountainous areas. We went to Hao Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam first in Ninh Binh which was 2.5 hours drive from Hanoi. We reached there around 10.30am and Mr Bien began to explain the Dinh and Le dynasty which was established after Dinh Tien Hoang defeated China and became the first Vietnamese king after their 1000 years rule. However, the Dinh and Li Dynasty only lasted for 1000 years before Vietnam was colonised by the French in 1852.
After touring around the ancient temple, we had lunch at a local restaurant. Mr Bien ordered the specialty of Ninh Binh which tasted nice but the portion was a lot for 1 person. There is the rice crust (com chay), fried fish fillets, fried Vietnamese spring rolls and goat meat which you wrap with rice paper, pineapple slices, fig slices and mint leaves.
By 1.30pm, we left for Trang An to go on the boat ride and also to see the King Kong movie set that was filmed there. Unfortunately when we arrived there, we were told that the King Kong movie set had been removed so that Trang An can still be listed as one of the UNESCO heritage site in Vietnam. We were on the boat for 2 hours and visited 3 temples along the way. It was a nice, relaxing scenery actually with many boats next to you that is mainly paddled by women.
Then we went to Mua Cave (Lying dragon mountain) and started climbing up the 486 steps. I have not done hiking for a year so going up the steps was like a warm up session for the upcoming walks. It wasn't so bad and when we reached to the top where the dragon head was located, the sun was starting to set. From the top, we could see Tam Coc river. Before we head back to the car, we visited Mua cave which didn't have anything much to see.
Tonight's accommodation is at Tam Coc Rice Fields where Mr Thiep had booked a semi-bungalow for me. The room was very spacious which had 1 queen size and 1 single bed. There was also a pool, garden, restaurant and they even gave hot foot bath to relax the feet after climbing up Mua cave. After taking a shower, I head to the restaurant on the 1st floor of another building. Mr Thiep had already ordered the food in advance for me. Boy was I shocked that he ordered many different dishes and the portion because it can be eaten by at least 3 people. After dinner, I head back to my room and packed ready for check out tomorrow. The temperature outside had now dropped to 17.7 °C.
Wednesday (4/12/2019) - Today after breakfast, we checked out at 8am and went to Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest complex of the Buddhist temple. We reached there at 9am and took an electric car to the top of the mountain first to see the ancient pagoda which was inside a cave. Along the way up, they have put 500 Arhat statues along both sides of the pathway of the temple complex. Then we walked slowly down the hill where there were 54 turtles carrying a stone tablet on its back which represent each of the 54 minorities in Vietnam.
Down the hill, there was the Three Period Hall where there are statues of the Gods of past, present and future. In this hall, one can donate USD500 where your name will be put underneath a golden buddha statue. So you can imagine the sight of the four walls filled with thousands of golden Buddha statues from the top until the bottom.
After that, we walked by the happy Buddha to see the Buddha with 1000 hands and eyes. I have been to a lot of temples before but this is the first time I have heard and seen the statue of this God. It is said that buddha need a lot of hands and eyes to help answer the prayers of its believers.
We then walked to the Kuan Yin hall where 2 Kuan Yin statues were carved out of 1000 year old trees that was found growing in the river. Very impressive I have to say. Finally our last stop was the Bell tower pagoda before we head back to the parking area by using the electric car.
On the way to Pu Luong, we stopping by at a small roadside restaurant for lunch. It took us 2 hours to reach to Pu Luong but before we went to the Homestay, we stopped at a village and went on a 6km walking trip to see the giant water wheels and the village itself. After 1.5 hours of walking, we finally reached to the main road and then head to Paranomic Home where I will be staying for the night.
The homestay was a traditional stilt house right next to the road with beds on the floor. Since no one else was staying here, I got the whole place to myself which was good. However, the walls were not all the way up to the ceiling so the cold air kept on blowing in. It was very cold inside the room as the temperature had already dropped to 16.4 °C even before 7pm. The place where dinner was served was under the house in the open area so it was even colder than inside the room upstairs! I had to endure 1 hour of the cold wind until I finished my dinner and quickly head back to the room. Good thing they offered me another blanket which is thick or else I would not be able to sleep. By 9pm, the hosts were already asleep when I went down to use the toilet before I went to bed. Somewhere in the village, there was a party going on because the man had been singing non-stop since 7pm while I was having my dinner. I had to wear a layer of Uniqlo ultra warm and an extra warm long sleeve shirt, a pair of extra warm leggings and a pair of heat tech gloves to sleep.
Wednesday (5/12/2019) - I woke up about 6.20am to see sunrise. It was a bit hazy but not as cold as the day before. I took a shower before having breakfast. After breakfast, we left at 8.30am and started walking to Pu Luong nature reserve to see the white Thai, Black Thai and Hmong minority lifestyle. It took us about 2 hours walk for 5km before we reached to the main road and waited for the driver to pick us up.
Then we headed to Maichau which only took us 1 hour 20 minutes to reach. Once we were there, we had difficulty locating Stilt House 32 in Lac village where we were going to stay as the number of the stilt houses were randomly arranged. The wind here was colder than Pu Luong during mid day. After putting my stuff in the room, we walked around the small village to have lunch in one of the stilt house on a hill. The driver told us that today's temperature in Sapa is 0 °C and there was light snow in Fansipan. Hopefully by the time we go there, it would not be too cold! Lunch was home cooked meal which was pretty delicious!
After lunch, we walked around Lac village, passing by many stilt houses which are either homestays or selling souvenirs on the open area of the ground floor while the family stayed on the top floor. We walked around 8 villages which about 6km and I bought some ethnic souvenirs before we slowly walked back to our homestay 4 hours later.
Before dinner, i just sat at the restaurant area before the other guests started coming back. I had a good conversation with a Hospitality and Tourism lecturer from Danang who was travelling on his own and got some information about central Vietnam. Then a French lady came to checked out if there was anything she could order from our homestay and ended up chatting with us since she knew the lecturer who came to Lac village in the same bus as her. By 7pm, dinner was served and once again, the food was good enough for 3 person but I was the only 1 eating it. If I had known I was going to eat alone, I would have invited that French lady to eat with me. The wind was cold but not as cold as yesterday since it was not blowing as strong as in Pu Luong. After dinner, I went to the room to relax and settle down before taking a shower. The temperature tonight was 18.4 °C.
b] Thursday (6/12/2019)[/b] - Today, the sound of the rooster crowing and the birds singing woke me up at 6.20am. It reminded me of the olden days when we were staying overnight in my grandmother's place in the village during the weekends. The wind was cold and temperature had dropped to 16.8 °C. Breakfast was served at 8am and then we left for Moc Chau at 8.30am. Before we left Mai Chau, we checked out the morning market in Mai Chau town.
On the way along Son La, we stopped to look at Flower Hmong houses and peach blossoms. Then further up, we stopped to see a bee farm located near to the main road. There were a lot of honey bee houses and the owner told us that he was selling 1 litre of pure honey for 150,000 VDN (B$10). We did try a bit of the honey which has a sourish sweet taste.
When we arrived at Moc Chau, we checked in at Top Hill Homestay first. Then we head to the tea plantation where you can see Hmong women waiting around for tourists to rent ethnic Black Thai costume with silver buttons and Hmong costumes to wear for photo taking at the tea plantation. It wasn't my first time at tea plantations as I have been to the ones in China so it was nothing new though it was pretty creative of them to plant the tea trees in heart shape pattern for people to take photos.
1 hour later, we headed back to town to have lunch. It was a small town with not many choices of restaurant. Since it was past lunch time, there were not may people eating at the restaurant, only us and a group of businessmen. The food cooked by the male cook was not bad.
After lunch, we head on to the Pine forest and walked to Chimi strawberry farm to pick strawberries. Surprisingly it was Mr Bien's first time seeing strawberry plants. 1kg of picked strawberries cost 350,000 VND (about B$20) which was not cheap. There were not many ripe strawberries left, probably because most of them had been picked earlier in the morning. After half an hour of going from one row to another, hoping to find ripe strawberries, I managed to pick 400g of almost ripe strawberries.
We also checked out the other strawberry products they sell before we slowly walked back towards the car park. On the way, we saw 2 couples taking their wedding photos. It was pretty interesting to see how wedding photos are taken in Vietnam and the things they have to do to make wedding photos look perfect. We don't see that in Brunei.
We head on to Vuon Hoa Nhiet Doi (Moc Chau tropical flower garden) where I thought no one would be going there except for us. As it turned out, there was a group of local tourists also going there. Owned by Hong Kong investors, they import Phalaenopsis orchids and lily plants to grow and resell to the Vietnamese. The orchids are the same like the ones sold in Brunei but they only cost 130,000 VND here (less than B$10). After that, we went back to Homestay Tophill and rested.
The temperature inside the room was not so cold but when we were having our dinner in the open area under the common room, the blowing wind was so cold! So Mr Bien and the driver ordered plum wine to drink while eating dinner. After talking for a while with Mr Bien, we decided to call it a night since it was too cold sitting outside in the open and went back to our room. The temperature inside the room was 11.1 °C but fortunately, there was no cold draft coming into the room. However, the room was so cold and damp in the middle of the night that I had to find socks to wear in order to sleep.
Saturday (7/12/2019) - I woke up before 7am and prepared to have breakfast at 8am before we start our day. The wind was colder in Moc Chau compared to Pu Luong since the wind was damp. After having a simple breakfast, we left for Long Sap Border gate to see the Lao market. After 1.5 hours driving on the winding, dusty road, we finally reached the border checkpoint. Unfortunately since this border is only for local Vietnamese and Laos people to cross, I was not allowed to cross it even though the Laos border was 200m away from the border checkpoint. So we just walked to the nearby Vietnamese shop which is just few hundred meters from the immigration building to see what is being sold. There wasn't much things to buy except for some lao beer and alcohol. However, Mr Bien told me I could walk on the small path next to the shop and from there I could see a Lao village.
On the way back to town, we stopped by at Dai Yem waterfall to see what the attraction was since Mr Bien has not been there before also. There is a small man made waterfall and the natural Dai Yem waterfall. The place doesn't look complete yet as they could include more activities for the tourists to do. After that, we went back to the town and ate at the same restaurant we ate yesterday.
Our last stop for the day is the Bac Phach Oleracea garden at Bac Phach village. It is not a popular tourist attraction as the road was pretty bad but 4WD cars can still go. There is a small Hmong village where they plant peaches and plum trees but since it was not the season yet, there was nothing much to see except the white flowers of the mustard plants.
By the time we got back to Top Hill Homestay it was only 4.30pm but the sun was already starting to set. Dinner was set at 7pm but tonight, the wind was even colder than yesterday. At 7pm,the temperature outside was already 10.5 °C. I had dinner alone as Mr Bien and the driver went to the town to eat so that they could watch the football match since there were no tv at Top Hill Homestay. After 1 hour sitting in the open area to have dinner with the cold wind constantly blowing, I couldn't stand it anymore and went back to my room. Vietnamese love to eat in open areas which is not a good idea especially during winter! By 9pm, the temperature had dropped further to 7.6 °C before I went to bed. Half way through the night, I couldn't sleep at all because it was too cold even though I already wore 2 layers of shirts and trousers and I should probably have worn 2 pairs of socks as 1 pair were not warm enough compared to the night before, so I didn't sleep well.
Sunday, (8/12/2019) - Today after having breakfast, we left Moc Chau at 8am and started our long drive to Dien Bien Phu. After 1 hour on the road, we stop for toilet break before heading on. 1.5 hours later, we reached to a town where they happen to have Sunday market. So we went for a walk to see Black Thai women shopping and also to check out what they were selling. We went 1 round before heading on with our journey. Another 1.5 hours later, we stopped for lunch since there was not going to be any more place to eat for a long distance.
At 2pm, we did another stop at one of the small roadside shop and saw the owners cleaning a pig after killing it at the roadside. After the driver was ready to continue, we drove on a bit before stopping at a nearby village to see the houses of the black Thai people which has a mixture of the traditional and the modern style.
2 hours of non-stop driving through the curves of the mountain, we finally reached Dien Bien Phu. We checked into Ruby hotel and rested for a while. At 5.30pm, we walked to the ethnic market behind our hotel and saw a lot of Black Thai women selling clothes, vegetables and live animals. There were a lot of people shopping for their daily needs.
As we walked towards the meat section, I thought they were just selling the usual pork and beef until Mr Bien told me that it was dog meat. I am aware that Vietnamese do eat dogs but I have never seen dog meat for sell before so this was my first time.
After seeing the market, we head back to the street where we are staying to find a place to eat. In the end after deciding the place, we called the driver to eat together. The street was pretty quiet by the time we finished dinner so we head back to the hotel and called it a night.
Monday (9/12/2019) - Today after breakfast, we left for Tay Trang International border gate which is an hour drive away from Ruby hotel. The road was very dusty as heavy cargo trucks and motorbikes carrying goods used that road to go to Laos border. When we arrived at the border gate, all the cargo trucks were parked in a line while the drivers were getting their papers approved first before going through the border. I was told the Laos border is another 4km away from this border and foreigners can pass through this border unlike at the Long Sap border which is only for the local Vietnamese and Laos people. After taking some photos and checking out the shop that was selling some simple stuffs, we head back to the city again.
Once we reached to the city, we stopped at A1 hill to see the defeat of the French by the Vietnamese soldiers. There were cemetery of unknown soldiers, tanks, trenches, an underground bunker where the French commander was communicating with the headquarter and a bomb crater. I am not a big fan of war so I did not include A1 Hill or any of the war related places of interest to visit in Dien Bien but Mr Bien insisted that I must see them since it is the highlight of the tour in this city, Since I didn't have to pay for anything, I just went along with him.
Then we went for lunch first since the Dien Bien phu museum is closed during lunch time. So we went back to the street where our hotel was located and found 1 restaurant to eat. By 1.30pm, we went to the Dien Bien Phu museum and watched the Victory video first before going to the gallery. For a big building, there was only 1 big gallery to see and a small room to watch the video while the rest of the ground floor consist of shops selling Vietnamese souvenirs. The last war related place we stopped at was the French Command Bunker - Colonel de Castries, the commander of Dien Bien Phu battle which was another underground bunker. We then walked further a bit to see the Vietnamese tanks and weapons.
Then we went to Men village which mainly consists of black Thai people. The women still wear their hair up in a bun and a lot of families have a big fish pond. The houses are big but there are no walls inside the house except for curtains that separate each sleeping place. From Men village, we walked to Ta Po village before heading back to the main road and then walked to Dien Bien airport which used to be the French army landing field so that the driver could pick us up from there.
Our last stop is the Dien Bien Phu Victory monument in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu Victory. In order to reach to the top, one had to climb a lot of steps. This place used to be the D1 hill and is overlooking the center of Dien Bien Phu city. After coming down, we decided to sit by the road and have sugar cane juice while watching motorbikes and cars going around the roundabout. As it was getting cold, we head back to our hotel and rested for a while before heading out again for hotpot dinner.
Tuesday (10/12/2019) - Today after breakfast, we left for Phong Tho which is about 4 hours drive. On the way, we stopped by at a rice field located down a valley with the fog hanging around so that I could take some photos. 2.5 hours later after going through many winding road, we stopped for a while at a small village's local market for everyone to stretch out and rest a bit after the long drive. 30 mins later, we stopped at a restaurant to have our lunch. They had opium and monitor lizard wine which I have never seen before, even in Thailand.
After lunch, we drove on for 1.5 hours before we stopped for a while so that the driver could take a break. 30 mins later, we finally reached to Lan Anh hotel. It has the old and new building but with no other occupants other than us since there were no more tourists coming to Pho Thong since the ethnic villages had to be relocated after the dam was being built. Since my room was booked by Mr Thiep, I got the VIP room in the new building which is big and has 2 single beds while Mr Bien and the driver stayed at the old building made of wood.
We then went to Vang Pheo village which consist of White Thai but unfortunately, this village is already modernised so there are not many traditional houses left. However, they do have 4 large water wheels compared to the ones in Pu Luong which is half the size. We walked from one village to another and ended up on the main road so we kept on walking and went to the market where we saw 2 red Dao women. We walked on and on and didn't actually know where we were but eventually we managed to contact the driver to meet us at a certain location which was not far from where we started walking. We ended up walking 3.9km.
After heading back to the hotel, we rested before having dinner at 6.30pm. The European style restaurant looked elegant but it was empty. There were only 3 of us eating in a big empty restaurant. After dinner around 7pm, I walked back to my room. There was light on the ground floor but when I came out from the lift to the third floor, it was pitch black as there was no light and no one else staying here except me. Well, at least it was peaceful and quiet night.
Wednesday (11/12/2019) - Today we left Phong Tho around 8.45am to Sapa. 2 hours later, we reached Heaven Gate (Tram Ton) and took photos of the winding Quy Ho pass. 40 minutes later, we arrived at Sapa town which is small but very touristic with a lot of restaurants, shops selling North Face jackets and hotels. We had lunch at Red Dzao House first which has a lot of tourist customers so service was very slow. One of the specialty dish of Sapa is the Sturgeon fish which I never had it before anywhere else.
After lunch, Mr Bien had to report to the police about our tour program but since it was still lunch time, we had to wait until 2pm for them to go back to work. So I went around to check a bit. The ethnic market was small and they sell basically the same stuff. I bought some handmade ethnic bags and decorations and boy, they were not cheap at all.
After that since we still had to wait, I walked by foot towards Stone church which is at the town square. Then I saw a very European building called Sun Plaza. I am not sure if it was a hotel or a shopping mall but since people were going in and out from there, I went and checked it out also. There were small shops and a ticketing counter which sell train tickets to Fansipan. I did not managed to check all the floors since Mr Bien called me and we already had to go on with the tour program for the day.
The program was to walk around Ban Ho, Tavan and Lao Chai village and I was given the option to walk 8km or 12km. Since I haven't walked for such a long distance already for quite some time, I chose the 12km and also it would be a waste not to see everything since we have already come this far. We started around 2.45pm, walking through different villages located on the Muong Hoa valley, taking photos of the scenery, houses, local people and animals. By the time we reached back to the car, it was 5.20pm.
When we reached to the town and to the place where I will be staying for 2 nights, it was slightly out of the town center but still has a lot of shops along the road. We walked down from the main road to go to Little View Homestay. The alley was pretty dark with lots of steps but eventually we found the place. The owner was a funny man who could speak funny Malaysian slang. He called himself Diego and used to be a Sapa guide.
At 7pm, I walked up to the main road and waited for Mr Bien who took me to the restaurant nearby where he had arranged my dinner. It was a classy restaurant with once again, lots of Asian tourists. After dinner, I walked around a bit around the area just to see what the shops were selling and I ended up buying North Face jackets and a pair of trekking shoe since it was so cheap here. After going back to the homestay, I prepared for tomorrow where we will be going to Fansipan. I am not sure how cold the wind will be up there but at a height of over 3000m, it is expected that the wind will be cold.
Thursday (12/12/2019) - After having woken up around 4am in the morning due to inconsiderate Singaporean guests who love to push furniture around when everyone else was still asleep, I woke up pretty late. For breakfast, I had to go to the top floor and ordered breakfast from Diego's wife. The weather was very sunny and clear so after breakfast, I walked up to the main road and we headed to Sun World Fansipan Legend.
After taking some photos at the entrance, we walked into the ticketing area and there happened to be some cultural performance. After the short performance, we were allowed to take photos with the performers.
In order to go to Fansipan peak, we had to use the cable car which is the longest non-stop three-rope cable car in the world and it took us 25 minutes to reach to Fansipan.
To reach to the peak of Fansipan, we had to climb up many steps and passed by many statues and temples. The day was very sunny and clear so the sky was really blue.
By the time we reached to the peak (3,143m high) which is the highest in Indochina and also known as the "Roof of Indochinese peninsula", it was already noon time and a lot of tourists, locals and foreign were taking their turns to take photo with the stone marking.
By the time we came back to Sapa town and had lunch at Red Dzao House again, it was already 2pm. After lunch, we went to Cat Cat village which belong to the Hmong people but instead of seeing traditional houses, all I saw was just rows of shops selling the same things on both sides of the lane. Then we went down to the waterfall area where there were restaurants, man made bridges and decorations.
Next to the waterfall, they have made an area for performance so we stayed to watch the performance. After the performance, we kept on walking to Lao Chai village were the driver was waiting for us. After 1 hour of walking through rice terraces, some houses, a boarding school and a church, we finally reached to Lao Chai village which has a lot of homestays and shops selling souvenirs indicating another very touristic village.
By the time we reached to the place where I was staying, it was before 5pm but since I was already feeling tired due to inconsiderate guests from Singapore, I was glad to come back to my quiet room and rested. Mr Bien insisted that I should have western food for tonight since Sapa is the only place that has western food while the rest of the trip is just local food. I just don't know what is his problem about not understanding that the local food in Vietnam is almost similar to the food in Brunei and I do not have problem eating the local food or chicken everyday in Vietnam. So in the end, I had dinner at 6.30pm in an Italian restaurant and ordered spaghetti which was a quick simple meal. After dinner, I just went back to the homestay and by the time I had shower and got ready for bed at 9pm, the Singaporean group came back and started being noisy again. It was a good thing I brought my ear plugs with me to block out the noisy sound.
Friday (13/12/2019) - Today was more foggy than the last 2 days. After having breakfast, I checked out and Mr Bien took me to where the car was parking near to Ham Rong. Then we went up Ham Rong and saw the statues of the 12 Vietnamese zodiacs which is similar to the Chinese zodiac except that they have the cat instead of rabbit, flowers, the view of the Dragon's mouth and Sapa town. It was getting hot though so by noon time, we came down and then head on to Bac Ha.
1 hour later, we arrived at Lao Cai. After having lunch, we walked to Lao Cai train station since it was still early and had a look. The train is older than the train from Surabaya to Yogyakarta but tourists still use this train to come to Sapa from Hanoi.
10 minutes later, we arrived at Lao Cai border which is the gateway between Vietnam (Lao Cai) and China (Hekou). During daytime, people can only cross the bridge by foot to go shopping at Hekou and at night time, only cargo trucks were allowed to pass through. There is a small temple next to the border called Den Mau Temple. Apparently, I was not the only one wanting to see this border as there were a lot of tourists there taking pictures of the border stone.
Then we drove to Bac Ha which took almost 2 hours to reach. We stopped by the Hoang A Tuong ancient palace first before going to our accommodation. This palace has French and Chinese architecture but unfortunately, it was not maintained since the ceilings in a lot of rooms on the 1st floor was leaking. Built in 1914 and completed in 1921, this palace was owned by a Tay ethnic family who ruled 70% population of the Hmong people. After checking out all the rooms in this palace, we went to where we will be staying.
Our accommodation in Bac Ha is at Huy Trung Homestay which is pretty cosy and even have a small swimming pool on the 1st floor. There was also heater lamps inside the toilet and the heater machine which can be used at night if the room is cold. The owner, Huy Trung have 2 daughters and the wife is a teacher who had to attend a course in another town 3 hours away and will only be back tomorrow. He is also a freelance architect who design houses.
Dinner was cooked by Trung and his helper where the vegetables were mainly grown from their garden. We at with him, his helper and his 2 daughters. After dinner, it was time to rest in the cosy bedroom but the air was damp and cold (no wonder there was a heater machine in the room to use).
Saturday (14/12/2019) - Today after having sour noodle for breakfast together with Trung , we left for Cancau market which is 1 hour drive away. As we approached the market, we saw many ethnic people walking towards it, some even walking with their buffalo for sell. It's actually one of the most colourful market I have ever seen with different ethnic women wearing their traditional clothes. The market is not that big but there were a lot of sellers and people eating or buying their daily needs since this market is only held on Saturdays.
You can see illegal money changers who change Chinese Yuan to Vietnamese dong since a lot of the ethnic people cross the nearby border to work in China illegally. There were things which I have not seen before like the roots which was said to be used in alcohol making and the ethnic jewelleries as well as the clothes. There was also an area for buffaloes and this is where you can see most of the men over there either talking to their friends, checking out the buffaloes or trying to negotiate with the seller for a better deal. It was also a place for the youngsters from different villages to dress up and meet while trying to exchange contact numbers with the opposite sex. I can't help but notice that a lot of the ethnic women in the market who were carrying their baby on their back were mostly still teenagers as they don't even look like they are in their 20s yet.
By lunch time, we drove back to the town and stopped by Bac Ha temple first which was built to worship the two brothers Van Uyen Vu and Van Mat Vu who made Bac Ha become fertile and densely populated. It's a small temple so there was nothing much to see so after a while, we head to a restaurant in a hotel to have our lunch. We ate with the owners and the workers of the hotel as Mr Bien seemed to be close to them. I had the chance to eat horse meat which I was thought was beef because Mr Bien did not tell me about it until the next day.
After lunch, we went to Ban Pho village which consist of Hmong people. This village used to be famous for making corn wine. However, the factory for making corn wine has closed down but I was told that each household still make their own corn wine. After walking around the village and enjoying the peaceful, quiet scenery of village life, we slowly walked back to town.
The distance of Ban Pho village to town was not very far as we managed to walk all the way to where an expo (which is like a small consumer fair) was held. We went and checked out the stuff they were selling which was not that expensive. There were clothes, blankets, household items, electrical goods, snacks, etc. By the time we reached to the homestay by foot, it was just 3pm. There were 4 other guests who have just arrived at the homestay. The air was very damp even for a sunny day so the clothes that I had washed the night before had not dried yet even though I had hung it outside the room. Since it was still early and there was nothing much to do, we just relax in our room and waited for dinner. The air was already getting colder than yesterday even before the sun start to set. Dinner was at 7pm and 2 of the guests ate with us. While eating, I got to know them where 1 of them is a Vietnamese girl who was born and raised in Sydney but currently living in London for the past 5 years with her British female friend also from London. We exchanged information on places we have been as they started from the south while I started from Hanoi and it was a good talk. We ended up talking until about 8.30pm before we called it a night since they were also tired from the train ride they took the night before from Hanoi to Lao Cai.
Sunday (15/12/2019) - Today, we had breakfast at 8am before checking out of the homestay. We went to check out the famous Bac Ha Sunday market. By the time we reached to this market, it was just 8.45am and the people (both the locals and tourists) had also just arrived at the market. This market is more bigger than Cancau market but this market is more catered towards foreign tourists whereas Cancau market is catered for the the local ethnic people's needs.
The things sold in this market are quite similar to those in Cancau market but with more choices. There were more animals sold here than in Cancau market and they were spread out according to the items. The buffalo area was across the river and very crowded so we did not go and check out until the end. By the time we went around the whole market, it was already 10am and getting hot.
So we head on to Ha Giang (pronounced as Hazang by Vietnamese). It was a long drive so 2 hours later, we stopped by a sleepy town to have lunch before heading on.
We finally reached to Ha Giang 2 hours later, but before we checked into the hotel, we went to Thon Tha Village, belonging to the Tay ethnic. The houses are different from the Hmong and Black Thai ethnic and the environment is pretty clean since it was selected as a tourism culture village so that tourists can go there and stay. Since it is a small village and there was nothing much to do other than looking at the scenery, we then went to Ha Giang town to stay for the night.
This town is pretty quiet and the area around Royal Hotel where I was staying was surrounded by buildings but you can hardly see people on the street. This is the first time I saw a cat at the hotel as it was just sitting on the sofa while I was waiting to check in. Since it was still early and Mr Bien had arrange to have dinner at 6.30pm, I had time to relax. While waiting, I heard the cat crying outside my door and when I opened the door, it had just came up from the stairs. So I let it in and apparently, this cat is living in this hotel and is very used to people since it made itself comfortable on my bed. Unfortunately I had to let it out when it was time to go out for dinner.
We just walked by foot since the town was not very big. There were not many cars on the road and only few people walking like us. After searching for a place to eat, we finally settle for 1 restaurant where there were a lot of people eating. Outside the restaurant just by the roadside, a lady was selling a Vietnamese sweet dessert called che troi nuoc or what we call tang yuan in Chinese which is basically glutinous rice balls filled with mung bean paste. After dinner, we walked back to our hotel and went to sleep since we will have a long car ride tomorrow.
Monday (16/12/2019) - Today after breakfast, we started our journey to Dong Van. After 1 hour, we reached to Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark which consist of a lot of rocky mountains. Due to the rocky nature of the mountains, there were not many villages around as people find it hard to grow anything here. Dong Van consist of 4 districts which is Meo Vac, Dong Van, Yen Minh and Quan Ba.
As we pass through the Quan Ba Pass, we reached to the highest point of Quan Ba district which is known as Quan Ba Heaven Gate to take the view of the winding road through the rocky mountain. I did not get car sick like when we went to Benguet in June this year but with all the winding curves, it just makes you sleepy so I slept. 30 mins later, we saw the famous Quan Ba Twin Mountains (also known as Fairy Mountains or Fairies breasts).
We then stop at Lung Cam village, a famous village in Dong Va, located in the Sung La Valley. There are 3 ethnic groups living here which are the Hmong, Lo Lo and Han. This village is made famous when one of the house was used to shoot the award-winning movie 'Story of Pao'. There are altogether 61 households living in this village. Tourists always stop by this village to check out the house of Pao.
1.5 hours later, we stopped at a restaurant to eat which was good so that we can take a break from the winding roads. I didn't eat much though as I only had 1 bowl of rice and already felt full. It must be because of the heavy head from all the curves.
After lunch, we head on again to Sa Phin, a tiny village in Dong Van to see Vuong's castle. Vuong was the leader of the Hmongs living in Dong Van. The house costed 150 billion VND (US$7.5 million today) back in the days when it was built in 1919 to 1928. The 2 storey "castle" has Chinese architectural design with terracotta tiles for the roof and ironwood that came from Yunnan for the pillars and roof beams since it was built by skillful craftsmen from Yunnan along with the best of the Hmong workers. Now the house is already 112 years old and is still standing.
From the castle, we then head to Lung Cu flag border which is located at the last frontier of northern Vietnam. 3.3km away from this flag tower is Yunnan (China) border. From the car park there are 400 steps upwards to the tower which was built on top of Rong Mountain but since it was getting late, we took the electric car instead to at least 3/4 of the way already. Then we had to climb some more steps before reaching to the tower.
The 30m flag tower with the large Vietnamese flag flying with the strong wind blowing looks very impressive. There were a lot of local as well as foreign tourists wanting to see the last frontier of Vietnam. The 360 view from the top of the tower will reward your effort of climbing up those steps. You can see the mountain areas of Yunnan which look so close by yet so far. A new temple is in the process of being constructed near to this tower. We did not spend too long at Lung Cu flag tower as we had to get back before it got dark since the driver was not familiar with the winding stony road.
By the time we reached to Hoa Cuong Hotel in Dong Van 1.5 hour later, it was already dark even though it was just 6pm. We rested for a while before heading out for dinner at 7pm. Dinner was typical Vietnamese cuisine.
After that we went and checked out the expo which was the same one as we went to see in Bac Ha. However, since this time we went at night, there were singing performance and Mr Bien said we must go and see because it is the one and only singing entertainment in the mountain province. Not many people bought the stuff at the expo but the locals just sat on the chairs and tables provided to enjoy the singing while drinking beer and eating some snacks on sticks. We stayed there until like about 9.30pm before heading back to the hotel.
Tuesday (17/12/2019) - Today after breakfast, we left Dong Van to Cao Bang at around 8.30am. It was going to be another long drive through mountains and winding roads again. However, unlike yesterday, the roads were in much better condition even though there were not many villages. On the way, we stopped by Ma Pi Leng pass before heading on to Bao Lac. Since it was a long drive, we stopped 1.5 hours later when we saw a small roadside market for the nearby villages just to stretch our legs. 1 hour later after reaching Bao Lac, we stopped to have lunch as there were no other places to eat after that. It was so boring with nothing much to see or do that the only thing to do in the car was just sleeping.
We finally reached Cao Bang city and checked into Sunny Hotel at 4.20pm. That's about 6+ hours of driving on the road. After taking a shower and resting for a while, we head out to have dinner at 6.30pm near to the market. The weather was not that cold compared to the other places and the wind was just cool. Fortunately, there were no more long drives after today.
Wednesday (18/12/2019) - Today was more of a relaxing day as we only have 2 places to go. After breakfast, we head to Ban Gioc waterfall. On the way, we stopped by at Phuoc Sen village belonging to the Lung ethnic people who are blacksmiths. They make knifes and swords out of used car steels as well tin. I just bought a rectangle shaped knife which is not found in Brunei. The stainless steel chopping knife is very good quality and very heavy but quite expensive as they cost 200,000 VND (about B$12.50) and the knife i bought cost 100,000VND (B$6.25) which is considered pretty expensive for a small cutting knife.
We finally arrived at Ban Gioc waterfall 1 hour later and the view was magnificent. Located on the Quay Son river between the border of China (Daxin County, Guangxi) and Vietnam (Cao Bang province) Ban Gioc waterfall is the 4th largest waterfall in the world along an international border. It consist of 2 waterfalls and with a height of 30m and 300m wide, Ban Gioc waterfall is the widest waterfall in the whole of Vietnam.
Since this waterfall is half in Vietnam and half in China, tourists from both countries can go on the bamboo rafts to the base of the waterfalls but no one is allowed to step foot on the opposite side of the land where they came from. There were a lot of tourists on both the Vietnamese and China side. After taking photos on land, we went for the 15 minute boat ride towards the waterfall and passing near China land. It was fun and interesting and I'm glad that it's worth the long hours of boring car rides just to get here.
After Ban Gioc waterfall, we went for lunch first before going up Phat Tich Truc Lam Ban Gioc pagoda, located on Phia Nham mountain which is only 500m away from Ban Gioc waterfall. There was no one at the temple except for us since the road leading up to the temple was quite steep.
From aerial view, one can see that the main Ban Gioc waterfall consist of 3 levels.
After taking enough photos of the magnificient Ban Gioc waterfall, we head to Nguom Ngao Cave. Nguom Ngao Cave was named by the Tay ethnic community which means cave of tigers in their language since the cave was inhabited by ferocious tigers in the past. This cave was discovered in 1921 and is considered as one of the most beautiful caves in Vietnam. It is over 2 km long but only the first 1km is open to visitors. This limestone cave is filled with stalactites and stalagmites that is formed by an underground river thousands of years ago. After visiting the cave, we head back to Cao Bang city.
By the time we got back to the hotel, it was 5pm so we rested until 6.30pm before heading out for dinner. We couldn't decide what to eat at first so after walking for some distance and checking out the eateries, we finally decided to head back near to our hotel as there was a roadside hotpot stall. It had just open for business as they do not open during day time since people have to side on the walkway. So after we sat down and ordered out hotpot, more and more people came and ate also. I had not realise that Vietnamese also eat fertilized duck eggs like the Filipinos until the driver asked me whether if I wanted it before he ate it. In the Philippines, it is call "balut", in Vietnam, it is called hot vit lon. You tend to see unexpected things in unexpected places.
Thursday (19/12/2019) - Today we started off at 9am to Lang Son. I noticed that there was no sun at all and the sky looked gloomy. The weather was comfortable but colder than before and Mr Bien said a new cold front wind had just arrived from China so it will be drizzling and gloomy for the next few days. I am glad that the weather was mostly clear and sunny during most part of my journey around northern Vietnam and we have covered the important places before the rain came or else it would just spoil all the photos.
2.5 hours later, we reached to Tan Thanh border gate and had lunch there before checking out the border. This Vietnamese border leads to Guangxi province and unlike the other borders we have been before, the shops in the China border starts just next to the China custom. On the Vietnamese side, there were a lot of shops just before the border doing wholesale business of clothes, shoes, electronics and appliances from China.
After checking out the custom border, we walked to Tan Thanh Pagoda which is 550m away from the custom border. On the way, we saw people packing stuffs which was bought in bulks into a bus which will be transported to the buyer elsewhere in Vietnam. That is how big wholesale business is at Tan Thanh border. There was also a new mall building being constructed not far from the temple where the wholesalers are supposed to move from their existing place in the future.
Since we were the only ones at the temple, we only heard the sound made by the wind chimes which was very serene. After going around to check different halls of the temple, the local Vietnamese tourists started to arrive and made a lot of noise. So we walked back to the wholesale market area and checked the things they sell. I bought working socks which only cost 30,000 VND for 10 pairs which is less than B$1.85 where as in Brunei, 3 pairs already cost double the price.
On the way to Lang Son city, we stopped at control post going towards Dong Dang border gate but we were not allowed to go further as it was only for cargo trucks to pass through. So we went on and reached to Huu Nghi (Friendship Pass) International border gate. This gate is the most popular crossing where the Vietnamese go to China (Pingxiang, Guangxi) and and the Chinese come into Vietnam. I am surprised that this border is like going through an airport as there were scanners to scan whatever the people want to bring across before they walk by foot to go across the China border. Surprisingly, there is also a duty free shop on the way towards the border but not many people go in there as they were rushing to cross to China.
We were able to walk until the border line which separate Vietnam from China. Apparently, we were not the only visitors who were not crossing the border as there were also visitors from China side who just wanted to look at the border stone. This is the closest border that I have been to throughout this journey as I finally put my foot into China without having to go through the customs. So many chances to cross into China but yet I didn't do so as it was not part of my plan but it was interesting to see and know the different borders and see modern China buildings.
30 mins later, we reached to Then and now Homestay in the city. It has a very small compound and it is a very narrow 3 storey house. It was not too bad as I had one of the private room while Mr Bien and the driver stayed in the dorm style room. However, the only problem is that there was nothing much to do. We decided to do the night market tonight even though we have nothing much plan for tomorrow since we did all the border gates today. But since the weather was going to be cold for the next few days, tomorrow night would probably be even colder! The room I am staying in was already getting cold even around 4.30pm. We had our dinner at the homestay at 6.30pm and we had to share the table with 3 other guests who were also staying there.
We then head out to Kylua night market. It was not far from our homestay so we walked by foot. The building looks like a typical Asian wet market but instead of selling vegetables, fruits or fish, they were selling clothes on the 1st floor and electronics on the ground floor. There were not many people shopping there, probably because the locals shop in other places for these stuff. On the way back to our homestay, I stopped at a 24 hour mart and checked out their milk section and guess what I came across! Durian yoghurt and they only cost less than B$1.83 for a set of 4! The taste of Mongthong was delicious and I wish I could buy them back to Brunei but that would not be possible as I will be staying overnight in Singapore before going back to Brunei. I never imagine that there would be durian flavoured yoghurt before. I should try to make it one day.
Friday (20/12/2019) - Today is going to be a relaxing day as we have covered all the places listed on the itinerary. So after breakfast, we started walking from the homestay at 9am. Fortunately there was no sun so the weather was cloudy and cool. We walked to Di Tich Nui Phai Ve, the flag tower in Lang Son. It is not as tall as the Lung cu flag tower in Ha Giang but on the top, we could see the whole 360° view of Lang son city.
Then we went to Dong Kinh market where they sell electronics on the ground floor, shoes on 1st floor and clothes on the 2nd floor. There were some interesting stuff they sell but the price they set is high so you need to bargain. The women's winter coats were fashionable as they came from China but not much use in Brunei unless you travel to cold countries. Mr Bien ended up buying a leather jacket.
Then we walked to Nhi Thanh cave which is pretty big but the sewage smell is also pretty strong since the drainage from the city goes to the river which flows through this cave. The cave is pretty empty compared to the Nguom Ngao cave in Cao Bang. The only thing nice about it was that they put in coloured lights along the way so it looks very nice in the dark.
Since it was almost lunch time, we decided to have lunch first and waited for our driver to join us before we head on to Nhi Tam Thanh. Nhi Tam Thanh is another cave where the Vietnamese go and pray to the mountain Gods. This cave is much bigger and cleaner than Nhi Thanh cave as there was no flowing river so there was no sewage smell.
Then we went to see the human shaped To Thi mother statue carrying her baby at To Thi Mountain which has a legend of the wife and child waiting for her husband to come back until she turned into a rock. In order to see this statue, we had to walk through the remnants of the Mac Dynasty fortress which is a big area with few mountains. We walked to one of the mountains with steps because we thought it would lead to the To Thi mother statue and climbed the endless steps. Instead when we reached to the top, we saw another part of Lang Son city. Oh well, it was a good workout after all the eating throughout the trip.
Then as we walked back towards the remnants of the Mac Dynasty fortress, we decided to try the mountain near to it and true enough, there stand the human shaped To Thi mother statue carrying her baby from far. When we finally reached near to the statue, there was an incense burner for people to stick their burning joss stick after worshipping To Thi.
Since it was still early, we decided to go back to Dong Kinh market again as the driver and Mr Bien wanted to look for something. There were some interesting things which I could buy like the fairy lights but I had to think of my luggage weight as I want to buy the Vietnamese white beans and do a bit of shopping in Singapore. The driver ended up buying a leather jacket, Mr Bien bought an Adidas track suit and both of them bought decorative lights to decorate for the new year celebration. After shopping, we went back to the homestay to rest before having our last dinner together since we will head back to Hanoi tomorrow.
Saturday (21/12/2019) - Today we will travel to Hanoi so we left the homestay by 8am without having breakfast there as they take a long time to prepare it. After checking out, we head for a nearby eatery to have breakfast which is rice noodle with crab balls. I never have crab balls made of real crab meat before but it was so delicious! Today was such a gloomy rainy day. Fortunately, it only took us 3.5 hours to reach to Hanoi.
Since we arrived to MayFlower hotel before noon time and the check in time is at 2pm, we left our luggage and started the street food tour while waiting for my room to be prepared. We walked to the Dong Xuan market first so that Mr Bien can show me the white beans I was looking for. It's not a big market but the whole place is very packed with stuffs inside. On the 1st floor, they sell clothes and textile while on the ground floor, there were souvenir section, dried food section, grain section and decorative section. Then as you head out of the market building, there were the wet market and vegetable area. After showing me where to get the beans and asking for the price, we then walked on around the old quarter area so that Mr Bien can show me what is around those area before heading towards Hoan Kiem lake.
Around the Hoan Kiem lake, Mr Bien let me try the Vietnamese rice paper salad made with julienne green mango, peanuts, fresh mint, basil, rice paper strips, chili powder and dried beef jerky strips. I have to say that it's one of the most delicious dish that I have tried so far and it is very addictive actually! After snacking, Mr Bien showed me where to go and what to see along the way so that I can explore around on my own in the next few days.
As we passed by one road, we stop to try fried snacks which was pretty similar to the ones in Brunei but different fillings. It's a very popular small shop where the place was packed with people having afternoon snack. Mr Bien ordered one of each fried stuffs which I have not tried throughout the trip.
We then slowly walked towards the famous train street to see but now they have put notices that no tourists are supposed to walk or take photos on the train tracks and they have stopped the cafes from operating. As tourists, we can still walk at our own risk since there was no train passing by at that time but all the tour guides were waiting for their clients elsewhere as they would get into trouble if they are caught with the tourists. I would have to come back again on another day at 3pm to see the train passing by.
Along the way, we stop to try the famous bun cha which is a must try for all tourists. Personally, the meat is a bit too sweet for me and I am not really into rice noodle so I still prefer pho over bun cha. At least I tried it though I wouldn't be ordering it again anytime soon.
We then walked to the first National University of Vietnam called the Temple of Literature which followed the Confucius teachings. Built in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, the Temple of Literature became Vietnam's first national "university" at that time. This temple also conducted the Imperial Academy for those who want to become the Mandarins by passing the exam set by the king.. Although the original building has been destroyed by the American bombing, they have tried to built back similar structure but not entirely the same. You can also see the Turtle steles with the names of the people who passed the royal exams which was found during the excavations.
After a lesson of history and since it was still early for dinner, we went back to the hotel to check in while waiting for Mr Bien to sort out his stuff. By about 5pm, we went out again and before dinner, we went to try the original egg coffee at Cafe Giang who was the inventor of this coffee. I am not a coffee drinker but this egg coffee is somewhat sweet and delicious. The only problem with this narrow cafe was that it was very packed with tourists on both floors and there is no windows at all so ventilation was very bad.
Then we walked on to find dinner. It was probably a mistake to try the egg coffee first because I became full half way eating dinner. Then again, there was the woman frying food at the corner of our table so smoke was blowing to my face.
After dinner, we went for sweet dessert. I had mango sticky rice with coconut ice cream which was not very sweet so it was just nice. Since Mr Bien had to go back home which is about 2 hours away, we split ways while I stayed around Hoan Kiem lake.
There was an outdoor performance by a local group which seemed to be very famous among the youth. After watching the performance for a while and the Hoan Kiem lake at night, I decided to check out the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Each day there are 5 regular show times so I decided to watch it on Monday at 5.20pm after going to the train street and at least I can have dinner around that area before going back to the hotel. I chose the Type 1 ticket which is close to the stage and apparently, there were only 2 seats left so I took the one in the middle but on the 4th row. For 200,000 dong, they also give a set of water puppet postcards.
After that, I checked out the night market where they sold souvenirs, foods, bags, clothes, shoes, mobile covers, etc. I only bought table runners because in Cancau market, 1 table runner cost 300,000 VND (B$18.60) but here, the similar type of table runner only cost 150,000 VND (B$9.30) and I managed to bargain until 120,000 VND (B$7.40). Then when I decided to buy 3, I bargained some more so in the end, the seller agreed to 350,000 VND (B$21.65). After checking until the end of the night market, I walked back to the hotel. The decoration shops near to the hotel were selling Christmas decorations. If my luggage was not that full, I would have bought some of the nice decorations.
Sunday (22/12/2019) - Today is my last tour with Mr Bien. We started the tour at 8.30am to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The queue was long but not too bad as it kept on moving. There were a lot of people, local and foreign tourists as well as school students coming to see Ho Chi Minh.
Security was strict but I managed to take a few snapshots here and there. However, we were not allowed to take any picture of Ho Chi Minh inside. It was kind of eeire actually seeing a dead body of 50 years already still perfect like as if he is just sleeping with 4 guards guarding his glass coffin and the whole room was pitch black except for the lights inside the glass casing.
After that we went around the complex to see the President Palace, Ho Chi Minh's House and the One Pillar pagoda. For the older generation, Ho Chi Minh will always live in their heart but to the new generation, he is not a significant figure to them anymore as they did not experience the hardship like the older generations.
Since it was still early for lunch, we went to Vietnam Museum Of Ethnology first which was interesting because they talk about the 54 different ethnics in Vietnam. It's like a shortcut to learning all the ethnic groups if you don't have the time to go to the whole of Vietnam to learn about them and their culture.
Before going to the Vietnamese Women Museum, we stopped at a restaurant around that area to have lunch first. After lunch, Mr Bien brought me to the museum and then we said out goodbyes. I stayed at the museum until almost 4pm. It's a nice museum even though it is small but the gallery is about Vietnamese women of different ethnic groups and their role at home and to their country.
Then, I was planning to walk to the Opera House at first but after walking for a while and finding it a bit far, I decided to walk back to Dong Xuan market instead to get the white beans. As I walked towards Hoan Kiem lake, part of the road was already closed but this time, there were no stalls set up. I did not go around to this area last night so I found the famous Trang Tien Ice Cream. While eating and walking, people use the closed roads for children to drive toy cars around, people performaning on the street like dancing K-pop, playing games and just walking around taking photos.
When I reached to Dong Xuan market, it was a bit after 5pm but everyone inside the market was already busy preparing to close. Even the stalls that sell grains have all closed. That means I have to go back tomorrow morning to get it or else I don't have anymore time to do so. I went around the market to check out the stuffs they were selling and as I walked out to the back part of the market, there were now more people selling fruits and vegetables on the road. After looking around, I slowly walked back to the hotel to rest a bit before coming out again to have dinner.
I couldn't decide what to have for dinner but I wanted something western for a change. So I kept on walking towards the old quarter area until I came across a pizza restaurant and decided to try it. I thought I couldn't finish the 24 inch pizza but I did because the flour wasn't filling like Pizza Hut's crust. Delicious and not oily at all. After that, I slowly walk back to the hotel, passing by many night market stalls.
Monday (23/12/2019) - Today I had no specific plan except to see the Water Puppet show at 5.20pm. So there was no rush. I came down to have breakfast after 8.30am and then went out to Dong Xuan market first to buy the white beans. Vietnamese people sure know how to hike the price for foreigners because when I went with Mr Bien on Saturday to search for it, the lady said it was 32,000 VND per kg. When I asked today, she said 50,000 VND per kg and she didn't want to reduce the price. So I tried my luck and ask another stall not far away. Fortunately the lady had the beans and was only selling it for 40,000 VND per kg. I only bought 4kg because it was heavy and my luggage was already heavy. I had to go back to the hotel to pack the beans and all my stuff since I have changed my room to city view suite which is bigger than the deluxe room.
After sorting out all my stuff, I went out to try the famous Banh Mi 25. It was not really expensive. 1 baguette sandwich with drinks costed less than B$2. I forgot how crispy the Vietnamese baguette is on the outside!.
After that i wanted to see the ancient Hanoi house but checked that it is probably closed for lunch so I decided to go to Hoan Kiem lake first just to kill time before going back to the ancient house. On the way, I stopped by St Joseph's Cathedral just to take photos of the huge Christmas tree and decorations like the other tourists and locals. We couldn't go inside the church as it was not open.
I was thinking of having lunch but I was still half full so I decided to have it later. Instead, I went and checked out Trang Tien Plaza which house all of the branded goods. Pretty pricey and not many shoppers.
Then I came across the statue of Ly Thai To near to Hoan Kiem lake which I didn't notice yesterday even though I walked by that road as it was slightly blocked by trees near the roadside and it is not located exactly right next to the road. Ly Thai To was the first emperor of Vietnam from 972 - 1028 who founded the first dynasty in 1009.
After that, I walked back to the old quarter and looked for the ancient house. I actually missed it and had to go back because the house were in between all the shops and it was not very obvious. It's a small house with 1 living room and 1 bedroom on the 1st floor. On the ground floor, there is the living room, tea area, kitchen and bedroom. The design and furniture reminded me of ancient China.
Then I decided to walk to Train street, this time to Le Duan train street instead of the one nearer to the lake. From the ancient house it was about half hour walk so I was rushing to reach there before 3pm as there was supposed to be a train passing by at that time. Unfortunately after the long walk, we were not even allowed to go and walk in the lane between the railway track. What a waste of time! So I had to walk back towards the lake and have my late lunch at McDonald's.
By 5pm, I slowly walked toward Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and reached there at almost 5.20pm. They had just started a bit and because my seat was in the center row and there were people already, I had to sit at the end of the row instead. Oh well, at least the puppets were entertaining. After the show, I went to find place to eat and then go back to the hotel as soon as possible since I have to pack all my stuff for tomorrow's trip to Halong bay.
Tuesday (24/12/2019) - Today, I was the first one to be picked up for the Halong Bay Cruise. After picking up people from various hotels and the Opera House, we finally head towards Halong Bay at 9am. Our young guide is called Dwe (pronounced as Zwe). It was a foggy day in Hanoi so we couldn't even see both sides of the bridge as we passed a river. Hopefully the sky would be clear in Halong Bay. Going to Halong Bay was at least 3 hours drive. 1 hour later, we stopped at Hong Ngoc Shopping Centre for toilet break and stretching our legs. There was a disability handicraft center which provide free vocational training and job creation for people with disabilities.They make embroidery, clothing, ornamental carving, lacquer, ceramic, gemstones and jewelry. At the back of the handicraft area is a small shop selling overpriced Vietnamese food, coffee and imported snacks. There is also a restaurant as well. After 25 minutes break, we head on to Halong Bay.
There are 2 piers at Halong Bay. The old pier are for smaller day trip boats whereas the second pier is newer and for big boats which do overnight trips. We had to wait for the captain to register all of us before we could leave the pier. Then we got on a tender boat which brought us to the Royal Palace Cruise ship.
We had a warm welcome from the crews of the boat. While waiting for the boat to move, we were given a welcome drink and we checked out the boat. I didn't recognise the boat from far because in the photos, it looks like a junk boat but this is because they didn't let the sail down today. Hopefully they will do it tomorrow. I paid US$180 for a single cabin ocean view so it was on the second floor which has a better view. I saw a bigger room on the first floor with a small living room which was definitely more expensive than mine.
At 1pm, lunch was served so we sat together in groups. I got to know a very nice couple, Laurie who is from Wales and Benard from Switzerland but they live in London. There is also Dominic and Crystal, both Filipinos who live in Washington. We were too busy eating lunch and talking even though we saw a lot of beautiful limestone mountains as the boat sailed on. We were then told that we will be going for kayaking at 3pm so we had to change since we will get wet. I was thinking twice whether to do it or not since it normally requires 2 person. Since Laurie was too tired from their 12km walk in Sapa yesterday and Benard wanted to do kayaking so that he could take photos, I ended up doing it with him.
The tender boat sent us to the kayak area which is also a pearl farm. We didn't see how the pearls were cultivated as we headed straight for kayaking. It was fun and relaxing but you get tiring arms of course. We managed to paddle and take photos which was nice. Then we head back to the ship and rested for a while as the boat head to Titop island.
Ti Top island was named by Ho Chi Minh after the Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov who visited this island with him in 1962. This island has a man made beach and facilities which you can rent like snorkeling gears, deck chairs, food and drinks. To reach to the view point of the mountain, one has to climb about 450 steps. The climb up to the top was worth the aerial view of Halong Bay. After taking enough photos, we slowly head down and waited for the captain and male guests to stop playing football before we head back to Royal Palace cruise.
We were given time to take a shower before dinner at 7pm. Once again, there were different choices of food. Since in was Christmas eve, after dinner, Dwe introduced a game called the cucumber game. This game involves a cucumber being tied at the waist in front of you and the goal is to use the cucumber to knock down a can of beer while being blindfolded. Only 1 sporting teenager boy tried it out, which was funny but this game turned off a number of people so some of them left even though the winning price was alcohol.
Since no one wanted to play the cucumber game anymore even after Dwe showed how it was done, the program for the night turned to singing karaoke. An Australian mom and daughter sang Dancing Queen but after that, since no one else wanted to sing, Dwe had to sing an English and a Vietnamese song. By 8.30pm, we decided to head in to sleep because no one was interested in playing the cucumber game nor singing.
Since it was still early to go to bed, some of them tried out squid fishing. I went to see how it is done but after a while of waiting for someone to catch one as I have never seen a live squid being caught before with a fishing rod, no one got lucky so I went to my cabin to relax. Our boat was quiet as I could hear music blasting from other boats celebrating Christmas. We were tired anyway and we also have to wake up early for breakfast tomorrow at 6.45am.
Wednesday (25/12/2019) - Today, I woke up before 6am and I could have joined or watched tai chi if I wanted to but since it was still dark, I went back to sleep. By 6.05am, when it was slightly brighter, I woke up and got ready for breakfast that was served at 6.45am. After breakfast, we got ready to visit the Surprising Cave which is the most beautiful cave in Halong Bay. It was bigger than the cave in Cao Bang and there were a lot of shapes formed by the limestones. Dwe told us the reason why this cave is called Surprising Cave is because when we look at the shapes formed by the limestones, we would be surprised and be amazed by them which is pretty true. I could see all of the shapes ranging from dinosaur, a lady washing her hair, hanging legs, etc but of course it requires your mind to be imaginative also or else you will just see it as eroded rocks.
After heading back to Royal Palace Cruise, we got ready for check-out. After checking out, we just relax around and talk while waiting for the cooking demonstration. Dwe showed us how to make Vietnamese spring roll before we had our lunch. For westerners, they find it interesting as they have never done it before.
Christmas brunch was special. They have stuffed crab which was delicious and western food. Then we settled our bill and just waited for noon time where we will be sent back to the harbour.
After arriving at the harbour, we had to wait for our bus to pick us up. On the way back, we stopped at Hong Ngoc Shopping Centre again. This time I bought a Vietnamese made green tea and red bean Taiyaki ice cream. It was just nice as it is not sweet at all. Then we continued our journey back to Hanoi where they started to drop off each one of us.
It was nice to be back at the hotel. I did my final packing before going out for dinner. I decided to have dinner at the pizza restaurant I ate a few days earlier and on the way, I stopped by St. Joseph's Cathedral since it was Christmas day. The place was packed with locals and tourists and they have opened the church this time so that people can go in. I went in to see the interior and there was a choir group practicing even though there was no service at that time. After taking photos, I head on and went to the pizza place. It wasn't as crowded as few days before and after a family left, it was only me alone in the restaurant. It was nice to have the whole place to myself since I was sitting on the first floor looking down to the street and just seeing people walking by as it's my last night in Hanoi.
Thursday (26/12/2019) - Today, I am flying back to Singapore and my flight is at noon time. My complimentary airport transfer provided by Madam Moon Guesthouse came and picked me up. The airport was pretty small with not many things to see nor do. The shops selling souvenirs were also small and things were pretty expensive since they were sold in USD.
The plane finally landed in Singapore at 5.15pm. Since I did not have any luggage to bring out with me except for a hand carry bag for just an overnight stay, I headed straight to the place where I will be staying for the night. It was my first time using the MRT from the airport all the way to the city. With no luggage to drag, it was convenient and cheap but it takes up to an hour to reach your destination because of many stops . After checking in, I head out to look for the shop I was targeting to get some stuff from before I went to Burger King to have a quick dinner. I wanted to go to Tangs and Isetan but by the time I reached to Orchard Road, they had already closed so I just walked around Orchard Road and checked out the Christmas decorations before heading back to the hotel since my flight is very early the next morning.
Friday (27/12/2019): After waking up at 5am to get ready to go to the airport by 5.30am, it was a bit annoying to find out that the flight had been delayed 1 hour later when I checked in at the airport. On the other hand, it was a good thing because I was thinking of checking out Jewel. Unfortunately without much research, I thought Jewel could be accessed after we checked in but it turned out that it could only be accessed before checking in by going to Terminal 1. They should have put more signs so that people would know but I found out that I was not the only one who made this mistake. Since I had 2 hours to wait, I moved from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3 and then to Terminal 1 before coming back to Terminal 2 just to check out all the shops. We finally left for Brunei and arrived at 10.50am.
Overall, this trip has been a very long journey on the road, travelling about 3,416km from Hanoi and all the way back to Hanoi again. It has been a very interesting experience especially staying in mountainous areas where you get to see different ethnic people, learn about different cultures, see things which is not usual for you and the serene, peaceful boat cruise around Halong bay. It was also interesting to see all the borders going to neighbouring countries of Vietnam. What I miss most is the cool weather (not the freezing damp ones) where you don't even sweat at all while walking and the clear blue sky of Fanispan! Next trip to Vietnam would be to the central part.