Sunday, May 15, 2016

Wandering Juan in Vietnam

I wonder what my life would be like had I made different choices... or what my approaches in life would be had I never learned to travel. I wonder what I would become had I continued to hide myself and become overly introvert. I wonder. Travel changed me a lot. My restless feet and passionate heart have taken me to somewhere not only physically but spiritually as well. My soul longs to experience the realities on the road; the daily life in another part of the planet; and the uncommon lessons and wisdom.

Here is my wonderful travel experience in one of the countries in mainland Southeast Asia, a beautiful and memorable voyage to Vietnam. I was a wandering "Juan" in Vietnam! (Juan is the common name to refer to or represent a Filipino)

Captured a normal day in one of the busiest streets in Hanoi Old Quarter

Everything's ready:
Valid and unexpired passport. Itinerary. Pocket money including Dollar bills to be converted to Dong (the currency of Vietnam) once we reached Hanoi Airport. Wow, I became a millionaire instantly! Haha! Of course, that is because of the currency equivalent.

Just to note: No Visa is required for almost Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines.

One of my main reasons for traveling abroad is to climb a mountain. If you have followed this blog for quite a long time, you might be aware of that. Well, it's still about hiking and it happened that the highest mountain in the Indo-China Peninsula is in Vietnam, almost crossing the border of China. Indo-China is the mainland Southeast Asia which is literally named as such because the countries like Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Peninsular Malaysia lie between India and China. And there also lies, Mount Fansipan, at 3,143 MASL, is dubbed to be the roof of the said Indo-China area.

We were able to get a cheaper airfare for a 5-day Vietnam trip. The climb was the highlight, of course, but due to some practical reasons, we opted to just have an overnight climb at Fansipan and the remaining days to be spent on visiting other Vietnam areas. In this regard, we have explored the following places:

1. Hanoi
2. Lao Cai (a province wherein Sa pa town is located, the entry point to Fansipan)
3. Halong Bay, Quang Ninh province
4. Ho Chi Minh City

Not bad, right?

Day 1 - HANOI (22Apr 2016)

We landed at Noi Bai International Airport to get to our first stop, Hanoi. Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and the second largest city in the said country next to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The hotel that we booked is located at Hanoi Old Quarter giving us the advantage of the place such as reasonable nearness to the airport and train station as well as being able to explore and witness the richness of its culture and historical features. Hanoi Old Quarter is the main destination for tourists wherein colonial architecture and commercial business are what you can primarily find. Streets are jam-packed with lots of vendors of various commodities, coffee shops and other places for Vietnamese dining.

Taking a 7-seater car, as arranged by our  hostel, the five of us were able to explore some of the highlights of the Old Quarter including the Hoan Kiem lake (Oh, I forgot to take a picture  of it because I only got to view it from the car, no more time to drop by). Raining in the morning and due to limited time, we were only able to visit a very few destinations. Nevertheless, having toured by a private car, we were still able to witness a normal day in Hanoi.

A place of garden or similar to a park, a venue for memorials and pagodas -- that is the  Ho Chi Minh Masoleum Complex where we managed to visit Ho Chi Minh Museum and One Pillar Pagoda.

Due to heavy rains, we got stuck in the said place. But the brighter side was, we met a very kind vendor couple to whom we bought Hanoi bia hoi (beer) and these vendors gave us a lot of fruits and other kinds of local food for free. They even gave each of us free raincoats. Imagine that?  Refused to accept payments, one of my travel companions, Qitter, just offered his newly bought discounted wrist watch as a sign of thankfulness. Truly good things come even in the most unexplained and unfortunate events. Hehe!

We headed to the Temple of the Literature when the heavy rains stopped, making us see for ourselves some other temples for Buddhism which is part of the Vietnamese beliefs.

For lunch, the hotel staff recommended to us to dine in A New Day Restaurant located in one of the busiest and narrow streets of the Old Quarter. They serve satisfying Asian food, of course including Vietnamese cookery.

Convinced that we were able to have almost a complete picture of Hanoi, we opted to go back to our hostel to prepare for our check-out, get some rest and prepare our things for our climb.

We were given a privilege to leave our things at the hostel while waiting for our train ride schedule in the evening, We took a short walk at the nearby streets. There I felt the nostalgia. True enough, being a blend of Southeast Asian custom, Chinese influence and beautiful architectural designs obtained from colonial period, Hanoi is truly where you can travel back in time. 

To cap off the slightly tiring day of tour, we looked for Cafe Giang and experienced their famous egg coffee.

I was particularly amused at the coffee shops in Hanoi. Aside from its large number in most of the streets, it seems like you simply need to sit down and drink your order with their unique set up that comes with small tables and chairs that really portrays a good hangout for friends and fellow tourists. It is also very homey.

I thank one of our friends who had been to Hanoi for recommending us B & B Hanoi Hotel & Travel. The staff are very warm, accommodating and helpful. Breakfast is already included in our bookings. More than anything, they kept our things safe while we were in Lao Cai province for Fansipan climb. I became convinced with their slogan saying, "arrived as our guest and leave as a family." Kudos!

With Ms. Lisa, the hotel manager who patiently assisted us with all our needs
I would also highly recommended this hostel particularly to the backpackers. It's worth the money paid for the accommodation plus the kind and trusted people as mentioned. They also provide tour services for convenience. For booking and inquiries, please email: You can also browse their website:

Still part of our Day 1 was the portion of 8-hour long train ride to the Lao Cai province as we gear up for our Fansipan climb. At 8pm, the hotel staff hailed a taxi to transport us to the Tran Cuy Cap Station. Our time of departure was at 9:40PM. Speaking of time, Vietnam is ahead of us by one hour by the way.

Day 2 to 3 - LAO CAI PROVINCE FOR THE FANSIPAN CLIMB (23 - 24 Apr 2016)

Details of the climb are separately posted. You may go to this link:

Day 4 - HALONG BAY CRUISE (25 Apr 2016)

Due to tiredness from the climb, almost of us had a very deep sleep during the train ride from Lao Cai to Hanoi. At 6AM, we were able to come back to B&B Hanoi Hotel. We availed in advance of our free breakfast as we should be going to the airport early next day for our trip to Ho Chi Minh. For this particular day at 8AM, we were picked up by the Halong Bay tour guide and took us to the bus going to Quang Ninh province where Halong Bay is located. Together with the other foreign tourists, we geared up for the 4-hour trip to the said province.

We had a short stopover in a shop in Hai Duong that sells and houses various embroideries, sculptures and other artistic handicrafts made by disabled local people. Each piece of finish embroidered product is amazing like a painting. Very creative.

And because we were looking forward for a lunch on board at the Halong Bay Cruise, here's what I've got during the long bus travel -- a Vietnamese version of a childhood favorite, "Marie!" Haha!

After enduring some pain to our butts due to that lengthy ride, we finally reached Halong Bay. Tourist na tourist ang dating namin because we belonged to a tour group. LOL! For a USD40 worth of money, at least we had the convenience of just getting on board, dine with a sumptuous meal, enjoy the scenic bay views while having the cruise and explore the Dong Thien Cung (Thien Cung Cave).

Here's what we explored at the Thien Cung Cave. The cave is huge and just like the caves in the Philippines, there are amazing natural rock formations. Colorful man-made lighting was also added, I guess, to make something lively inside the cave.

But of course, the tour had to end. I believe it is more worthy of time if two or more days are allocated for this tour. One day cruise, though, is enough if anyone just wants just to have a reasonable glimpse of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

I emphasized this as the land travel is more than eight hours for a round trip and the one-day cruise package would only take about four hours. I believe a lot of activities await for a stay of more than one day

Day 5 - SHOPPING AT HO CHI MINH CITY (26 Apr 2016)

Yeah, you've read it, right. That was the only reason why we intended to fly to Ho Chi Minh all the way from Hanoi. We took the domestic flight via Viet Jet Air in the early morning of Tuesday, April 26. The flight was rescheduled two hours earlier due to some technical reason. But we're up to that! What we were so annoyed of was the cab driver dropping us off at the wrong airport despite repeating to him that to take us to the domestic airport. Do that to the people like us tired of a major climb and lack of sleep because of travelling for the past few days. How are we supposed to react to that? (Oh my! Our blood pressure were rising. Haha!) And so we're a bit rattled of becoming late. According to one of the few wide-awake persons in the dark, quiet and closed airport, the domestic airport is just a walking distance from there. However, instead of walking, as that is not advisable because we are not familiar of the airport, we called a taxi cab for a few dollars. The line at the counter was long when we arrived and the process was a bit slow.

Whew, fortunately we were able to board on time! Now, you would expect sleepy traveler-climbers like us who instantly fell asleep and dwell on respective dreams upon taking the plane seats. Thank God we had a smooth flight. After almost 3 hours, we landed on the city in the southeastern part of Indochina. Still Vietnam though. Hehe!

Thanks to the Grab kiosk at the airport for giving us an information that we could actually book a car transfer right through our fingertips.

In a few minutes of short travel to our hotel, we were given a picture of Ho Chi Minh. It's pretty much different from the setting at Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh is busier and noisier. Add to that the popularity of motor vehicles as common way of transportation.

I was so wrong at the thought that Ho Chi Minh is the capital city of Vietnam, rather it’s the largest city of that country. And Hanoi only comes next. After finding our budget hostel, we took a few minutes of rest and then we went out for breakfast. Shopping at the Benh Than Market came to the scene and actually occupied our day significantly. Just to note: be mindful and alert as some vendors are really aggressive in selling. They will really insist you to buy their stuff (we also experienced similar situations in Hanoi).

 And yes, that's the only destination that we had. Sadly, we were not able to see the Cathedral. By the way, some people in Vietnam are Catholics.

We crossed the streets, walked and saw a portion of the city. Aside from fulfilling our mission of shopping for coffee, outdoor backpacks and other pasalubong, all of us agreed to make time for rest and sleep at the hotel instead of wandering around the city. Hahaha! Our time of departure was at 1 AM of 27th April and we just made use of the remaining time to rest and pack our things up until leaving the city at 10pm.

By the way, shopping outdoor gears at the Benh Thanh Market, in my opinion, is tantamount to "buying at your own risk" You cannot always be assured of the items' authenticity. Two of my companions, though, bought long backpacks. As for me, I bought small and big The North Face body bags (VND 100,000 each) from the stores with discounted items as they put it. Haha! I didn't shop for some more because I had no baggage allowance in our flight back to Manila.

As noticed, we were sort of mobile on this trip. Time is always of the essence. Just like an amazing race. Haha!

To conclude, here's a copy of our actual expenses -- five days traveling four destinations, bulk  of which is from the airfare and Fansipan climb:


We haven't tried Bún chả, a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork and noodle. However, we were able to taste Banh Mi from the meals served before us. Banh Mi is a common Vietnamese bread. Well, there's a reason to go back. Plus I want to go back to Hanoi and experience again the "feels" of traveling back in time. Oooops, and re-visit the Cafe Giang! <wink!>

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