I'm on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Seoul leaving temporarily Southeast Asia to enjoy the autumn and visit Korea before it gets too cold in that region. Now I have the time to finish the second part of the Halong bay cruise we did with my GF last week.
Let’s recap. In the first Halong Bay post I discussed how we spent 2 days and 1 night on a vintage cruise on board of replica paddle steamer called the Emeraude. I highlighted the importance of shopping around and I described how we went to Halong city board the cruise, ate a yummy lunch and started to be amazed by the first glimpse on the huge limestones. The story continues.
4. Innocent Squatters.
After the delicious lunch we came back to our cabin to change our clothes and we decided to wander around the deck. We found some really nice rattan sunbeds just in front of the boat. So we took our shoes off and lay down feeling the sea breeze while we sailed towards some formations in the distance.
We even took some time to take pictures and shot some videos with farewell messages for our family. As we were laying down enjoying the view, a senior passenger came to our area to shot some pictures himself, but he had an uneasy look in his face, despite that we offered him a chair. He said something like “I’m fine” and then left our area not looking so happy.
2 minutes later an apologetic employee from the cruise came to us with a grim on her face and told us “I’m really sorry sir, madame, but the use of this terrace is reserved only for the guests of the suite”. After apologizing and explaining that we haven’t seen any sign, we left the place and went to enjoy the not so comfortable but still nice chairs next to our cabin
Now we had both smiles in our faces. We had just offered the posh suite guest a chair from his own squatted terrace! Now, just in our defense they forgot to put a chain around the terrace with a message explaining that this area was reserved for the suite.
5. Sung Sot Caves.
Around half an hour later they announced in the ship loudspeaker that we were going to anchor and that a small boat was going to take the interested passengers to the Sung Sot caves. We went down to the first floor hopped into the small vessel and made the short trip to the Bo Hòn Island. Those caves are also known as the surprise caves and they were indeed surprisingly overcrowded with tourists coming from a lot of different boats and cruises.
You need to climb 100 stone steps to get to the first chamber, but with the hoard of visitors getting to the cave at the same time, it was quite slow.
Don't get me wrong, the caves are massive and beautiful inside. They are composed of thousands of stalactites hanging from top of the caves. Many of those create different shapes that the guide happily highlights using a laser pointer. Let me share a couple of pictures from the cave:
Once you finish visiting all the chambers and distinguishing all the shapes, you get rushed back into the small boat and taken back to the Emeraude. We were welcomed with some crepes. Nice touch.
6. Anchoring: Amazing sunsets and sunrises.
After the caves experience we had some time to chill out until we arrived to the pearl farm. Here you could visit the place, do some kayaking or just swim on the sea. We picked the latter option, so once we put our swim gear on, we jumped into the sea using the platform in the back of the ship. We swam for 30 minutes or so, until we noticed a not so nice smell on the sea water. This was followed by a nice warm shower at our cabin.
Then the vessel started moving for a little while more and they announced it would stop and lower its anchor to stay on that place overnight. The sunset was setting in, giving us some amazing views of the sea with the limestones on the background and the other boats anchoring on the bay at the same time. This was a great picture taking moment:
After dinner they showed the movie "Indochine" on the main deck and we saw parts of it. Finally we went to bed and it was quite comfortable. When I woke up the day after, I noticed the sunrise was joined by a beautiful sky.
We had a really nice breakfast with multiple tropical fruits and juices and we started cruising again, coming back to the Halong bay city port. We settled the bill, packed our bags and layed down in some other sun beds we found to enjoy there the last part of the trip …
Something we were discussing with my GF once we came back to Hanoi was if 2 days was too short to enjoy Halong bay, but we found that if the tour is organized like the one I just described it is good enough to get a glimpse on this amazing place. We both agreed this was money well spent.
I just came back to my hotel from the airport. My girlfriend is coming back to Europe so I went with her to say good bye (sad face ). When I was coming back to the hotel I realized that during this trip I have tried most of the options to go back and forth to the HCMC airport. I thought it would be useful for a first time visitor to write a quick review on all of them including pros and cons. So here we go.
1. Bus 152.
|Description||The bus leaves every 15 minutes and will drop you in the Pham Ngu Lao area.|
|Cost||5000 - 10000 VND|
|Tagline:||Sharing economy Vietnamese style|
|Description||After installing the Uber application and login in, you select the pick up location and destination, requesting the car. The cost is charged to the credit card entered in the account.|
|Cost||101000 - 10800 VND|
3. Reputable taxi company (ie. Mai Linh or Vinasun).
|Tagline:||Traditional taxi service.|
|Description||You get the car in one of the taxi stands of the HCMC Airport. The departures area is less crowded and there a less touts pushing you to get their services.|
|Cost||140000 - 150000 VND (including 10000 extra charge)|
4. Private transport cars.
|Tagline:||Private transport cars with a defined fare.|
|Description||The have some booths next to the arrivals area in both the domestic and international terminals and offer a "taxi" service, that's rather a private car with a predefined fare you pay beforehand.|
|Cost||200000 - 300000 VND|
5. Shady company taxi.
|Tagline:||Enjoy the view while you are being ripped off.|
|Description||The taxis look legit, but they copycats of known companies with tampered taximeters ready to charge you as much as possible.|
|Cost||380000 - 400000 VND (or more)|
Conclusion: If you have time and a small bag, get the bus. It's not expensive and it works quite well. If you have a big bag and not so much time, give a try to Uber or one of reputable taxi companies.
I hope this guide can be useful for you. Guess which one did I use this morning ?
Yesterday we came back to Hanoi after spending 2 days cruising the Halong Bay and we are extremely happy and grateful we had the opportunity to visit such an amazing place.
We knew beforehand this bay was included in the Unesco list of world heritage sites, we read in different guides this place was one of the most beautiful ones in the northern part of Vietnam and that we were told this "descending dragon bay" was composed by thousands of limestones islets creating a very special and mystic place.
Despite this high expectations, we still were amazed by the hundreds of limestones we found on our way and by the beautiful sunset and sunrise we were able to experience on our cruise. We came back to Hanoi completely satisfied and delighted we embarked on a Halong Bay Cruise for 2 days and 1 night.
1. Online shopping around was very important.
Some weeks ago I wrote on this blog that knowledge is definitively a time saver when visiting a new city. This principle applies also to unknown attractions and in the case of the Halong Bay it turned to be one of the keys on getting a really good experience. We were a bit apprehensive because of nightmarish stories of cruise experiences depicted in blog posts and travel portal reviews.
There were quite some stories about tourists being ripped off in the jungle of “budget” offers with rude operators trying to cram as many tourists as possible in crappy and slow boats, offering horrible food and cabins with rats and sea water included.
After all this research we concluded that if we wanted to do this trip we wanted to do it, the nicest possible way but still without paying a fortune, so we selected of the best value options on the high end range. After some good hours comparing cruise alternatives and prices we went for the Emeraude Cruise offer.
2. Unknowingly we booked a historic cruise
When we booked this cruise the good reviews and the relatively good price (still pricey) lean us to chose this alternative. In the following days we read more and realized we chose an interesting "alternative" way of cruising the Halong Bay. They do it using a replica paddle steamer that looks quite like the original with the exception of the paddles that have been replaced by a swimming deck.
We learned during our trip that a French entrepreneur found the original Emeraude steamer in an old postcard and after some sherlock holmes type of detective work he was able to find the descendants of the original Roque family that owned the original flotilla, including the Emeraude. He went about to recreate it and in 2003 this boat was put in service. The result is impressive as you can see in the black and white picture above. It was very nice to board it and to feel transported back in time.
3. The cruise experience.
Hanoi is located ~3.5 hour away from Halong City where our cruise was leaving the port. The company offered a transport option to get us there, so we boarded a minibus that picked us up at our hotel located in the old quarter district of Hanoi. Once we arrived to Halong city they welcomed us in their own cafe, they explained the different safety procedures of the boat and they gave us the key of our cabin.
We proceeded to board the Emeraude ship that was anchored in the port and were welcomed on board with a hibiscus and apple juice drink. Then we left our stuff in the cabin and proceeded to eat a yummy vietnamese buffet lunch at the main restaurant while the boat started to move and sail the bay.
Around 15 minutes after we started our trip and we were in the middle of our lunch I had to stop eating, get up and snap a picture with my phone because the famous limestones began to appear in the windows in front of us and I was amazed! I knew right away I was going to love this place…
This post is getting a bit too long so I will split it in two parts. To be continued….
if you read the wiki travel section on how to get to the city center in HCMC there is a note "Caution: some travelers have reported that taxi scams at the airport are rife” and yesterday we experienced this first hand.
We took a taxi from the official taxi stand and the guy seemed to be friendly welcoming us to the city, talking about the size of the city, the attractions, etc, but I noticed the meter was running quite fast and of course when we got to the city the price of the trip was almost double compared to what we paid the last time.
When I picked my GF from the airport I paid around 180K, and this time around the meter went up to 370k! So clearly the guy was tampering with it. Additionally he wanted to short change us 30k but at least we fought that one. On the other hand I believe someone pickpocketed me a 500k note when we were going to get our dinner. grrrrrr!
Vietnam is a beautiful country and we met very nice people in the last days, but unfortunately we already experienced what I read in some travel guides and blogs: Some people think of tourists as cash cows and they are not shy in milking them in any possible way. Still if you are careful with those unscrupulous characters, it's a very enjoyable country.
On a more positive note yesterday we did some nice walking in the evening around the Phạm Ngũ Lão and it was very nice! There was a lot of activity around the park. Some people were playing music and some others were playing some unusual game: it looks like badminton with a similar Shuttlecockbut but instead of using a racket the players use their feet to kick it. I was just reading this sport is called Jianzi. Very entertaining.
Look at this short video I shot with some really good players in action:
We kept walking and we stumbled on a deserted cafe that looked very nice from the outside, playing some nice music so we decided to get in. We got a couple of coffee cups and the taste was just amazing! If you know me. you know how much I like coffee, so this was the perfect treat to me. K. even bought a bag of this nice coffee to bring back home.
Today we will head to Hanoi switching to the North Vietnamese part of our trip and I think we will get an Uber instead of a shady taxi!
Please find below some pictures of the amazing sunsets we experienced in Phu Quoc during the last couple of days:
And a short timelapse video of one of those sunsets:
This is the end of the Phu Quoc phase of this trip. Despite the bad weather at the beginning, overall it was a great experience.
I think our friendly giant Gecko lives here. This morning he woke us at 4am with his sounds (I thought it was a bird, but apparently not) and then a couple of minutes ago he decided to go out to say hi again as you can see above. No worries dear Gecko, you can have the house for yourself from tomorrow on :).
Afternoon update: His red-eyed cousin decided to join the party as well and chat for a little while when we went to bed.
The sunny day in the video above looks very nice and peaceful, but during this trip to Vietnam we learned the hard way that the southern islands have a sub-equatorial climate and there is a reason why september is considered part of the low season: The "Wet Climate" is a reality. We arrived last Sunday and from Monday to Wednesday it rained non-stop.
You might be thinking how a refreshing shower is nice on a warm weather and I agree, but here we were experiencing torrential rainshowers with strong winds, so no chance of enjoying a "tropical shower".
We are staying in a very nice hotel close the beach but it was hard to enjoy it because of this climate conditions. When it was not raining, we had an overcast sky like this one:
Some of the brochures explain this is the monsoon season therefore it can get wet "at times". We experienced those "times" with a vengeance: On Monday we were saying "let's wait, probably it is going to get better", on Tuesday we changed to "come on, it has to get better" and then on Wednesday with some resignation and somber mood we switched to "let's go to town to do something different because it's not getting any better!".
Later on we found out on the internet that we were dealing with the tail end of the Typhoon Kalmaegi that was hitting hard china and the north part of Vietnam.
But then on Wednesday after dinner, when we came back to our room, it was dry and I noticed a clear starry sky. I told my girlfriend "look up in the sky. it's full of stars. Maybe we will be lucky with the weather on my birthday!". And indeed yesterday we had an amazing sunny day that really made a difference. Everything was nicer:
1. Watching the fishermen work at dawn
2. Having a nice breakfast on a table with a sea view
3. Chilling out and reading in a sunny beach
4. Grabbing a cocktail on a sofa next to the beach
5. Getting a nice dinner next to the sea, including a yummy b-day dessert :).
6. The luxury to enjoy an amazing sunset:
Today we had a second sunny day in a row so we can't complain. This was the type of vacation we were expecting when we read the information about this island and we booked the hotel for a week.
On a separate note today we found out this "Eco Resort" comes with a "Geckoland" incorporated :), plus a nasty spider that reminded me my days in southern France. Judge it for yourself:
1. Blackish gecko on the toilet next to the swimming trunks:
2. Colorful gecko inside our mosquito net covering the bed:
Getting him out of the bed / bedroom without causing him any harm was quite a story. It required: a torch, an umbrella, an empty glass and a broom. Proudly no gecko was harmed during this operation.
3. Giant gecko (~30cm) we found next to the roof.
This one was a bit scary because we found it as soon as we entered the room and turned on the lights!!
We are crossing our fingers for another sunny day tomorrow. We would settle for a cloudy but dry day.
Adapted from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13476480@N07/7104877061/in/photostream/. CC License
1. Palace history:
It would have been very nice to visit the palace you see above. It was called the Norodom Palace and it was used consecutively as the power seat in the southern region of Vietnam. This palace was used by:
- The French Governor of Cochinchina (Gouverneur de la Cochinchine).
- The Japanese colonial officials in Vietnam, during the second world war.
- The French after the war, until they lost the war with the Viet-minh.
- The president of the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Ngô Đình Diệm, who renamed it independence palace.
Apparently Ngô Đình Diệm, was not a popular figure. Diệm proclaimed the creation of the Republic of Vietnam, naming himself as its president following a very dubious referendum in 1955.
In 1962, 2 pilots of his own Vietnamese Air Force bombed the palace in an assassination attempt and even if they didn't achieve their goal, they destroyed the palace beyond repair.
A new palace was constructed was commissioned according to a design by Ngô Viết Thụ, a Vietnamese architect. This palace was finished in October 1966 and it hosted the South Vietnamese government until the 30th of April 1975, when it fell to the North Vietnamese forces.
Currently this is the independence or reunification palace that can be visited in Saigon:
2. Independence Palace Today:
The independence palace is one of the main tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh city today. It's located in 106 Nguyen Du Street, in the core center of the district 1 (also known as Saigon). The palace can be visited in the morning or in the afternoon (it's closed during lunch time) and the entrance cost 30.000 VND (as of Sep-2014).
Once the entrance is paid on a booth located at the left corner of the palace, the visitor enters to the gardens with a nice fountain in the middle. On the right side there are two replica tanks, like the ones used by North vietnamese forces when they stormed the palace in 1975. References to this event can be found all over the building.
Then you can head to the main entrance where the interesting visit really begins to happen because it feels like you are transported back in time to the 60's and 70's. Every single room, office, map, furniture, decoration telephone, communication equipment, look exactly as it was when the palace was taken over by the communist army.
You can visit for example:
1. Dining room for foreign dignataries receptions
2. Former office of the president.
Note the phones on the table.
3. Ambassadors accreditation room.
4. Bunker with some communication equipment.
5. Roof with a huey helicopter.
It's possible to visit every room in the 4 levels of the building. Each room has a plaque offering detailed explanation about what the space was used for. In the roof terrace there is the huey shown before. This helicopter is displayed next to a couple of circles marking the spots where the bombs of the failed attempt to kill Diem were dropped. They also sell beverages in this top floor.
In conclusion it was a very interesting visit. It definitively helped to read a little bit beforehand to understand the history behind it, but overall I'm happy we had the chance to go there.
On the first day when I arrived to Ho Chi Minh city and I was wandering around, I stumbled on a theater that looked very European. Checking on my offline map I discovered this structure was the municipal theater known also as the "Saigon Opera".
The french architectural influence on this building is undeniable and when I came back to the hotel I read on the internet, this building was designed by French architect Ferret Eugene at the end of the 19th century when the city became the center of the Conchinchine colony.
I also read that one of the most interesting ways to visit the building was to attend one of the shows presented there and many visitors recommended in particular the “À Ố Show”.
Since it was my GF b-day and we wanted to celebrate, we decided to buy tickets for the show and were very lucky because they had a deal in place that allowed us not only to attend the show but also to get a nice dinner at a restaurant nearby for the same price. It was perfect for our celebration!
So we left the hotel, tried Uber for the first time (they are now available in HCM), went to the restaurant and ordered a set of different Vietnamese dishes and enjoyed a very nice dinner.
Then we walked to the Opera house to see the show. We didn't know what to expect. I mean, we knew it was a mixture of music, arts and acrobatics, but the description was quite generic so it could have been a kitschy tourist trap or … it was an amazing show! We were both amazed by not only the physical aspect of the acrobatics they were performing, but also by the whole artistic concept behind it.
The show doesn't have a straight storyline, but it's more like a collage of different sketches tied together with fade out and fade it effects. Each one of them is full of physical stunts, choreographies, light, traditional music and humor. So it was nice to see the opera house inside, but I completely forgot about the building once the show started.
Filming or taking pictures is forbidden (thankfully so, because it would kill the atmosphere), but they have an official video in youtube that shows an appetizer of the show:
So we had a great time and it was a very nice way to say goodbye to Saigon. Yesterday we arrived to the Island Phu Quoc.
One of my favorite plans in any city is to visit the highest building available and get the best possible panoramic view. Yesterday when I was walking in HCM I noticed a very tall tower in the horizon. When I got closer this tower turned out to be the Bitexco Financial Tower. At 262 meters, this is the highest building in Saigon.
Here you can either visit the Skydeck on the 49th floor or go to the EON coffee on the 50th floor and get a coffee (Swiss prices). Even if the plan is pricey for HCM standards, the view is worth it. I arrived at dawn and I was able to take a couple pictures when it was getting dark:
On the other hand today my girlfriend is arriving to Vietnam, so happy face :-).
Yesterday afternoon I arrived to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam. The immigration procedure went straightforward but as you might remember from a previous post I got a Vietnamese visa beforehand at the Swiss embassy in Bern and this definitively speed up the process. There were a couple of tourist in front on me who were sent to another desk because they got a letter to get the visa on arrival.
I read on wikitravel that easiest way to get to the city from the airport was to take the bus 152 and then get off around the Phạm Ngũ Lão street. I was a bit cautious because the article mentioned the bus stop was not marked and that were a lot a touts trying to get you into their taxi services and eager to tell you the bus service was discontinued, but once I exit the terminal I saw the bus parked on the right corner with a clearly visible "152" number. So you get in, pay 5000 VND and off you go.
Now the bus is quite an experience: Once we started the ride there was this very loud 70ish elevator / dental waiting room music followed by some announcements in Vietnamese (stops?) and every time the bus was going to stop there was an alarm that sounded as if the bus had caught fire. I had to take a picture of the literally "loudspeaker":
The very first impression I got while riding the bus was that the traffic was crazy. There were swarms of motorcycles and mopeds going in every direction. When I was preparing my Asian trip I saw an amazing HMC timelapse video from Rob Whitworth and now I understand it even better. What you see there is 100% true:
After I registered in my hotel and took a refreshing shower I went out to walk around and get a first glimpse on the city. I stumble into some of the landmarks such as:
1. The notre dame cathedral
2. The General Post Office.
3. The Municipal Theather.
Today I will continue exploring the city and probably I will visit the War Remnants Museum.
Fortunately I don't need a visa for most of the countries I want to visit in the coming months and if I need one I can get it easily on arrival (VOA). Vietnam was an exception since I had to either get a visa beforehand or get an approval letter from a tourism agency, so I could get the visa "on arrival" when landing in SGN.
I probably could have tried to get this visa in Singapore but since we had to get one both my GF and myself, I decided to go to embassy in Switzerland a couple of weeks ago and make the application in person. The procedure was straightforward. What I needed was:
- The original passports
- The completed form.
- A color picture
- The fee paid at the embassy (110 CHF! per passport)
I got the passport back with the visa stamped after 20 minutes. It should be noted that the procedure can be 20 CHF cheaper if you use a self-addressed registered return envelope (I don't know about you, but I always get itchy when I have to send my passport by mail). Anyway I have the visa, so another "done" for my checklist.
Now some of the facts that I learned while I was researching how to go about getting this visa where:
- The citizens of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden are the only ones from the EU who don't need a visa to visit the country (they can visit Vietnam for up to 15 days).
- The Vietnamese "Visa on Arrival" is a bit of misnomer since a letter of approval has to be obtained before arrival. This is handled by an approved on-line agency but it's hard to know whether a company has a legitimate arrangement and can provide those official documents.
- The top level domain "gov.vn" does not necessarily guarantee you are dealing with government agency. Just make a search [site:gov.vn visa] to check it out yourself
So we are ready for SGN!
update: Just to highlight some of the points I was discussing before. You can even get comment spam from some of those "gov.vn" sites: