To Vietnam: Hoi An by the night!

After we were back, we had just crashed into our beds, tired and exhausted. We had planned to go to the beach, the An Bang beach. When we woke up, twilight was fast fading. So, we quickly got on our bicycles, and rode for about 4 kms to the beach.
We paid 30000 VND per bicycle as parking fees and went in. It was dark by then, and we could see lights of far away ships near the horizon. There were deck chairs on the beaches, and it seemed that they were free to use. We sat there for some time, and were hungry. A hour and a Banh Mi later, we were ready to leave.
As we were retrieving our bicycle, Ankita noticed that here phone was missing. She had put it in the cycle’s basket an instant earlier and now it was gone. We started searching for it desperately everywhere. Our primary suspect was the attendant, who had suddenly turned deaf and mute! We glared and growled at him, and bared our teeth, and he slithered away to a hidey hole. Ritwik followed him, came back victorious with the phone. We made a swift exit out of the area to avoid any such risks any more.

Lit up entrance to the old town, Hoi An, Vietnam

We crossed into the old town soon, and it was just wow! Lights all around, lamps, lanterns, LED lights. Best bit, no vehicles. We parked our bicycles beside the Japanese Covered Bridge and hit the streets.

Camera set on lowest ISO, long shutter exposures and deep apertures, I went about shooting.

Street with colourful lights and people, Hoi An, Vietnam

Street with colourful lights, Hoi An, Vietnam

Every other street had lamps in them lighting up the street. The shops had various happy hour offers and it was thronging with tourists and locals alike.

The Thu Bon river, now had multiple boats with tourists on board, rowing up and down. Some had the floating prayer lamps with them while some were simply enjoying the ride. Ritwik and I got interested in the long exposure opportunities while Ankita and Manas went ahead to a nearby museum.

The Bridge of Lights, An Hoi Bridge, Hoi An, Vietnam

Boats on the Thu Bon river, Hoi An, Vietnam

A lady selling the floating lamps, Hoi An, Vietnam

The Thu Bon river at night, Hoi An, Vietnam

Now, it was almost 2100h and we were hungry too. So, we crossed the river and went to the other bank, where it was as if a carnival was on. All shops were glittering with lights, live music being played, food and ale galore. And then, the street which had every kind of food imaginable.

Busy street with tourists and locals, lights, food, Hoi An, Vietnam

Lamps for sale, Hoi An, Vietnam

The other bank also gave a perfect shot of the Japanese Covered Bridge.

The Japanese Covered Bridge at Night, Hoi An, Vietnam\

Promptly at 2200h, the lights went out and the music subsided and it was the end of a long day. We lingered back to enjoy the quite and calm atmosphere of the place for some time, and shot some more photos.

The calm Thu Bon river at night, Hoi An, Vietnam

We reached back around 2330h to find the receptionist at our hotel fast asleep. Had to wake her up for the keys though, guess people sleep early in this side of the world. And, that is how our stay in Hoi An ended. Next day, we would leave Hue, via train! The journey would be something to look forward at.

Cheers!!

To Vietnam: Hoi An by the day!

Our flight from HCMC to Da Nang was delayed by about 4 hours, so we requested the VietJet associates on station to possibly find an alternative flight, they got us something that was just a couple of hours away. The flight was uneventful and we reached Da Nang around 2100h. Luckily, Ritwik had the foresight to book a cab beforehand, which would take us to our hotel in Hoi An. I highly recommend this. Yes, it will cost you some money, but it shall be totally worth it. We were picked up by a Ford Endevour and off we went to our hotel, the Green Apple hotel in Hoi An.

We were welcomed with a plates of fruits and fruit juices.

Fruit Platter at Hoi An

By the time we were ready to go out and eat, most of the nearby shops had shut down, so we asked the ladies in the hotel to help us out, and they pointed us out to a nearby restaurant.

Sticky Rice and sauted chicken, Hoi An

Fried Calamari, Hoi An

Chicken Ramen Noodles, Hoi An

Spicy rice and chicken fried, Hoi An

We found the food to be outright delicious. We retired, excited that we had an entire day to roam about the town the next day.

Next day at Hoi An began with us gorging on enormous quantities of bacon, sausages, eggs, boiled chicken, bread, jam and butter; not forgetting the juices and coffee, all in the amazing buffet breakfast at the hotel. We began the day trip by getting ourselves cycles from the hotel. The cycles were free to use, and all you had to do was ensure that at the end of the day, you brought them back in one piece.
Now, in Hoi An, there is an old town area, which has the typical french charm to it. There are some old houses which are preserved in their original conditions, community halls and assembly halls, etc, strewn all about the place.

We travelled on bicycles, Hoi An

Buildings with french influences, Hoi An

Buildings with french influences, Hoi An

To enter these, you shall need a ticket. On a single ticket, there are 5 tiny slips of paper, which are torn away as and when you enter these ticketed places. There are a total of 11 such places within the Old Town area. Also, the area is marked walking and cycling only.

Boat on the Thu Bon river, Hoi An

A street in the old town, Hoi An

We went to the Cantonese Assembly Hall, the covered Japanese Bridge and the Cam Pho Communal House during the day.

Cam Pho Communal House, Hoi An

The Japanese Covered Bridge, Hoi An

Cantonese Assembly Hall carvings, Hoi An

Murals at the Cantonese Assembly Hall, Hoi An

These places were quite fine, in my opinion, but not exactly spell binding sorts. Yes, the work done on the murals and the sculptures are quite artistic, yet I didn’t feel them to be absolutely amazing.

Instead, what I did like was the An Hoi Bridge, which bridges the Thu Bon river.

An Hoi bridge, Hoi An

This river is also known as the bridge of lights.

There were these heads, made of plants, up for sale. Found them a tiny bit creepy!

Weird artefacts on the streets, Hoi An

Hawkers were highly enthusiastic about selling a flying object, which resembled a bird. It was powered by a twisted rubber band and once released would flap its wings and fly.

Flying objects, Hoi An

We also got ourselves some pop up cards. These greeting cards come in various themes and tones. Choose your favourite and always bargain.

Pop up Cards, Hoi An

By this time, it was past noon and we felt hungry. So, after roaming aimlessly for sometime within the Old Town area, we crossed to the other side and found a place where the sign board signed the presence of cheap beer; and egg coffee.

Spring rolls, Hoi An

We made peace with beer, spring rolls and egg coffee. The spring rolls are different from what we have here. These were not fried, and the covering was made of thin rice film.

Egg Coffee, Hoi An

The egg coffee was a different matter all together. Rich strong coffee, sweetened using condensed milk and sugar, with an egg added to it, while it was piping hot, and then served. It was very filling, and very sweet. Had to tick it off the checklist, done that.
Then, we were on our way back to take a bit of rest. Later we would go out again, to the beach, and then we had plans to come back to the night market.

 

To Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City and onwards…

As we were back quite late from the previous day’s adventures, we woke up late. Meaning, we had to rush and ration our available time between the Ben Thanh market, the War Remnants Museum and the Bitexco tower.

We made our way on foot to the Ben Thanh market, located centrally within the city.

Friends posing with a graffity

It has a big gate proclaiming the market and within is a market where you can find almost everything.

The Ben Thanh Market, Saigon

The Ben Thanh Market, Saigon

We were hungry and in need for some urgent breakfast, hence we made our way to the food street within the market for Banh Mi.

Choice of meat for Banh Mi, Ben Thanh Market, Saigon

Condiments for Banh Mi, Ben Thanh Market, Saigon

The Banh Mi, Ben Thanh Market, Saigon

After we were done with the breakfast, we roamed within the market looking at the wares to offer. Bargaining and haggling is rampant and is definitely needed. A general rule of thumb to be followed is that to begin the bargain at 50% of asking price and gradually increase to a maximum of 70% of the asking price.

We bought few souvenirs from the market and were headed towards the War Remnants Museum.

Friends posing with a local lady. Saigon

A 15 minutes Uber ride got us to the museum.
This museum is special, for the fact that it highlights the ugly face of the invading army in the country and this time, it was the smaller country which had won. History is written by the victors holds true, and we get to see the evils which the US Army had done to the ones they considered to be threats. The museum is rife with stories and artefacts from the times of the Vietnam war. Stories of future leaders of US population, who were then deployed at Vietnam and the atrocities they committed are plastered all around the walls in vivid details.

The War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Tanks from the Vietnam War, War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Shells from the Vietnam War, War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Relics from the Vietnam War, War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Relics from the Vietnam War, War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Relics from the Vietnam War, War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Relics from the Vietnam War, War Remnants Museum, Saigon

True, that the museum is depressing and the descriptions are gut wrenching, but it is a necessary bit of knowledge that should be imparted to the populace.
The museum gives an insight into how much the country has evolved from the devastation and destruction that was there just a few decades ago.

Next up, we went back to our place and grabbed the bags. We were headed to the 3rd tallest building in Vietnam, the Bitexco Financial Tower. Tickets are available at the ground floor for the sky deck tour and also a Heineken factory tour is available. The Heineken factory offers a unique tour, which includes a couple of pints of beer and the souvenir that you obtain, is a pint with your name engraved on it. Sadly, we were out of time for the Heineken tour.

Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon

A binocular at the Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon

Panorama from the Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon

Later, we booked an Uber, yet again and made our way to the airport, for an onward flight to Da Nang. There, a taxi would receive and drop us at our next destination, Hoi An!

To Vietnam: Touchdown – Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Saigon, used to be the erstwhile capital city of South Vietnam, prior to the reunification of the country. It used to be a French capital town too during their reign over the Cochinchina colony. Now, HCMC is the most populous city of the country. A city bustling with traffic, energy and food.

Air Asia Flights parked at KLIA 2

We landed at the Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport (SGN) on 1st of  April, 2018 at about 1300h local time. We had a layover at the KLIA2 (Kuala Lumpur International Terminal 2) and onward flight to Saigon. At SGN, we had to clear the immigration first to get to our baggage.
Immigration procedures were fairly simple. There is a window where you submit your passport, the approval letter and the filled form (attach 2 photos with the form) and then you wait. Your name shall get called out from another counter, where you need to pay USD 25 and receive your visa affixed passport back. Then you go the queue for the passport control, they stamp your inwards date, maybe ask a couple of questions, done!
We retrieved our luggage, bought a couple of local sim cards, costing us each 9 USD and came out. We also converted 100 USD to VND, which turned out to be about 2.2 million VND. Be careful of the denominations though. I found that they have currency notes of the following denominations (in thousands) – 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500. It is easy to confuse amongst the zeros and sometimes the notes stick together too. Just take your time to count and pay, simple.
We had booked our stay with the Chill Box hotels. It was a couple of kms away from the airport and the best way to reach there seemed to be using Uber. Later, we found that Uber was indeed the best way to travel within the city for they are quick to respond, and the cost is quite reasonable. The local taxis do rip you off real bad.
We dropped our bags, bathed, refreshed for a bit, and were out on the streets by 1700h. Since we were famished, the first place where we saw something being cooked and served, we went for it.

Sticky rice, vegetables and a pork sausage

What you see above is fried rice, lettuce, tomato, cucumber and a pork sausage. I do not remember what it was called, but it tasted quite nice. The sausage had a slight sweet taste to it. The rice, when mixed with the soup, soya sauce and some chilly paste, became absolutely amazing. Chicken, egg and beef options were also available for the same dish.

A street in Saigon

Umbrellas in a street in Ho Chi Minh CityNext, we were headed to towards the town centre. Since we werent scheduled to be in HCMC for a long time, we concentrated only on the places within the city. It was past 1730h, so we could not go in the museums.
One of the museums which we could not get toWe went to the Notre Dame Cathedral and found it very beautiful.The Notre Dame Cathedral, SaigonRight beside the cathedral is the post office, which has been operational since the French were there.The Central Post Office, Saigon

There were street performances in progress in the lanes and we progressed towards our next destination for the evening, The Hard Rock Cafe, Saigon!

Long exposure outside the Hard Rock Cafe, Saigon

Since it had become quite late by then, we decided to head back, and retire early.

Dried fish for sale, Saigon

A sculpture in an alley, Saigon

For dinner, that night, we gave Pho, which is basically a bland-ish noodle soup with choice of meat, a try. I did not like it much and in the trip, never did we have another bowl of Pho.

A Bowl of Pho Bo, Saigon

We retired for the day by 2300h and had planned to visit the Ben Thanh market, The War Remnants Museum and the Bitexco Financial Tower before we flew out the next day.

The trip continues in the next post.

Cheers!!

To Vietnam: The planning

As with any trip, there ought to be proper planning. This time, it had to be much more detailed.The scope of winging it in a foreign country was limited.

Visa: Vietnam offers Visa On Arrival (VOA) for Indian citizens, if they have the approval letter already. Obtaining the letter was not a difficult job to accomplish. We searched for visa to Vietnam on Google, and then it was just finding out the cheapest option. We went ahead with this website. We had to pay 8 USD per person for the approval letter. The letter arrived within a couple of days, along with a copy of the form that we would have to fill. A mandatory visa stamping fee of 25 USD per person is to be paid during immigration at the point of entry.

Flights: We had booked our flights, to and fro well in advance. This may appeal to the mass, as it did to us. Make it a point to book the tickets from the airline company’s website. ENSURE that each booking are on a single PNR. Since the flights have a stop invariably, which will either be in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, having the booking on a single PNR ensures that you do not have to go through immigration at the intermediate country and that your luggage is counted as a through baggage, so you check in your luggage at home, and retrieve it right at the destination. In  case you have a long layover and want to check out the country, make sure you have a visa prior to your arrival. Do not depend on a VOA. Flights within the country is fairly easy and cheap. Make sure that you are at the airport at least 2 hours prior to the flights for the domestic flights while it should be minimum 3 hours for the international flights.

Hotels: We also had our hotels booked at the places we would stay. It should be noted that if its just you, or max two of you, staying at the backpackers’ hostels is the best way to go. You get to meet people of various countries, interact with them and make friends. While if you are travelling in a bigger group, it is better if you book hotel rooms. The cost per head will be similar, but you shall have multiple bathrooms at your disposal. This is preferable if you guys need to leave at the same time. Since we were 4, we had hotel rooms booked. While booking the hotels, we tried to go go for the ones which have been vetted multiple times by travellers across the world and were within walking distance of the tourist hub. I shall tell more about the hotels we were in as and when we reach each city.

Trains: Vietnam has a limited number of train plying their reunification route, starting right from Ho Chi Minh City ending at Hanoi. It passes through picturesque routes, hills, sea shores, markets and even doorsteps. We had ours booked from Da Nang to Hue. You can book the tickets from the Vietnamese Railway’s website. Do check out this website for a treasure trove of information about the travel.

Food: You must understand that vietnamese people are primarily meat eaters. Beef and pork are the most commonly available kinds of meat. Chicken is a rare find. Egg is common though. In the week that we were there, I did not spot any place serving lamb or goat. If you go to places like Da Nang or Hoi An, which are beach towns, you can get ample sea food. Fried food is not common. Most of the food is baked or boiled. Noodle soups or Pho, are most commonly available. A food that kept us alive, for it was healthy, readily available and cheap on the pocket was Bahn Mi. It is a baguette with shredded meat and some sauces and comes mainly in beef, pork and egg variety.

Banh Mi, Chicken, Baguette, Meat, Mint leaves
Banh Mi (Chicken)
Condiments accompanying Banh Mi , chilly, sauce, lemon
Condiments accompanying Banh Mi

Drink: Packaged drinking water is fairly easy to obtain, but it does not hurt having some sort of water purifying options along. Beer is cheap and plentiful to choose from. The most common were Bia Ha Noi, Bia Saigon, Bia Huda and Heineken. The beer felt toned down, and I would feel more fuller than being tipsy at all.

Clothes: Restrictions on what you wear exist at the religious spaces where it is expected that one would wear clothes which are not revealing. Other than these places, we didn’t see any signs or reactions which would suggest that the people are remotely bothered of what you wear. I suggest you have a look at the weather forecasts and pack accordingly prior to your trip. In case you want new clothes, night markets are present in the tourist places, which are amazing places to get stuffs cheaply. Do remember to haggle about the price.

Currency: The local currency is Vietnamese Dongs. 1 INR = 350 VND roughly. Do not get excited about the exchange rate for the minimum denomination we came across was a 1000 VND and it was not enough to buy a bottle water. So often you shall find yourself moving about with millions of dongs, just be careful with the money as you pay. It is easy to confuse a 10000 VND with a 100000 VND. With a little practice, it shall be fine. Also, the big shops have card swiping options. Do note, the cards swiped do not require a pin to complete the transactions, they just make you sign the slip, so hold on to your cards real tight. You shall need to convert INR to USD here, and then use them to convert to Dongs at Vietnam. You can pay by USD, but you shall be overcharged invariably, hence, stick to Dongs.

Now, that you have a back ground about the country, we shall continue post the arrival at HCMC.

Feel free to reach out to me for any doubts and clarification that you may have till now.

Cheers!!

To Vietnam: Prelude

India, land of dreams and dreamers. We dream about everything. From having a perfectly cooked rice for dinner to achieving pin point accuracy in missile hits, we have dreamt it all, and collectively, have achieved them all. On an individual level, going on foreign trips using your own hard earned money is a dream that every person harbours over here. I also had the dream. And now, that I have achieved it, I want more.

It all began sometime in September 2017, when me and my fellow colleague, Ankita, found ourselves in a crowded cafe discussing the possible countries to visit. Our first point of consideration was exchange rates, how much does 100 INR translate into?. Not the brightest way to make choices, but it did get us rolling. Then we compared the easiest thing available to compare against, beer price. That gave us a realistic idea of the places we might choose for our visit.
We concentrated on the south east asia, simply because the travel is not the biggest expense here. Touring within Europe might be cheap, but getting to the starting point of the tour is the maximum share holder in the entire expenses. Here, we did not have similar problems.
We wanted to visit a country which has not yet become a tourist hotspot amongst us. Cambodia and Vietnam were the contenders, and we chose to go to Vietnam. We called up two other friends of ours, Ritwik and Manas, and they were ready for the trip immediately. So, we decided, that in on 1st of April, 2018, we shall meet at Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I intend to be as detailed as my memory serves throughout the series. I shall talk about the flights we took, hotels we booked, places we visited, what we ate, what I liked, what I didn’t and there shall be photos. The posts shall be long and opinionated. So, strap in, for the series shall be a long one, and I hope to keep the posts regular.

Cheers!!