July 4, 2015

Vietnam Diaries: Hanoi Part 2

Quảng Trường Ba Đình or Ba Dinh Square is a historical site in the centre of Ba Dinh district. It is where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. It is also where the the Presidential Palace is and Ho’s final resting place.

Ho’s embalmed and preserved body is displayed in a glass case inside the marble edifice of Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (Vietnamese: Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chi Minh) from January to September. Unfortunately for us, the most iconic leader of Vietnam was in Russia for his yearly touch ups and maintenance during our visit. We actually missed him by only a few days!

Dress modestly on your visit, tank top and shorts are not allowed inside, and so is photography.

Opening HoursTuesday to Thursday and weekends from 08:00 – 11:00. Closed on Monday and Friday. Entrance fee: 10,000 VND.

You can combine a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Museum with the mausoleum. The monument is dedicated to the life of Uncle Ho.  

Opening hours: 8-11.30am daily; 2-4.30pm Tue-Thu, Sat and Sun. 
Entrance fee: 25,000 VND. 
An English-speaking guide costs around 100,000 VND.

The Temple of Literature is a short stroll from Ba Dinh square. It is Vietnam’s first university and was dedicated to Confucius.  The well preserved series of walled courtyards and gateways best demonstrates traditional Vietnamese architecture.

Opening Hours: From 08:00 – 17:00 from November until March 
and 07:30 – 18:00 for the rest of the year. Closed on a Monday. 
Entrance fee: 10,000 VND.

Hoa Lo Prison is a historical landmark also sarcastically known to American prisoners of war as the "Hanoi Hilton." The actual prison has been demolished in 1990’s but the gatehouse remains as a museum and displays show the prison during the French colonial period. 

WARNING: not for the faint of heart. The guillotine room is also on display including the original equipment. 

Opening Hours: Daily 08:00-16:30. 
Entrance fee: 15,000 VND.

(to be continued…)

Part 2 of a series. 
See 1st part. Vietnam Travel Diaries: Hanoi Part 1

June 24, 2015

Vietnam Diaries: Hanoi Part 1

We first experienced a little bit of Vietnam in June 2010 and enjoyed Ho Chi Minh and Mui Ne so much we vowed to come back.

It took us 4 years to make good with that promise that when we finally did it, I was bursting out of the seams from happiness.

Our flight from Manila to Hanoi last September 2014 was delayed by a full day because of Typhoon Mario/Kalmaegi but even that did not dampen our giddy spirits.

We arrived on schedule at past midnight at the Noi Bai International Airport (IATA code: HAN) and after picking up our luggage at the carousel we followed the signs to the exit and found our prebooked airport pick up service without a glitch. He was holding a placard of my name in an elegant script and a welcoming smile on his face.

The airport is located some 45 kilometers away from downtown Hanoi and we were soon cruising on a lit traffic less highway towards our hotel with some Vietnamese music playing softly on the car stereo. We were charmed by the music even in our sleepy state.


We’ve learned our lesson after the whirlwhind Singapore-Malaysia-Cambodia trip and since then avoided being too ambitious of our vacation time. The tail end of the typhoon also followed us in Hanoi and the rain brought about a lethargy that is luxurious and enjoyable because we weren’t hung up on a time table and rigidly crossing places and stuff off a list.

We do have our usual printed itinerary but left a lot of room to chance and went on a relaxed pace. Even with a day off less our holiday, we still surprisingly squeezed a lot just by wandering aimlessly and poking our noses at stops that catches our fancy.

(to be continued…)

June 11, 2015

Bagan Quick Tips

Roads leading to the temples are mostly unpaved and they are sandy, bring a mask, scarf or any piece of clothing that can cover your face.

Our hotel provided a whole day car rental with driver/guide for 25,000 kyat or Php 1,000 and it was convenient.

On our last day, we tried a horse drawn carriage for 10,000 kyat or P430. It was cheaper but a rather dusty and bumpy experience and those scarves came in handy.

Temperature in Myanmar in May can reach up to 43 degrees Celsius.  Temple hopping at midday is risking heat stroke and ill advised. Visit in the morning or late in the afternoon just before sunset.

Make sure that you have plenty of water to keep hydrated.  Some temples have vendors selling cold beverage but the smaller and less popular ones don’t.

Keep in mind that temples are ultimately places of worship so be respectful, discreet and keep your voices down. 

Wear appropriate clothing with shoulders and knees covered. Footwear, even socks are not permitted at the temple grounds.

Some temples are not yet restored and or maintained.  Steps could be uneven, don’t have any lighting and shrubs are not trimmed. Keep an eye out for those pesky thorns as they can leave a bloody mess. Poor MJ.

A one-time heritage zone admission fee of 15 USD is collected upon entering Bagan.  Keep the stub with you at all times on your temple run as government officials sometimes checks it.

The risk of getting "templed-out" is high with the heat and humidity and walking barefoot on sunbaked temple grounds.  You can also engage in other activities in between such as taking a short cruise down the Ayeyarwady River.  For 15,000 Kyats per person, you get to cruise the river for 1 hour before sundown and get a glimpse of the local life on the banks. 

Dine at Nanda Restaurant and watch the traditional Burmese marionette puppet show. Best to ask your tour guide or the staff of your hotel for reservations and performance schedules.  

Lastly, don't forget to make friends, the Burmese are a friendly bunch!

MJ with Kway
When not in school, Kway sells postcards outside temples to help out the family

May 26, 2015

Bagan Temple Run Highlights

Rudyard Kipling got it right when he said that Burma (now Myanmar) is unlike any land you know about. I haven’t even seen the rest of Myanmar (yet) but standing on top of Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan, I can’t help but nod in agreement.

Bagan has the most stunning landscape.  It is an ancient city in the middle of Myanmar and has the largest concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas and pagodas in the world. Once there were over 13,000 of them, now only 2000 (more or less) remain, still remarkably immense.

While it’s highly unlikely that we visit all temples in the 3 days that we were there, here are a few that stood out for us:

Shwesandaw Paya
Built in 1057 by King Anawrahta to enshrine a hair relic of the Buddha and one of the taller pagodas in Bagan with 5 levels or terraces, efinitely not for those with the fear of heights.  It offers a great unobstructed view of the horizon which makes it a good sunset and sunrise spot.    

Location: Nyaung-U

Largest and widest temple in all of Bagan and a rather controversial one.  It was said to be built as atonement for his sins by King Narathu who came to throne by assassinating his own father and brother.  During his short reign he executed one of his wives, an Indian Princess for practicing Hindu rituals which led to his own assassination and was unable to finish construction of the temple.  

Location: Nyaung-U

This temple is hard to miss as it is 46 meters high.  Inside the 3-storey temple are 4 large Buddhas on the lower and upper floor, only the lower floors are accessible to visitors though.  

Location: Nyaung-U

Known as the "Crowning Jewel" it's brickwork is considered to be the best in Bagan.

Location: Nyaung-U

Considered to be the finest temple with Mon (administrative division in Myanmar) architecture in Bagan. It was badly damaged during an earthquake in 1975 but it is now fully restored and well maintained. 

Location: Old Bagan, Southeast of Tharabar Gate

April 27, 2015

Sleeping in Bagan - Raza Gyo Hotel

Accommodations in Bagan and the rest of Myanmar is still limited and rates are a little bit higher because of the influx of tourism and lack of infrastructures. 

There are 3 locations in Bagan when choosing where to stay.

Nyaung U to the northeast is where most of the budget accommodations are. New Bagan is to the southwest and with mid-range hotels. Old Bagan to the northwest caters to the more upmarket travelers.

We stayed at a charming boutique hotel in New Bagan – Raza Gyo Hotel.  It’s homey, clean and comfortable. Our air-conditioned carpeted room was spacious enough with a queen sized bed, hot and cold shower, complimentary coffee and bottled water replenished daily, a television which we never used, a safe and a refrigerator for about 77 USD or P3,500 a night. 

The hotel had a restaurant that served us a hefty breakfast every day (came with the room charge), a swimming pool which is a welcome respite from the heat and the humidity. We were there during an off peak season so we have almost all of the amenities to ourselves.

The staff are very friendly, attentive, helpful, and also spoke good English.

They arranged our transport and private tours for our 3 nights/3 days stay in Bagan and the purchase of our bus tickets going back to Yangon.

All in all, it was a comfortable base in Bagan.  And oh, they have a mini spa that offered traditional Burmese massage at 20 USD.

March 16, 2015

Getting To and Around Bagan

Bagan - home to over 2000 pagodas and temples is 700 kilometers north of Yangon and 9 hours by bus or 15 hours or more away by train. We took the 9 hour bus route and slept through the entire duration of the trip. 

We left Aung Mingalar bus station in Yangon at 9PM aboard the JJ Express VIP Bus and arrived at the Nyaung U terminal in Bagan at 6AM the next day. 

Where to buy tickets in Yangon:
You can buy your tickets from Aung Mingalar bus station.

But since the station is a little too far from the city center, about 45-60 minutes away depending on the traffic, the receptionist from our hotel recommended buying from Pansodan Street instead. The street houses a few travel agencies and is just walking distance away from the little India. 

Burmese script for Pansodan Street where we bought our bus tickets

What’s the best bus to take: 
JJ Express VIP Bus, 25USD/pax; comes with a spacious leg room, reclining seats, neck pillow, a blanket, a snack pack, bottled water and a wet mini-towel.

Aung Mingalar Bus Station:
Downtown Yangon to Aung Mingalar is about 25 kilometers and it's a good thing that we left our hotel with plenty of time to spare as it took us 1 hour and half to get there with the traffic so bad and even if our driver was weaving in and out maniacally. 

What to expect during the long drive:
The trip was uneventful and a stewardess informs every one of the pit stop through a speaker.  The first stop was within the first hour, 20 minutes long and compulsory; the driver turns off the engine and locks the bus so you have no choice but to get off.  I suggest you go to the loo and do your business as the next stop will be after 6 hours and will be a quick one.

Bus liners in Myanmar are notorious for their loud Burmese music playing on loop for the entire journey (night and day), but thankfully we didn't have this problem with JJ Express. The road itself is paved all the way and it was a smooth drive all the way to Bagan.

The day time bus back to Yangon via Mandalar Minn Express is a different story and we had to sit through 9 hours of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion's Burmese rendition of All By Myself in between Burmese soap operas. On full blast. Bring ear plugs.

Arriving in Bagan:
Bagan’s bus terminal is 30-45 minutes from New Bagan where our hotel was located and to get there we hired a horse drawn carriage that costs about 10,000 Kyats or 10USD. Taxis are more expensive at 15000 to 17000 Kyats.

A compulsory admission fee is required at 15USD/EUR per person.  Take your admission ticket when you do your temple runs as they might be checked at the entrance of some temples and pagodas. 

Going around Bagan:
You have 4 choices, rent a bicycle, motorbike/electric bike, a horse cart and an air-conditioned private car/van.  Keep in mind that the roads to most temples are sandy and dusty.

Take a bicycle if you are fit enough to handle a good work out on a 40 degree weather. 

A motorbike if you are a little out of shape.

A horse cart can provide you a little shade from the scorching heat of the sun but you might want to take the back seat facing away from the horse’s bum as it sometimes lets out explosive gaseous emissions. Again, learn from our mistake.  

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