July 22, 2015

Vietnam Diaries: Hanoi Part 3

We made Hoan Kiem District our base in Hanoi and as soon as we step out of our hotel, we are quickly enveloped with the frenetic energy that is the Old Quarter.

It’s so easy to get lost within the 36 maze-like 13th-century streets and to blow your Vietnamese Dong on the abundance of trinkets displayed in spades fighting for your attention. Everything is all out there, piled high and wide, to be smelled, tested and bought.

Hoan Kiem Lake on the other hand is peaceful and quiet. It is in the heart of Hanoi, and a useful reference point to get your bearing.  The lake surrounds Ngoc Son Temple. The pagoda sits in the center of the island and can be reached by crossing the wooden red bridge of The Huc (Morning Sunlight bridge).

Opening Hours: Daily 08:00-17:00. 
Entrance fee: 3,000 VND.

The tree shaded benches scattered around the lake is a good place to get a breather and watch the rest of the city go by while cooling down with some heart jolting ca phe sua da or Vietnamese iced coffee.

Vietnam is second only to Brazil in coffee production and the coffee culture is so big here. They have coffee anywhere and everywhere in anytime of the day and in so many variations.

Stephen, our Canadian friend we met on a Halong bay cruise told us about ca phe trung, or egg coffee and we set out to find it. We were desperately lost because of our fabulous sense of direction and was about to turn back when I look up from my map and saw the café sign just across the street. Hallelujah!

Giang Café is an ancient hole in the wall hidden on an alley on Nguyen Huu Huan Street in the city’s old quarter. It was a bit difficult to find, but their delicious sorcery served since 1946 is well worth the effort. We tried the hugely popular frothy egg coffee and the iced with yogurt and loved both. It is delicious!

I still don't know what's behind these Liliputian seats but it's fun to plop down on one of those seats spilled over the sidewalk sipping some delicious potent dark brew while motorbikes zip around sometimes just inches away from our faces.

This spot we're parked at here is just across St. Joseph's Cathedral. The in-dire-need-of-a-white-wash cathedral is one of the city's landmark, the oldest church in Hanoi and resembles Notre Dame de Paris. A must do when in Hanoi - the street side coffee drinking, people watching and St. Joseph's cathedral. (insert st. josephs photo and ca phe sa dua’s photos.

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

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