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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Gooooood Morning, Vietnam! (part 1)

Well, it was more like, good morning, Hanoi. 

In a word?  It would take more than one word to describe the charming, culture-rich, vibrant and proud city, and anyone who has ever been there will surely agree. 

My family and I did not go the way of the tourist path and scheduled a trip to Halong Bay.  Instead, we concentrated on the food and culture of the city limits of the Hoan Kiem (old quarter) and the Ba Dinh districts.  But dont get us wrong, Hanoi is such a wonder that its worth a return trip, and we promised ourselves that we will go on a Halong Bay cruise the second time around.

The only thing that marred this vacation was the airline we took to get there and back home - Cebu Pacific Air.  On both occasions there was a 30-minute to an hour delay on our flight, the administration jostled us from one gate to another regarding our point of embarkation, and the unfortunate situation of being seated next to one of the exits in the plane so that you are not allowed to recline your seats during this dead-of-night flight.  As with all other airlines, they get rid of seats that are in the way of the exits so why can't they just do the same with Cebu Pacific planes?  And we did notice that like in their domestic flights, they seem to always apologize for the delay and offer that they "will make it up to you in other future flights", but they never do as they are always veritably guilty of some form of inconvenience anyway.  As this was our first time to use this airline for a trip abroad, we now know better, and will just have to book our flight on another airline instead.  It may cost more with the competitor, but as the saying goes, you will get what you pay for.

But all that aside, our stay in Hanoi was rewarded with many valuable things such as the very helpful hotel staff at the 3-star Nam Hai Hotel on Duong Than Street, almost right next to the Vietnam Theatre that showcases traditional Vietnamese productions.  We discovered Nam Hai through the Agoda website and booked our stay through this facility.  Since our early morning arrival in the city, we had to book a day earlier to ensure that we had cozy beds waiting for us.  Nevertheless, our entire stay of 4 days and 3 nights in a family room including breakfast only cost us around Php7,000.00 (USD166), I consider this a steal. 

Nam Hai is a family-run hotel, with two other branches within the old quarter.  The staff was led by Mr. Luc who can help you with your sightseeing needs and advice on how much should your taxi fare be to reach your destination. They can coordinate with different tours for what you are looking for, including Halong Bay cruises.  The front desk also gives you a good deal for exchanging foreign currency (preferrably in US dollars).  Take a copy of the hand-made map they have at the lobby and ask to be directed to go-to places for beef pho or bun cha and the staff will gladly mark these for you.  While the hotel interior looks dated (heavy wooden panelling and tiles suggests 1970s mod), their breakfast buffet is more than sufficient and the coffee absolutely worth taking three helpings full.

Our first day was taken languidly at the Hoan Kiem Lake and surrounding area.  It was best seen from a view up above at the City View Cafe on the fourth floor of Sieu Thi Building, Bo Ho Street.  There I had my first taste of the classic Caphe Sua Da (iced coffee with  condensed milk), while my husband had two bottles of Ha Noi Beer and my daughter, a tall glass of mango milkshake.  The wind that blew right at our faces out on the terrace was a welcome respite from the humid weather and the walk that took us there.

If you came to Hanoi ill-prepared (i.e., you didn't buy your own Lonely Planet guidebook or you weren't able to download maps from google), you need not worry since there's a big tourist information office on the ground floor of the City View Cafe and you can just grab a map and other booklets/brochures for free and can plan your itinerary from there.

As we were nearer the northern part of the lake, we trooped over to the Ngoc San (translated to Jade Mountain) Temple accessed via a red wooden bridge called "The Huc" or the "Flood of the Morning Sunlight" visible anywhere within the lake's vicinity.  The temple itself dates back to the 14th century although the current buildings were probably built in the 18th century.  It was dedicated to their hero Tran Hung Dao who led his men to defeat a force of 300,000 sent to invade Vietnam by Mongol  Emperor Kublai Khan.  There are also altars set up in the area dedicated to scholars Van Xuong and La To, patron saints of physicians.

After that, we walked the perimeter of the lake and crossed the street to Nha Chung on the lake's west side to look for St. Joseph's Cathedral.  It was quite easy to find as its neo-gothic structure loomed over the other buildings in the commercial area.  The church's architecture is patterned after the Notre Dame of Paris and is the seat of the archdiocese of Hanoi.  Inside, the walls were surrounded with stained glass windows that provided natural light and air, while showcasing the well-preserved altar of the Catholic church.  The diocese holds two masses during weekdays and seven during Sundays and can be quite busy and super crowded during this time and on holidays.  It's another place worth the effort of going just to catch your breath if not to refresh your soul with a little prayer or two. 

We then proceeded to buy tickets to see the ancient art of water puppeteering at the Thang Long Theatre.  It costs VND100,000 (USD50/Php200) for adults and VND70,000 for children.  It can get pretty crowded and the airconditioning on a hot, humid day may just not be enough, but it's well worth to go and see to get a taste of Vietnamese folk art and music.

Dinner had us looking for beef pho and got it at Gia Thian on 49 Bat Danh Street.  We had to go back and forth though because it was quite easy to miss it.  Despite the dinghy interior and fruit flies swimming in the open pitcher of vinegar sauce, we had to admit that it was one of the best tasting beef rice noodle soup we ever tasted.  It was presented slightly different from what we were used to back in Manila as there were no side dishes of herbs, lemon and bean sprouts.  We were to learn later that what we are accustomed to back home is the Saigon style with the broth slightly sweet, while Hanoi cooking is more subtle and beefy with all the herbs already right there in your bowl of soupy goodness.  Take note that according to the locals you should not pay more than VND40,000 (US$20/Php80) for any kind of good pho.

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