Dec 14, 2017

Vietnam Travelogue: A Day in Ha Long Bay (30 Jan 2016)

Apart from food hunting and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex visiting, the remainder of the day before was spent hunting down affordable Ha Long Bay tours in the city. Despite our attempt to compare packages and prices, it was a tough call.

Out of frustrations and laziness, we booked Ha Long Bay tour with Especen Hotel for USD45/pax. One thing for sure, do not go for the lowest price point, and look closely at the fine details of the packages.

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Lone Boat @ Ha Long Bay
By 7am, we were awake and prepped for the day. By 7.30am, we were downstairs waiting to devour our USD 3 western breakfast set in Especen Hotel. Toast, baked beans, ham, and sausages, it was simple but lovely. Better still, it came with a big bowl of yoghurt with dragonfruits and watermelon!

Total damage for 2 pax = USD 6

The journey from Especen Hotel to the port took about 4-5 hours, mostly due to the delay caused by heavy traffic and throttling speed limit in the city. While the bus we were on was air-conditioned, it did feel a little stuffy with full load of passengers.

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Busy Day @ Ha Long Bay
Within half an hour upon arrival at the wharf of Halong City, we were shuffled onto our cruise boat and began our discovery of Ha Long Bay, one of the world's UNESCO World Heritage Site, on a chilly Autumn afternoon.

Our English speaking guide, despite his heavy Vietnamese accent, did try fighting against the muffling wind to tell us the stories of the various shapes of stones sitting above the waters of Ha Long Bay. He did not do it for long though as half an hour into the cruise, all passengers retreated to the lower deck to enjoy lunch onboard.

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Fighting Cock @ Ha Long Bay
Our lunch was akin to Chinese banquet, ranging from cucumber salad, fried potato, steamed shrimp, sauteed squid with onions, fried pork, seafood spring rolls, fried fish with tomato sauce, to stir fried vegetables. All these were served with steamed rice, and ended with fruit dessert.

Did we enjoy our lunch? Probably not. You could easily find any street food in Hanoi that would taste better than our lunch onboard.

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What do you see? @ Ha Long Bay
After lunch, we were ferried to a fishing village where we got to do some kayaking in the waters of Ha Long Bay. Considering it was my first time kayaking, it did help that the water of Ha Long Bay was calm. Even after all the exercise, you would still feel icy cool fresh. Just watch out for Kayak-traffic and your precious non-waterproof belongings.

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Stalactites and Stalagmites Thien Cung Cave
What followed after our kayaking was to visit Thien Cung Cave, which is known to be the largest and most beautiful cave in Ha Long Bay. VND 50k was the entrance ticket price to visit Thien Cung Cave, or any of these destinations (Dao Go Cave, Sung Sot Cave, Ti Top Beach, Me Cung Cave, Soi Sim Island).

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Light VS Shadow Thien Cung Cave
The climb into Thien Cung Cave was quite an adventure on its own: the entrance was narrow and almost hidden with overgrown vegetations. Upon setting foot into the cave, the expanse of the sanctum stretched as far as and as high as the eyes could see.

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Stalactites and Stalagmites @ Thien Cung Cave
The journey through Thien Cung Cave took about half an hour. Along the way, our Guide would make a stop at some of the formations and tell us the stories behind it.

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Stalactites and Stalagmites @ Thien Cung Cave
With all the tactically placed neon lights in Thien Cung Cave, you would start imagining things. Birds, fish, flowers, humans, you name it.

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Stalactites and Stalagmites @ Thien Cung Cave
While some of it were convincing, some of it were a bit of a stretch, unless you were armed with bucketful of imagination.

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Stalactites and Stalagmites @ Thien Cung Cave
What was unexpected was the ponds of water with natural gushing stream of water babbles throughout the year towards the end of our journey. It was almost blissful.

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Parking Cruise Boats @ Thien Cung Wharf

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Minimal yet Practical @ Thien Cung Wharf
And that concluded our half an hour journey through Thien Cung Cave. What welcomed us was the tranquil waters, accompanied by colorful cruise boats which patiently waited for its passengers.

By 4pm, we were ferried back to Halong City and boarded our air-conditioned bus for another 4-hour ride back to Hanoi. Famished we were, we decided to try out a nearby French restaurant named Le Petit Bruxelles.

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Breaded Pork with Reblochon Cheese and Mushroom Sauce @ Le Petit Bruxelles (VND 205k)
While I opted for Breaded Pork with Reblochon Cheese and Mushroom Sauce, the tanner half went for Fresh Sausage of Toulouse with Fried Potatoes and French Green Bean. Truth be told, I was sold by the idea of breaded pork with cheese. And it did not fail me. Not only the pork was juicy fresh, the cheese gave the extra oohmp to the one dimensional taste profile. Don't mind the beans...

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Fresh Sausage of Toulouse with Fried Potatoes and French Green Beans @ Le Petit Bruxelles (VND 195k)
On the other hand, though Toulouse sausages was a little predictable, it was pretty good. Chewy and flavourful, it went well with crispy fried potatoes, sauteed onions, and green beans. Definitely the kind of homely food you need after a long day.

Total damage for 2 pax = VND 410k

IN SUMMARY,

My personal dining ranking (5 being the full score) based on following criteria are:
  • Ambiance
    • Especen Hotel - 3/5
    • Le Petit Bruxelles - 4/5
  • Price
    • Especen Hotel - 5/5
    • Le Petit Bruxelles - 3/5
  • Food
    • Especen Hotel - 4/5
    • Le Petit Bruxelles - 4/5
  • Verdict
    • Especen Hotel - Healthy and convenient, but it might take awhile to be served.
    • Le Petit Bruxelles - Homely establishment for comfort food
My personal hotel/attractions verdicts for:
  • Especen Hotel: Walking distance to Hoan Kiem Lake and local food. Spacious and comfortable room. It could use a fan for ventilation during winters. Do ask for lower floor rooms if you are not a fan of climbing narrow staircases
  • Ha Long Bay: Best time to visit would be summer where there would be blue sky and emerald water. Winter was a little too cold and lacklustre.

DINING INFO:

Especen Hotel
28 Tho Xuong street
Hoan Kiem district,
Hanoi 110214, Vietnam
Operation Hours: 24 hours
Tel: +84 24 3824 4401
Credit Card: No (Cash only)

Le Petit Bruxelles
25 Lý Quốc Sư,
Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm,
Hà Nội, Vietnam
Operation Hours: 11am-2pm, 5pm-10pm
Tel: +84 439381769
Credit Card: Yes

Nov 26, 2017

Vietnam Travelogue: Bun Rieu, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Cha Ca La Vong, Bun Thang - Checked! (29 Jan 2016)

It was cold in Hanoi in this month of January. Temperature at night went as low as lower tens celcius. I was shivering in my sweater underneath a layer of thick quilt. Sleep did not come easy but it did help that the room at Especen Hotel was cosy.

Waking up in the mornings was equally challenging. Leaving the warmth in bed, walking on the icy cold tiles to bathroom, brushing teeth and showering with icy water as the heater gets its warm up, just to name a few.

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Porridge Crowd at Nearby Alley @ Especen Hotel
By 10am, we were ready to explore Hanoi. While we made our way out from Especen Hotel, we saw these locals sitting on the tiny stools, enjoying their bowls of hot porridge.

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Hot Porridge, Yes? (VND 40k)
In this chilly morning, a bowl of hot porridge was a welcoming delight. Better still, it came loaded with fried crullers and meat floss! Tanner half and I ordered one to share. In the end, both of us had to fight for the last scoop of this delicious porridge.

Total Damage = VND 40k

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Local Sweet Snacks
On the streets of Hanoi, you would see ladies carrying trays of snacks, eyeing for gullible tourists to sell them expensive snacks. Though we were curious, we weren't gullible: 6 pieces of these weren't worth VND 100k.

Total Damage = VND 50k (Guess we were still gullible after all...)

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Bun Rieu @ 11 Hang Bac
Semi-loaded with porridge, we continued our quest to look for Bun Rieu, i.e. noodle soup with tomato and crab, which brought us here at 11 Hang Bac. 2 stools and a shallow table top was the simple setup for diners to enjoy Bun Rieu.

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Bun Rieu Cha @ 11 Hang Bac (VND 30k)
Bun Rieu is a Northern crab and tomato noodle soup with thin round rice noodles. As literal as the name suggested, the tomato soup base was surprisingly light but tangy. Served with a side of fresh local vegetables, chilies and even salt, you may tweak your Bun Rieu as you would like it. I personally loved the original soup base with their rice noodles. Somehow I found the minced crab meat did not quite blend in with the rest.

Total Damage = VND 30k

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Situated 2.7km from 11 Hang Bac was Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, which houses Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House, Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda. Guarded by military honour guards, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the place where Vietnamese pilgrimage come to pay respect to the Revolutionary Leader, Uncle Ho Chi Minh every morning.

We had difficulty locating Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House, Presidential Palace and One Pillar Pagoda within the complex but for those interested to visit, you would need to pay VND 25k entrance fee each for Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House and One Pillar Pagoda.

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Lenin Park
As we were exploring on foot, we passed by Lenin Park, which is named in commemoration of Lenin on his 110 birthday. This small triangle botanical garden is the green lung of Hanoi, where the locals exercise, stroll and enjoy its beautiful landscape.

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Train Tracks
Out of nowhere, train tracks appeared between two blocks of houses, living in harmony with its nearby resident, motorbikes and passerby.

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Cha Ca La Vong @ Cha Ca Thang Long
Traversing busy traffic in Hanoi was no small feat, not to mention over 5km distance covered within half a day on foot. Famished we were, we found Cha Ca Thang Long and ordered their famous Cha Ca La Vong, i.e. turmeric grilled fish. The way Cha Ca La Vong was prepared was simple: tossed in all the greens and fishes and let it sizzled.

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Cha Ca La Vong @ Cha Ca Thang Long
La Vong grilled fish is basically grilled hemibagrus (cá Lăng) with dills and oil. For non vegetables eaters, good luck to you! I particularly loved their local greens, especially loved it when it worked only to enhance the overall taste profile of La Vong. Fish meat was unexpected smooth and fresh. I loved the touch of peanuts too.

Total Damage = VND 320k (for 2 sets of Cha Ca La Vong with beers)

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Thuan Ly Bun Thang @ 33 Hang Hom
Since we splurged on our lunch in Cha Ca Thang Long, we were back to the street fares for dinner. Bun Thang at Thuan Ly Bun Thang for one.

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Bun Thang @ Thuan Ly Bun Thang
Bun Thang is vermicelli soup with chicken, egg and pork, featuring simple yet nutritious soup base. While I found their vermicelli coarse to my liking, I did like their Thang (soup).

Total Damage = VND 60k (2 Bun Thangs)

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Thuc Don @ 52 Ly Quoc Su
Tanner half needed more substance after his bowl of Bun Thang. We ended up here at Thuc Don 52 Ly Quoc Su to top up.

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Banh Goi @ Thuc Don 52 Ly Quoc Su
Banh Goi aside, I simply couldn't stress enough on my love on local fresh vegetables and their sweet sour dipping sauce. Where have you been all these whiles?

Total Damage = VND 22k


IN SUMMARY,

My personal dining ranking (5 being the full score) based on following criteria are:

  • Ambiance
    • Random Porridge Stall - 3/5
    • Random Street Snacks - N/A
    • Bun Rieu 11 Hang Bac - 2/5
    • Cha Ca Thang Long - 4/5
    • Thuan Ly Bun Thang - 3/5
    • Thuc Donn 52 Ly Quoc Su - 2/5
  • Price
    • Random Porridge Stall - 5/5
    • Random Street Snacks - 1/5
    • Bun Rieu 11 Hang Bac - 4/5
    • Cha Ca Thang Long - 3/5
    • Thuan Ly Bun Thang - 4/5
    • Thuc Donn 52 Ly Quoc Su - 4/5
  • Food
    • Random Porridge Stall - 5/5
    • Random Street Snacks - 1/5
    • Bun Rieu 11 Hang Bac - 4/5
    • Cha Ca Thang Long - 3/5
    • Thuan Ly Bun Thang - 4/5
    • Thuc Donn 52 Ly Quoc Su - 4/5
  • Verdict
    • Random Porridge Stall - Best unexpected find!
    • Random Street Snacks - Don't get conned please...
    • Bun Rieu 11 Hang Bac - Try it, you might like it
    • Cha Ca Thang Long - Simply love the fresh and tender fish meat with local vegetables
    • Thuan Ly Bun Thang - Homely fare
    • Thuc Donn 52 Ly Quoc Su - Totally worth the calories snacking on this
My personal hotel/attractions verdicts for:
  • Especen Hotel: Walking distance to Hoan Kiem Lake and local food. Spacious and comfortable room. It could use a fan for ventilation during winters. Do ask for lower floor rooms if you are not a fan of climbing narrow staircases
  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex: For fans of history, architecture and religion, you might just spend half a day here easily
  • Lenin Park: If you have the time to kill, this would be a refreshing change to the bustling city of Hanoi

DINING INFO:

Random Porridge Stall
Ngo Huyen Alley, near Especen Hotel
Operation Hours: N/A
Tel: N/A
Credit Card: No (Cash only)

Bun Rieu 11 Hang Bac
11 Hàng Bạc, Hanoi, Vietnam
Operation Hours: 6am - 6pm
Tel: N/A
Credit Card: N/A (Cash only)

Cha Ca Thang Long
19 - 21 - 31 Duong Thanh, Hoan Kiem, Cửa Đông, Hanoi, Hà Nội Hoàn Kiếm, Vietnam
Operation Hours: 8am - 10pm
Tel: +84 24 3824 5115
Credit Card: Yes

Thuan Ly Bun Thang
33 Hàng Hòm, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Operation Hours: N/A
Tel: +84 462961827
Credit Card: N/A (We paid cash)

Thuc Donn 52 Ly Quoc Su
52 Lý Quốc Sư, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Operation Hours: 11am - 10pm (based on Foursquare)
Tel: +84 4 3828 5922
Credit Card: N/A (We paid cash)

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