Friday, January 04, 2008

Viet Nam in Retrospect

I like Ha Noi.

I've been to a number of Asian cities outside the 7,100 islands I call home, and I have to say that Ha Noi is definitely somewhere I would love to stay for a month, just to soak up the flavor of the place and really get to know it better. There's a lot to see, not just from visiting temples and pagodas, but from just watching the city itself live and breathe.

Part of it is probably the weather, it being very cold during the winter you'll never feel gross after a day of walking all over town as you would here in Manila (omg the torrents of sweat).

The other part of it is the way everything looked, particularly in the Old Quarter. This in itself is a good reason to find a hotel in this area. The low-rise buildings, warm colors, small streets, tiny shops, and a plethora of balconies and french windows made me feel like I was in a time capsule. Or maybe it’s the memory of beloved movies like The Scent of Green Papaya, and Indochine that’s feeding all this nostalgia.

Walking around is a bit intimidating at first, but no more than it would be walking through Binondo, and I somehow feel safer walking down Pho Ma May than I would walking down Mabini.

Crossing the road can be a heart-pounding experience for the uninitiated, but then again…I’ve been to Cairo. Compared to how people drive over there, I think I can handle dodging scooters and cyclos just fine. At the very least, no one seems to drive faster than 40 kph in this city.

One thing about being Asian is that it definitely made it easier on us to get around without giving away the fact that we weren't locals. Only our camera gear and the trusty LPG (Lonely Planet Guide) would betray us for the tourists we were (fine, so we're a bit chunky to be typical Vietnamese, but we'll gloss over that). Though the vendors can be persistent, in general, the people we've dealt with are friendly, and inclined to be lenient of the whatever bumbling we were guilty of.

The only thing I found annoying was the embarrassment of having to tell someone rattling off to you in Vietnamese is that you don’t understand what the heck they’re saying. Barring that however, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend seeing Ha Noi to anyone who asks.

A few useful things to keep in mind:

Transportation and Getting There:

1. The Mystery of Gate 7 in Ha Noi Airport - If you are taking a flight out of Gate 7 from Ha Noi, bear in mind that although there is a sign that points out where Gate 6 supposedly is, there's no real desk with a sign "Gate 7". Just hang around the seating area near Gate 8 and 9, and when you're ready to board they'll open the glass doors beside Gate 8 and 9 and they'll usher you down a corridor, down a ramp, down a bit of coridor again, then up a ramp to where your plane is waiting.

2. Manila-VN through VN Air - If you booked your ticket to Manila through Vietnam Airlines, don't waste time queuing up at the Vietnam Airlines check-in counter. Vietnam Airlines has an arrangement with Philippine Airlines that designates seats for bookings with Vietnam Airlines to and from Manila so you need to check in at the PAL counter.

3. Don't lose the Customs Card they ask you to fill out when you land in Viet Nam. You'll need it when you leave. If you're not bringing anything special out it's no big deal, just a 10-15 min delay because you have to fill another out again I think, but if you're running late it'll save you headache and anxiety anyone could do without.

4. Taxis
If you're taking a taxi, try to take these:
  • Vinasun
  • Mai Linh
A lot of the others will have a low flagdown rate, but will tick faster than an old lady having a heart attack. A ride on one of these from the Temple of Literature to Pho Cha Ca cost us over 100k VND - nothing compared to how much it would cost in places like Japan of course, but every little bit counts especially if you're a backpacker on a budget.

5. Cyclos
These are fun, and a good way to snap pictures while getting somewhere. We took a 2 kilometer ride for a dollar each, and I think we were quite an eye-catching site seeing as we managed to squeeze the two of us into that little seat. We actually paid this guy an extra dollar for not giving up - it's no joke pedaling even slightly uphill with around 350 pounds in your front seat!

1.The streets on the way to Hoan Kiem lake from Ma May have a lot of neat stuff. Hand-carved wooden stamps are nice gifts, the small ones costing around 30k VND. Other handicrafts available are masks, water puppets, laquerware, silk lanterns and embroidered stuff, carved stone boxes and of course, chopsticks.

The shops at the perimeter north of Hoan Kiem lake also sell a lot of hats, and a variety of travel bags. I bought myself a cloche hat with a satin ribbon for 150k VND - around 10 dollars.

2.Cho Dong Xuan is also a good place to go for all sorts of stuff from footwear to textiles and handicrafts. Don't be afraid to bargain. Chop asking prices down to half, then work your way to something reasonable, especially if you are getting more than one item from one vendor.

Keeping Oneself Fed
1. Going on a Cruise? Pack some Snacks.
If you're taking the overnight or 2-night cruise at Ha Long bay, bring a few snacks with you. Smokes, chips or candy are not available for purchase on board. They'll have regular meals but if you run out of smokes or get the munchies during some odd hour of the day, you'll have to go without or wait til you run into one of the vendors plying one of your stops and pay premium (1 pack of Marlboro reds is 40k VND).

2. Try as much of the local food as you can.
One of the best things about being in another country is sampling the flavors that are unique to them, even if you've sampled the same thing back home at a local Vietnamese restaurant. The way Pho and Ca Phe in Viet Nam tastes is miles from the way it does in Manila. Even the texture of their noodles and the taste of their rice paper.

Some good places to go:

  • Old Ha Noi
  • BET Restaurant at Ho Tay Lake
  • Highlands Coffee - they're the Starbucks of Viet Nam. They offer good cheesecakes as and lunch items as well as cappuccinos and ca phe. There's a branch on a permanently moored boat on Ho Tay lake, and another on the 3rd floor of a building facing the north end of Hoan Kiem lake.
  • Cafe 69 - our fallback if we're too tired to walk further than our hotel's front door. Try the beef and green papaya salad. Spicy and Yummy.
  • Tamarind Cafe - for those craving vegetarians meals

3. Take a Cooking Course. This is something I have to do when I come back. Some places like Old Ha Noi near the south end of Pho Ma May offers daily cooking classes - what better souvinir to bring home than the tastes and flavors of Viet Nam?

4. Eat Your Fruit
Don't miss out on these. Dragonfruit, apples, oranges, kumquats, pineapple, tamarind - everything sweet and yummy. They're usually inexpensive and great for snacking.

5. Baguette & Chocolat
For those using the current Lonely Planet guide to Viet Nam, save yourself a trip with this tip - this cafe has moved from 11 Pho Cha Ca to a tiny corner of Ha Hoi street. It may help to try getting your Hotel to help you find it first and write down the address for the cab.

I'd add more but I'm way past my bedtime. If I think of anything else I'll update this post.

Craving for cà phê

Ok now I know one of the reasons why the people of Viet Nam are so skinny - they're running on jet fuel.

Who needs food when you've got cà phê? Don't believe me? Read hubby's blogpost on it.

I've always been a fan of typical espresso-based coffee but strangely enough I've taken a liking to this particular alchemy of robusta and condensed milk. Hot or cold, it's good stuff.

So it's a bitch when you're looking for that particular bite when you're back home in Manila and none of the usual VN food restaurants are able to serve you something like it. Anything else I've tried here is like water in comparison.

Ah well. I guess I'll just have to wait til when I can go back...or for hubby to come home with some beans and my very own ca phe maker.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year & Hang Sung Sot Cave

Happy 2008!! New Year in Hanoi is quiet due to the fact that firecrackers are banned, but people had their own little celebrations wherever they were anyway.

Day 2 of our overnight cruise through Ha Long bay, we stopped at Hang Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises) that featured some of the most fantastic cave scenery I've ever seen.

Some of the most interesting shapes that we could see were the strange 'penis' rock that juts out from a pillar in the largest chamber.

The other, is a formation that looks oddly like a fat buddha - I'll upload a photo of that later.

The Cave is composed of 3 main chambers, the largest of which is as huge as a cathedral, and to enhance viewing, all chambers have been strategically lit to highlight points of beauty.

Seeing it all without stopping too much to take pictures takes around 15 min. Of course, hubby and I being photo maniacs took more time to fully appreciate everything. Check out more cave pics here.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ha Long and short of it...

We arrived in Hanoi to a ground temp of 17 degrees, much colder than it was in HCM, and I was definitely glad of my pashmina scarf and my warm jacket, especially when we decided to take a trek around Hoan Kiem lake, just a 10 min walk from Sunshine 3 Hotel on Ma May in the Old Quarter in Hanoi.

Next day we were off to Ha Long bay for the eagerly anticipated overnight Junk Cruise. Ha Long is 5 hours from Hanoi by car, and we joined a group of tourists headed there at 8:30 in the morning, having downed a somewhat oily breakfast. Unfortunately for us, we were the 2nd to the last couple who was picked up so hubby and myself were not seated next to each other, and I had no one to my head on while I tried to nap. Hence the strange expressions we had on our face sometimes.

Of course it could be the spectacle of the passing traffic.

Anyway, like many many tourist destinations, Ha Long is not as desolately beautiful in photos as it is in reality, and the Junk of course, used a powerful onboard motor rather than its sails to get around. However Ha Long bay has it's own charm, and mystique and the many junks crowded at the pier make a colorful picture, packed so closely you could probably jump from one to another without too much effort.

A welcome drink and an hour later, we were served lunch...

settled into our small but reasonably comfortable cabin...

...and wandering around looking for photo ops, which all presented itself in due time.

More tomorrow, on Hang Sung Sot cave, seascapes, and good food, after a night of well-earned rest!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Wanderlust again...

Headed for Viet Nam in around an hour.

My husband has been in and out of the country for about 3-4 weeks at a time on a Project in Ho Chi Minh. Between longing for food that tastes like home, and missing my company, we've decided that I should come spend the next few days and the New Year cuddling up together in Hanoi.

So we're here at the Centennial wing, whiling the time away breathing in secondary smoke and blogging. The only wifi zone in this airport is unfortunately in the smoking area and cafe. The good part is that our departure gate is practically in front of the cafe, and the sandwiches are decent even if the coffee is not so hot.

We'll be spending much of today in transit, flying to Saigon, with a 3 hour layover then flying to Hanoi, ending up at our hotel at around 8pm.

What I'm really looking forward to is getting on the boat for the overnight Junk Cruise on Ha Long Bay my husband is treating us both to.

Ha Long Bay is a World Heritage Site, and the seascape looks like fairy islands jutting out of emerald green water, and for sure I'll be taking a lot of pictures when we get there.

Weather in Hanoi is colder, bottoming out around 15 degrees C, so I took care to bring warmer clothing, but I'm hoping to be able to wear shorts on the boat at least.

Time to pack up, next post will be evening in Hanoi.

Resurfacing after a long hiatus

Holykamote has been on hiatus for quite some time, due to work and general exhaustion. I'm pleased to say at least that I'll be able to post a few things before the end of the year.

For the moment I'd like to take the opportunity to revisit the charms of all things Tachikoma, the cutest gun-toting AI tank that's ever been created in the history of Anime. Screw you Motoko, your sexiness has nothing on the curves on these babies!

Who can resist the rounded shape of these compact babies, especially when they come in yellow:

Nendoroid Tachikoma (Yellow) by Good Smile

Available currently on preorder at places like AnimeXing.

My husband and I are both Tachikoma fans so we trooped to Greenhills to check out Wasabitoys to see if we could get our hands on one, but unfortunately it was no longer available from their supplier so we may have to wait a good while before we'll be able to get us one.

What they did have though, was the blue USB robot Tachikoma that's been featured in Gizmodo:

It comes with bundled software and a USB cable so you can plug into your computer and it can talk(in nihongo), answer email, play minigames. Needless to say the price tag was sufficiently intimidating for a casual buyer, but was in retrospect was not as expensive as you would expect of something this cool.

For the hardcore fans who are crazy/lucky enough to acquire one, I'm betting it'll be tough to resist the temptation to try to feed with Natural Oil.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Shanghai, baby

I've been on leave from work for a week and a half now, and in that span of time I managed to have one of my cats neutered, the other hospitalized for a bad case of trichobezoar, pay for my insurance premium, monthly mortgage, have my hair cut, and do half a dozen or more odd errands.

That probably sounds like a strange way to spend a vacation, but well, I'm not a college student with time to kill anymore.

I am looking forward to my trip to Shanghai this coming saturday though - I plan to take lots of pictures to post, and see as much of the interesting parts of the city as I can like the Shanghai Museum, and Nanshi (Old Town).