I will begin with an admission - There is a certain charm in blogging about a trip 6 months after it has happened. You get to revisit it once again - through pics, emails and locked memories. Presently, I am sitting at Cafe Mondo, taking a break on our Independence day and documenting our trip to Vietnam.
It is an intriguing question. Most of my trips typically have no rationale other than the one reason - it will be nice to explore this place. In Vietnam too, that was the majoritarian reason. But subconsciously, I wanted to explore another developing country in Asia. Vietnam has a very interesting history due to the US invasion in 1970s and i wanted to see how a country copes out of such an experience. Also, in my mind, I had always visualized that Vietnam will be better than Thailand or Malaysia, as in less touristy and more virgin.
There is another backstory to this one. Actually, we had wanted to go to Vietnam as part of our honeymoon but it had to be cancelled because my passport was close to expiry. Hence, it was on the bucket list.
TripAdvisor is my go-to guide for trip planning. My logic is very simple - Find a good hotel, find a good tour operator and book travel tickets. Beyond this i never plan. It did not took us long to zero down on Zoom Zoom Vietnam travel - http://zoomzoomtravelvn.com . Her website images had raised our hopes considerably and we quickly got on a Skype call with her. Choosing which itinerary out of the many options listed on her wesbite was a little challenge but we quickly zeroed on to Sapa and these images of Tam Coc made us difficult to look elsewhere.
As luck would have it, I had also read that world's longest cable car system is coming at Sapa and it is going to be operational by the time we reach there. So, that was also added to the bucket list. Online money transfer from India to Vietnam became a challenge. Vietnam is not a popular tourist destinaion from India and after couple of visits to Western Union, we finally requested Zoom to trust us and we will pay her when we land there. She agreed.
We booked Hanoi Guest House Royal hotel, it looked decent and it had great ratings on TA. It was also next to the main market which anyways we wanted to visit. I had looked at homestays/airbnb but it was difficult to figure out which one to book.
The flight was ok. There was a stop-over at Kuala Lumpur. I did not find anything fascinating about the airport. There was Starbucks there which became the defacto place to pass the time.
The first thing that hit us when we landed in Vietnam was that it is basically India but with a language barrier (for us). We were foreigners in this country and just like how we treat foreigners in our country, we started getting the same treatment. To begin with, they wanted to extract more money from us at every possibility. You have to haggle and question everything which is kind of problematic when there is a language barrier. Our taxi driver was charging extra and was feigning complete ignorance of English. I had to speak with his owner who convinced me of this extra charge which we were eventually able to save thanks to the good concierge of our hotel who quickly said no the driver in local language. (Choosing a good hotel makes takes care of half of your travel worries). But this was a good wake up call and lesson was learnt.
The second thing about Vietnam is the currency conversion. Vietnam's currency has completely melted so everything is in thousands there. The way math works is that 3000 Vietnam dong is 1 USD which is 70 Rupees. Anyways, we had converted INR-USD from India, and at Ha Noi airport we did USD to VND (Vietnamese Dong), so we had anyways paid the conversion price twice. And now, we had to apply this tricky multiplication in our head every time to understand how much an item will cost in INR. That was fun and challenging. In terms of standard of living, when compared to India, food et al is definitely more expensive while other items such as clothing is cheaper.
The hotel welcomed us with a nice glass of fresh juice and rice crispies which tasted heavenly. We got 3 packs of that same brand rice crispies back to India, this is after spending 2 hrs hunting the store that will sell the exact same brand. We had tried other variations but they were not that good :) Hotel was placed at a very strategic location. It had good access and a common landmark point.
Our Day 1 was hectic. We were starving, so the first thing we did was to get some food. Just one block away, there was a great restaurant which served a tofu sandwich was the best meal for me in this trip. We had already booked a local food tour followed by a puppet show and then we also had to meet Zoom to pay her advance for our travel planning. Our next day was visit to Tam coc
The local city food tour was not the best. We had two tour guides, one was learning from the other. It seems food tours are good for folks who are non-vegetarians. Our bellies were already full because of late lunch. Plus, the concept of typical Vietnamese food is little strange for us, which i will get to later. Walking the local market was fun. There are hundreds of small road-side cafes where people sit on small sized stools and have alcohol or coffee. In evening, it seems the entire young generation of town is there and sometimes, it is even difficult to step foot in the market.
We met Zoom and she was a great person who had studied in Alaska and she had a great passion for country side. It was infectious. We knew we were in good hands. The food tour was actually a tragic waste, it was very expensive and we felt that the tour guides were very lazy in showing us around. There is also something called Egg yolk coffee which is a local delicacy which part of the tour but we ditched it. The puppet show was decent but not extraordinary. It is one-time watch but there will not be any regret if it is missed.
We walked back from the puppet show. Our mobiles phones were dead out of battery, so we navigated using a physical map which was fun. Now, coming back to Ha noi. With so many people. the market is just like an old Indian market like Chandni chowk. Old buildings in crumbling condition are there everywhere, almost everything is available to buy, lot of fake items with original branding, small shops, small alleys. But with some key differences such as even with this big population, the streets were still decently clean and there was a much better sense of lane discipline. It also felt safer to walk, shops were open till late at night, people hung out at cafes, music going on.
Day 2's plan was to visit Tam Coc with Zoom. The moment you get out of the city, Ha noi's countryside is just like ours - fields and fields of rice. Theirs is also a heavy agrarian economy. The national highways was also similar to ours, little better planned as they had notion of exits, likely inspired by US system. First thing that we did was a boat ride that went through three caves. We were quite early so there was nobody else there. Our boat was rowed by a lady and she did so using her legs.
After the boat ride we had a giant lunch followed by a walk where in we went into the paddy fields. It was interesting. Post that, we climbed the Ngu Han Songh mountain. Tam Coc is known to be an inland Halong Bay but this was not the best time to visit. We had anticipated
But what we got was
The yellow color comes when the rice is flowering. When we had gone, rice was being sown hence, it was all brown. Zoom had mentioned this to us when we were planning the trip with her but we were not able to understand her argument. Anyways, the trek to top was good. We were happy. It was a good start of the trip. Vast open country side without much population was a very welcome change and we enjoyed every bit of nature.