Sunday, May 01, 2016

My Hanoi Birthday Getaway

Pre-departure at NAIA T3

Twin room
We arrived at NAIA T3 past 3PM. We decided to be in the airport early so we have enough time to get some rest before our flight which is at 10:15PM (MNL). I booked us a twin room at The Wings Transit Lounge located at the 4th level of T3 and stayed few minutes before 4PM until 7:30PM. The room was pretty basic but comfortable enough for the two of us. The twin room comes with a bunk bed, bedside table, night lamp, towels, toiletries and slippers. The room is rather small and not air conditioned but there’s a cooler. The air coming out of the cooler isn't cold enough but bearable. There are 4 shower cubicles in the ladies room. Light snacks are available in the pantry such as bread, cereals, lomi as well as hot and cold drinks like coffee and lemonade. It comes with your stay so you can eat anything you like. If you’re a finicky guest, staying at The Wings may not work for you, book a hotel room instead. It’s recommended to book a room in advance just to be safe. I booked our room on the website at least a month before our stay. Their twin room costs Php1,800 (900 per pax) and as per their website , the maximum stay is only good for 5 hours so I was surprised when I was told by the receptionist that I can stay until 11PM but we need to catch a flight at 10:15PM we have to check out earlier than 11. Regardless, we paid the full amount via Paypal upon booking and it’s non-refundable.

Snack bar at the Wings Transit Lounge
After we checked out from The Wings, we paid the airport terminal fee (still at Php1,620) first before falling in line at the Web Check in counter where we got our boarding passes. Since we’re quite early we still have ample time to exchange our cash to USD and VND. I’m glad that there is VND available at the airport because we tried our luck at the black market but they don’t have it they said that the value of VND is cheap and cannot be exchanged easily. We waited for about an hour at the boarding gate until it opened at 9:45PM. Our plane left later than 10:15, I think it’s around 11PM already so we arrived in Hanoi past 1AM thank God the driver of the shuttle that will take us to our hotel in Old Quarter is patient enough to wait for us. 

No Bai International Airport

Our room at the Little Hanoi Diamond Hotel,
Old Quarter area
It took us about 40-45 minutes from NIA to Little Diamond Hotel at Bat Dan Street in Old Quarter. Our driver called a hotel staff on his phone but we’re quite surprised because there’s a roll-up door we didn’t realize that the hotel is right there. The male staff greeted us “Good morning" and was very accommodating. To be honest I’m not sure if he gave us his name but we just didn’t understand because of language barrier or he forgot to give his name at all. Regardless, he was nice and asked for our passports immediately so he can give us our room key. We told him about a customized tour for our itinerary for our first day and he’s kind enough to give us useful information. I forgot to inquire via email if there’s an elevator at the hotel (my bad) and there’s none good thing there’s another male staff who carried our trolleys and walked us up too our room 
on the 3rd floor. Too early for a morning workout, whew. We're settled in the room around 2AM. We immediately checked out the bathroom, veranda and then unpacked our bags. The room is kinda spacious for 2 persons and it looks renovated which is nice. I’m just not happy that there’s no safety box, the closet handles are broken and no electric pot so you have to go down to the lobby to get free coffee or tea although it’s not so much trouble, we can live with that maybe I'm just expecting too much or something. After booting up my laptop to check if the wifi works, I slept at 3AM. God, I’m so tired so I had a real good sleep until I woke up at 6AM. While I was taking a shower I noticed that the water gets too hot it's like boiling
Birthday cake!
Good morning Hanoi
temperature, I didn't enjoy it. We went down to the hotel’s restaurant to have breakfast past 8AM. I’m not satisfied with what the hotel have to offer for breakfast because there’s nothing much actually. There’s bread, fruits, cold cuts, eggs and coffee. I thought they have boiled eggs when I tried to get one the kitchen staff pointed on the digital stove which means that she will cook it for me but I’m quite hungry already so I just had toast, some fruits and coffee. Before we finished our breakfast we were surprised when the male staff who accommodated us early that morning along with a group of kitchen staff are coming towards our table with a birthday cake. I thought the cake is for one of the guests on another table but when they started singing the happy birthday song and placed the cake on our table we had no choice but to say “thank you." It was rather embarrasing and a sweet gesture at the same time that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I thought, I should have had breakfast outside of the hotel instead hehe.

Ngoc Son Temple (Red Bridge) at Hoan Kiem Lake

St. Joseph's Cathedral Hanoi

Day 1

Pho Ga and Iced coffee
After breakfast we asked for a customized tour from the lady at the reception who was very helpful by the way, she gave us a map of the Old Quarter and told us that most tourist attractions are within walking distance so we  started walking from the hotel to Hoan Kiem Lake to visit the Ngoc Son Temple (Red Bridge). We had a few pictures taken but didn’t come inside the temple anymore. Since it’s lunch time we decided to grab something to eat at the Ha Noi Soul Cafe where we had Pho Ga (chicken noodles) and iced coffee. We sat at the veranda so we can enjoy the view of Old Quarter and the lake. Initially we plan to have lunch at the City View on the upper level but it’s closed. We also thought about trying out some of the cold drinks at Highlands Coffee (like a local Starbucks) in the lower level of the same building but we want some real food so we opted for Ha Noi Soul Cafe since they have more food choices available. 

Turtle Tower
Next stop is the Turtle Tower in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. We took very few pictures of the tower since we can’t get close it sits in the middle of the lake. We also took pictures of some nice flowers that we passed by while thinking how we can go to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. We survived our walking tour simply by asking help from the locals. St. Jo is kinda hard to find but we found it anyway. While at the cathedral there are cyclo drivers offering service to go to tourist attractions but we said no until we realized that all the other attractions on the map may be too far for walking and we’re both tired already so we thought we’re gonna need a ride then this old man, a cyclo driver approached us outside St. Jo and offered 400k VND to take us to the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum & Museum, One Pillar Pagoda, Dong Xuan Market and Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. I asked for 350 VND at least just for the sake of haggling but he insisted 400k and we need to get something done so to cut it short we agreed at 400k VND.

Temple of Literature
There’s not much to see in the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum and One Pillar Pagoda. We had picture taking outside as usual and bought some souvenirs like fridge magnets and a cyclo replica for display. We shopped for more souvenirs at the Dong Xuan Market. Last stop for the day is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater at the Hoan Kiem Lake area and it’s time to say goodbye to our cyclo driver. We hand him his 400k VND but he wouldn’t leave and we couldn’t understand that he’s asking for a tip we thought we had everything covered. My sister gave him $2 anyway for his effort, it’s not easy driving a cyclo for someone his age but he probably needs to work hard for his family. Anyhow, we bought tickets for the 5:20PM water puppet show (that's 100,000 VND each or $10 for 2 tickets). We still have time to eat dinner at a nearby coffee shop then we went back to the theater just in time for the show. We didn't have a good view of the show it's a little far from the stage but it was okay. After the show we walked back to the hotel to rest and sort out the souvenirs we bought before finally packing our bags. Thank God we didn’t get lost on our way back, our map was quite helpful.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Museum

Water Puppet show at Thang Long

Water Puppet show tickets

2 hour boat ride at Trang An

At Trang An Eco Tourism 
It's getting hot in here
Day 2

Best boating experience so far
We woke up as early as 5AM and ate what’s left of our birthday cake in the fridge because this is our last day at the hotel and we don’t want to be late for the Bai Dinh Pagoda - Trang An Eco Tourism package we booked at the hotel. Our tour guide and shuttle picked us up around 8AM. I thought it was a private tour for just me and my sister but the tour guide informed us inside the shuttle that we need to pick up some more guests who will join us for the tour. There’s 6 of us in total who joined the tour: a couple, an old Aussie man and a Greek guy. It was a 2 and a half hour drive to get to Trang An. Upon arrival the tour guide handed us our tickets. We bought ourselves hats for $1 each to protect our heads from the scorching heat of the sun because we were told that the boat ride will take 2 hours and I don’t want the heat to spoil everything. We wore our hats, life jackets and enjoyed the 2 hour boat ride. Boating was fun especially going under those caves and seeing beautiful stalactites although it was a little scary if you’re not careful enough you might hit your head really bad. Good thing I wore a comfy shirt because it got really hot out there, I was hungry after that ride too. Lunch is included at the restaurant just a few minute drive from Trang An. We ate together but I wasn’t able to eat a lot because I’m not comfortable eating with strangers. The food was good but I wasn’t able to try everything, I just had a taste of whatever dish is that with pork and the other with goat meat topped with sesame seeds, it tastes good but the meat is not tender enough so I got a little constipated after.

Bai Dinh Temple 

After lunch we visited the Bai Dinh Temple. According to Wikipedia: "Bái Đính Temple Spiritual and Cultural Complex is a complex of Buddhist temples on Bai Dinh Mountain in Gia Viễn DistrictNinh Bình ProvinceVietnam. The compound consists of the original old temple and a newly created larger temple. It is considered the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam and has become a popular site for Buddhist pilgrimages from across Vietnam.” Inside this temple I saw a humongous bell called the bronze bell in the Bell Tower that weighs 36-ton. There’s a wooden staircase but we didn’t bother going up since we’re a bit tired already and we still have a lot of walking to do. There are big golden Buddhas in one or two of the temples and many more similar looking Buddhas with different names. We got lost inside the temple thank God our tour guide and group patiently waited for us because we don’t know how to get back to our hotel if they left us there since we noticed that there's no bus or any means of transportation outside the temple. After the tour the shuttle dropped us off near our hotel. We rested for a few minutes and had our last meal in Hanoi. We ate Banh Mi and had a cup of egg coffee from a stall just across our hotel, savor our dinner and just enjoyed our last night in the Old Quarter. 

We reserved a taxi the night before. The taxi picked us up at the hotel at 10PM and we're at the airport a little before 11PM. We went straight to the web check in counter but unlike in NAIA, there's just 1 line to get to all the other counters so even if you checked in online already you still have to endure the queue. It's very easy to get around Noi Bai International Airport I just noticed that it's a little disorganized to get passed Immigration. There's a very long queue and some foreigners who do not have discipline just simply cut the line and pretend like nothing happened, I was like seriously? After the Immigration Officer scanned my boarding pass it took me several minutes to get my bags because there's a long queue of bags left outside the Xray machine and nobody is moving those bags which is kinda annoying since it will not move on it's own right? It was kinda stressful for me, the worst international airport experience so far. Don't get me wrong because NAIA have it's own flaws too when it comes to procedures and stuff but it gets straighten out immediately. Our flight is at 1:15AM (Hanoi time) and boarding time is 12:35AM but there's just way too much going on there that we didn't know about 'cuz we boarded really late I think about past 1AM already so what to expect but a few minutes delay on our flight time as well. Anyhow, I kept myself busy editing pictures on my laptop and took a nap as well 'cuz my eyes are getting heavy. We arrived in NAIA before 5AM but there's no parking space available for our plane, would you believe it? I'm thinking it's possibly due to never ending flight delays that might've caused it, just my assumption.

Yummy egg coffee!

Delish Banh Mi for dinner
Upon arrival in NAIA T3 we're greeted by a long queue of passengers waiting to get through the health control area, what's new right? Such an eye sore so early in the morning. There's a line going here, there and everywhere and we're not even passed Immigration yet, my oh my! After Immigration we decided to have breakfast at the airport before going home. Oh boy, I was so darn exhausted.

Goodbye Hanoi!

My most awaited birthday trip is over. I still can’t believe that my twin sister and I have accomplished a lot with so little time that we have spent in Hanoi, Vietnam. It was exciting and tiring at the same time but it was all worth it. I wish we stayed at least 1 more day (sigh) just to chill and explore more Hanoian dishes. If I come visit Hanoi again in the future I may not stay at the same hotel because I'm sure there are better hotels in the area maybe I just relied on Tripadvisor reviews too much. Nevertheless, I had a great time. Hanoi is the place to be for backpackers who seek adventure and it's worth coming back. So much to see but too little time for us. I guess that pretty much wraps up my Hanoi, Vietnam birthday getaway for 2016. Whereto next year? I don’t know yet but we’ll see.

View of the Old Quarter from Ha Noi Soul Cafe

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