My First Day In Hanoi With Hanoikids (Part 2)

Posted by : foongpc | Tuesday, September 23, 2014 | Published in

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Continued from Part 1

While exploring the Old Quarter in Hanoi, I came across Sinh Cafe Travel, a local tour agent and decided to check out the tours they provided. I ended up signing up for two tours for me and my friend who would be arriving the next day - one to Halong Bay and the other to Perfume Pagoda.

Both the Halong Bay and Perfume Pagoda were one-day tours and they cost US$25 each - slightly cheaper than what the tour agent at my hotel charged. I was glad I did not book any tours via my hotel!

I will be blogging about Halong Bay and Perfume Pagoda in future posts, so do look out for them.

I was a little bit lost walking the streets of Old Quarter but luckily I managed to find my way back to my hotel and rested for a while before my guide from Hanoikids arrived at around 2pm. He was a nice, young man who introduced himself as Son. (rhymes with 'born').

I did not really have a planned itinerary but since I had not taken lunch yet (not to mention I was freaking hungry after all the walking around Old Quarter), I told Son to bring me to a good restaurant for lunch.

He brought me to New Day Restaurant located at Ma May Street.

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This is Son smiling for my camera. We were seated inside the restaurant and I was all eager to taste my first real Vietnamese meal!

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I ordered quite a number of dishes under Son's recommendation, but more about them in a separate post. Meantime, I shall just show you my bowl of delicious pho bo (beef with rice noodles soup).

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Son told me he joined Hanoikids as a means to improve his English and also to meet people, especially from other countries. It was pretty interesting talking to him.

The good thing about getting a guide from Hanoikids is you do not have to pay him (it's free) but you do need to pay for all the meals, transport and any entrance tickets to sites. So yes, I paid for his lunch and I was more than willing to do so.

Since it would only be a half day tour, I asked Son to bring me to places around Old Quarter and anywhere that's not too far away. Right after our late lunch, he brought me to a traditional Heritage House along the same road as the restaurant.

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It was an interesting look at traditional Vietnamese architecture. More about this Heritage House in a future post.

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After about half an hour exploring the Heritage House, Son brought me to Hang Bac Street to visit the famous Kim Ngan Temple.

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Did you know that each of the 36 guild streets in the Old Quarter is associated with a traditional craft? Hang Bac (also known as Silver Street), for instance, is famous in Hanoi as the place for trading and making gold and silver jewelries.  Perhaps that's why the statues and plants outside the temple were wrapped in gold and silver?

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More about this Kim Ngan Temple in a separate post.

When we left the temple, the sky looked as if it was going to rain, so Son suggested we search for a cafe to escape the rain and to have a drink at the same time. I was thinking drinking Vietnamese coffee while watching the rain fall would be the perfect thing to do, so I quickly agreed.

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Soon, we reached a big, wide junction near Hoan Kiem Lake and this was clearly a nightmare for anyone not used to crossing the roads in Hanoi. Cars and motorbikes were coming in all directions, and I mean ALL directions!!

If I were to wait for the road to be clear before I cross, I would be standing rooted at my spot the whole day! No kidding!

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Thankfully, Son was there to help me cross the road. By the way, I took the above photo while standing smack in the middle of the junction with cars and motorbikes flying all around me. I must say though, that the photo did not really capture the actual situation - in reality, there were more cars and looked more chaotic than this!

Now for first timer visitors to Hanoi, read carefully. This is how you cross the road in Hanoi.
First, say a little prayer. Look to your right, then to your left. Any cars coming?
If no (which is rare), don't wait. Cross the road!
If yes, what are you waiting for? Cross the road!!

OK, this may sound like a joke, but it is not really. You need to take that first step and walk slowly, but at an even pace, firmly and decisively. Then you will see a miracle happen before your very eyes. As you walk across the busy, chaotic road, cars and motorcyclists will skilfully swerve and avoid you.

Yes, only in Hanoi and in Vietnam do you cross the road like this. Attempting to do so in any other  country (especially Malaysia) will result in dire consequences. Do remember not to run or slow down as you cross the road or you will confuse the motorists. You got to trust the motorists. Did I mention that Vietnamese drivers are among the best in the world?

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Son brought me to Hanoi Soul Cafe and we sat at the balcony overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake.

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Somehow I decided not to order coffee and went for coconut water instead. We spent about an hour here chit chatting and simply observing the streets below.

When we finally left the cafe, the rain had stopped. Son wanted to bring me to the French Quarter. Situated at the south east of Hoan Kiem Lake, the French Quarter is totally opposite in character compared to the Old Quarter. Think French, wide roads, more orderly traffic, high class buildings and expensive restaurants and you will get the idea.

But this post is probably getting a bit too long, so maybe more about the French Quarter in Part 3?

To be continued ....

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My First Day In Hanoi With Hanoikids (Part 1)

Posted by : foongpc | Thursday, September 18, 2014 | Published in

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Last year in March, I went for a 5-day trip to Hanoi, Vietnam with a friend. It was my first time in Vietnam and I was extremely excited!

My friend could only join me on the second day, so I would be going solo on the first. Not that I really mind since I love traveling solo, but a travel companion would be nice. Two months before the trip, I came across a website that offers free personalised tour by a non-profit, student-run organisation in Hanoi called Hanoikids.

Now I am not very fond of joining any tour groups, but this is totally different. What Hanoikids do is they will send a local student to be your tour guide and the itinerary is entirely up to you! Since it was my first time in Hanoi, I thought that getting a local student to show me around and introduce me to the local culture would be a great idea.

Unfortunately, when I emailed Hanoikids to book a one-day tour, this was the reply I received. (Please enlarge to read).

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I learnt that you need to book the tour way ahead in advance, probably 3 - 4 months ahead. I had made my bookings only 2 weeks before my trip so they were not able to accommodate me.

Luckily, 2 days before my trip, I received an unexpected email from Hanoikids telling me they could now offer me a half-day tour on the day I requested. Even though it was just half day and not a whole day as I had initially planned, that was good news indeed!

So I was really excited that early morning at the airport waiting for my flight from KL to Hanoi.  Although the AirAsia flight was supposed to take about 3 hours and 20 minutes, I arrived at the Noi Bai International Airport 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Surely, that's a good start to my Hanoi trip!

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One thing good about traveling to Hanoi is that you do not need to fill in any immigration card during the flight or at the airport. I have always found them to be such a hassle although it's a necessary procedure in many countries.

From the airport, I took a taxi to my hotel (Rising Dragon Palace Hotel) located at Old Quarter. I noticed that taxis in Hanoi were mostly Toyota Camry cars. The journey from the airport to the hotel took about 45 minutes, and I was charged 315,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) / US$15 / RM48. The taxi did not use meters and this amount was agreed upon before I entered the taxi at the airport.

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The Rising Dragon Palace Hotel

I did not have the exact amount so I offered the taxi driver 400,000 VND (in fact, 400,000 VND was all I had in my wallet - the rest were US dollars and some Malaysian Ringgit) but he told me he had no change. Now I was not sure whether he genuinely did not have the change so I told him to wait while I went into the hotel to ask for some change. Later, I found this to be a wise thing to do as I discovered a lot of the taxi drivers in Hanoi (though not all) like to say that they do not have change.

My first impression of the Rising Dragon Palace Hotel was their excellent and friendly service! But more about this hotel in another post.

Immediately after checking into the hotel, I went out to explore the streets of Hanoi. My first priority however, was to search for a bank to change the US dollars I had with Vietnamese Dong. The hotel also provided money changing service but I found that their rate was not too attractive.

I managed to locate a bank near the hotel (it's called Sacombank) with quite an attractive exchange rate and became an instant millionaire! LOL!

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I was not sure if 4.2 million VND (about US$200) would last me for the next 4 days, but I could always buy again if it's not enough. How I wish that was US$4.2 million and not 4.2 million VND! LOL! I also requested more of the smaller 5,000 VND bills from the bank just in case I would come across taxi drivers or even local people who would dare to say "No change" to me!

The best way to explore the Old Quarter area in Hanoi is by foot. Well, that's the advice given to me by one of the hotel's staff and he's completely right! It was the end of March and I have to say the weather in Hanoi at this time of the year was pleasant. Not too hot, and not too cold. Just perfect, especially for walking around!

Very near to my hotel is this departmental store called Hang Da Galleria. It has a cute clock atop the main entrance. Surprisingly, I did not go inside - maybe because I was too busy walking the streets LOL!

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Opposite the departmental store is the Hanoi Theatre. Oops! I forgot to take a picture of the Hanoi Theatre building! Damn!

My first impression of Hanoi streets was the traffic! It was pretty chaotic and crossing the road was quite a nightmare. Later, my tour guide from Hanoikids would teach me the correct way to cross the road!

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The sight of local woman in conical hat carrying two baskets balanced with a stick on her shoulder was everywhere.

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This is Hang Gai Street, one of the more famous street in the Old Quarter.

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Despite the chaotic traffic, I found the Old Quarter to be quite charming. Look at the buildings!

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I must have walked around for quite some time because when I looked at the time, it was almost 1pm. I needed to rush back to the hotel as my tour guide from Hanoikids would be meeting up with me there at 2pm.

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But with so many streets in the Old Quarter I lost my direction and did not know how to get back to my hotel. Would I make it on time?

To be continued ....

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