Vietnam – Day 9 – Ninh Binh & Hanoi

Today I woke up at 3:30am when the power went out. The room became unbearably stuffy because there was no air-conditioning or air flow from the fan. I managed to finally get back to sleep before waking up again at 6:00am. I decided to go downstairs to get some breakfast and a coffee before getting ready to head out for the day. Oh by the way did I mention that my place has the cutest puppies I’ve ever seen!

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I started to ride my motorcycle into the town of Ninh Binh so that I could get more cash from the bank, as I was running low on cash. Sadly the motorcycle died and I had to do a walk of shame for about 1.5km before coming to a gas station. I filled the motorcycle up with gas, but sadly it still wasn’t working properly. I kept stalling out unless I gunned the throttle, but even then it would start to hesitate after a few seconds. I finally figured out a movement that seemed to work; hold the throttle full blast for 3 seconds, let off for a few seconds, and then repeat. I managed to get into town and pick up more cash.

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After picking up cash I rode the motorcycle to the Danh Thang Trang An boat tours, about 10km away. The motorcycle was really starting to act up now, and even dying for up to 10 minutes every few kilometers. Again, I figured out another trick; if I bounced on the bike up and down a lot, and then sloshed the fuel from side to side then it would eventually start if I help the throttle down half way. Eventually I got to the boat tours at about 10:00am. Along the way I did see this beautiful looking temple from the side of the road, as well as a very cool gateway.

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The boat tour lasted about 3 hours and cost 200000 Dong ($12.50 CDN). The tour took the group of four people through numerous caves and to a few temples. It was absolutely fascinating!

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After finishing the tour I rode the motorcycle back to the hotel, about 10km away. It took me over one hour to get back because the bike kept on breaking down. When I got back to the hotel I explained what was happening to the owner and she said that she would take a look at it. Unfortunately within 15 minutes she had already loaned it out to someone else, which I found to be quite dishonest.

I was feeling quite hungry at this point in time, as it was well past lunch time, so I decided to walk down the street and see if I could find something to eat. I came across this nice small restaurant called Sunflower Tam Coc and ordered some pho, salad rolls, and some fresh beer.

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After lunch I walked back to the hotel, checked out, and ordered a GRAB to the Ninh Binh train station. The fare for the ride was 80000 Dong ($5 CDN), but all I had was a 200000 Dong note for which he didn’t have change for. It wasn’t a big deal for me and I told him to keep the change, but he insisted on getting me the correct change. He ran around the six different stores asking for them to make change, all the while leaving me inside his car with the keys in the ignition and the engine running. I felt pretty bad for the guy. Remember, in Vietnam it is not customary to tip and many people will flat our refuse even if its a nice gesture. Oh and safety isn’t top priority in this country; take a look at his seatbelt reminder defeat with a plastic spoon!

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I was about 1.5 hours early for the train, but ended up talking with the nice young man from Chile that was backpacking around SE Asia. The train ride back to Hanoi took about 2.25 hours. After arriving in Hanoi I took a GRAB to the hotel I was staying at two nights ago so that I could pick up my passport before carrying onto my new hotel called Hotel Golden Art. Hotel Golden Art wasn’t the nicest, but it did the trick for the night.

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After checking  into the hotel I walked down the street to a fast food Bahn Mi place called Pho Bahn Mi. The food was absolutely delicious, in fact I ordered a second because it was so good. After having dinner I walked back to the hotel and went to bed.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I take a brief pause from the Vietnam series to share a recent hike that I completed with my father to Plains of Six Glaciers, before continuing with my Vietnam series. The next part in my Vietnam series has me travelling to Ha Long Bay, so be sure to stay tuned!

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Vietnam – Day 8 – Ninh Binh

Today I woke up at 5:30am. I’m still struggling with this persistent jet lag, a whole 8 days later. I packed my bags and got ready, before heading down for breakfast at the buffet. After breakfast I walked about 10 minutes to the Hanoi central train station.

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There’s a few ways of obtaining train tickets; you can buy right at the station, or you can buy online from a third party which charges a small booking fee on top. Unfortuneately foreigners can’t book online through the REAL Vietnam Rail website unless you happen to have a Vietnam bank card, which I presume almost everyone won’t. Also one thing to note is that there are a lot of fake websites in Vietnam, and other parts of SE Asia for things like trains, airlines, museums, etc. You need to be extra diligent and do your research as they mostly all look the same. I read multiple travel blogs to ensure that I was picking the appropriate websites. Anyways, I chose to use the third party website called Balou, as it came the highest recommended. I only paid about $2 CDN more to book it online through them than just showing up, but it was a nice piece of mind knowing everything was taken care of beforehand.

The train departed Hanoi station at 7:30am and slowly crawled its way through the city before picking up speed. About 15 minutes into the train ride I realized that I had made a bad mistake… I forgot my passport and US cash in the safe back at the hotel. I called the hotel and explained the situation, gave them the passcode for my safe, and told them that I’ll be back tomorrow evening to pick it up. Phew, disaster averted.

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The train arrived at Ninh Binh station at around 10:00am. While exiting the station I booked a GRAB, which happened to be waiting right out front. It took about 15 minutes to drive from Ninh Binh train station to my accommodation in Tam Coc, called Tuan Ngoc Hotel. The fare was 76000 Dong ($4.35 CDN). After arriving at the hotel I dropped off my bags I decided to rent a motorcycle from the hotel for two days for a cost of 110000 Dong/day ($6.25/day). The motorcycle didn’t include gasoline so I had to find a gas station before I ran out of gas, as they had drained all the fuel out minus a few drops.

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First stop was Hang Mua viewpoint, about a 6km ride away. Something to note here is that you don’t take the first parking spot that people try to flag you down to because you’ll end up paying way more, and have to walk a fair distance. If you can drive past all the people standing in the middle of the road you’ll find yourself with parking right at the entrance for only 10000 Dong ($0.55 CDN). Unfortuneately despite reading this there was an extremely persistent group of very angry sounding Vietnamese women that wouldn’t get out of the road and pretty much forced me to park in their parking spot for 25000 Dong ($1.35 CDN). Obviously we’re not talking about much money here, but the fact they were so pushy left a sour taste in my mouth. Picture down below of where NOT to park.

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After a 15 minute walk from the very end of the road I came to the entrance of the Hang Mua Viewpoint, which had a nominal entry fee of 100000 Dong ($5.50 CDN). There is a small cave at the start of the steps up to the viewpoint with a tiger statue and some offerings from the locals.

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After viewing inside the cave it was time to start the hot and strenuous journey up to the vietpoint. 500 steps and about 20 minutes later I was dripping in sweat, but looking at an absolutely fantastic view of the karst sceneries of Tam Coc, as well as the Lying Dragon ontop of the mountain. I spent some considerable time up here getting the photos that I wanted to get, before heading back down so that I could get some lunch.

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After walking back to the bike I rode back into town to get some lunch from a restaurant, which I unfortunately forget the name of. I had some beef pho soup, but it wasn’t very good and the service was quite slow.

After having some lunch I rode a short distance away to Bich Dong Pagoda. The parking attendent wanted to charge me 30000 Dong ($1.65 CDN) but I ended up negotiating down to 20000 Dong ($1.10 CDN). I crossed over a bridge through some temple gates, walked a short while to the Lower Pagoda, before ascending 100 steps to the Middle Pagoda, which is built half inside of a cave. There are roughly 20-25 steep steps to the Upper Pagoda, which is fully inside the cave, which is also filled with bats. Bich Dong Pagoda was built by the two monks Tri Kien and Tri The in the early 18th century.

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It was starting to get extremely hot as it was mid afternoon, so I rode back to the hotel and hung out in the pool for a few hours.

For dinner I rode to the Bia Minh Beer Garden, which was just down the street. I probably could have walked but I was feeling lazy from my hike up all those stairs earlier today. For dinner I had a Hawaiian pizza, and a pork Banh Mi sandwich, along with a mini keg of fresh beer. I’ve never seen anything like it before; it’s a combination between a growler and a keg. This was some of the freshest beer I’ve had in SE Asia so far. During dinner it started to pour rain. After dinner I rode back to the hotel in the pouring rain and ended up going to bed at around 9:00pm.

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Be sure to check back tomorrow when I explore more of Ninh Binh before heading back to Hanoi.

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Vietnam – Day 3 – Hoi An

The next day I woke up at 5:30am. I didn’t realize this at first but I had the whole villa to myself; none of the other 12 rooms were booked. The villa had a restaurant that opened at 7:00am so I waited for the restaurant to open. I had some beef pho for breakfast. I borrowed one of their bicycles for free to ride into the ancient town of Hoi An. I explored around the local market, wandering up and down the streets to take in the sights, including the famous covered Japanese Bridge, which was built in 1719. It was starting to get too hot to bear at around noon, so I rode the bicycle back to the villa. I looked on the weather reports and noticed that it was 37 degrees, but due to humidity it felt like 46 degrees.

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After relaxing by the pool for a bit and drinking a few beers I decided I was hungry so I borrowed the bicycle again in search of food. I settled on a place called Pho Co Hoi An. I had some beef pho and a local beer. I was getting tired so I rode back towards the villa, quickly stopping for some bottled water, a bag of Doritos, and some more beer. The villa had a good supply of bottled water and beer, but I wanted to save some money by purchasing it at the store instead.

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I had what was supposed to be a short nap, but ended up sleeping from 3:00pm until 8:00pm. After waking up I walked into town and went to famous Banh Mi Phuong for dinner. Anthony Bourdain ate there a few years ago and featured it on his television show called Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Banh Mi is a baguette filled with savory meats, spices and a few vegetables such as shaved carrots and a bit of lettuce. To describe the taste of the Banh Mi at this particular restaurant I would say it’s like having Pho in a bun. It was so delicious, and very inexpensive; only 50000 Dong ($3.15 CDN) for a Banh Mi and a beer.

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After dinner I walked around and explored the night market, and watched people floating down the river in the love boats, as well as watch people making wishes with lit lanterns and placing them in the water. It was getting late so I decided to walk back to the villa. It was around 11:00pm by now so it was time for me to go to bed.

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Vietnam – Day 1 – Ho Chi Minh City

After some much-needed sleep I woke up at around 5:00am. The hotel I was staying at provided a complimentary set breakfast, which started at 7:00am. I hung out in the hotel room until it was time for breakfast. For breakfast I had some Pho. After breakfast I started my adventure around the city.

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The first stop was Ben Thanh Market, a massive market that’s been around since the early 17th century. The market was destroyed by fire in 1870 and was rebuilt to become Saigon’s largest market. The market was moved in 1912 and renamed to it’s current name, and the building was renovated in 1985.

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The second stop was the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, also known as Gia Long Palace. This building has a very rich history dating back to 1885.Construction of Gia Long Palace was constructed between 1885 and 1890. Gia Long Palace was designed by the French architect Alfred Foulhoux. The palace spans two floors and was building using classical Baroque architecture with a blend of European and Oriental influences. The building was essentially symmetrical with a winding staircase in the middle of the building. Interestingly the building was built with three deep underground tunnels which lead from the palace to other parts of the city so that government officials could escape in the event of a coup. The building was intended to house the Museum of Commercial Trade, which showcased products and goods of Southern Vietnam, but it was not used as intended and was instead used as the residence of the Governor of Cochinchina. In 1945, control of the palace changed hands many times. It started on March 9th when French governor Ernest Hoeffel was arrested, and the Japanese took over the palace and used it for the residence of Japanese Governor Yoshio Minoda. On August 14th the Japanese handed over the palace to its puppet Empire of Vietnam government to be used as a residence. A mere 11 days later on August 25th the Viet Minh seized the property. The building then became the headquarters of the Provisional Administrative Committee of Southern Vietnam, which was later renamed the “People’s Committee of Southern Vietnam”. On September 10th the British occupied the palace and made it the Allied Mission headquarters, thus evicting the “People’s Committee”. About a month later on October 5th the building was then again occupied by the French; first as a temporary headquarters of the High Commission for the French Republic in Indochina, then as the official headquarters of the Commissioner of the French Republic in Southern Vietnam.

On June 2nd 1948 the French handed control of the building to the Provisional Government of the State of Vietnam, which established its headquarters there. It was later on used as the Palace of the Premier. On January 9th 1950 a massive protest with over 6000 students and teachers demanding the release of students arrested for advocating Vietnamese independence occurred in front of the building. Over 150 people were arrested, 30 injured, and 1 killed. From 1954 to 1966 the palace was used as a residence for numerous government officials, and was renamed to Gia Long Palace by Bao Dai. The Supreme Court of the Republic of Vietnam utilized the palace from October 31st 1966 to April 30th 1975, when the Fall of Saigon occurred, ending the Vietnam War. On August 12th 1978 the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee ordered that the building be used as the Ho Chi Minh City Revolutionary Museum, a propaganda museum, later being renamed on December 13th 1999 to its current name of Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

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The third stop was the People’s Committee Building, also known as Ho Chi Minh City Hall. The building was built between 1902 and 1908 in a French colonial style. It was renamed in 1975 to Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee. While I was there a group a graduating school children were getting their group photo taken.

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The fourth stop was the City Opera House. I just took a photo of the outside, as the inside was being used for graduating children. The building was opened in 1900 and shaped very similar to the Opera Garnier in Paris, with 800 seats to entertain the French. The Opera House was damaged during World War 2, and because of the criticism of the fascade and high costs of organizing performances the government tried to turn the theatre into a concert hall. Decorations, engravings, and statues were removed, and the building wasn’t restored until 1955. After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the building was restored again to its original function as a theatre, and the façade wasn’t restored until 1998, on the 300th anniversary of the founding of Saigon.

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I then stopped by the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre to purchase a ticket for the 5:00pm showing; more on that later. The cost of the ticket was 200000 dong ($11.40 CDN).

After purchasing my ticket, I went to the War Remnants Museum. On my way to the museum I met a couple that was also from Canada and we chatted on the way to the museum. The girl had just had her phone stolen out of her hands while she was sitting for dinner the previous evening, so she warned me to be a bit vigilant. The War Remnants museum was built in 1975 and contains exhibits related to the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War involving the French. Just a word of warning that some of the following images may be disturbing to some viewers.

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I was starting to get hungry so I searched out some food on Google Maps. I settled for Saigon Sakura Japanese Restaurant. On my way to the restaurant I snapped a few quick photographs of Independence Palace. Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Place, was built between 1962 and 1966. It was built on the site of the former Norodom Palace. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30th 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through the gates.

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For lunch I had some sushi rolls, but not too many as they were phenomenally expensive; even more expensive than at home. After enjoying the delicious lunch, I walked to the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon and the Saigon Central Post Office. Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon was built between 1863 and 1880 by the French in a Romanesque style. The Saigon Central Post Office was built between 1886 and 1891 in Gothic, Renaissance and French style. Inside the Saigon Central Post office there are two painted maps that were created just after the post office was built. One is a map of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia titled “Lignes telegraphiques du Sud Vietnam et Cambodge 1892”, which roughly translates to “Telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892”. The second map of greater Saigon is titled “Saigon et ses environs 1892”, which roughly translates to “Saigon and its surroundings 1892”.

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It was getting quite hot out at this point in time and I was still a bit jet lagged, so I walked back to the hotel to rest for a few hours. On the way back to the hotel I stopped at a Circle K convenience store to get a few beers to enjoy in the hotel room later on. By the time I got back to the hotel it was about 2:30pm. I relaxed until roughly 4:30pm and then walked to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. The show was extremely well done and in Vietnamese, but I didn’t need to understand Vietnamese to understand what was going on.

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After the show I walked to Nha Hang Dong Pho, and had a Hue style clear both with pork knuckle. It was honestly not very good, despite the good reviews online. I was getting tired so I walked back to the hotel. On the way back it started raining, but not too hard.

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Check back tomorrow when I explore more of Ho Chi Minh City, and explore the Cu Chi Tunnels, before jet setting off to Hoi An / Da Nang.

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