Saturday, November 16, 2013

Vietnam & Angkor Wat (Oct 2013) - Part 1

Good morning Vietnam!!!!  If you asked me before I left to Vietnam why I was going there, my answer would had been "I have no idea".  I'm not sure if it was because I saw so many war movies, or it is because this country it is still a bit "hidden" from the rest of the world.  I was not really sure, but I knew I wanted to go, and this time I had the opportunity, the time and the will and here I'm already a week since my return to Montreal.

On my way to Vietnam I had  a two days layover in Los Angeles to visit my family, and it also helped to make my flight a bit shorter, and kudos to Asiana Airlines for providing the best experience possible in my first flight with them.  I was seating on flight to Hanoi from Seoul when I realized I didn't have my point and shot camera with me, I informed the flight attendant there was a possibility I had left it in my previous flight (LAX-INC) and without hesitation or questioning they sent someone to check the Boeing 747. Within 15 minutes an Asiana agent, apologetically informed me they did not find anything on the plane, and they gave me a phone number I could call in case someone had returned the camera to their lost and found department. The importance and attention to this matter was out of this world, and on top of that the flying experience was 9/10, I gave a 9 because the entertainment system could be improved.

Before departing to Vietnam some of my friends had mentioned there was no need to book hotels or domestic trips in advance, and I almost decided not to do it but because I was staying only for over 2 weeks I decided the stress of not finding a place to stay, or a flight was not worth it, and I booked everything while I was still in Canada. The good thing is you can always change hotels or flights with not much issues or penalties, and Tripadvisor was super helpful as usual in finding the best places to stay, and I also recommend Agoda while traveling in Asia. By the way, please do not think I've been paid by all those companies or brands I'm going to talk about in this review, but if you represent these companies and want to help a fellow traveller, donations are more than welcome.

Hanoi - October 26, 2013

Arrived in Hanoi in the evening and the first thing I noticed were the thousand of scooters in the streets of Hanoi, and how everyone just drove like crazy, and honked their horns for no reason whatsoever.

At the hotel (Elegance Hotels Group) I asked about getting a SIM card for my old Android phone and within 10 minutes they had delivered and activated one for my phone, I think it only costed me USD 5.00 plus another USD 3.00 to add extra data (3G) which lasted for the whole 2 weeks. It seems Viettel is one of the companies with better coverage in the country, and in case you are having issues in activating the 3G, just create a APN for their network.

APN: v-internet
User Name for APN: (blank)
Password for APN: (blank) 

It was very helpful to have Google Map available at any time on my cell phone, not just to find the place I wanted to go to, but also to return to my hotel.  Although the Vietnamese language uses the Latin scrip in their writing, soon enough you will have trouble remembering the name of street you are looking for in your map.  Nevertheless just make sure to get lost a couple of times in the city, because this is when you are going to find gems not described in the travel books.

Cell phone in place, a brand new camera bought at the same price as what I would had paid in Canada, sunscreen and shorts and I was ready to explore what Hanoi had to offer.  The hotel gave me a map with the principal touristic points and why not follow their advise right?

The hotel was situated in the Old Quarter of the city, and pretty much at walking distance of everything you want to see, and this is exactly what I did.  I decided to stay for 3 days in Hanoi, which I believe is the ideal time frame if you start your trip in this city. The first day was pretty much half write off because I was still trying to adjust to the 12 hours difference with Montreal.

Hanoi is pretty, and I just loved the combination of French, feudal style streets and Vietnamese architecture, the colours were explosive specially the dark yellow ones, and the narrow streets everywhere gives this special charm to this place. Then you have the matter of learning how to cross the streets, the small ones are not that intimidating, now when you find yourself in those big intersections, and trust me you will find yourself in one of those sooner or later, that is another story.

In order to cross a street, first make sure to pay attention to the locals, and you will notice they just walk across like they own the place, and you cannot stop or hesitate because this is when accidents might occur.  You see, Hanoians have already added to their very advance driving algorithms the fact you are already walking across, the only issue is their formula does not take in consideration your potential hesitation - DO NOT STOP, just keep walking and Hanoian drivers will avoid you.

Soon you will notice the numerous outdoors restaurants/bars/etcetera everywhere, and specially in the Old Quarter area.  Just grab your small plastic chair, similar to the ones kids might have back home, and order your plat du jour - sometimes you will use English to communicate and sometimes your fingers. Someone told me if the restaurant has small plastic chairs it means is cheap, if they have bigger plastic chairs means it still affordable, if they have wood chairs it means prices are moving upward a bit, wood chairs with a cushion means open your wallet, and full cushion establishment then make sure to bring your credit card.

In my first day I decided to visit the Temple of Literature, one of the oldest architectural complex in Hanoi, and when you think about it this place was built over 1000 years ago, isn't that crazy?  Take that Europe ... fine, I know you guys have older buildings.

While visiting this complex is when it came to my mind how influential China, which used to rule these lands, have been in Vietnam. You see the Chinese style everywhere, the temples, the altars, the pagodas, urns, the gates and everything in a Vietnamese way.  I was also lucky to be in town in time for the university graduation, because there hundred and hundred of newly graduates walking in their traditional national customs called Ao dai (áo dài), which are worn mostly by women for different occasions.  Now imagine having tons of girls walking around the historical, touristic, and most beautiful areas of the city wearing different Ao dai - it was just beautiful.  The guys worn the more western traditional suit, and let me tell you something, even thought these people eat carbs for breakfast/lunch/dinner, they all look skinny ... so there goes the theory carbs make you fat right?

One thing you must pay attention is the opening hours of the places you want to visit, many times they are closed between the hours of 11:00am and 2:00pm, others are not.  Just make sure to check before starting your walk, and if the place happens to be close when you get there, I would use this as an excuse to explore the area, or just sit down in a cafe/bar/restaurant and enjoy the view.  You never know how many times you will start a conversation with a fellow traveller or local.

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