Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Overrated Things about Vietnam - Back in Halong Bay

There are a couple that comes to mind. First, there's the Water Puppets Show being flocked by tourists. This cultural show has 4-5 shows a day, every single day, and every show is packed to the rafters. Show tickets cost 20,000 dong for the farther seats and 40,000 for the closer half of the audience seats. I got my ticket at around 2PM, after queueing for 15 minutes, and the earliest available time I could get was the 5:30 show, which was fine with me.

There were a thousand and one tourists excitedly waiting outside when I finally got back to the theater. As the show started, I learned that I could take photos of the actual show for a price, of course (15,000 dong for a camera, and 40,000 dong for a video cam). However, I didn't wanna queue again outside. It was freezing and I was tired from walking and waiting.

The seats were comfy but there was not much legroom, so it was kinda stuffy inside. To my left was a Brit who was excited, and to my right was a quiet Eastern European girl who took photos overtime, way before the actual show started. It was another packed show, and someone is obviously making a lot of money from the show.

Running for a little more than 1 hour and 30, the show consisted of vignettes of Vietnamese life, occuring on a spread of water, occupying 80 % of the stage. To its left shoulder is the group of musicians and their home-grown instruments, and a couple of singers. The stories were narrated in French, English and Vietnamese, but as the show started its full run, it was easy to grasp, as they weren't real continuing narratives, but as I said, vignettes of folk stories and legendary animals: men fishing, dragons fighting and flirting and giving birth to baby dragons, courtship among natives, etc. all occuring on water.

As the floating objects lose their novelty, the show starts to bore. Kung sa pelikula pa, it needs editing. The men infront of me were keen on leaving but it was almost impossible to do so, so you can just imagine how difficult it was to stay put. When the show finally ended, the puppeteers stood up from behind the curtin, and yeah, everyone clapped mainly for having successfully endured the show. Interesting, but I wouldn't pay it to watch it again. Or let's just say, not even if I get invited for a free show (much like watching Lloyd Webber's Cats).

The puppeteers take their bow after the show.

The other overrated thing about Vietnam? Ha Long Bay! Sure the limestone rises are beautiful, but I was more in awe of the little islands in Puerto Prinsesa's Honda Bay. The very slow cruise is very relaxing, but I would think it's a way better view from a helicopter ride than from the calm seas. If one has been to Ha Long Bay, I would not recommend a second visit. Go elsewhere. The desert sands of Mui Ne perhaps (from Dalat) or go Sapa trekking.

It only gets barely interesting as the tourists are forced to chat with each other, and it sure is an interesting way to meet people. I hated the Austrian couple who was with us. These annoying couple stayed in the same hotel where I am currently staying, and I took offense in her demeanor. She was pushy, ordering Teyet around. Wasn't Hitler's reign over eons ago??!!

She talked to the Tung Tram people like they were nincompoops. I hate people who talk down to others, and MY GOD, how uglier she looked. (As I am writing this, guess who just passed by my cafe? Yep!!! Lucky me, it's the Austrian couple from Hell; her voice booming like she owned the city. If only she were barely pleasant looking, it would have been a little bearable.)

From our drop off point, i AVOIDED those 2 like the plague . I just wished the earth would swallow them up, but then there's a good chance they would get regurgitated.

Now as for my 2nd Halong trip, our midway stop 2 hours from Hanoi, was a Ceramic shop where I bought a Lonely Planet Laos at just $10. Jeez, this book costs PhP1,600 at Powerbooks in Shangrila. Our cave visit was one called Surprising Cave (my first time, it was with Tien Cung Cave). I kept thinking if this one would turn out to be as dour as its nomenclature. It was way bigger than the Cave of Heavenly Light, and the hike turns out to be a ball-breaking, laborious one (and I am used to hiking); absolutely not for the unfit! Also, the stories and legends behind the latter (Tien Cung Cave) are far more interesting. Food was ok, but I cannot enjoy a meal when I share them with people I don't know. I tend to be self-conscious munching and masticating when with foreigners.

Should I reach out and ask the muted Korean couple for the sauteed vegetables? Would the Malay lady mind if I pierce my tofu with a fork rather than pick it up with a chopstick? These things concern me. Should i sip on my Pepsi while they munch on their omelette? Hehe.

My fond memories would be sitting on the cot at the upper deck, frosty wind blowing my hair. My face was turning red from the cold, and I felt numb. I relish that sensation. It was a welcome experience, reminding me that this was an experience that doesn't come by everyday. I alone and smug. My second Halong Bay visit!

The ride back home was drudging. We went back to the wharf a little later than expected because we had to wait for those who tried kayaking. I sat beside the Malaysian girl whose name I wasn't able to get. She was a pleasurable gabfest; very opinionated but very smart. We talked about KL and the other places to visit in her country (she recommended the seat of the opposition, Kota Terangganu, and even wrote down the plane that would take me there via Fireflyz.com or Maswings. This would cost me about 90 Ringgit one-way); their being a commonwealth and not needing any visa to travel to London or any parts of Europe; her travels all over the world, including Manila, the rotation and changing of Kings every 5 years; the new government program of "5 corridors", her disgust to the current PM’s son-in-law’s political meddling (he is Oxford-educated and is very opinionated). Hmm, sounds familiar. GMA had her "corridors" from her last State of the Nation address.

On the way to Halong, near Haiphong City, our van stopped at this pottery/souvenir shop for the toilet break. I bought myself a popsicle. I literally slobbed my way infront of the kids. Mybad! ;->

The wharf at Halong, aka Bai Chay Pier.

Our boat's dining area.

Up there is a dog, shouted the guide. Snap, snap! Looked more like a seal to me.

Live giant squids being sold at the seafood "market" where we were egged on to "buy one, very delicious". Not live, they aren't!

More sea creatures for sale.

"Gawd! I need a manicure!"

The perfect place to just out to the sea and be bored.

A temple up the hill.

Upon reaching the eponymomous "Surprising Cave"!

Somewhere in this photo is a couple of haughty eastern Europeans that needed to be dipped in a huge bowl of the nastiest chilliest pepper! ;->

That is one colourful erotic toy! Or is it happy to see us? Hahahaha! The guide says, it's a cannon!

From up the hill, this is the awesome view that greets you.

The shrub that I mentioned in "Hanoi- A Not Very Pleasant Return".

If "beautiful" isn't a word...

A long stop for those who wanted to go canoeing!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Seeing Hanoi at a Leisurely Pace - Hearing Mass at St. Joseph's, Hanoi

Day 8 started with a mass at St. Joseph's Cathedral (aka The Great Cathedral of Hanoi). Finally I caught this Cathedral open with a mass, albeit officiated in Vietnamese. I got in and found a packed church. I walked near altar and just stood by the side. The altar was decked with wall-to-wall stained glass. Though I couldn't understand what was being said, it gave me a sense of calm to witness the unifying power of religion, and it was even more calming to know that I have something in common with these Vietnamese. I was standing for an hour, but felt good after the mass.

St. Joseph's Cathedral (Nha Tho Lon). this photo only courtesy of Ms. Mary Ann Sullivan of www.bluffton.edu. The cathedral opened its doors in 1886 at the start of the colonial rule. It presently holds mass twice a day.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Pleasant Gastronomic Discovery - Hanoi Marina Restaurant, West Lakes, Hanoi

I've been trying to take the rounds of different restaurants and cafes all over Hanoi just to try to experience the various places around this amazing city. They range from the cheap to the touristy and expensive Dinh Lang Restaurant beside Hoan Kiem Lake. In such restaurant, you know that you are paying for its atmospehere and location, thus our dinner for two winded with a 450,000 dong, which comprised a crunchy delectable spring roll, braised chicken, and rice. Last night, I had dinner at Paradise Restaurant which had a cozy, albeit dark atmosphere. This was such a surprise as the place boasted of a duet of piano and violin playing tunes like "Moon River" and "Reality" (from that Sophie Marceau French movie back in the late 80s). The entrees were affordably priced, most of which cost 55,000 dong. When I asked if this doesn't include rice (it didn't say it did), the lady said, "no problem, i'll include rice for you"). Nice atmosphere, great list of choices, delicious food (I ordered Fried Chicken which seemed like it was cooked in Pinas, no kidding), and relaxing, familiar tunes played in piano and violin.

Just when I thought I've found a favorite, guess again.

Today, as I was roaming the West Lakes (Hanoi's biggest lake located northwest of the city), I saw this restaurant called Hanoi Marina restaurant. It's actually easy to locate. Near Than Nien Street, which separates the West Lakes (locals call it Ho Tay) and the smaller (and smelly Truch Bach Lake), it is located at 12 Tran Vu-Ba Dinh, the riverside street very near grade school. (As a sidebar, there is a reason why the southern end of Trcuc Bach Lake smells. While walking around the lake, I noticed several live fish gasping for air, right on the grounds beside the lake. Apparently, some Viets fish for them then leave them there to die. I wish they noticed how much their practice stinks the area.)

It offers a buffet meal for just 99,000 dong. Is it worth it? YOU BET!

The place opens at 11:30AM, and then again at 5:30PM. Upon entry, I was impressed with the general atmosphere. Stylish furnitures, teak furnishings, high ceilings, good lighting, and a dreamy view of the adjacent Lakes. There are 5 tables stretches of food of different varieties, regularly replenished (they describe themselves as a continental restaurant). This includes a dessert table of pastries and fruits; a separate table of Australian meat and herbs, fresh produce and spices which can be brought to the nearby kitchen, and cooked fresh before you. This includes ice cream too. Near the entrance is another counter where you can order pho, fish cakes, etc.

I was trying to control myself from overstuffing, stopping every so often. I must have returned 5x, trying to taste every item which were continuously replenished and changed with new recipes. My favorite was the friend spring rolls of course. They even included a "Kentucky Fried Chicken" on the table, which looked like a KFC chicken.

I initially thought that I would be paying 99,000 dong plus 10% VAT (as was written at the entrance) but as it turns out, 99,000 was all-in! Even the drinks were part of the buffet. It was a proverbial FEAST!

For all the dinners and lunches that I've had in Hanoi, THIS is all worth the price. It's barely $6 or PhP250!!!

The minor drawback about dining in this place is its location! The West Lake is relatively far from the central Hoan Kiem Lake. But one should never miss the West Lakes for its great temple (Tran Quoc Pagoda, free ADMISSION) and its dreamy surroundings (the huge huge West Lake). IF YOU"RE THERE, then by no means, try Hanoi Marina Restaurant for one of the most spectacular gastronomic experiences this side of paradise.

After the buffet, the nearby Highlands Cafe (Vietnam's Starbucks) - romantically set on a floating boat beside the lake - is a very nice place to kill time. I loved their winding stairs, open air tables directly facing the expanse of the West Lakes. By the way, their Cappuccino Cheesecake (35,000 dong) does NOT taste like a cheesecake at all. And their caramel creme brulee is a tad too sweet. Their fresh cococnut is fine, but it's meat is impossible to scoop off its husk. Just stick with their coffee, and maybe their in-house cheesecake (not the cappuccino).


Regularly replenished with a variety of dishes.

The dessert table.

The view from outside Hanoi Marina Restaurant is just as pleasant. Misty, foggy Truc Bach Lake, separated from the rest of Ho Tay (West Lakes) by Thanh Nien Street.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Perfume Pagoda and the Viet Festivities

Between the 2nd and 3rd lunar month of the year, the Vietnamese people celebrate a festival that stretches for 3 long months. During the festival, most Vietnamese take a "mecca" to the Perfume Pagoda which is 80 km southwest of Hanoi and accessible only by a river canoe- a calm, sun-drenched traipse along the Yen River amidst rice paddies and impressive limestone cliffs that equal the grandeur of Halong Bay's peaks.

Our $18 tour jumpstarted with an 8AM pick-up from our hotel. There were 14 of us in a mini-van. Along with our amiable guide Loi, we took a 2 hour drive to the
Ha Tay Province. Upon arrival, it was obvious that we chose to visit on the wrong day. It was the weekend and sleepy Hatay has turned into a bustling congested place. A lot of the 85 million Vietnamese decided to turn up today.

Rachel, a girl from Washington and a moviestar-looking Brazilian guy and his German friend - both towering- were part of the tour. The guys currently live in Bangkok as
marketeers. There's a Spanish couple- the lady from Valencia and the quiet hubby from Madrid. They've been to Hoi An, Hue, Saigon, Halong, etc. Then there were these well dressed Vietnamese ladies who were preoccupied flirting with Loi. I learned that one of them works as a TV presenter for a TV show.

Upon reaching the
Thien Tru Harbour, we waited for Loi to buy our tickets. From there, we boarded an iron canoe which plied the cool waters of the Yen. One hour of awe-inspiring sceneries. Upon arrival, we passed through a turnstile that led to the sanctuary. There were rows and rows of makeshift stalls. The estaurants blatantly displayed skinned goats, calves, dogs, etc. There were flags for prosperity not unlike those Tibetan flags. Inside the compound, the stalls got more prolific, selling items from dvds, to turtles, garden plants to shirts, and every possible thing you can think of. What’s assaulting to the senses is the enormous throng of people walking about. This will be a hard trek up the hill - and caution for the unfit.

There was a new cable car system worth 40,000 dong one-way or 70,000 return. Problem is, the tickets for the way up were all sold out. It was a 1 hour trek up the hill, walking on slippery, uneven stones. I almost gave up. It felt victorious once I got to the top. By which time, I didn't care much about the temple. I took all my resolve and endurance to make it there. The way down was just as hard and my knees were the like jello.

We were given 2 hours to climb the hill and back. I was running late as I had several stopovers (there are a number of temples to see on your way up). I paid 2,000 dong for the use of the toilet. A piece of sausage cost 10,000 dong. It was 2:30PM by the time most of us were where we were supposed to meet Loi. We had lunch and it was a nice opportunity to chat with the other tourists. Rachel was having the time of her life and felt sad to be leaving Hanoi day in 2 days. The German and Brazilian giants were going back to Bangkok tomorrow. The Spanish couple had 3 more days before flyng back to Spain.

The canoe ride back to Hatay was serene. People were tired from the climb. There were other canoes around us - a surreal sight. I saw the trinh Temple on top of the hill. To be honest, I didn't find anything special with the
Thien Tru Pagoda or the Huong Tich Cave, but I was aware of their significance to the Viet people. Though I am truly worn out, I was glad to have been there although I don't have plans of a second visit anytime in the future.

Our main rower, he looked glum and morose during the whole trip. Can't say I blame him. I hope our cumulative tips made him smile.

Thousands of iron canoes at the foot of the hill

Manual traffic

Mr. Brazil & Mr. Funny German Guy

Nice sight on the way back to Hanoi

Perfume Pagoda and Buddhism in Vietnam:

The 'Perfume Pagoda' is not a single building, but a large tract of 'karst' limestone landscape extending over about 30km2. Located in the heart of the Ha Tay province, and within this area of rocky peaks and paddy fields bisected by the Yen Vi river is a large complex of temples, pagodas and shrines.

The 70km journey from Hanoi takes about two hours. It's possible to reach the location by road, but most visitors opt for a trip along the river in a small iron boat - most are rowed by women. Thankfully, motorised boats are banned. As you near the Ha tay province, you see serene Huong Tich mountains (“Mountain of the fragrant Traces”). During the festival, they are putting on a total of 3,600 boats to take everyone down the river to the base of the temple complex for the 1 km hike up to the caves.

The main pagoda is located in a large cave. The usual path starts from the Den Trinh temple (The Temple of First Presenting) where pilgrims burn incense to alert the local deities of their presence. Next is the Chua Thien Chu (Pagoda Leading to Heaven).

From there, it's a long walk uphill - walking at normal speed, it takes about an hour (not including stops on the way). The trek up the hill is a daunting task even for fit travelers. On the way, the route passes a sacred stream where pilgrims wash away their negative thoughts.
From there, visitors head for the Tien Pagoda at the mouth of the Huong Tich grotto and its Inner Pagoda.


Popular belief says that the pagoda was built around the end of the fifteenth century on a site discovered by a monk searching for enlightenment. Since then, the Perfume Pagoda has been a major centre for pilgrims and followers of Buddhism.

The story behind the name goes: every spring, the area, surrounding by hundreds of kalachuchi trees and another species (which escapes me at the moment) is awash with the scent of the kalachuchi flowers, creating a mystical veneer to the whole surroundings. The whole place is bathed in perfumed scents of these flowers, thus it’s name.

There's no doubt that the pagodas and the landscape are very attractive. Less agreeable is the commercialisation of the area. The route to the Tien Pagoda is lined with vendors and is usually crowded.

During its three lunar month festival (at varying dates between February and March) thousands of Vietnamese people worshipping Buddha and his disciple, Avalokitasvara, crowd the buildings, grottoes and paths. To give an idea of the scale of the invasion of pilgrims, on February 3rd, the first day of the 2006 festival, around 400,000 worshippers flocked into the site!


During such dates, estimates of 43,000 to 50,000 worshippers flock to the site DAILY! I would not personally recommend visiting such site during these months unless you are a devotee yourself. This can be compared to our very own Black Nazarene procession in Quiapo every January where foreign tourists wouldn’t be able to appreciate why the ruckus over a dark antiquated cross and statue. When Rachel (from Washington DC) met us back down. she was gripped with a sense of disbelief, “God! All those people brushing against you, I could hardly move. I swear I don’t wanna touch a single person right now! I’ve never seen so many people around me.” And she was right! Even when you’re going down the hill, you cannot rush coz of the manual congestion. The shiny rocks you step on don’t help either.

The authorities have tried to mitigate the crush by demolishing recently-built illegal pagodas cashing in on the tourist bounty, widening the paths and roads, and installing a cable car (40K one-way, 70K return, but then where is the fun in using a cable, unless you’ve a schedule to catch). Nevertheless, heavy congestion during the festival period is likely to make a visit to the Perfume Pagoda a less than pleasant experience.

The peak times are the first few days, the 19th of the second lunar month, and the week before the end of the festival. Unless you're happy to join a Mecca-style crush of Buddhist devotees, we recommend staying well away from the Perfume Pagoda on those dates. On hind sight though, I was glad to have been a witness to such crash of devotees in a single place.