Monday, February 11, 2019


When we went to book for our next tour - Vietnam, Cambodia for 8 days, we were informed that it is an offbeat tour. Was I game for that? Before I could even ponder on it, my better half had burst out, "Oh of course we'd love to undertake it". So that was it - our seats booked, we did the usual rigmarole of pre-departure routine. Both countries provides 'Visa on arrival', so all we needed were the required photographs. As for cash, both countries accept $, so we did not go for Vietnamese Dong (VND) or Cambodian Riel (KHR). 23000 VND = 1 $. So a person with 50$ will be a millionaire in Vietnam. 4000 Riels = 1$.

As always, we had selected the tour during pleasant weather - January. Generally hot and humid countries, the temperatures there during this month ranged between 16 and 30 degree C. North Vietnam would be a bit cool in comparison. Rains could come any time. We packed our clothes accordingly. More searches on Google warned us about the mosquito-menace in the two countries, so I added a tube of mosquito repellent cream to my cosmetic kit. But I have to admit that it remained untouched. We did not encounter a single mosquito during the tour.

We were a large group of 36 with a Tour Manager - Mr. Bhushan Gupte. As usual, the majority were senior citizens. The oldest was a 90 year 'young' man, all by himself, who indulged in every activity enthusiastically. That was a morale booster for some of the 'self-doubting' seniors. Also everyone was disciplined, refined and amiable, and there was an almost instantaneous bonding. Everyone was punctual - in fact ready before time, so it was smooth sailing throughout.

Our itinerary was North Vietnam (2 nights), Cambodia (3 nights), and South Vietnam (2 nights). Our flight was from Mumbai to Hanoi via Bangkok. As the flight from Mumbai  took off at 11 pm, we could manage almost 4 hours of sleep by the time we landed in Bangkok. Quick immigration followed by elaborate security check, and we were ready for our next 1 1/2 hour flight to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

On landing at Noi Bai International airport at 9.30 am local time, we went in for Group Visas and cooled our heels during the processing. Naturally by the time it was our turn for Immigration, there was no one in the queue. And we were happy to see our bags waiting for us - we were spared the task of lifting them from the baggage carousel - small mercies, but big reliefs!
We freshened up at the airport, 
loaded our luggage in our coach, and  a couple of hours after landing, started our sightseeing tour, with Mr. Khanh as our local guide.  

We first drove to Da Binh Square. It is closed for cars and motor cycles, so people can enjoy a stroll around the sprawling Square. 
There was a slight drizzle and we got to use our umbrella.
We saw the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where there is the embalmed body of the first President of North Vietnam and the leader of the struggle for national liberation. We did not get to go inside as it is open only from 8-11 am.

Other important historical monuments located nearby are Presidential Palace, 

Ho Chi Minh Museum, and

One Pillar Pagoda. This temple was built by Emperor Lý Thái Tông, who ruled from 1028 to 1054. The temple is built of wood on a single stone pillar 1.25 m in diameter and 4 m in height, 
and it is designed to resemble a lotus blossom (a Buddhist symbol of purity) in a muddy pool. In 1954, the French Union forces destroyed the pagoda before withdrawing from Vietnam after the First Indochina War. It was rebuilt afterwards.

We went around this place and took a quick peek
at the shops around, selling cheap little souvenirs.

Foreign embassies are also located around this Square.

It was time for lunch at 'Tandoor', where we relished 
tasty Indian dishes at a sit-down meal.

We started our 4 hour drive to Halong around 2 pm in our luxury coach. During the drive, 

we could get glimpses of Hanoi city and its suburbs.

Lots of banana groves, 

and paddy fields.

There was a midway halt at a sprawling rest area - 'ABC Stop Over'. We used the sparkling clean restroom and then took a good look around. 
Huge marble sculptures adorning the open area beckoned us .... 
and we walked around, dazed.
We then went inside the huge handicrafts store - 
we could also get glimpses of artisans at work - embroidery, 
painting, crafts......

Everyone came out with a bagful of curios. A great idea to promote local artists by providing the conveniences of a great rest area to attract tourist-customers!

During the bus ride, we had our 'Introductions session', so we got to know who's who in the group.

We reached Halong after 6 pm and checked into our rooms in New Star Halong Hotel. 

What a huge room! We were happy to stretch legs for a bit, then enjoyed coffee, and freshened up.

Dinner was at the hotel's restaurant located in the next building. We were going to be treated to local cuisine, so all of us were curious about the fare awaiting us.

Vegetarians and non vegetarians had separate tables.
A look at our vegetarian menu brought a confused and dubious look on our faces. You'll see why!
The dishes started making their appearance one after another. Cauliflower, then cabbage, sweet potato - all totally bland. Then appeared french fries, tofu, spring rolls, rice ... a bit of this and a bit of that, and we were good. But our tour company (Veena World) had its own apprehensions and were generous enough to distribute a packet of 'theplas' to each guest for use, just in case .....

My friend and fellow guest shared his pics, so you can have a look at 
their menu card and
the non vegetarian spread they relished. Thanks Ash.

Next day we enjoyed a hearty breakfast. We were all excited about our boat cruise in Halong Bay to Dau Go Cave. 

We got our tickets and 
got into the cruise booked for our group at 8.30 am. It was a 4 hour cruise with lunch on board.
Halong Bay has a variety of beautiful islands and caves and 
we thoroughly enjoyed the scenic boat ride.
We had great fun enjoying ourselves on the deck for as long as we could bear the cold winds.
Dau Go Cave (Wooden Stakes Cave), situated on the same name island – Dau Go Island, is the biggest and finest grotto in Halong Bay. 
According to scientific researches, the cave,with a 12 meter-wide and 17 meter-high’s entrance, was created about 2 million years ago. 
Known as Cave of Wonders, Dau Go Cave is one of Halong attractions, 
with many stalagmites 

having special and strange shapes and colors and stunning stalactites. 
We could see water spurting, 
some openings too, 
and the formations were simply gigantic.
We had to climb flights of steps - a total of some 300 steps in all. But it was worth the effort. 

The scenic splendor from there was heavenly too.
As we returned, we saw a fleet of boats lined up. For a fleeting second, we were confused about which one was ours. 
No worries .... all we had to do was click the photo gallery of our cell phone and search for our boat. 
Yes, we did find our boat and were glad to be seated.

It was lunch time. As usual, vegetarians and non vegetarians took up their respective tables and dishes started appearing one after another. 

After the previous night's experience, we had better sense - to wait for all of them and then begin eating.

We picked a piece / a little helping of each and tasted. Most of them needed salt. 
The big hit was the rice-flour dumpling with sweet filling, similar to the 'puran' of our own 'puran poli' (you can see two balls remaining on the plate). Then there was the noodles, boiled corn, sweet potato, roasted peanuts, salads, fruits, coke .... We couldn't figure out what the white oval ball was (on the plate behind the dumplings) - it was just insipid. So was the cabbage. No one touched the sticky rice as there was no gravy to go with it! Still we didn't need to dig out the 'theplas' from our bag.

Once again we have photos from Ashwin Panchal, of the non vegetarian meal, which had interesting sea food. Thank you  again Ash.
He mentions that he tasted mussel soup for the first time.

Meanwhile we were cruising past several small islands and rocks of quaint shapes.
Two rocks resembled a pair of chickens!

The hosts were enterprising - the lady managed to make a fast buck as her pearl accessories sold like hot cakes.

We saw the same pearl necklaces in the shops on the shore - the hawkers quoted 15$ for one and when we knowingly shook our head, came down to 12$ and then directly to the actual price of 5$. So we understood the level to which we'd have to use our bargaining skills on this tour! Interesting and challenging, eh? And deeply satisfying too!

We started our drive back to Hanoi. During the first half of the long drive, everyone enjoyed my game of Musical Tambola. Then we were felicitated on our wedding anniversary by our Tour Manager with sash, chocolate and gifts from Veena World.

We stopped at a huge outlet which sold interesting items made from bamboo. 
Ms. Hang was a treat to watch and listen to, as she presented a demo about the various unique products, explaining their uses in impeccable English.
No need to mention that all of us came out with bagfuls of items.

Once again we had a coffee break. We thought we were at the same stopover, but no, this was a different one but boasted of similar stuff.

We reached Hanoi and headed straight to Lotus Water Puppet Show, scheduled for 6.30 pm. You are not going to believe this but our group had bagged the prime rows in the front. We were seated on the front row, right in the center. Small thrills!
Water puppetry which involves making puppets dance on water, is a traditional art form dating back to 11th century originating in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would enjoy this kind of puppet show.

The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. The puppets are made of wood and then lacquered. A large bamboo rod supports the puppet under the water and is controlled by the puppeteers hidden behind a screen, making the puppets move around over the water.
The themes have a reference to Vietnamese folklore and various aspects of rural Vietnamese life. The accompanying music and instruments project Vietnamese aura.
The 'Angel Dance' was cute.
As the puppeteers took a bow at the end, the hall echoed with our applause. It was a unique experience that appealed to all our senses and we came out excited after the show.

We were engulfed by vendors selling bags / purses and all the ladies in our group got hooked. The icing on the cake was, they were accepting Indian currency. So no hassles of converting to $. 10 small pouches were being traded for Rs 500. They sold like hot cakes and some of the late Kates like me were disappointed to have missed the deal. Our Tour Manager told us reassuringly that we need not worry - the vendors would make their appearance in our hotel with more pieces the same night and even the next morning. (Sure enough they did. What's more - we tried to play cool and drove a hard bargain and ended up getting 15 pouches for Rs 500! Yay!)

Bigger bags were sold for Rs 100 each initially, and then the prices dropped.

Dinner was at 'Namaste' restaurant. Weren't we glad to return to our own 'desi' meal after two local meals!

Later we reached Thang Long Opera Hotel. After making our purchases from the bag vendor, as mentioned earlier, we chose to have a quick walk to 
the nearby lake and enjoyed the dazzling grandeur. Then we hit the bed after a long and exciting day.

The next morning we enjoyed our continental breakfast - we didn't fail to try some new items - 
we liked the traditional rice-filled dumpling.

After that, once again we took a quick stroll to Hoan Kiem Lake, the fresh water lake we had seen the previous night.

Flowers and fruits cheered us all the way.
It was a calm morning. Tuk tuks lining the street were waiting for passengers. 
A group was busy exercising. We clicked photos and started walking back to our hotel.
Street shops were opening - shoeshine boys,
 fruit vendors .... had already started their day.
Some were seated on low stools by the street side / under trees and enjoying their breakfast.

We then started our sightseeing. We visited Temple of Literature and spent an hour looking around the place. 
Our local guide Khanh enlightened us about this place.  

It is a Temple of Confucius in Hanoi, northern Vietnam, hosting the Imperial Academy, Vietnam's first national university. The temple was built in 1070. The various pavilions, halls, statues, and Steles of doctors are places where offering ceremonies, study sessions and the strict exams took place. The temple is featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese Dong banknote.

The Temple has five Courtyards.

In the Third Courtyard, there are 82 steles of doctors, carved stone turtles, depicting the names and birth places of graduates.
Altar for Confucius and his four closest disciples is in the Fourth Courtyard.
On the Fifth Courtyard  is a building which has two levels - the ground floor has a statue of Chu Van An (a rector of the academy) and the upper floor is dedicated to three monarchs of the 11th century who contributed to the foundation of this temple. On either side of the building, are square buildings housing a bronze bell and a drum. 

The drum is 2.01 meters wide, 2.65 meters high, and weighs 700 kilogram. The bell has a height of 2.1 meters and it is 0.99 meters wide.

We had early lunch at 'Dalcheeni'.

Then it was a 20 minute drive to Noi Bai International airport. 
We crossed an impressive bridge on the way.

We reached the airport three hours before our flight, and went through the usual formalities. We took the 1 1/2 hour flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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