Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Travel Hanoi @ 29 April 2009

Pampered with luxurious tours, I had long forgotten the feeling of backpacking. To revive its spirit, I travelled with 4 other friends in semi-backpacking style to Hanoi and Sapa, Vietnam. Vietnam is always an icon of postwar, hardship and suburban. Though mentally prepared, we were still awe struck by the scent, the view, the culture and the people of Vietnam. We definitely had mixed feeling with Vietnam. We were both impressed and, at the same time, surprised. Due to the compacted schedule, we had yet to have chance visiting Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and French Quarter. The following were something that impressed us, at least myself, very much:

The landmark Ho Kiam Lake located right in the middle of Hanoi.

Old Quarter 36 Streets, Hanoi
After an eye-opening journey from airport to our hotel (the driving attitude), we started exploring the famous Old Quarter of Hanoi city. Ho Kiam Lake was the landmark for every location. Ho Kiam Lake was translated as Sword-Returning Lake, depicting the legend of sword returning to a gigantic tortoise after a victorious war between Vietnam and China. Rather disappointed with the Ho Kiam Lake view, we ventured into Old Quarter 36 streets. To impress you, each street was selling the same goods in grandeur – shoes, silks, silver, incense, tomb carving, cloths, spices, souvenirs etc. You name it they have it. My first impression was, well, being a Vietnamese woman was difficult. Most of them did the hardwork and ‘run’ the family. Salute….

Lucky snapshot of a beautiful couple in front of St Joseph Church.

Water Puppet Show
The status was rather similar to our Wayang Kulit but their puppets were more animated and colourful, performing on a water stage. It appeared to be quite interesting for awhile and the show was later paled by the recurrent lyric which sleepened most of us. There were different folklores portraying the daily lives of Vietnamese, legends and mythologies (dragon, phoenix, unicorns etc.). My votes went to fire-spitting dragon dance and marriage story. Nonetheless, it was still something we had never watched before.

St Joseph Church is the best place to capture daily local life.
Vietnamese Vs French Cuisine
It was unbelievable that the best French restaurant – The Green Tangerine, was actually located in Hanoi. The excitement started right after we stepped into the restaurant. The setting was beyond elegant and we could not help to jaw-drop with the food selection, of course the price as well. I was rather shocked when my food arrived. I made a mistake of ordering a plate of raw beef and surprises came one after the other. The raw beef was unexpectedly delicious and I could hardly felt the rawness, no doubt a world-class cuisine. Cha Ca La Vong was another famous local restaurant. They had only one menu, which was fried fish and rice noodles. It was rather embarrassing if you visited Hanoi and not trying the local specialties. We tried some tasty Vietnamese breakfast – rice noodles, sticky rice, Vietnamese coffee etc., sitting along the street side just like locals. Thumb up!

Spring roll in Hanoi style, dining in Green Tangerine, the best French restaurant.
Vietnamese Coffee
Out of nowhere, we bumped into a coffee stall accidentally that was highly recommended by forumers. The boss not only spoke fluent Cantonese, but also generous enough to treat us his coffee. The price was reasonable and the quality of coffee was top notch! To enjoy Vietnamese coffee fully, you need to prepare it in Vietnamese way – to filter the coffee with special filter and to add in dense and viscous milk. Exquisite taste it was! Having drinking coffee from Brazil and Italy, Vietnamese coffee definitely deserves the same level of excellence.

Lantern shop nearby St Joseph Church.
Traffic, Vietnamese National Day and Labour Day
Jackpot for the most peaking holiday in Vietnam, it was a nightmare for us. During our excursion to Tam Coc, we experienced the worst jam of all. We trapped inside the traffic for almost 4 hours. Unmovable and bored, it was the best moment to observe the locals because even the motorists were trapped on the road. If you think there are too many motorists in Malaysia, well, think again. We saw a sea of motorists packing with their family and heading back home for their national holiday. You got to amaze on their driving skills too. Honking and foul language exchange were not uncommon.

Trishaw along Old Quarter 36 Street.
Tam Coc
After gruesome 6 hours on the road in total, we finally arrived Tam Coc. This place was often called as land Halong Bay due to its landscape. Boating on the winding river through grottos, I had a wonderful time. The scenery was pleasant and greeny, very typical rural view of Vietnam.

Flower Hmong lady absorbed in processing their colourful embroidery. Man smoking local pipes.
Cat Cat Village, Sapa
It took us 8-hour night train and 2-hour bus to reach Sapa, the most northern part of Vietnam. The train journey was disastrous and excruciating but, well, that was the beauty of backpacking – to experience the unexpected and unimaginable. The reason of visiting Sapa was to catch a glimpse and to visit the residency of minority groups in Vietnam. There were many tribes but mainly from Hmong, i.e. Black, Green, Red, White, Flower Hmong etc. It was a rainy day and we had to trek through the mountain to reach Cat Cat Village. Cat Cat meant for waterfall in Hmong language and this village was occupied mainly by Black Hmong. The word ‘Black’ was symbolized from the indigo colour of their dress. It was indeed an eye-opening experience for us. Their costume, embroidery, residency, terrace rice field, food, herbal drink etc. kept amazing us. Buffalos were walking freely and abundantly across the waterfall and rice field – peaceful and scenic views that every photographers craves for.

Scenic Cat Cat Village.
Bac Ha Market
Sunday morning, Flower Hmong tribal people will gather in Bac Ha to buy their daily necessities, to socialize, to exchange goods, to gossip, to wander around etc. The moment we stepped down the bus, our eyes were filled with colours. Flower Hmong’s costume was amongst the most colourful costume I had ever seen. They were unique, striking and unimaginably bright – each sending signals to my camera to snap them. Frantically, we snapped and snapped while squeezing into the market. It was such a frenzy of snapshot, everywhere we saw photography enthusiasts like us taking pictures, squatting or telephotoing. There was an animal market too, where they sold ducks, horse, buffalos, pigs, dogs, birds etc. Laughter, bargaining, gossiping, children bearing…."Wow!”. that was exactly the word crossed in my mind at that moment, definitely worth a long journey to be here. We also spotted a scene that mind-blowed everyone – a 60++ year old women bore a pig, probably heavier than me, on her back. Full respect!

Colourful Bac Ha Sunday Market, where many Hmong people socialize.
Halong Bay
It was quite a let down to us. We were getting very bored with the monotonous view. The food was rather uncreative and pale. The stalagmites were even not as impressive as those in Ipoh. Perhaps, we should apply World Heritage ownership for Gua Tempurung. In fact, we decided to play Mahjong on the boat. Yup, you heard it right, we brought our Mahjong tiles along to Halong Bay! Wish you were there...

The famous Halong Bay and the caves.