Ben Thanh Night Market, Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

We are in Ho Chi Minh City, a bustling city that (almost) never sleeps! Unlike Hanoi, which is much quieter at night, HCMC is alive and thriving with activity after the sun sets with clubs, pubs, massage parlours and night markets operating until the wee hours of the morning. One such place is Ben Thanh Night Market located in District 1.

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Very similar to Malaysia’s pasar malam, the market offers everything from cheap clothing to fake designer goods/perfume, street food, handbags, souvenirs and other touristy items. Bargaining is a common practice. Me, being absolutely terrible at it, let my travelmates have a go at it lol.

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Colourful steamed glutinous rice snacks. Most of the stalls are lit up by makeshift generators with noisy hums and smelly fumes. A couple of bikes weaved up and down between the throng of tourists. I was actually quite surprised to see a lot of Malays from Malaysia/Brunei here. The shops even sold tudung (head coverings) and jubah (robes) for cheap prices, while some eateries had ‘halal’ signs on them.

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We stopped by one of the shops for souvenirs to bring home. The instant 3-in-1 coffee mix costs only VND100,000 (about RM30) for three packs. Vietnam is also famous for it’s jackfruit chips, which were sweet and crunchy. We bought bagfulls of these as well. (VND100k for 1kg). They also had grind coffee, but I figured it would be harder to pack into my luggage so no go.

The sellers here are multilingual,speaking a combination of both English and Mandarin Chinese. One guy even spoke fluent Malay to us when he found out we were from Malaysia.

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DVD seller peddling his wares on a bike. He had a speaker on and was playing 90s love ballads, which could be heard a good way down the street.

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Another peddler selling roast peanuts cooked over a wooden fire.

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Paper cut out souvenirs. They seemed to feature random stuff from all over the world…. spot Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers in there?

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Local hawkers in front of a selection of fresh seafood items which will be cooked on the spot.

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JQ and I tried the street iced-coffee prepared by a very good looking Viet guy. The coffee was strong flavoured but very sweet and sugary.

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Ben Thanh Market is a fun place to visit if you’re into shopping and stuff. It also operates as a wet market of sorts in the day. We went there twice since our hotel is just a 10mins walk away. Just remember to be mindful of your belongings when you’re here, and always bargain for the best price. Happy shopping!

Enter Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is better known to the locals, is the largest city in Vietnam, with a population of over 8mil. It was the centre of administration during the French-colonial era, and later the South Vietnam forces backed by the West. It’s capitalist-oriented past is reflected in the tonnes of touristy shops and establishments, unlike Hanoi which, although under an open economy, strikes me as distinctively ‘rigid’ or ‘spartan’ (Karaoke centres are the only form of entertainment, and most shops close after 9pm). HCMC, however, is like Kuta in Bali – thriving, colourful, bright and never sleeps.

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We arrived at the Tan Son Nhat airport after a two hour flight from Hanoi. Our guide, Mai, immediately hopped onto the bus and took us around the city. It was approaching evening and the roads were full of scooters and bikes returning from rush hour. I saw many more familiar shops like Starbucks, McD, Giordano, etc which were absent in Hanoi.

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Apparently many Malaysians favour coming here, so much so that some signs are in Malay. 🙂

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Mai brought us to a back alley restaurant (I am terribly sorry, but I can’t remember the name at all D:) which had a nice ambience and served fusion Viet/French cuisine.

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Did I mention that every set meal in Vietnam comes with a bottle of glass Coke? Not the can varieties: actual, glass bottle Coke. I don’t see these in KL anymore.

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Deep fried Vietnamese spring rolls. Crunchy and crispy on the outside with soft, juicy vegetables on the inside. If only vegetables taste as good as these, I’d eat them everyday lulz.

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Duck ravioli.

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Vermicelli salad.

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This was like, the bomb. Grilled stuffed squid, topped with fresh, chopped tomatoes. The squid was springy and fresh, stuffed with a combination of herbs and minced meat for different textures. My only lament was that the portion was quite small to be shared among so many of us.:P

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Cauliflower and vegetable stew. This was okay, but not flavourful enough

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Viets seem to love putting pineapple in everything. This was so sweet it was more like  a dessert soup.

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And to finish off, some spongecake topped with soft custard.

It was a great way to start our intro to Ho Chi Minh City – Hanoi’s more party-going sister. More to come!

Trishaw Ride through Old Quarters, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi’s Old Quarters are like two sides of a coin at different times:  both bustling, both full of life, but subtlely different. At night, the fluorescent white lights are turned on along with the noisy hum of motorcycles and small generators; the smells of cooking and smoke waft into the air while men and women stroll through the streets with sleeves rolled up in the hot summer air.

In the day, the makeshift clothing racks disappear, along with the tiny stools taking up the walkways where people snacked on peanuts and pho the night before. They are replaced instead by peddlers on bicycles, their tanned faces shaded by pointy leaf hats. Some spread their goods on the ground – kilos of fresh fruits and vegetables – while chatting happily with their neighbours.

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We did the touristy thing and took a trishaw ride around the streets to soak up the sights and sounds. Remember to tip your driver at the end of the ride to avoid any unpleasantness. Also to appreciate their effort – it’s not easy peddling people around in the hot sun. What is easy though, is getting lost, especially if you’re not with a guide, as the Old Quarters are made up of 36 streets, all linked together to form a massive maze-like area.

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Bikes everywhere. Cars are fairly uncommon, so there are only a few slots reserved for them on the street. No massive multi-storey car parks like in Malaysia.

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‘Window shops’ are so tiny there is barely space for the owner to sit in, and customers usually request what they want over the counter instead of browsing for goods inside.

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Peddlers selling fresh produce by the road.

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An old brick archway.

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The Internet shop was so narrow! I think it measured less than five feet across and it had two rows of computers packed inside. See how close the people are sitting, back-to-back against each other? You can’t afford to be fat in Vietnam. Fun fact: Vietnam has the lowest rates of obesity in Southeast Asia.

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Speaking of fat… lunch. Crab meat soup, salad and deep fried egg plant with sweet chilli sauce.

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Grilled chicken chop with glutinous rice cakes.

And with that, we come to an end of our visit to Hanoi. It has been a fascinating place with both natural and historical attractions, worth a visit if you’re ever in South East Asia. Til next post!

Exploring the Old Quarters in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and it’s centre of political administration. Since the country opened it’s doors to an open economy, business has boomed in the city; and with it high rise buildings amidst old world streets, which are in danger of being swallowed by development.

We spent our evening wandering the charming Old Quarters near Hoan Kiem Lake. Situated in the middle of the city, the place is a popular spot among tourists and locals alike. There’s never a lonely moment in this bustling capital of 7mil people.

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Immediately after getting off the bus, we were greeted by the noisy rumble of hundreds of motorcycles and the honking of cars. Crossing the street at the Old Quarters is an adventure on it’s own, as there are no traffic lights and the vehicles keep going in a constant, unending flow. And I thought traffic in Kuala Lumpur was mad!

The 36 streets of the Old Quarters have existed since the 1000s, and were home to specialised merchants selling silk, silver, gold and jewelry. These days, they house chic looking cafes, clothing and souvenir shops to fresh fruit and noodle stalls manned by loud, sweaty middle aged women. Most shops were just turning on their lights for the night.

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I accompanied JQ to go ao-dai hunting. Came across these souvenirs instead (no, they’re not real. phew!)

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Low tables and stools line the five-foot walkway, which locals squeeze themselves into, sitting shoulder to shoulder over steaming hot bowls of pho topped with herbs, or groundnuts.Since it was summer and the weather can reach up to 40 degrees, some men had their shirts rolled up over their bellies while others simply went topless. Everyone chatted over their meals in good cheer.

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A back alley selling cheap summer dresses and tee shirts.

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There is definitely no shortage of sights, sounds and smells while walking in the Old Quarters. A resourceful peddler overturns a couple of plastic chairs to serve as a table for her fruit and pickle stall.

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This lady must have been toting her lychees in two wicker baskets for the whole day, putting my very unfit self to shame.

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Women selling French baguette, a legacy left behind by their once colonial masters. We managed to try the one stuffed with meat and vegetables, dubbed banh mi by the locals. It was spicy and juicy and delicious, with a hard outer crust and warm, soft gooey meat and veges on the inside.

Makeshift stalls are really just boxes made into tables, propped up by plastic chairs.

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Cheap shoes and pirated Nikes galore.

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Just opposite the Old Quarters is the tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake, or ‘Lake of the returned sword’. On an island in the middle sits Turtle Tower and Bridge of the Rising Sun. Unfortunately it was closed at this time. There were lots of locals taking a stroll on the outer edges of the lake, munching on candy and snacks.

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Then we had a fancy dinner at a French/Vietnamese restaurant. There was seafood and corn soup…

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Salad…

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Stir fried shrimp

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And deep fried rice cakes. These were insanely addictive, with a crispy outer crust and chewy insides.

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Thick slices of beef topped with chopped nuts. These were pretty good albeit a little tough.

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Fried rice

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Veggies.

The Old Quarters are definitely worth a visit for travelers to Hanoi for their great shopping deals. Even though prices can be jacked up at times, one can always negotiate and they are still cheaper than anywhere else.

Getting There

Hanoi Train station is 10 minutes by car or 20 minutes walk from anywhere in the Old Quarter.

Taxi costs $2 or if you have time, walk down Hang Bong street until you reach Tran Quy Cap station.

 

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Xin chao! Welcome to another part of my Vietnam travels. 🙂 In my previous posts, we visited the beautiful countryside and hilly scenery at the Three Caves and the ancient capital of Hoa Lu in Ninh Bing district. Today, we drop by somewhere closer to the city – the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. 

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Beneath it’s charming old world streets and developing capitals, Vietnam is a place with a very long and sad history. The Vietnam War, which cost the lives of millions, ended after a long struggle in which communist-backed North Vietnam triumphed over the American and Western backed south. Today, Vietnam is one of the world’s few surviving communist countries, even though it’s open economy is very much like China’s system. Hanoi, being the then capital of North Vietnam, is the resting place of one of the most popular figures in modern history – Ho Chi Minh, or ‘Uncle Ho’ as he is affectionately known among locals.

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Located in the centre of a large public square called Ba Dinh Square, Ho Chi Minh’s remain lie within a grey tomb, designed after Stalin’s memorial in a minimalist, no frills style. This is also the place where Ho, a well known patriot, read the Declaration of Independence to establish the Republic of Vietnam.

Flanking both sides of the mausoleum are propaganda messages roughly translating to ‘Long Live the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’ and ‘Chairman Ho Chi Minh’.

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Talk about bad timing! We actually went there on a Friday, which is when the mausoleum is closed to visitors for maintenance. There will usually be a long line of both locals and foreigners waiting to get a glimpse of Uncle Ho’s embalmed remains.

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Two guards dressed in crisp white uniforms stand unmoving near the entrance – kind of like the guards in front of Buckingham Palace. We were not allowed to take photos with them.

PS: Travelers are expected to dress decently (covered knees, sleeves, etc) when entering the mausoleum as a sign of respect.

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To make up for the disappointment, we went over to the Presidential Palace, located just within walking distance of the Mausoleum. The palace grounds also houses Ho Chi Minh’s residence.

Built between 1900 and 1906 for the French Governer-General of Indochina, the presidential palace is a stark contrast from the clean, minimalistic style of the mausoleum. Its bright mustard yellow colour stands out from the shady mango trees surrounding it. We were not allowed to go in as they still hold government functions here.

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It is said that Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the palace for symbolic reasons. He lived in a simple house next to the palace, which includes a garage for his official state cars.

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Interior of the house, which is basic and minimally furnished.

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Turtle/fish pond.  It is said that towards the end of his years, he lived an even simpler life in a wooden house on stilts by the edge of this pond. There are only two rooms in the house – one for sleeping and one for work and business. That’s how simple a life Uncle Ho led, and I believe a lot of Vietnamese respected his ideology and his dedication to the country, even though right now many might not have agreed to his ideals.

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Didn’t manage to go in for a tour because we were rushing to get to our next destination. D:

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Shops selling souvenirs and clothing nearby.

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Leaving in the evening. Traffic was cray.

It was a great insight into the life of a man who helped shape modern Vietnam. If you’re ever in Hanoi, do drop by for a visit!

HO CHI MINH MAUSOLEUM

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Thursday; weekends from 8am to 11am
Closed: October & November

Presidential Palace & Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House

Opening Hours: 8am to 11am & 2pm to 4pm

GETTING THERE 

-By Bus: 33, 02 or 09

 

 

Hoa Lu / King Dinh Tien Hoang temple, Vietnam

We last went boating at the Tam Coc Bich Dong, or the Three Caves – a beautiful river retreat surrounded by beautiful limestone hills. Where to next? 🙂

Situated just nearby is another popular tourist attraction – the ancient capital of Hoa Lu.

Located in Ninh Binh province, Hoa Lu used to be the capital of ancient Vietnam in the 10th to 11th centuries. Most of the old citadel no longer exists, except for two surviving temples. The place under the Trang An Landscape Complex was declared a heritage site by UNESCO .

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Buildings, On the way to Hoa Lu.

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Entrance with its gray facade, arches and curving roof.

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A crystal clear river flowed through a bridge right in front of the complex entrance. Couple that with beautiful green hills and blue skies, and you have one of the most picturesque places you will ever see.

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Inside the pavilion, it was a short walk to the King Dinh Tien Hoang temple. We saw a farmer herding some water buffalo on the pavement.

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King Dinh was the ruler of Hoa Lu from its founding, until it was passed to King Le before the fall of the capital. Back then, Vietnam was part of China and with Hoa Lu, King Dinh managed to establish a truly independent monarchy after centuries of Chinese rule. It is no surprise then that the Vietnamese revere his figure and worship him in a temple.

PS: Vietnam is a communist country, therefore they do not have a ‘religion’ per se. Temples are built in honour of historical figures or revered people than for religious purposes.

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Interior of temple with a mausoleum area.

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It was a short visit, before we hopped onto our bus and headed back to Hanoi. Stopped by for some cold, Vietnamese coffee at a roadside stall. The coffee was black but sweet and frothy on top. No wonder Vietnam is famous for this beverage! 🙂

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Vietnamese Cuisine at Tam Coc, Vietnam

Do you like Vietnamese food? I think it’s very vegetable-heavy ,something that isn’t quite to my taste. 😀 But then again, I haven’t had much variety except for pho and what they serve at the local Viet restuarants in Malaysia.

Our first Vietnamese meal after arriving in Hanoi was a restaurant near Tam Coc (the Three Caves), a nice wooden building with air-conditioned interior. I can’t remember what it’s called because there were no signages. There were lots of Korean tourists.

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Their specialty is goat’s meat served with a sliced fruit (?) or vegetable that tasted slightly sour and with a coarse texture on the tongue, like unripe plantains. The mutton was grilled and quite tender.

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We were told to eat it wrapped in rice paper rolls, which were translucent and looked like plastic sheets. I was wondering if they were really edible, because they didn’t look like any food I’ve ever had. They make a crackly sound like paper when you rustle them.

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Placed everything onto the rice paper with some fish sauce, then wrapped it up into a roll and popped it into my mouth. The rice paper is crispy on the outside and melts once it touches saliva. The goat meat was chewy and well-marinated, while the herbs and vege(?) gave it a well-balanced flavour. Felt really healthy eating it lol.

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….and then proceeded to negate everything by gorging on fried food, lol. Most of it was seafood because we had to cater to one of our Muslim group members. She wouldn’t even eat chicken coz she said it might not be Halal.

The seafood was well-prepared, especially the fish cutlets. We dipped everything in more fish sauce and chilli.

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There was so much food we couldn’t finish it, so we told our guide to instruct the cooks to make less next time. No point in wasting.

SAM_1955-tile SAM_1946-tileEverytime we went to a restaurant, they gave us a choice of either Fanta, Coke or water. I think I drank my whole year’s quote in those few days lol.

Boating at Tam Coc (Three Caves), Vietnam

Xin Chao! We’re officially on our tour of Vietnam 🙂 In my previous post, I talked about seeing Hanoi for the first time, a developing capital with it’s mix of skyscrapers and old world charm. On the second day, we got off to an early start with a two hour bus ride to Tam Coc Binh Dong, or the Three Caves, a popular tourist spot in Vietnam. I’m sure most people would think of Halong Bay when you come here, but this place did not disappoint.

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On the way, we passed by vast swathes of countryside covered in luscious green paddy fields. The roads were a little bumpy so it was hard to nap, but who would want to nap when you have such great views? Farmers in non la (leaf hats) waded knee-deep in water in some places, while others had buffaloes ploughing the ground for seeding. Our guide, Quoc, explained that rice had become a major export commodity in the past few years, as well as coffee and pepper.

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Dried paddy husks are laid out to dry in the sun.

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Passing by random standalone buildings, which are the style in Vietnam.

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We finally arrived in Tam Coc. The view was stunning. Situated along the Ngo Dong river, there was a small boat jetty lined with two/three-man boats run by local rowers. The ride would pass by the three caves, which the place is famous for, and would take around two hours.

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I hopped onto one with fellow blogger, JQ. Our rower was a very tanned middle-aged lady with a friendly smile, although she didn’t speak English. The rowers were mostly women, and all were dressed in long-sleeved light fabrics and leaf hats to protect themselves from the scorching sun.

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Andddddd off we go! The river is really shallow, so we weren’t given any life vests. The water at the port was so clear you could almost see to the bottom of it. It was full of healthy plants and river vegetation, the sign of a healthy river ecosystem. They were building resorts of some kind nearby.

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Got a straw hat for VND100,000 (RM30). I know, I should have bargained for it but the bus was going to leave me behind D: The quality isn’t bad though, and it saved me throughout the entire trip.

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The river is surrounded by vivid green limestone karst hills on both sides. Some parts of the water are murkier than others.

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The river is rife with small wildlife, including birds and skinny ducks (like the people, Vietnamese ducks are skinny lol). As we passed by, their quacks sounded like they were laughing at these silly tourists in boats. A stretch of the river is inhabited. Small stone houses line the riverbank, where shirtless youths sleep in hammocks hung between trees, and old men chatted with each other on low stools, smoking cigarettes. It was really picturesque. Chickens ran, pecking grain from the ground, while small dogs chased them around.

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Approaching the first ‘cave’! It’s basically a 125m long cave under the hill, and there are three of these – hence the name ‘Three Caves’. The ceiling is low, rising about 2ms above water. We went in and were plunged into semi-darkness. There was enough light to illuminate the graceful curves of time-weathered stalactites (I got that right, right? I always get mixed up with my tites and mites), formed over millions of years.

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A few minutes in the cooling dark, and then it was out to be baked again.

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I like this part of the trip. There was a little house by the riverbank, and shady trees with soft tendrils formed a curtain that the boat passed through. It was like entering a magical fairyland. All you hear is the sounds of nature and the soft dip of rowboat paddles. No noisy traffic or engine rumbles, and the air is fresh and clean.

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After the third cave, we come to the end of the journey. Lots of ‘boat shops’ are tucked under the shade of the caves, where traders peddle their wares. These include snacks, drinks, lotus pods (? Wut? Why?) and other souvenirs. For people who don’t speak the same language as we did, they sure were persistent. We ended up buying drinks that we didn’t need lol. Gave them to the rower for her hard work.

Then it’s back the way we came. Rowers moved much faster now.

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Our rower then bugged us to buy more stuff that she had stashed under the boat seats. It was kind of like being held hostage because we were 30 minutes away from land and she kept shoving the hand-embroidered bags in our faces (with a smile). We felt bad and didn’t want to offend her, but I really didn’t need the bags… @-@ JQ ended up buying a few. Note to travelers: Tipping is an unspoken rule here. Quoc told us to give at least 50,000 VND per rower, so we did.

The boat trip on  Ngo Dong in Tam Coc is well-worth the long journey from the capital, thanks to its beautiful mountain scenery and crystal clear water. If you’re not up for fighting with other tourists at Halong Bay, why not make a detour to this charming place instead? Be warned though, if you’re a tourist in Vietnam, you may get the feeling that everyone is trying to sell you stuff .

Getting There 

Bus from Hanoi’s southern bus terminal, Giap Bat which leaves every 15 mins. Journey time: 3 hrs

Last boats start out about 5:30PM in the summer and 4:30PM in the winter, so get the timing right so you don’t miss out!

PS: Summer is super hot in Vietnam so if you’re keen on doing this during that season, bring a big straw hat, lots of sunscreen and shades.