Let me put it out straight. Do not believe everything you see or read about Ha Long Bay cruises. I say cruises because Ha Long Bay itself is beautiful and spectacular at times. Others might say that limestone formations here go pale when compared to El Nido and the waters of Ha Long cannot, in any way, compete with the turquoise waters of El Nido. But still, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site worth seeing... if only you know what to expect.
***
The 'oriental junk' you see in the photos is nowhere to be found..gasp!


EXPECTATION
Photo from http://indochinagoldhotel.com/

I did not see a single junk that looked like this.

I overheard a guy complaining that the actual boat did not look like the same boat in the photos the agency showed him. Well, sir, you've just been punk'd. Every agency will show you a photo of a nice oriental junk with all its sails up and once you get to the port, you will see dozens of white regular-looking boat. If you paid over a hundred dollars, you might as well complain.

The photos we were shown were like the photo above, but when we got to the port, we were ushered to a white boat, definitely without sails.

These is how the 'junks' all looked like:

REALITY


The prices range from dirt-poor to luxurious


The prices would range from 30USD to over 100USD for an overnight trip. And you wonder why since you're all cruising in the same bay, you're all seeing the same things, and you're all staying in identical-looking boats.
It has to be with the food they serve on-board. Dinner time came and since the whole thing is planned by the minute, our boat was in the middle of the bay next to another boat. The other boat had better and bigger meals so I could only guess that they paid higher. Based on my experience, it is better to book once you are in Hanoi so you can haggle, ask questions, and haggle some more. Remember that you are all going to have the same Ha Long Bay experience so it's better to know what the extra dollars are for.

Kayaking
Dine with a view

If you get an expensive cruise, you will be definitely be served with great food, probably a luxurious bed, sheets with higher thread count, and a nice bath but basically, the whole experience - cruising, kayaking, caving - is the same. 


Your cruise gang
And there's another point of booking a boat with fun cruise mates, especially if you're a solo traveler. Book an expensive cruise and you will join families and their kids who would retreat to their rooms early in the night. Book a cheap cruise and aside from the crappy food, you'll get a crowded boat. 

A crowded junk

It all depends on what you want. If you would like to mingle with fellow cruise mates but still have a room for yourself, book a mid-priced boat. If you prefer to have your quiet time, go for the higher priced ones.

We booked a 50USD cruise and luck was on our side. We boarded a boat with a great mix of fun people. A girl solo-traveler crossed over from another boat to ours because she paid a hundred and the night ended early on their boat. The boats were anchored so near to each other that the girl just crossed a short plank from their boat to ours.

Ha Long Bay itself

I have not been to El Nido so I could not compare, but even so, I saw Ha Long as a low-contrast photo that if given the chance, I would have turned up the contrast a sharp higher and tweak the image sharpness too. The waters were gray and not inviting at all when we were there. I read some people would dive and swim and I wondered.. why would you even want to swim in dark, murky waters?

Watching the sun slowly setting behind the karst, however, was a different story. It's one of the Ha Long Bay memories that I chose to keep. The next day, I curled up with a book and soaked under the sun with the limestones hovering over the boat.

***

A beautifully manipulated photo combined with nice words can easily fool anyone. Traveling is never without glitches and Murphy's Law is always in effect. The trick to this, appreciating Ha Long Bay and any other place for that matter, lies in researching to get an idea of what to expect, preparing for it, and aiming to have a great time regardless if things don't go your way. Pretty soon, you will find something amazing.

I will most likely not go back to Ha Long Bay anytime soon, but even when I was a tad disappointed, I would still say that one needs to visit this place at least once in this lifetime.


This is my entry to the Pinoy Travel Bloggers' April 2014 Blog Carnival entitled When Fact is Really Fiction hosted by Kaiz Galang of Miss Backpacker.

If a picture paints a thousand words, I'm pretty sure this one shows a happy lady on her bike, wearing a smile to mask a grimace.

A year and a half ago, I embarked on a challenge to finally learn how to bike at the age of 26. With the help of a friend who patiently taught me and who actually researched how to teach an adult to ride a bike, I was finally able to go around my neighborhood on 2 wheels, even braving the trail at Timberland. I also tried to bike around Manila, crossing Edsa from Magallanes to Makati, and that was probably the only day when I spit so many expletives, all aimed towards jeepney drivers.
I wanted to go for something bigger. The dream that I had in mind was to go biking in a busy place, where no one knows me. I wanted to bike in another country's busy streets. That specific country I pictured in my mind was Vietnam. 
Fast forward to November 2012, I finally step foot on the motorcycle-crazy streets of Vietnam. 
I did not dare find a bike in the streets of Ho Chi Minh, where the probability of being killed while crossing the street or even just walking on the sidewalk (if there's even one) is rocket high. Then we came to visit the small, ancient town of Hoi An where we emptied our pockets and splurged on great food. Since the town is a Unesco Heritage site, much of the place is protected, and most streets are closed to traffic, except for bicycles. Hoi An looked safe enough to go biking around.
So we declared our second day in Hoi An as Bike Day. We rented out bikes and went around the town early in the morning. It was such a joy biking around and stopping anywhere we wanted, taking photos of the shops that thankfully opened late in the day, and following the locals getting around with their daily lives wearing their conical hats. 
The good thing about Hoi An is, there are plenty of places to explore, all a bike ride's distance away. On our way to An Bang beach late in the afternoon, rain suddenly poured. We were already out in the open highway when rain started falling like pellets, and since I am almost always never ready for the rain, I was soaked even before reaching the beach. From being immobile in 2011 to biking in the open highway under the rain a year later, I felt like I have finally reached the pinnacle of my late bloomer biking dreams. I felt invincible.

An Bang Beach
The wind was cold and it was probably not a good idea to go swimming, and the sky looked like it was going to let another batch of rain out. We decided to make one last stop inside the town of Hoi An before finally calling it a day. I needed to have my photo taken: me on my bike, with the lanterns and shops as background. A photo that screams Biking in Hoi An.

We made our way back to the town, which always got busy with tourists at night. With many people out on the streets, it was quite tricky to maneuver past groups walking like they owned the streets. It was still good though since the streets were closed to vehicles. Feeling like I have earned a new badge in my biking career, I felt confident overtaking tourists walking slowly on the street. As I maneuvered to the left to try to overtake a group of 4 tourists, a motorcycle popped out of nowhere and was suddenly running close on my left side. In between running down a tourist and smashing against a motorcycle, my hand decided to go left, locking handle bars with the motorcycle, and in a split second, I said hello to the gray concrete street.

Imagine my ego crashing down with me. The whole afternoon I was elated with my biking skills, and suddenly, I got into a minor accident.

And just like a kid who does not want to be embarrassed in front of her friends, I quickly stood up, brushed myself clean, took my bag, grabbed my bike, and smiled to let everyone know I was fine. I made a mental note that the motorcycle and the driver crashed down with me (meaning I did not go down without a fight haha). That made me sound so evil but we were not really running at a high speed so the crash did not really harm us, except for the wound on my knee, a few scratches on my leg, and a bruised ego.

After putting some liniment on my wound, we decided to go ahead, take a photo, and go home. I was shaking when I rode the bike again, my legs turned to jelly, and paranoia dawned on me. Someone honked at me because I could not navigate through oncoming traffic for a few minutes.

Finally, we reached the spot.

I put a smile on and tried not to wince for the camera.

Biking in Vietnam will be remembered. And if ever I forget, I just have to look at the scar on my knee and be reminded.

Bike photo by Aaron Manila.

Tired as we were from flying in late, we woke up to the first ring of the alarm and took the free breakfast from Saigon Backpackers Hostel. First we ventured into the backstreets near Pham Ngu Lao to find a decent foreign exchange but believe the travel forums when they tell you to go straight to the gold jewelry stores. They do not have neon-blinking lights with their published rates but they offer the best, so go ahead and ask. Armed with a crappy map from the hostel and sheets of Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook, we went out and created our own tour.




War Remnants Museum

We started with the farthest point in the map and made it to the War Remnants Museum along Vo Van Tan street. The buses parked outside the museum was a telling sign that we had a literally packed day ahead.

Grim, depressing, and devastating, the museum told the story of the not-so-distant past. The walls were filled of photos showing the long-term effects of the toxic chemical Agent Orange, the protests in the US denouncing the war the government has raised against Vietnam, and photos of the civilians and volunteers caught in the crossfire. It is best to visit the place in the morning so you will still have time to fill your day with happier scenes of Saigon or make it your last stop if you want to end the day with a heavy heart. I thought I was being emotional but looking at the faces of the other visitors, they mirrored my thoughts exactly.

War museums are great for learning, but it does not do well for the heart.

We made a quick detour to escape from the sun and had a slightly expensive version of their iced black coffee. People sat in groups on the sidewalks drinking coffee from street vendors while we got ours from Starbucks' counterpart, Highlands Coffee.

Reunification Palace

After feeling rested from half a day of walking, we retraced our steps back to a nice, green park and went to the Reunification Palace located at Nguyen Du, a few blocks south of the War Remnants Museum. The palace showcased the office and residence of the last President in the south. The rooms with its plush seats, heavy draperies, and key furniture pieces were nothing too lavish. It took almost an hour exploring every nook of the Palace, including the underground offices. It was a maze underneath the palace. At one point, I started calling out to people because I could not see anyone around.

Half of the time we trailed a group with English-speaking tour guides. Free lecture for us!

Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office

Located a few blocks away from the palace are two huge French architectures, the Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office. Though the church was closed, it still did not fail to awe us with its majestic facade. The brick walls of the church is so picturesque that it wasn't surprising to see wedding shoots along the walls.

Right across the church is the Central Post Office, but it actually looked more like a train terminal to me. Nevertheless, I was again fascinated by the structure. I might just have a bias for grandiose French architecture.

People's Committee Building and the Dong Khoi Area

Keeping in mind that we still have to visit a bookstore to get a better map, we roamed along the streets until we made it into the Dong Khoi Area, along Le Loi Street. For 15000 VND we finally got ourselves a nice street map of Vietnam. Nevermind that we found the bookstore in the late afternoon when we have already traversed the city!

Dong Khoi district is an upscale part of Ho Chi Minh, with even lovelier structures and high-end shops along the streets. Time seemed to slowly pass by in this area as people sipped their afternoon drinks and watched the traffic on the streets. This place is perfect for a lazy afternoon stroll.

At night, the lights came up to give a whole new glitz to the fancy structures. We lingered here for quite some time, observing people on their bikes in ready-to-party outfits. We wondered where the party was on a Monday night.. but we never found out.

We settled for an ice cream at Bach Dang along Le Loi before we slowly made our way back to the streets of Pham Ngu Lao. It was long day indeed and tiring as it was, I was glad we walked our way around.

Saigon will always be remembered.

Sometimes you just want to sit and enjoy the easy life, never mind the price tag that comes with it.
That was exactly what I thought when we boarded the cab from Danang Airport to Hoi An. Taking the bus will only take 1USD but who knows when the next bus will come our way? Hailing a cab was so much easier, only it comes with a meter.  
And so there we were in the backseat with our eager cabbie pointing to us the beaches of Danang, asking for our itinerary while trying to inject some of the places that he wanted to take us to. Unfortunately for him, we had our eyes set on our destination and we would not be swayed. The cabbie did not get us to pay additional dollars for the sidetrip but he did get us to pay the meter at 23USD!
Tip: If you do not wish to wait for the 1USD-bus, book a private car with a travel agency for 15USD from Danang airport to HoiAn. A couple of dollars saved will go a long way!

And as if the gods of misfortune were looking down on us, rain poured on our way to Hoi An. Because we initially planned to look for a place to stay there, we decided to get off the cab and put a stop on the crazy meter at the first hostel that we saw -- Thien Nga Hotel. If only it was not raining, I would have stepped out and looked for a cheaper hostel (room was priced at 25USD/night) but the rain would not let me. I was fretting for some time, until I saw the room!


The room was cozy, the sheets were clean and soft, and the room had a nice veranda looking out over the street. Plus they had a reliable WiFi, complimentary buffet breakfast, and flat screen TV. The lovely hotel room at 25USD/night shut me up. I could no longer complain.

When the rain finally stopped, we finally had the chance to get some food for brunch. The first stop for the day was Miss Ly Cafeteria 22 at Nguyen Hue. We were the first guests of the day and Miss Ly's American husband warmly greeted us. Every item on the menu teased my taste buds but to make our stay authentic, we decided to get the local dishes. We wanted to try the cao lau (noodles), fried wontons, and white rose so we ordered the Sampling menu which had all three.

Fried wontons
Cao Lau - flat noodles with croutons, bean sprouts, and pork slices. The water used in its preparation comes from the Ba Le Well
White rose - steamed shrimp in rice paper

It was all so good that we came back the next day for dinner! Of the three dishes, I enjoyed white rose the most. And of all cities in Vietnam, I liked the food in Hoi An (actually, the whole of Central Vietnam) the most. It was here where I had the most delectable and succulent food that I have tasted in the entire week. The 3 dishes including drinks cost less than 15USD for 2 persons. That is considered pricey for Vietnam where everything is cheap, but Miss Ly's specialty cooking and her husband's warm welcome more than made up for it. The guy (too bad I forgot his name) even remembered us when we came back the next day.

It was a wet and tiring afternoon as we tried to battle it out with the rain to make the most of our time, but in the end we succumbed to another inviting restaurant at Le Loi. For dinner, we chose Streets. It might be that Miss Ly's was too high of a standard because I found the food at Streets not as spectacular but knowing that you are helping out disadvantaged young kids, it was easier to pay 20USD for dinner.

The only thing remarkable I tasted at Streets: Crispy Spring Rolls

After a considerably extravagant day in Hoi An, we decided to tone it down a bit the next day. We moved out of Thien Nga to a 15USD/night room which meant no complimentary breakfast, no WiFi, CRT TV, and stuffy sheets. And just when we thought we were successful in slumming it and cutting down costs, we ended up giving in to Miss Ly's for dinner the next day! The buns they sell on the street just can't compete with Miss Ly's cooking.


Share some of your guilty splurge stories!

The plane landed on the wee hours of the morning, there was nothing to see, and the empty streets could be compared to Recto during summer. It took time to find a cab whose driver would not rip off travelers who, though not Western, still had a few dollars in their pockets. The persistent warnings in travel forums has made us wary and this weird excitement that came out of it turned into a “Will we be scammed?” game.
Thirty minutes later, we knocked at the gates of the hostel located at a small street right behind a market. A sleepy receptionist welcomed us, ushered us in, gave us a map, and shoved hand-outs of group tours straight into our accepting hands. The next thing I knew, I was in Dreamland.
Although still lacking sleep, we started out early and found Saigon in its waking, bustling state. It may be the biggest city in Vietnam but that did not stop us from deciding to walk its streets and not take any form of transportation for the day. 
We first ventured into the streets near Pham Ngu Lao, the backpackers area, to find some decent place to exchange money but were surprised to find stores with reprints of travel guides sold at half the price. The streets in this area are lined up with establishments catering to both local and Western tastes. Different as they may be, they all had one thing in common. The restaurants had tables set outside on the sidewalk, with all the chairs facing the street. 
Farther into District 1, the trees became taller than the buildings, the roads were busier, and the foreigners were lesser in number. Every now and then, we would pass by groups of people sitting at a street corner drinking iced black coffee, chatting and staring right into the streets. 
I have a pretty good memory but it was no match for the street names in Saigon. How can you remember Cong Truong Lam Son, Nguyen Trung Truc, or Chu Manh Trinh after a single glimpse at the map? Only two names stuck with me: Pasteur, the only Western sounding street name that we walked on, and Le Loi, because it only had 2 syllables. 
We found all the places we have marked with an "X" in our map and our feet were more than happy to tread back home. The day ended with us sitting at a bar looking like it was plucked straight from Boracay (weird beach-y vibe), each of us with a bottle of Bia Saigon in hand. It was not a leisurely walk but it was exactly what we needed to see Saigon within a day.
Far from the nice and efficient cities that can leave you feeling stiff, Saigon is a breather full of roaring (literally) life. The streets may not be litter-free and following the stoplight is optional, but I found the warmth and festive mood of the city more comforting than that of highly-urbanized cities. Compared to busy Hanoi in the north, I found Saigon more endearing.
However tiring the day was, I drank my Bia Saigon with satisfaction. I like Saigon. Well, except for the bland food (and beer). Ask me to explain why and I would probably not come up with concrete reasons. Maybe it’s because of the motorcycles, maybe because of the parks and architecture, maybe because it’s just what it is. It’s easier to stop being rational, forget about putting reasons to words, and just say exactly what it makes me feel. 
Oh and about that "Will we be scammed?" game? It happened exactly at the moment this photo was taken. My sweet tooth must be blamed.



Share your love for Saigon!