Visa Run to Vietnam

8 August 2019 – Visa Run to Vietnam

Last week, our Indian visas were going to expire, so we flew to Vietnam for a “visa run”. We’ve been to Ho Chi Minh city (commonly known as Saigon) in the south of Vietnam last year, so the fact that we flew to Hanoi (in the north) this time is an indication that we liked the country. 

On the way out, we checked out the International airport at Cochin India and learned that it is the first one in the world to be solar powered. The plant comprises 46,150 solar panels laid across 45 acres near the international cargo complex. The plant was installed by Bosch from Germany. The plant system is without any battery storage as it is directly connected to the Kerala electrical grid. Apparently, they even harvest vegetables under the solar panels.

Once you get inside the airport, it is one of the emptiest places in all of India. Over the past 5 months, our experience when going to the hospital, the dentist, the shopping mall, even the grocery store – is that Indian people travel in packs. Everywhere they go, they bring along whoever they can rustle up from home – grandma, the cousins, etc. With tight security at the airport, there isn’t anybody there that doesn’t have a reason to be there!

We had a “first” with our Malindo Air (a Malaysian carrier) check-in. Our Expedia booked travel had ZERO baggage allowance on the outbound flight and 20kg on the return. After going to 4 check-in counters and dealing with 4 agents and 2 supervisors, we became really pissed. We were expecting to purchase luggage allowance when departing, but we discovered that if we bought baggage allowance “on the spot”, we were forced to pay about $600 CDN for one 16kg bag. We were actually considering abandoning the trip and flying somewhere completely different with another carrier – and then I came up with an idea. We simply bought an additional one-way ticket, WITH a 20kg baggage allowance for about $300 CDN. It made the final situation palatable. 

Having been in India for the past 5 months, there is now no doubt in my mind that it is cheaper than Vietnam. The first night in Hanoi we paid $22 CDN for a 10 minute taxi ride. In Kochi, you could ride all day in an Uber for that price. The next day we took a GRAB ride, about 15 minutes or 5 kms in duration for a cost of about $4 CDN – that’s more reasonable. This is another reason to stay away from “taxi” drivers, and stick with Uber and GRAB. The day after we arrived in Hanoi, we found ourselves right in the midst of torrential rains, thunder and lightening – courtesy of Tropical Storm Wipha. We flew all this way to get out of the area of the SW monsoon! With all the rain, we decided to go to the big shopping malls for a day of people watching and mall browsing. There was not a hijab in sight, and I made an interesting observation. You can people watch all day long in Hanoi and hardly ever see a man with a moustache let alone a beard. In contrast, when we’re in India, you could spend all day watching people and never see a man without a moustache, as clearly most men have beards of some sort. At the food court, I was surprised to see so many people eating “hot pots”. In India, Thailand and Malaysia – I never saw “hot pots” being brought out to the food court tables. If you come to Hanoi, be prepared to struggle with English, because very few of the locals appear to be willing or able to speak English. 

On Sunday evening, we went for a light dinner at “Wrap-n-Roll” down by the lake in the old city centre (only a few blocks from our hotel).  We had one order of aloe vera salad with prawn and pork, and one order of sweet and sour beef salad – together with juice made from pineapple, carrot and rose jelly. I don’t think we’ve ever had these Vietnamese dishes or drinks before, and we did enjoy them. 

Monday, since the storm had passed through – we took a day trip to Ninh Binh (pronounced Nim Bing) just North of Hanoi. The first stop was to see the location of the first capital of Vietnam and the temple that remains there. The temple itself wasn’t spectacular, but it is very old and contains a lot of history. Nothing but an empty field remains of the former first capital. Apparently, the emperor took every single stone to the new location…

Then we bused it to the Tam Coc mountain, where a magnificent dragon sculpture has been erected. I didn’t take this Google image, but the dragon was there – at the top. To get this photo, you need a drone – and it is a much better picture than anything I could have taken.

This is Diane at the bottom of the climb, “500 steps” that took us about 20 minutes. There were much younger people that were wheezing as we climbed up. 

Here are two selfies of me at the top, and yes, I was drenched in sweat.

Diane looks much more relaxed about the climb than me. 

There was a little temple up there as well.

The next stop was for a great lunch and to pickup bicycles and cycle about 20 minutes to the lake. At the lake, we took a 7km boat ride through 3 caves and back, amidst the rice paddies and at the foot of the mountains. 

Our boat captain spoke a little English but I found him much more fluent in French. He told me that he learned French in school starting at grade 3, but nowadays the schools teach English as a second language and no longer French. All of the boat handlers/oarsmen and women, after leaving the jetty – reverted to rowing with their feet and not their hands. They were quite good at it. 

Walking about the city of Hanoi is pretty interesting and very clean – in stark contrast to our experience in India. This is St Joseph’s Cathedral, a late 19th-century Gothic Revival church that serves as the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi to nearly 4 million Catholics in the country. The cathedral was named after Joseph, the patron saint of Vietnam and Indochina. Construction began in 1886, with the architectural style described as resembling Notre Dame de Paris. This church was one of the first structures built by the French colonial government in Indochina when it opened in December 1886.

The downtown core of the old city is a maze of 36 streets and alleyways full of shops selling all kinds of wares and services. Several blocks might be hardware stores, and then just one street over you find several blocks of fabric and sewing shops. Wandering around, its very easy to get lost because the streets are not rectangular, but Mr Google comes in handy – if you’ve got a SIM card and a signal. 

As we took a city tour of Hanoi, we saw even more tourist sites. There was quite a bit of walking and it was very hot and humid. More temples.

This is one of many pagodas.

Their 100,000 Dong banknote was designed around this small pagoda on the grounds of the Ho Chi Minh park. 100,000 Dong is about $ 5.74 CDN at the time of posting.

The President Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum serves as the final resting place of Vietnamese Revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969 and the construction of the mausoleum started in 1973. I read that the mausoleum was inspired by Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow but incorporates some distinct Vietnamese architectural features. 

Ho Chi Minh specifically stated that he wished to be cremated, but despite this – the people are able to be view him at this mausoleum. Supposedly, his embalmed body is preserved in the cooler, central hall, which is protected by a military honour guard. There is controversy surrounding Ho Chi Minh’s mummy, as those who have visited believe that he is not naturally decaying as he should. It is even rumoured that the casket contains just a model of Ho, since even an embalmed body would eventually show signs of decay, which Ho’s body has not. We never went inside though, because the building was closed for periodic “mummy” maintenance. 

This is a panoramic photo of the beautiful area in the old downtown core, Round Lake. 

Here’s a small restaurant in the old downtown core made famous because Obama once ate there. Back in May 2016, President Barack Obama and gonzo chef Anthony Bourdian sat down for a $6 meal of noodles and beer at this casual restaurant in Hanoi. The celebrity visitors continue to be a draw for Hanoi restaurant Bun Cha Huong Lien, so much so that people refer to it as Bun Cha Obama. To preserve its claim to fame, the restaurant recently sealed off the table at which the two men sat—complete with staged plates, chopsticks, and beer—as a sort of shrine-slash-museum-slash-photo-op. Sealed in protective glass, the table is now an attraction of its own, with numerous people offering to buy the stools or table or glasses from the restaurant. I wonder if Donald Trump would allow the same use of his name? 

The other activity we engaged in while in Hanoi was spa treatments. We visited 3 different spas getting foot massages, full body massages, scrubs, facials etc. This is the place to get that kind of treatment.