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Trip Report Vietnam Trip Report: March 2014

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Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Hoi An, Halong Bay, Hanoi (via Hong Kong)

March 15 (Saturday) and March 16 (Sunday): Newark to Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City

My spouse and I departed Newark New Jersey’s Liberty International Airport (EWR) at 3:30 pm Saturday via United Airlines flight 117 en route to Hong Kong (HKG). The equipment was a Boeing 777-200, we were seated in 32B / 32C (exit row / bulkhead middle and aisle seats), and the flight lasted approximately 15 hours. (You cannot travel non-stop to Vietnam from the United States. You must connect through another city such as Tokyo or Hong Kong.) Non-alcoholic beverages and meals were complimentary, but alcoholic beverages cost extra (only credit cards are accepted). In-seatback personal on-demand entertainment was available.

We arrived at Hong Kong International Airport (also called HKIA) the next evening (Sunday) at approximately 7:30 pm, and we had a 2.5-hour layover until United Airlines flight 117 departed for Ho Chi Minh City at 10:00 pm. After we deplaned, we followed the posted signs for flight connections, and we were required to undergo another security screening even though we never left the secure area.

With a few hours to spare, we enjoyed drinks and snacks at Cafe Deco (which accepts credit cards). Cafe Deco has a sit-down option in either the bar or the restaurant, as well as a take-away option. The Hong Kong International Airport permits smoking in designated areas. Many shops and restaurants are located throughout the terminals. Shortly before our flight, we transferred (on our own) from the large international terminal to a satellite terminal using a shuttle bus. The smaller terminal had a few shops, but only one counter-service eatery (Starbucks), although another restaurant / bar seems to be opening soon. The small terminal at HKIA also permits smoking on an outdoor deck that overlooks the runways, with the Hong Kong Harbor in the distance). Before we boarded the plane to Vietnam, United representatives checked each passenger for his Vietnam visa (or letter of approval).

Our United flight 117 (with a flight time of nearly 2.5 hours) arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) around midnight (in the very early hours of Monday morning). Although we changed equipment in Hong Kong to a Boeing 777-800, our flight number remained the same; however, our seat numbers changed. When we arrived at Tan Son Nhat, we quickly passed through immigration and customs because we obtained our Vietnamese visas in advance. (We used Travisa visa service to secure our paperwork for us.)

We pre-arranged an airport transfer with our hotel, the Renaissance Riverside Saigon, where we stayed for the next four nights in a suite. (The transfer cost approximately $50 USD.) Our driver from the Renaissance was waiting for us in the arrivals hall holding a sign that contained our names. The 20-minute drive (6 miles) from airport to hotel passed quickly because the city streets were empty at that hour.
March 17 (Monday): Ho Chi Minh City

We relaxed, recovered from our jet lag, and explored on our own. We enjoyed breakfast at the Renaissance hotel in the Riverside Cafe (included with our room rate).

After our meal, we walked approximately 15 minutes (less than one mile) to Cho Ben Thanh Market. The market, built in 1912, is one of the earliest surviving structures of Ho Chi Minh City. We enjoyed viewing the food / produce / meat / seafood but not the souvenirs and household goods. On our walk to and from the market, we walked past the Saigon Opera House / Municipal Theatre (completed in 1911 and shaped like the Opera Garnier in Paris) and the Rex Hotel. Built in 1927, the Rex Hotel became famous during the Vietnam War, when it hosted the American military command's daily conference, derisively named "The Five O'Clock Follies" by cynical journalists who found the optimism of the American officers to be misguided. Its rooftop bar was a well-known hangout spot for military officials and war correspondents.

We enjoyed drinks outdoors at a restaurant called the Terrace Café (which accepts credit cards). Later in the day, we had afternoon tea in the hotel’s executive club lounge. Unfortunately, we ate something that afternoon that made both of us violently ill for the next two days; we could not leave our room until Wednesday morning. What a way to begin our trip!

March 18 (Tuesday): Ho Chi Minh City

Prior to departing the United States during our trip-planning process, we arranged two half-day tours of Ho Chi Minh City with Tonkin Travel. We scheduled our tours for Tuesday and Wednesday, but we cancelled the Tuesday tour because we were too sick to leave the hotel. Such a waste of our first full day in Ho Chi Minh City! (We have traveled to nearly 60 countries on six continents, and this is the first time that we were sick; our full gamut of travel inoculations did not prevent illness this time.) Tonkin Travel requires a 30% deposit of the total itinerary cost, which you can pay by credit card. Most credit cards incur an additional 3% credit card fee (imposed by Tonkin, not the credit card company), except American Express, which adds 4%. This fee is in addition to any fees that your credit card company may charge for foreign transactions. Tonkin charged the balance of our itinerary to our credit card seven days prior to our arrival in Vietnam. Alternatively, we could have paid the balance in cash to the first guide we met, either in Vietnamese Dong or in US Dollars (which would have saved the additional 3% fee).

March 19 (Wednesday): Ho Chi Minh City

Our guide and driver arrived on time as scheduled, and we began our half-day tour. Our guide was willing to extend the day past our arranged four hours. Although we truly appreciated her offer, we still were not feeling 100% well, so we rearranged our itinerary to include the sights that we felt we could not miss. First, we visited the Reunification Palace (also called the Presidential Palace or the Independence Palace), which was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates. The palace was the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Next, we saw Notre-Dame Basilica, built in 1880 and featuring two bell towers. Finally, we stopped at the Central Post Office, a neoclassical structure that Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) built in 1891.

We regret that we were unable to see other planned sights such as the Thich Quang Duc Memorial, the War Remnants Museum, Cholon Market, and Chinatown. That just means that we will have to return to Ho Chi Minh City someday!

March 20 (Thursday): Ho Chi Minh City to Hue

We awoke feeling completely well, and we explored the streets of District 1 near our hotel on our own. We bought an excellent bahn mi sandwich from a street vendor, which was one of the only things that we ate in Saigon (other than the tainted food!), so it was predictably delicious.

We checked out late from the Renaissance (which was an amenity included with our package), and we hailed a taxi outside of the hotel to drive us to the airport. The predominant taxi companies are Mai Linh and Vina Sun. The transfer took approximately 20 minutes to travel 6 miles, and it cost about $10 (much less expensive than the $50 USD transfer that the hotel provided). See my separate review of the Renaissance Riverside Saigon.

The domestic departure terminal at Tan Son Nhat International Airport had very few services. Only three domestic airlines fly from the domestic terminal: Vietnam Airlines, VietJet, and Jetstar. One restaurant provides table service, although it also offers a take-away option. A smoking lounge is located near the restaurant, as is a tiny spa that offers foot massages. A few shops are located along the concourse. The air-conditioning in the domestic terminal did not work well. A Vietnam Airlines executive lounge exists in the domestic departure terminal, but we were not able to access it because we had used a service to upgrade to business-class tickets, not purchased business tickets outright. (Neither American Express Platinum nor Priority Pass worked either.) Our departure gate moved several times during the two hours that we waited at the airport. We eventually descended via escalator to our departure gate, where we boarded a bus to travel on the tarmac to our plane. No air-conditioning was running on the plane, and it was hot. Despite that fact, the local women seated in the business cabin with us all requested blankets, and then wrapped themselves in the blankets. Meanwhile, we sweated profusely, which just goes to show how people acclimatize after living in an environment for a while.

We flew from Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) to Danang Airport (DAD) on Vietnam Airlines. When we arranged our trip to Vietnam a year prior, the Hue Airport was closed for repairs. Because we were not certain that it would open in time for our trip, we flew to Danang instead. When we made our booking, our flight was scheduled to depart Saigon at 9:00 am and arrive in Danang an hour later. However, our flight time (and flight number) changed many times over the months prior to our trip. We were moved from one flight to another several times, and each time that the airline switched our flight, our departure time from Saigon grew later and later. Eventually, we departed Saigon at 3:20 pm, and arrived in Danang at 4:30 pm. Our final departure time was SIX HOURS LATER than we originally booked! The earlier flights still existed, so we do not know why were moved so many times without our consent. Although we attempted to contact the airline to switch back to an earlier flight, we were unsuccessful.

In fact, just attempting to book our domestic flights on Vietnam Airlines was a challenge. We had difficulty making our transaction to purchase tickets work using the Vietnam Airlines on-line reservation system. As a last resort, we contacted two Southeast Asia travel specialists to see if they could help. Both agents (Sandy Ferguson at Asia Desk and Andrea Ross of Journeys Within) told us that private citizens could not book domestic air themselves and that the reservation had to be made by a travel agent; however, both agents refused to help us reserve our domestic air because we did not book our complete itinerary with them. We also contacted the number for the Vietnam Airlines service center in the United States (which was located in San Francisco), but incredibly, no one there could help either. Another idea was to book our tickets in person, but none of our closest international airports (JFK, Newark, or Philadelphia) has a Vietnam Airlines desk.

Therefore, we kept trying and trying, and finally, our persistence paid off! We tried different internet browsers using different credit card combinations at different times of the day, and eventually, our ticket purchase was successful!

Although purchasing the tickets themselves proved challenging, upgrading the tickets from coach to business class was simple. Vietnam Airlines sent us many e-mails offering the upgrade, and we successfully used their system called Optiontown to upgrade both of our one-way flights for approximately $25 per person per flight, which seems like a bargain until you realize that the flights themselves only cost about $25 per person per segment!

We arranged with Tonkin Travel for a driver to meet us at the Danang Airport and drive us to our hotel in Hue, which took more than two hours and cost about $65. The drive occurred primarily in the evening, when it was dark and quiet. We arrived at our hotel in Hue, La Residence, after 8:00 pm, where we spent the next two nights in a Junior Suite. We ate dinner at Bar Le Governeur on the outdoor terrace overlooking the gardens and the swimming pool. We retained the same driver for the next several days during our time in Hue and Hoi An.

March 21 (Friday): Hue

Our guide, arranged by Tonkin Travel, met us in the lobby of La Residence, where we discussed our program for the day. Originally, we had booked a full-day tour, but we decided to omit the boat ride down the Perfume (Huong) River in exchange for free time in Hue. The full-day 8-hour tour (had we followed the original plan) cost about $100.

Our guide telephoned our driver, and we used the car for the 1.5-mile, 5-minute drive to the Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited the Flag Tower, Noon Gate, Nine Dynastic Urns, Nine Holy Cannons, Thai Hoa Palace, and the ruins of the Forbidden Purple City. The Citadel was built in the early 1800s as a fortress / palace because Hue was the political, cultural, and religious center under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. Only 10 of the original 160 buildings remain because most structures were destroyed during the Tet Offensive. The Citadel complex contains three circles of walls / barriers: the Capital Citadel, the Royal Citadel, and the Forbidden Citadel.

Next, we were scheduled to visit two different tombs: Minh Mang Mausoleum and Tu Duc Mausoleum. However, at the suggestion of our guide, we instead chose to visit Khai Dinh Mausoleum because it was different architecturally from the structures that we saw at the Citadel.

Khai Dinh was the twelfth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty who reigned only nine years, from 1916 to 1925. The Khai Dinh Mausoleum is a masterpiece because of its location on a steep hillside in the Chau Chu Mountains. It has an elaborate façade, the sidewalls of which contain the largest dragons in Vietnam. Its outdoor court features life-size concrete statues that represent bodyguards (which loosely reminded us of a small sampling of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an China). The interior of the Khai Thanh Palace features intricately designed and colorful glass and porcelain mosaics and decorations on the walls. The ceiling decoration features a complex design with nine dragons. The rear rooms of the palace contain a statue / monument to the ruler (cast in Marseilles France), as well as his tomb.

In the afternoon, we walked from our hotel along the Perfume River back to the Citadel, where we enjoyed refreshments at an outdoor bar on the riverbank “moat” that surrounds the Citadel. Initially, we planned to explore Dong Ba Market, but we decided to relax instead. We then hired a taxi to drive us to the DMZ Bar and Restaurant back on the other side of the river, where we ate lunch. For dinner, we followed the advice of our guide and ate at a local barbecue restaurant near La Residence. Although we were the only Westerners present, and none of the staff spoke English, we managed to communicate well enough to eat an authentic meal.

March 22 (Saturday): Hue to Hoi An (via the Hai Van Pass)

We rose early, and because breakfast was not included with our room rate at La Residence, we walked across the street and ate at a local restaurant. We checked out of the hotel, and our driver picked us up for our two-hour (80 mile) drive to Hoi An, which cost about $75. (See my separate review of the La Residence Hue.)

We stopped several times en route from Hue to Hoi An. We stopped two times in Lang Co Beach: once at a beach resort and another time to take photographs of the fishing village. We stopped at the top of Hai Van Pass (a 13-mile long mountain pass that is notoriously misty, twisting, and challenging to drive). Later, we stopped at China Beach, a 20-mile stretch of sand named by the American troops who visited for R&R during the Vietnam War. Our original itinerary included optional stops at Marble Mountain (a cluster of five marble and limestone hills named after the five elements of earth, fire, water, metal, and wood) and in Danang at the Cham Museum (a museum of sculpture and anthropology), but we declined to visit those sights in exchange for free time to explore Hoi An.

In the early afternoon, we arrived at our hotel in Hoi An, the Anantara Hoi An Resort (previously called the Life Resort), where we stayed for the next two nights in a Junior River View Suite. We walked to Ancient Town, and we stopped for drinks at a few local bars. We ate lunch at a local restaurant along the riverside with a huge patio for outdoor dining; later, we ate dinner at Mango Rooms. (See my separate review of the Anantara Hoi An Resort.)

UNESCO proclaims the town of Hoi An to be a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences. Hoi An is the only town in Viet Nam that has survived intact. Hoi An is known for its silk lanterns and its tailor shops, where you can have a custom-made business suit crafted for you in less than two days!

March 23 (Sunday): My Son and Hoi An

Because our room rate at the Anantara included breakfast, we dined at Lanterns, which overlooks the Thuo Bon River, to enjoy their lovely buffet. Afterwards our meal, our guide and driver met us at the hotel to begin the 1.5-hour (25 mile) drive to My Son. Tonkin Travel arranged our full-day tour at a cost of about $100 for the guide, car, and driver. Initially, we debated about including My Son as part of our itinerary. Because we have visited other ruins such as Angkor Wat, we did not want My Son, whose scope and size cannot compare to the Khmer ruins, to disappoint. However, we were pleased that we visited the My Son Holy Land, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

My Son contains many impressive tower-temples that depict the cultural and religious lives of the ancient Champa people. Many previously untouched artifacts are still being unearthed and exposed, and the many temples and complexes are in varying states of completeness and stages of restoration. The kings of Champa constructed this now abandoned and partially ruined cluster of Hindu temples between the fourth and the fourteenth century AD. The kings dedicated the temples to the worship of the god Shiva. Experts often compare My Son with other historical temple complexes in Southeast Asia, such as Borobudur of Java in Indonesia, Angkor Wat of Cambodia, Bagan of Myanmar, and Ayutthaya of Thailand. At My Son, you can visit a museum, watch a film, or attend a cultural song and dance performance for additional historical information. Bathrooms and a snack window that serves basic food and drinks are on-site.

In the afternoon, when we returned to Hoi An, our guide led us on a walking tour through the narrow streets of atmospheric Hoi An. UNESCO deems the town of Hoi An as a World Heritage Site because it is an excellent example of a former port full of architectural gems that show many foreign influences.

First, we visited the 400-year old Japanese Covered Bridge, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple attached to one side. Next, we visited Tan Ky Ancient house. Lastly, we visited Phuc Kien Assembly Hall.

A Vietnamese merchant built Tan Ky Ancient House as his home almost two centuries ago as the house. Preservationists restored the house to look as it did in the early nineteenth century to show how local architecture incorporated Japanese and Chinese influences. Japanese elements include the crab shell-shaped ceiling supported by three beams in the living room. Chinese poems written in mother-of-pearl hang from the columns that support the roof.

The Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, founded in 1690, served the largest Chinese ethnic group in Hoi An, the Fujan. The temple is dedicated to the goddess of the sea and protector of sailors, and thus exhibits many nautical symbols such as a mosaic fountain with a fish sculpture, a sculpture of a mother saving a sinking boat, a sculpture of a large sailing boat, and outside the temple is a small pond that contains ornamental fish.

We ate lunch and dinner at local restaurants along the riverside, one of which contained a second-floor terrace that provided great views of the street and river below.

Before our late lunch, as we shopped on the streets of Hoi An Ancient Town, we noticed a merchant who offered a currency exchange service. We converted some leftover Lao Kip that we had inadvertently saved from our trip in 2013 (worth about $50 USD). When we departed Laos, we did not realize that its currency would be useless in any other country, that we would be unable to convert it to any form of usable money. However, we learned from the Kip experience last year; we were determined not leave Vietnam with any Dong, because that currency is also unusable and unconvertible elsewhere.

March 24 (Monday): Hoi An to Halong Bay

We enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the Anantara Hoi An for the last time before we checked out of the hotel. A mix-up occurred with our airport transfer from Hoi An to Danang. We pre-paid Tonkin Travel about $20 to arrange our hotel-to-airport transfer, but our driver did not pick us up as scheduled, and we called a local taxi instead. A front-desk employee of the Anantara telephoned Tonkin Travel for us, and we tried to reorganize our transfer, but Tonkin could not reach their driver. To be fair, on the previous afternoon, we said goodbye and tipped our driver and guide, because we did not remember that our transfer to the airport was included in our itinerary. Therefore, we take responsibility for this error in communication. Again, to be fair, we edited our Tonkin itinerary several times, so it is understandable that some confusion occurred. First, we requested services for Hue and Hoi An only. Then we added services in Ho Chi Minh City, and finally, we added services in Hanoi. Tonkin was gracious and understanding throughout the process, and they responded to our requests quickly and efficiently.

The Anantara summoned a local taxi to provide our airport transfer. The drive from Hoi An to Danang takes about 45 minutes (20 miles). The Danang International Airport is small, but well appointed. A smoking room and bathrooms are located in the departure terminal, along with a few shops and restaurants (one Vietnamese counter-service restaurant, and one Burger King!). We spent our time at the only bar / lounge in the airport. Wi-Fi was complimentary.

When we booked our original one-way domestic Vietnam Airlines flight from Danang (DAD) to Hanoi (HAN), the scheduled departure time was 9:00 am, with arrival in Hanoi about one hour later. However, as with our one-way domestic flight to Danang a few days earlier, our flight time (and flight number) changed several times, so we actually departed Danang around 1:30 pm and arrived in Hanoi at approximately 3:00 pm. Our actual departure time was 4.5 HOURS LATER than the flight that we originally booked. Even though we did not have a great overall experience with Vietnam Airlines, at least they managed to get us to our destinations on the days that we booked!

When we arrived at Hanoi International Airport (HAN), our driver, arranged by Heritage Lines cruises, met us at baggage claim, and we began the 3-hour journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay (a distance of about 90 miles). We stopped halfway at a tourist rest stop (called Dai Viet Bar), which was large and contained bathroom facilities, souvenirs, package food items, and a sit-down full-service restaurant. The rest area contains a special room where drivers can relax, and the bathrooms for drivers are located outside in a separate building. Even though our young driver spoke no English, we could tell that he was friendly and conscientious.

Eventually, we reached our hotel in Halong Bay, the Novotel, where we spent one night before our cruise in an Executive King room (see my separate review of the Novotel). We visited the Night Market (about a 10-minute walk), and we ate dinner outdoors at a restaurant on the waterfront called Golden Sand (Nha Hang Cat Vang in Vietnamese).

Halong Bay (whose name means "Descending Dragon") is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features thousands of limestone islands covered in thick vegetation. According to legend, when Vietnam developed into a country, her people had to fight against invaders. To assist the Vietnamese in defending their country, the gods sent a family of dragons as protectors. The dragons spit out jewels and jade that turned into the islands dotting Halong Bay. The islands linked together to form a great wall against the invaders and destroyed their ships.

March 25 (Tuesday): Halong Bay

Because breakfast was not included with our room rate at the Novotel Halong Bay, we walked to the waterfront to eat breakfast at a local restaurant (with a tiki bar theme!), and then we checked out of the hotel. Our driver from the previous day picked us up around 11:00 am, and he drove us toward the port on Tuan Chua Island where we would board Heritage Lines Violet (about 15 minutes and 6 miles). On the short drive, we stopped at a pearl shop, where workers pressured us to listen to a demonstration on pearl formation, after which we were encouraged to buy pearl jewelry. We did not expect this tacky sales pitch to be associated with the level of boat that we selected.

The Heritage Lines outdoor reception / waiting area at the Royal Pier dock features all-weather wicker chairs and tables set beneath a fabric canopy, and attendants in traditional Vietnamese dress provide table service. Bathrooms are located inside a public building, however. A few small stands / shops at the pier sell drinks and souvenirs. When we first arrived at the pier, we had to check our luggage. Although some boats / cruise lines have docks directly at the port (so that guests walk aboard), passengers of Heritage Lines must use a small tender (boat) to travel from the pier to the boat. Passengers must wear life vests in the covered / enclosed tender, which has the capacity to hold all twelve passengers and two crew members. Because limited space exists on the tender for anything more than hand luggage, our checked baggage a separate boat transported our luggage.

When we arrived on the Violet, the crew gave us a tour and showed each couple to their accommodations. After some time to settle in, the passengers met in the dining room for a sit-down formal lunch. Afterwards, the Violet docked near Cua Van floating fishing village, a commune-type community where residents live, work, and study aboard small floating houses (which are not boats) in a sheltered cove. As the Violet dropped anchor, some enterprising local residents rowed out to the Violet to try to sell their wares (mostly packaged snack items and some small souvenirs). We donned our life vests and boarded the tender to begin our quick sail (10 minutes) to the dock at the floating village. A small welcome center at the floating village sells souvenirs, and a bathroom is available for the tourists. There (still in our life vests), we were paired off in groups of four and assigned to small row boats, where local women (not men!) rowed us around the village so that we could closer see their homes and other structures. Next, we re-boarded the tender and sailed to Tien Ong Cave, where we disembarked and explored. Archeologists say that ancient Viet people lived in this limestone over 10,000 years ago. A port-a-potty was available on the island with the cave, but no other services.

Back on the Violet in the late afternoon, we participated in a fresh summer roll-making class. The chef first demonstrated how to construct the rolls, and then each guest made a roll. We then ate the food that we created. Guests could order one free drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) during this cooking session as a sunset welcome cocktail. Later, we ate a delicious formal sit-down dinner in the dining room (but formal dress is not necessary!). Both Western and Vietnamese cuisine is available from which to choose, but the Vietnamese cuisine was much more interesting in terms of presentation and ingredients.

March 26 (Wednesday): Hanoi

A sunrise Tai-Chi class is available on the Violet. Afterwards, some passengers disembarked and took the tender to Soi Sim Island, where they climbed steps and then a trail that led to the top of the hill, where they enjoyed the panoramic view. A beach for swimming was also available.

Upon returning to the boat and prior to breakfast, passengers packed and prepared our luggage and vacate our cabins. Our luggage would be transported separately back to the pier. (The tender contain only enough room for the passengers and some small hand baggage.) The Violet dropped anchor in the harbor off Tuan Chua Island, and the passengers tendered back to the dock at Royal Pier. At the pier, both our driver from the previous two days and our luggage was waiting for us. We did not see any available taxis waiting for passengers, so it seems that guests must pre-book their transportation. (Heritage Lines pre-arranged our transfers as a supplement to our room rate.)

Our driver took us back to Hanoi, which took approximately 3 hours (90 miles). We stopped halfway during the drive at the same gift shop / rest-stop (Dai Viet) where we stopped on our outbound trip. We browsed at our leisure, and we enjoyed a quick drink and snack.

Eventually, we reached our hotel for the next three nights, the Hilton Hanoi Opera House, where we booked a King Hilton Executive Suite. After we checked in and acclimated ourselves to the hotel, we walked a few blocks to Hoan Kiem Lake, where we enjoyed sunset cocktails at a cafe on the riverbank. The name of the lake, which is the focal point of Hanoi, means "Lake of the Restored Sword". The Hue Bridge and the Tortoise Pagoda are located on the lake. We stopped for drinks at Highlands Coffee Cafe Au Lac, where we sat and enjoyed the lakeside view.

We investigated the opera house from the outside (you cannot go inside unless you attend a performance). The Hanoi Opera House, completed in 1911, resembles the Palais Garnier, one of Paris's two opera houses.

In the evening, we ate dinner from the complimentary food and beverage buffet in the Hilton’s executive / club lounge.

March 27 (Thursday): Hanoi

We ate breakfast at Ba Mien restaurant at the Hilton, which was included with our room rate. After our meal, our guide and driver (arranged by Tonkin Travel) met us for the short drive (10 minutes and 2 miles) to the Ho Chi Minh complex. The complex is located in the center of Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, where Ho Chi Minh, Chairman of the Communist Party of Vietnam from 1951 to 1969, read the Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945, which established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The imposing mausoleum is dedicated to the father of modern Vietnam. The complex represents Ho Chi Minh’s fifteen years of living and working from home, from 1954 to 1969. You can also visit the fishpond, pergola, orchard, and cars. The main structures of the complex include the Presidential Palace, the former Indochina General Governor Palace, as well as Ho Chi Minh’s House on Stilts. The House on Stilts has only two rooms, each no larger than 100 square feet, which symbolizes Ho Chi Minh’s way of living with simplicity, modesty, gentleness, and dedication to the nation and its people. Also on-site is the One Pillar Pagoda (a Buddhist Temple).

Our guide told us that we could carry nothing with us into the mausoleum (no purses, backpacks, or cameras). He held our items with him (a bag / coat check is available as well), because he did not wait with us or accompany us inside the mausoleum (his choice, not ours). Visitors must maintain quiet and solemnity as they pass the glass coffin that encloses the body of Ho Chi Minh. We spent over an hour waiting in line to view the body; we did not think that our guide chose the optimal time to visit. The complex opens at 7:30 am in the summer (8:00 am in the winter); the complex is closed during lunch hours from 11:00 to 2:00 pm in the summer (from 11:00 to 1:30 in the winter) and on Mondays and Fridays. To complicate matters further, on the day that we visited, several school field trips were touring the complex, and other groups performed musical acts on the parade ground in front of the mausoleum, which created large crowds.

We rejoined our driver, who transported us to Tran Quoc Pagoda, located on the shores of West Lake. Tran Quoc is 1,400 years old, the oldest pagoda in Hanoi. West Lake has a shore length of more than one-half mile, so it is the largest lake in Hanoi. It is a popular place for recreation, surrounded by gardens, hotels, and villas. (Be sure to look for the swan boats.) Outside of the pagoda, a local woman was “renting” her conical hat and fruit baskets attached to a pole for tourist photo ops, so we each had a funny picture taken (with our own camera) wearing the garb.

In the afternoon, we ate lunch at Cau Go, an attractive and modern restaurant that is located on the top two floors of a multi-story building. Cau Go appealed to us because it had a terrace that showed great views of Hoan Kiem Lake.

After lunch, we attended an afternoon performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. We purchased our tickets about two hours before the show, and our seats were located in the second row at center stage. Water puppetry dates back to the eleventh century in the Red River Delta villages. When the rice fields flooded, the villagers entertained each other with these hand-made and hand-painted puppets. Today, puppeteers perform shows indoors in a waist-deep pool of water. The puppeteers, who hide behind a screen, use underwater rods to control the lacquered puppets. The skits tell of day-to-day living in rural Vietnam. Stories describe the harvest, fishing, and festivals, often with a humorous twist.

In the late afternoon, we enjoyed happy hour at JJ’s Sports Bar in the Hilton, followed by the dinner buffet at the executive lounge. (Not very exciting or adventurous, but it was quick and convenient!)

March 28 (Friday): Hanoi

After we ate breakfast at the Hilton in the Ba Mien restaurant, our guide and driver transported us to the Ethnographic Museum. The Museum of Ethnography is an indoor / outdoor museum that focuses on the 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam. Each group has its own language, lifestyle, and cultural heritage. The largest ethnic groups are Kinh (Viet), Tay, Tai, Mng, Khmer Krom, Hoa, Nung, and Hmong. Outdoor displays on the museum grounds include approximately eight life-size replicas of ethnic homes. Local residents provide commentary on the structures and / or perform demonstrations. Another outdoor feature is a pond where water-puppet demonstrations occur. Inside the museum, the displays are more typical of a museum, with objects behind glass display cases that are marked with informational placards. Unfortunately, on the day that we visited, several school field trips were at the museum, which created large crowds.

Afterward, we visited the Temple of Literature, built in the eleventh century as Vietnam’s first national university. The Temple of Confucius, built in 1070, hosted the Imperial Academy. The interior of the complex comprises five courtyards, where scholars relaxed away from the bustle of the outside world.

After our half-day tour ended, we walked to the Dong Xuan Covered Market in the Old Quarter. The walk from the hotel to the market was particularly interesting, because the street on which we walked housed many local professional companies (in several skyscrapers) as well as many sidewalk restaurants. Because it was lunchtime, we were captivated by the local businesspeople (dressed in formal business suits), perched on tiny footstools at low tables eating their lunches. We visited the market to see fresh food / meat / seafood / produce vendors, but instead, the merchants sold commercial and packaged goods. We hailed a taxi from the market to Hoan Kiem Lake, where we ate lunch outdoors at The Kitchen Bar and Restaurant. On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at Club Opera Novel for an afternoon cocktail. Later that evening, we ate dinner at the lounge in the Hilton.

March 29 (Saturday): Hanoi to Hong Kong

Because we had to depart the hotel early for our international flight to Hong Kong, we ate a quick breakfast in the executive lounge at the Hilton. We then checked out of the hotel, and the doorman hailed a taxi for us. (See my separate review of the Hilton Hanoi Opera House). It took approximately 45 minutes to drive 22 miles to the Noi Bai International Airport.

The Hanoi International Airport is large, but ticket desks, check-in desks, and gates are well marked. Because we were flying Dragonair on a Cathay-Pacific code-share flight, we checked in at the Cathay Pacific desk.

Inside the secure area, concessions span two floors. Many small kiosks sell various Vietnamese souvenirs and snack items. One full-service restaurant exists, along with two counter-service restaurants (one of which is Burger King). A large smoking lounge is available, and two sets of restrooms. Because Vietnamese Dong is not convertible (or usable) outside of the country, we spent all the money that we had, purchasing bottled water and snacks to take with us on the plane.

Our Dragonair flight 296 departed Hanoi (HAN) at 10:45 am and landed in Hong Kong (HKG) at 1:35, a short 2-hour flight on an Airbus A321. We were unable to pre-book our desired seats, neither on the Dragonair website, nor on the Cathay Pacific website (their parent company), nor through a United or Dragonair or Cathay Pacific representative on the telephone. We were also unable to claim frequent flier miles for that segment of our flight. Dragonair is NOT a Star Alliance partner, so no reciprocity is given. (However, United Airlines booked the Dragonair flight as part of our United itinerary.) When we tried to claim the miles from Dragonair itself, they refused to recognize our ticket because United Airlines purchased it. We then tried to claim the miles with Cathay Pacific and US Airways, who are Dragonair partners, to no avail. The frequent flyer mile situation for that segment of our itinerary is both frustrating and confusing!

We arrived at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), then used the complimentary hotel shuttle bus to reach the Novotel Hong Kong Citygate, our hotel for the night (see my separate review).

Although we only had one afternoon and evening in Hong Kong, we wanted to maximize our time there. Our original plan was to ride the Lantau Ngong Ping Cable Car to visit the Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Monastery because of their proximity and accessibility to our hotel. However, when we arrived in Hong Kong, the weather was cool and drizzly, thus obscuring visibility on the cable car and on the mountain, so we changed our plans and decided to explore the downtown and harbor areas instead.

We had great difficulty accessing the train station from the hotel, so much that we almost gave up our quest. Although we asked several hotel employees for instructions (and although many signs were available), we repeatedly got lost in the Citygate Outlet Mall, from where we caught the train. After multiple user errors, we located the MTR loading area. Our next task was to purchase tickets; however, the ticket machines accepted only Hong Kong coins (not credit cards), so first we stood in line to get change from an attendant (although we could not purchase tickets directly from him), and then back to the kiosk to purchase cards. Once we boarded the train, it was easy to navigate the distance from the Tung Chung stop to the Hong Kong Centre stop, because stops are well marked and names are called in English.

In the downtown area, we explored the city streets and the harbor area. We finished our day at the IFC (International Finance Centre) Mall, where we ate dinner outdoors on the terrace at RED Bar + Restaurant (over the course of a few hours, the weather cleared and the view improved). The atmosphere along the harbor was festive on a Saturday night. We rode the MTR and rode it back to Tung Chung and the Novotel Citygate.

March 30 (Sunday): Hong Kong to Home

We rose early for our flight, checked out of the hotel (our room rate did not include breakfast), and we took the complimentary hotel shuttle bus to the airport. We had hoped to use the Priority Pass Lounge at HKG, but the flight status board never listed our flight until about 1 hour prior to departure, so we were not sure which of the lounges was more convenient to our departure gate. Therefore, we spent our time in Cafe Deco Lounge, which was centrally located.

Our United flight 116 departed Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) at 10:25 am, and arrived at Newark’s Liberty International Airport (EWR) at 2:05 pm, just a short 15.5 hours later. The equipment was a Boeing 777-200, and we were seated in seats 32B / 32 C (an exit row / bulkhead middle and aisle), as we were on our outbound flight. Non-alcoholic beverages and meals were complimentary, but alcoholic beverages were an additional charge (only credit cards are accepted). The aircraft featured in-seat back personal on-demand entertainment systems.


Our travels led us through Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi, and Hong Kong (all of those cities begin with H!). Our favorite sites included Halong Bay, Hoi An Ancient Town, My Son, Hai Van Pass, China Beach, and the Water Puppet Theatre. We have visited Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and China in the Far East, and we look forward to adding another Asian country to our travel history.

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    Thanks very much for the detailed trip report. DH and I will be doing almost the same itinerary (in reverse and omitting HCMC) in December, so I was particularly interested in your comments.

    Is there anything you didn't see that you wished you had? Or anything you would have changed?

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    Marija, In retrospect, I should have had Tonkin book my domestic flights. My usual method of planning/booking is to reserve international flights first, then domestic flights, then hotels, then private guides. It was difficult to find independent guides for Vietnam, so I had Tonkin book my tours for me, first for just two cities (Hue and Hoi An), and then for the remaining two cities (Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi). By the time I realized the guide situation, I had already booked my domestic flights myself.

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    There is no such plane as a least not yet. Where is your Renaissance Riverside Saigon review? I was there several years ago and will be back again next month. Looking forward to reading your recent review if it's as detailed as the rest of your trip report.

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    deptrai, you are correct about the aircraft. The equipment for my United flight from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City was a 737-800. My mistake!

    Fodors doesn't include the Renaissance Riverside Saigon as one of their listed hotels. I posted my reviews for any unsupported establishments on Tripadvisor. But since you asked, I'll include my Renaissance review below.

    Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon - Splurge on the Deluxe Suite!

    My spouse and I stayed at the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon for four nights in mid-March 2014. The Marriott brand owns this hotel, and we made our reservation on-line using the Marriott website. Because we logged into our Marriott Rewards account prior to making our reservation, we had access to a package called the "Ultimate Romance Package / Room to Room Rendezvous". Although we normally do not book packages, the price was cost-effective, and it included a few value-added items that we liked. For example: executive club lounge access, breakfast buffet for two people per day (in either the club lounge or in the regular restaurant), a 20% discount on food in any restaurant, one bottle of champagne upon arrival, nightly turn-down service, late 4:00 pm checkout, and two 45-minute foot or body massages. However, we booked the package primarily because it featured our room selection: a Deluxe Suite.

    Because our flight to Ho Chi Minh City arrived at the Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN) after midnight, we arranged an airport transfer from the hotel. Our driver was waiting in the Arrival Hall on time and as arranged. The cost was approximately $50 USD for a one-way transfer. (The cost to hail a public taxi is substantially less than to use the hotel car.)

    This hotel is located (not surprisingly!), alongside the Saigon River, although the river is not particularly picturesque or bustling when we compare it to the hotels located alongside the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. However, every evening, hotel guests can watch many dinner boat cruises depart and return. The hotel is located on a busy street corner, and from where our room was situated, we could watch (but not hear) the parade of traffic from about 6:00 am to 12:00 midnight. It was quiet after those hours, so street noise does not bother guests while they sleep. The hotel is located within walking distance of the Cho Ben Than Market, the Saigon Opera House, restaurants, and shopping. It is a 20-minute walk to the Post Office, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the Presidential (Reunification) Palace. A few Circle-K convenience stores are located on nearby blocks, where guests can purchase drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), snacks, and sundry items. A small driveway at the front of the hotel allows cars to safely pick up and drop off guests. The street next to the hotel hosts a queue of taxis, and an attendant arranges available cars. In March when we visited, a bank (with an ATM machine) was located directly across the street from the hotel, but we saw a posted notice that states that the location was moving soon.

    The hotel layout includes space on the street level next to the front desk for a travel agent called Buffalo Tours. We e-mailed with Buffalo Tours for information (they were responsive and informative), but we booked our tour with an alternate guide. Originally, we thought that we would do three days of touring: two half-day City Tours and a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai, but we booked two half-day City Tours instead.

    The Renaissance hotel is attractive but compact (319 rooms and 17 suites spread over 21 floors). The lobby area is not expansive and feels a bit restricted because the lobby is not multi-story. Some seating exists in the lobby adjacent to the Lobby Lounge, which is a small coffee bar / pastry shop. A gift shop is located between the front desk and the elevators; although we did not enter the shop, it seemed to be a clothing boutique instead of a hotel pantry / forgotten item type of establishment. The main restaurant (Riverside Café), where we ate breakfast daily, is located on the street level. Despite the restaurant's riverside location, no outdoor seating on the sidewalk exists. The Riverside Cafe features a breakfast buffet that contains several stations / areas: hot, cold, Asian, Western, and pastries / breads. The Asian selections included a made-to-order Pho station, as well as prepared dumplings, rice, noodles, and so on. Fresh-squeezed juices (although house-bottled) were included with the price of breakfast, along with coffee and water. (Our morning beverage choice, Diet Coke, was an extra charge.) The breakfast hours last from 6:00 am until 11:00 am. The restaurant also serves lunch and dinner in the buffet format. The Atrium Lounge is located in the attractive and airy (but fully enclosed) atrium area and opens at 12:00 noon. Kabin Chinese Restaurant, the fine-dining venue for the hotel, serves Cantonese cuisine for lunch and dinner. Guests can also order room service, or they can dine on the rooftop terrace next to the outdoor swimming pool. On Friday and Saturday nights, the pool deck is the scene for an outdoor barbecue dinner.

    The outdoor pool is located on the top floor of the hotel, along with the fitness center and spa. Although our package included two 45-minute spa treatments, we did not have time to use them. The spa environment, although attractive, does not seem relaxing or serene, because guests must walk through the spa to access both the fitness center and the pool. The fitness center contains a few machines in a small and window-less room. The pool terrace is lovely, and the pool itself is large. Approximately 15+ lounge chairs and 6+ tiny tables with 4 chairs each surround the pool. A sunshade offers protection to some of the tables. Sometimes umbrellas shade some of the lounge chairs, but it was too windy to use them safely when we visited. A small bar exists on the pool deck, but it is more functional for the servers than a place for guests to sit. One semi-comfortable couch / lounge grouping is located under the canopy area, along with this unusual (perhaps 2 foot x 2 foot raised platform) that contains fake grass. We are not sure what purpose the grassy area serves (perhaps some sort of Feng Shui element for your feet?). We enjoyed the pool area, because it is a lovely place to spend an afternoon, and to enjoy the views of the river and the surrounding streets and buildings, particularly if guests do not have a view from their hotel rooms. The hotel provides pool towels at the valet stand at the top of the stairs. Guests can smoke on the pool deck, as well as outside of the main lobby on the street level.

    The executive lounge on the 18th floor operates from approximately 6:00 am to 12:00 midnight, although the design of the doorway makes it seem as if guests can always access the room itself, but perhaps the complimentary food and beverages are not available round-the-clock. Complimentary Wi-Fi, several computer terminals, and a printer are available in the lounge, as well as some reading materials. Seating in the lounge can be a bit cramped at busy times (such as during breakfast, afternoon tea, and evening cocktails). The staff in the lounge is friendly and willing to honor most requests. The Continental (primarily Western-style) breakfast served in the lounge each morning (from 6:00 am to 10:30 am weekdays, and until 11:00 am on weekends) represents a small subset of the food that the Riverside Cafe offers. Afternoon tea offers requisite tiny sandwiches, clotted cream / strawberry / biscuits, and other light items. Evening cocktail hour (from 5:30 pm until 9:30 pm) features both hot and cold items and complimentary beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic); the lounge serves food in the evening only from 5:30 pm until 7:30 pm.

    Our Deluxe Suite was spacious! The decor was traditional. (We hesitate to describe it as "dated"; it just was not hip or modern). The living room / dining room area was huge, with two walls of windows that overlooked the river and the nearby park. The living room contained a sofa, two armchairs, a dining table with four chairs, desk and chair, large flat-screen TV, and bar area (mini-bar, coffee service, glassware, and so on). The air conditioning was powerful and made our room amazingly cold. It worked so well that at times, we wished that the hotel provided an extra blanket that we could have wrapped up in while watching TV; instead, we used the hotel bathrobes. A half-bathroom / powder room was located off the living room, and it contained a sink and a high-tech (perhaps Japanese?) toilet.

    The separate bedroom area (which you could close off completely from the living area by a door) was not as expansive as the living room, but it featured another large flat-screen TV, king-size bed bordered by two nightstands, and two armchairs. The bedroom provided access to the main bathroom, which featured a single sink, toilet (the usual kind, not a fancy one like the one in the small bathroom), a stand-up glass-door shower, and separate soaking bathtub. The toiletries supplied by Pecksniffs Mood Therapy, a British company, included items like "Calm" handy & body lotion, "Happy" shampoo and conditioner, and "Alive" bath & shower gel). Although the hotel was generous with most toiletry items, it was stingy with bars of soap. In the main bathroom, only one bar of soap was available to share between sink, soaking bathtub, and shower! A large closet contained bathrobes, slippers, and an electronic safe, among the usual storage hanging bars and cubbyholes. The hotel provides maid service twice daily, including an evening turndown service.

    In-room wired and wireless Internet are complimentary, and the TV channel selection is better than we have seen in any other foreign country. The programs and episodes broadcast were current with what we were watching at home.

    We were happy with the location of the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon, and we loved the extra room that the Deluxe Suite afforded us.

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