Go Back  Fodor's Travel Talk Forums > Destinations > Asia
Reload this Page >

Craig & Jeane's Vietnam Trip Report 2009: Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa

Craig & Jeane's Vietnam Trip Report 2009: Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa

Old Apr 30th, 2009, 04:21 PM
  #41  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,897
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
I brought along a pre-ground supply from home. This was strictly for "emergencies" like this one.
Craig is offline  
Old Apr 30th, 2009, 05:40 PM
  #42  
 
Join Date: Nov 2003
Posts: 2,138
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Still enjoying your report.
Femi is offline  
Old May 1st, 2009, 02:35 AM
  #43  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,897
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Topas Ecolodge is run by a husband and wife team. I had asked the wife if we could get some breakfast at 6 AM as we intended to depart at 7. She told us that it would be no problem since there was a group leaving even earlier than we were. As it turned out, the main lodge was deserted at 6 AM. Breakfast was not ready until 6:40 so we were not able to get going until 7:20. Hii, our guide had arrived before 7. It was important to get an early start as we were heading on a 3 hour drive to the Can Cau market which starts to slow down at around 11. Needless to say, I was pissed and let the husband know it (the woman that committed to the 6 AM breakfast was not there when we left) – there was no explanation for the late breakfast as quite honestly, the husband is kind of an introverted dork. Now to be fair, I think that while they do try to be helpful, this couple is completely overwhelmed by the constant turnover of guests at all hours of the day. I don't agree with the Ecolodge's business model of catering to so many guests that stay for just one night and then head somewhere else the next day. But maybe that's what the Sapa area is all about.

Hii helped us lug all of our bags along the long path to the Ecolodge entrance. We greeted the driver, loaded the SUV and were on our way. We stopped in Lao Cai to drop our bags at the restaurant that Hii had recommended for dinner, La Bordeaux. We had a timely WC break as well. Then on to Can Cau, which was actually a very scenic drive via winding roads and many rice fields. The weather had become sunny and hot.

The Can Cau market was fantastic. We did arrive early enough that there was plenty of activity. Can Cau is a small market that is only held on Saturdays. Jeane and I thought it was one of the more colorful markets we had ever been to, mostly because of (1) the colorful costumes of the Flower Hmong people and (2) the commerce in livestock, especially water buffaloes and horses. We had previously learned that one water buffalo can cost $1,000US. Our guide told us that there was no problem taking photos here. If the Flower Hmong didn't want their photo taken, they would turn away. That required a certain amount of stealth on our part and unfortunately, we were not the only Westerners there taking photos. I think we made out fairly well though and by noon we were ready to move on.

We had lunch in Bac Haa at some tourist place which was fine. Bac Haa has a huge market day on Sundays. From there we were supposed to head to a Tay Village for a short walk and then a river cruise on a local boat to kill time before our train left Lao Cai. While the Tay village was pretty with it's rice paddies and stilt houses, it was mid-afternoon and quite hot. Hii had tried to convince to do a ride through the village on a water buffalo cart for $20US but we saw that as a tourist rip-off and gave it a pass. After walking for a while, we stopped at a homestay where an elderly couple offered us green tea off of a filthy tray – we took but did not drink.

The guide took us upstairs to see the rest of the home and then we sat down again – I decided to be direct and told the guide that it was time to get going. From the expression on his face, it seemed he didn't appreciate that too much but we got moving and bid farewell to the couple at the homestay. Shortly thereafter, we boarded a long-tail boat for the most boring boat ride we've ever been on. There was practically nothing to see on the river. At the end of the "cruise" we stopped at a little restaurant where I ordered a large beer, mostly because we had time to kill.

We arrived at Lau Cai at about 4:30 – it was obvious that we would have a lot of idle time before our 7:45 departure. Jeane thinking out loud, said she would really like to take a shower as we were really sweaty after the hot day. Hii immediately picked up on it and said we could rent an air conditioned room with a shower above Le Bordeaux, the restaurant where our luggage was stored, for only $10US. We could have it until dinner – perfect! We made a dinner reservation for 6:30 and we were shown to our room. Our bags were quickly brought up from storage. It was great to feel clean again before the overnight train ride. Our dinner was inexpensive, but not memorable. I recall that there were many choices on a mostly continental menu.

At 7:15, Hii met us at the restaurant and we walked the short distance to the train station. He had reconfirmed our reservations when we arrived in Lao Cai. We were again on the Fanxifan Express car in a 4-berth private cabin near the center of the car. We could smell cigarette smoke until the train started to move. I slept solidly but Jeane did not. The noise and constant rocking and jerking of the train kept her from sleeping the whole night through. The wake-up knock on our cabin door came just a few minutes before our 5 AM arrival.
Craig is offline  
Old May 1st, 2009, 02:42 AM
  #44  
 
Join Date: Aug 2003
Posts: 376
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Craig, this is an excellent report. Would you return to Topas Ecolodge or recommend it, given the issues you experienced there?
travelaw is offline  
Old May 1st, 2009, 05:58 AM
  #45  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,897
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Good question, travelaw - I would recommend Topas Ecolodge for its scenic location alone. With the exception of the constant turnover, we were well-informed about most of the issues from reviews on Trip Advisor and did not have particularly high expectations. Our decision to stay at Topas Ecolodge was based on a desire to be away from heavily-touristed Sapa and to stay in a place where we could avoid overnight treks to see some of the more isolated villages. Unfortunately, we did not find Ban Ho (on our first hike) to be very isolated. I wish we had been able to find out more about the hiking choices prior to arriving.

If we were ever to return to Sapa, we would probably stay at the Victoria. It is unlikely we will ever return however, as there are too many great places that we have not seen yet. Hope this helps.
Craig is offline  
Old May 1st, 2009, 09:04 AM
  #46  
 
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 4,466
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Love all the details.
Smeagol is offline  
Old May 1st, 2009, 02:05 PM
  #47  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,897
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Our guide from the crafts village tour and driver were waiting for us at the Hanoi train station. We noticed that even at 5 AM, the weather was hot and humid. It was now Sunday, April 19. We were whisked to the Metropole and checked in right away since we had reserved for the previous night. After a shower and breakfast, we were ready to head over to the Old Quarter for last minute shopping. We inquired at the Club Floor desk whether the shops keep normal business hours on Sundays. They did, so we headed out at about 8:30 AM. Jeane wanted to go back to Khai Silk and Thang Long Gallery, both on the same side of Hang Gai.

When we arrived at Khai Silk the guard there told us they didn't open until 9:30 so we headed to Thang Long Gallery. Jeane had decided to buy the painting we had admired. I'll take a photo of it and post it when I put all of our other photos on line. The painter is Doan Thuy Hanh, a 35-year-old woman from Hanoi who specializes in the use of lacquerware in her artwork. After comparing the painting we liked to another by the same artist, we asked if we could have “our” painting with the other's frame – no problem. Shipping was relatively inexpensive via Fed Ex so we gave the lady (who was one of the Thang Long family) all of our information. The painting actually arrived at Jeane's office yesterday so I can assure my readers that this is a very reliable gallery.

We headed down a few doors to Khai Silk, which was now open. Khai Silk is probably the most upscale clothing store in the Old Quarter. It is actually a chain of stores with headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City. While Jeane was trying on various things, I checked out their excellent Bose sound system that was cranking out some really cool smooth jazz. I asked one of the staff if they could tell me what was playing (CD?) but they could not. Jeane, meanwhile was in the process of purchasing a couple of very pretty silk outfits, which she no doubt will be wearing at the next Boston GTG.

So, with Old Quarter shopping being completed we headed back along the west side of Lake Hoan Kiem. Now, no visit to Hanoi is complete without a stop at Fanny's Ice Cream which had been closed for renovations and had just reopened. While Fanny's has a great selection of well-presented high-profit designer ice cream dishes, we just went for the single scoop of delicious cinnamin ice cream at about $1US. After all, it was about 11 AM. Jeane did take note of the beautiful presentations illustrated in their extensive ice cream menu.

We returned to the Metropole and dropped off our purchases. We asked the folks at the Club Floor desk to arrange a taxi to the Craft Link stores near the Temple of Literature so Jeane could return there and make some purchases. Again, we were personally escorted to the lobby and a taxi was hailed with specific instructions to wait for us while we shopped at the two Craft Link branches. Jeane previously had not had enough time at the Craft Link branch that specialized in fabrics and she wanted to go back to the other one which was very close by. She had seen some stone boxes that she thought would be excellent small gifts for friends. Unfortunately, Craft Link didn't have 12 of them in stock at any of their locations. So, Jeane gave her e-mail address and asked for a price quote to have them shipped to her. A few days ago, we received an e-mail with the shipping price and bank transfer instructions. The transfer went through yesterday, so we should be seeing the boxes soon. In this case, the shipping cost as much as the 12 boxes.

It was getting very hot with temperatures expected to reach 102F so we decided to return to the hotel to do internet and relax during the mid-day heat. The Metropole had purchased our tickets to the Water Puppet Show and one of the staff brought them to me while we were working on the computers in the Club Lounge. I could see that the seats were excellent – front row center. At about 3:10 we set out for the 3:30 show. The Water Puppets were fun – we got great photos from our front row venue. The theater was modern and air conditioned. Jeane observed that 1000 years ago when the tradition began, the water puppet show would have been even more impressive. The show lasted just under an hour, which was just right.

We made a 6:30 reservation at La Badiane, which had been recommended in the New York Times Sunday travel section (“36 Hours in Hanoi”) just days before we departed. After enjoying our last happy hour at the Club Lounge, we arranged for a taxi to take us to dinner. The Head Chef at La Badiane is Benjamin Rascalou, formerly of the Green Tangerine so the French-inspired Vietnamese food was as wonderful as one would expect. What was amazing was that the total tab was only $50 and while it was the most expensive meal we had in Hanoi, it was clearly worth the money – fabulous setting, great service, and delicious food, nicely presented.

This was our last day in Vietnam so we returned to our room and made final preparations for our flight to Bangkok the next morning.
Craig is offline  
Old May 1st, 2009, 02:45 PM
  #48  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 33,288
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Craig, I'm loving your report! Your comments about Sapa and the Ecolodge are very helpful.
Kathie is offline  
Old May 2nd, 2009, 05:05 AM
  #49  
 
Join Date: Aug 2003
Posts: 376
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Thanks so much Craig. We're thinking of taking a similar trip in the future, so this is all really helpful. Thanks for your opinion on the Ecolodge. We will consider the Victoria.
travelaw is offline  
Old May 2nd, 2009, 08:53 AM
  #50  
 
Join Date: May 2009
Posts: 3
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Thanks a ton! I've been trying to plan a trip to Vietnam and travel there for a while. Do you think that you could maybe make a quick guide based on this last trip for me? Here is a pretty cool tool to do make it - http://www.ruba.com/vietnam_travel
jaytuk is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 03:09 AM
  #51  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,897
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Our driver was due at 8 AM to take us to the airport for our 10:35 AM flight, so we were up early for one last Metropole breakfast in the Club Lounge. We were kind of sad to leave after so many nights at this great hotel. I settled our bill and arranged for our bags to be taken to the downstairs lobby. While I was concerned that the driver would come to the wrong entrance of the hotel, he showed up at Opera Wing right on time. As we rode to the airport, I thought about how my impressions about this city and its people had changed during our stay. I found it interesting that the Vietnamese unlike most other Asian cultures, were not afraid to use the word “no”. This directness was refreshing in some ways but quite contradictory to what we had become accustomed in our travels in this part of the world.

It took about 45 minutes for us to arrive at the airport. Check-in for our Thai Airways flight went quickly. We breezed through immigration and a very lax security check then headed to a very quiet Business Class lounge on the next floor up. Our flight was a bit late boarding but took off pretty much on time for an arrival in Bangkok at 12:25, just under two hours. We had our usual very long walk from the gate at Suvarnabhumi but there was no waiting at immigration. Before retrieving our bags, I arranged for transportation to the hotel at the AOT Limo desk. Our bags were waiting for us on the carousel. We passed through customs and handed our receipt to the AOT representative on the other side. They had a London Cab for us – plenty of room for all of our stuff but at 1500 baht, a little steep (though tolls were included in the price). In the past, we had reserved ahead with AAC Limo. However, I wanted to give AOT a try this time because they are right there in the arrivals area and we didn't need a reservation.

The drive to the Peninsula Hotel was quick – about ½ hour. We were welcomed at the reception but noted that we were not presented with an arrival gift this time. This was our third stay at this amazing hotel. I was handed a fax from Pook (Hanuman) containing directions in Thai to his home. I gave it to the lady who was checking us in and asked how much it would cost to have one of the Penn Mercedes limos take us there – 2160 Baht one-way, about what I expected. We set it up for 5:30 PM. Our Grand Deluxe room was located on the 29th floor. They tried to put us on the 30th floor but the non-smoking room there reeked of cigarette smoke – completely unacceptable.

As soon as we arrived in the room, I called SJ International Jewelers to arrange for their van to come for us at the hotel. Even though Jeane had been there last year, I specifically asked for Lily and mentioned “Kathie from Seattle”. They said they could be at the Penn in half an hour. We settled in a bit while we waited. Jeane went down to the hotel boutique to order some flowers to bring with us that evening. The SJ driver arrived for us at about 2:45. Traffic on Sathorn Bridge was already starting to get heavy. Jeane said she would need some time to get ready to go to Pook's place when we returned so I knew we were squeezed for time. Somehow we pulled it off, even though it was almost 3:30 when we arrived at SJ. Jeane did some speed shopping with Lily – fortunately she knew exactly what she wanted, having seen some things on her last visit. She bought a set of gold elephant earrings, a gold elephant encrusted with various small gemstones to hang on one of her necklaces, plus an unplanned purchase: an enamel frog earring and bracelet set (way to go, Lily).

I asked Lily if she could tell our driver that we wanted to dropped off at the Peninsula pier on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya River from the hotel – that would buy us an extra 15 minutes. We were back at the hotel by 4:30, giving us enough time for showers etc. before heading out again.

Dinner at Pook's was fabulous. He lives in a beautiful home in a gated community about 45 minutes outside of Bangkok towards Bang Pa In. While we missed Pook's wife who was out of town, his daughter prepared a feast for us. We were also joined by Pook's long time friend Terry. A very pleasant evening of great conversation and good company. We returned to the Penn with Terry and his driver. I think it was almost midnight before we got to bed.

We “slept in” until 7 AM and managed to get down for the Penn's fantastic buffet breakfast outside by the river by 9. It was already getting hot out as daytime temperatures had recently been exceeding 100F. Our meal was excellent as usual – the Penn always has crispy bacon which I had missed at the Metropole. We were on our way by 10, taking the Penn boat across the river to the Taksin skytrain station. We had a fairly light day planned – mostly shopping for home furnishings for Jeane's office at various skytrain stops. (Yes, I am a good sport.) Our first stop was the Promenade on Wireless Road north of Sukhumvit (Nana Station), a home decor mall oriented toward the diplomatic community in that area. She saw nothing worthwhile. We headed next to Narai Phand at it's new location beneath the Intercontinental (Chitlom Station) but found nothing. Last stop was Siam Paragon. We were amazed at the huge gourmet food store in the ground floor – if we lived here for any amount of time, this would be the place to buy our groceries – 2 liter bottles of EV olive oil, all kinds of teas (Jeane did purchase a few) and everything else under the sun at reasonable prices. We headed upstairs to look at the home furnishings on the 3rd and 4th floors. While we saw many very nice things, the prices were very, very high – US prices. Jeane did find some silk flowers, lotus blossoms that she had been looking for everywhere. She also picked up what she calls some “bling bling” shoes. Whatever...

So we finished up with that and caught the skytrain back to the hotel. Jeane wanted to purchase a spirit house and we had received an address from Bob and Karen (RHKKMK) where we could purchase one (I believe they found the place through Tong). We discussed our plan with the concierge at the Penn. While it would be no problem to take a taxi there, getting a spirit house home would be a challenge as they not only fragile, they are BIG. If we had lots of time we could have gone some place and had it packed and shipped but unfortunately after calling, the concierge informed us that this shop (and others nearby) would not provide these services for us.

So...we made dinner plans instead. We had heard great things about Kinnaree at Sukhumvit, Soi 8. We asked the concierge to make a reservation for when they opened at 6 PM. Since our limo to the airport was scheduled for 9:30, we got all of our things packed and ready to go as much as we could and headed downstairs to the Penn's shuttle to the skytrain at 5:15. Kinnaree was a fantastic Thai restaurant – good service, nice atmosphere, great food and not too pricey for Bangkok. On Soi 8, we passed by Adelphi Suites on the way to restaurant and paid homage to fellow Fodorite Carol, who would be arriving there a few hours later that evening.

Skytrain back to the hotel, showers and checkout. We took the Penn limo to the airport and enjoyed the personal service they provide in walking us through check-in etc. Once we were checked in on our ANA flights, we headed through immigration to the Thai Airways business class lounge that was closest to our gate. We slept solidly on the flight to Narita where we endured the 3-hour layover in an almost empty ANA lounge there. The long flight to Washington Dulles was uneventful – great service, good food, AVOD etc. At Dulles, immigration went smoothly. We had no problem at customs and redeposited our bags for transfer to Hartford. We went to the Red Carpet lounge but they would not admit us since we had arrived on a Star Alliance flight and not on United – I made a comment to the lounge caretaker about how inferior United was to any and all Asian airlines. I don't think he gave a sh--. No biggie – we only had about a half hour wait.

We boarded the United Express/Mesa Airlines plane. It was old and tired. There was little room even in business class for our stuff in the overhead compartments. It was obvious that Jeane would have to check something since she had lots of camera equipment. I was traveling light. Jeane ended up scrambling to rearrange things so that all of her camera stuff remained on board while one of her carry-ons was checked. The flight attendant for some reason, thought she could actually convince one of the passengers in the exit row to allow her to put one of Jeane's bags under the seat in front of them. It was no surprise to me that the FA was unsuccessful.

We arrived on time in the early afternoon at Bradley Airport, Hartford. Two of my bags didn't make it but came on the next flight and were delivered to our home later that evening.

All in all, a great trip. Please feel free to post questions.
Craig is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 05:28 AM
  #52  
 
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 6,664
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Here's a question-How could the Yankees spend over $400 million dollars for a third place team? Does CC Sabbathia weigh more than an offensive tackle? How the hell could you be refused entry to the lounge at dulles? This makes no sense.
Gpanda is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 05:54 AM
  #53  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 4,501
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Thanks, Craig. Great information.
Marija is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 06:02 AM
  #54  
 
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 4,466
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Brilliant report Craig and as previously said i have made loads of notes of places that sound just like our sort of thing in Hanoi when we are there in November. Thanks for all the really useful details, am REALLY looking forward to staying at the Metropole now!!
Smeagol is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 07:18 AM
  #55  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 3,408
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Craig, loved the report!

Did the Pen allow you a very late checkout on your 2nd day or did you have to book a second night? This will be our third stay with them as well, in July. I'm looking forward to it. Unfortuantely, we have an 8 AM flight on our last day, so no breakfast, and no late checkout.

It's too bad you couldn't buy a spirit house. I've wanted to do that too, but getting it home does pose a problem. Some of the smaller ones come apart I think. I saw them at the weekend market last time.
Kristina is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 08:40 AM
  #56  
 
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 6,664
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Kristina-on your last day, you may be able to get the Pen to pack you a box breakfast. No harm in asking.

Another question, will Joe Girardi be managing the Yankees for opening day 2010?
Gpanda is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 09:09 AM
  #57  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,396
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Sounds like a great time, Craig.

I did the same NRT-IAD-xxx trip on ANA, and they are a fantastic airline. The NRT-IAD flight was 10 minutes late, and ANA had an army of people reassuring people about their connecting flights. The bags were waiting when I got to the carousel -- all told, less than 25 minutes from the arriving aircraft parking at the gate until I had gone through customs & immigration and was in the terminal for my connecting flight. I can assure you that you missed <i>nothing</i> by not being admitted to the RCC.

Unfortunately, however, I must tell you that your eating bacon, no matter how crisp, at the Peninsula has given you swine flu.
DonTopaz is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 10:13 AM
  #58  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,897
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Kristina, We did book a second night at the Penn as that is the only way we could check out as late as we did. We did not have breakfast included in the rate for the second night.

Andy - a box breakfast would in no way compensate for missing the Penn's fabulous al fresco buffet by the Chao Phraya River. Of course, Red Sox fans whose world begins and ends at the ROS would not know that.

Don - if I had caught the swine flu from eating the Penns' crispy bacon, I'd still be stuck in quarantine at Narita. I was also very impressed with ANA's assistance at IAD.
Craig is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 10:18 AM
  #59  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 3,408
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
The first time we stayed there we also had an early departure. We asked for breakfast to be brought to the room instead. Simple continental, but nice to have as we were getting ready to leave. But Craig is right, it in no way compares to the fantasic spread they put out.
Kristina is offline  
Old May 3rd, 2009, 10:58 AM
  #60  
 
Join Date: Aug 2006
Posts: 1,747
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Hi Craig-I enjoyed reading your report. I have a question regarding your take on weather patterns in Vietnam. I want to do a tour of the country- at the very least Hanoi, Hoi An, Hue, and Saigon. I want to try to avoid rain and the high temperatures you alluded to during your last few days in VN. Do you think that Feb. would be a good month to do my itinerary or would March be better. I can see by April it would be too hot.
shelleyk is offline  

Thread Tools
Search this Thread

Contact Us - Manage Preferences Archive - Advertising - Cookie Policy - Privacy Statement - Your Privacy Choices -