Vietnam 2016: Hanoi

After talking so much about Sapa, I probably should introduce you to Hanoi as well! What I really like about Hanoi is that it still exudes a rustic charm that can’t be found in cities like Ho Chi Minh City. From my observation, this is because Hanoi retains many practices and aspects of daily living from the good ole’ days, even as the rest of the world continues to transform into some futuristic, unrecognisable tech-y place.

Roadside vendors are everywhere! Some sell their goods on bikes, and for others simple on their shoulders. Most importantly, they continue to do this day after day even as Hanoi becomes popular with tourists.
Probably the most spontaneous pop-up barber store that I’ll ever see

Another attractive part about Hanoi is that it is generally safer than other parts of Vietnam because it is the centre of Vietnam’s politics and thus, laws and security are enforced tightly in this place and policemen are a common sight.

Getting around is also a breeze because all the attractions are walking distance (<30mins leisurely stroll) apart and if you feel tired, there’s trishaws/taxis/motorbikes which you can hitch a ride from! Personally I like to travel by foot to observe the happenings on the streets and to become part of the view for the roadside cafe-goers.

BUT one big problem is the TRAFFIC.

If the Singapore government were to take over Hanoi, believe me, COE prices would be HEFTY. In Hanoi (and perhaps the rest of Vietnam), motorbikes are EVERYWHERE on the roads and they’re also the beloved pet of every household. Going at only 1000USD for the cheapest Honda bike, they are ingrained in the lives of the Vietnamese. On the other hand, I was put off many a times because these bikes are seriously too close for comfort. They’re an arm’s length away be it you are innocuously…

Eating your Pho at a roadside stall;

Walking on the pedestrian path;

Shopping at the night market;

Or visiting a local park;


Honestly speaking, it ruined some parts of my experience because I’m not used to these potentially-lethal motor-vrooming machines flowing around me like a river. Thankfully I had no run-ins with them, but woah stressful man…

There isn’t any trick to crossing these roads – the bikers won’t hit you anyway. All you need is enough COURAGE and BALLZ to psycho yourself that you’ll be alive after crossing to the other side.
Constant road blocks: Parking for motorbikes occupy the whole pedestrian path.

The hub of Hanoi would definitely be its Old Quarter. Over here, you’d find many tourists-centered services and shops like travel agencies, restaurants with English menus, trendy bars and convenience stores, which are quite uncommon in Hanoi because most locals buy their provisions from local, family-run shops.

Old Quarter is also where most (if not all) tourists find their accommodation. There are many highly rated and affordable hotels available, and as a result the room rates are extremely competitive. I was super pleased to find that with a budget of 30USD per night, you could book a double room with good a/c, WiFi, nice breakfast, high standards of cleanliness and superb service. And if that isn’t cheap enough for you, a bed in a hostel’s dorm room only costs <5USD, which is simply crazy!

In total, we stayed had 3 full days, which is more than enough for most people but for us, it was just nice because my dad walks slightly slower and ALL businesses here close for lunch for AT LEAST one hour (usually 1100h-1330h). Their mandatory long lunch hours seriously annoyed my dad and me to no end because even the places of attractions were shut down during this period, leaving us with nothing to do. And because we start our day around 9+AM, we can only cover one attraction before they close for lunch, and another attraction in the afternoon after they reopen. It is debatable if this is considered as a part of their rustic charm…

* ALL businesses here close for lunch for AT LEAST one hour * 😦 

Now that you know where to stay, how to get about and most importantly, why you should visit Hanoi, let’s see what it offers!




Super delicious Wanton Mee and Super delicious BBQ


If you’re still reading till this point, congrats because I’m recommending some of my personal hunts. When in Hanoi, definitely try the Pho, Banh Mi (Vietnamese Bauguette), traditional spring rolls, awesome stir-fried noodles/rice and Vietnam coffee before leaving! Stalls selling these are aplenty!!! Case in point, you can easily find 2 different Banh Mi stalls 10m apart.

On the other hand, I’m recommending 2 stalls in particular which don’t sell these easily-available options and which are absolutely delicious! Throughout our stay, we kept going back for more.

Directions: Go to the Old City Gate and keep your eyes OPEN. (Both stalls are directly across the road from each other.)

Just look at the satisfaction on my dad’s face 🙂


Super delicious Wanton Mee (30,000VND/1.80SGD)

Operating from morning to night, this store was very popular with the locals. It serves soupy wanton mee that comes with generous servings of ingredients – chives, egg, prawn, fried wanton, fried pig skin, char siew. (Damn my mouth is watering!) The noodles are fine, silky and definitely not starchy while the soup has a delectable seafood taste yum yum!!!

RIGHT in front of the old city gate – you can’t miss this!


Super delicious BBQ (avg 20,000VND/1.2USD per stick)

Firstly, this is NOTHING like satay.

Satay: Thin pieces of meat marinated in cumin or something.

OLD CITY GATE BBQ: Generous servings of meat oozing with juice when your teeth sink into them. (Some are even wrapped with veg/mushroom and the skewers simply explode into heaven in your mouth OMG.)

Haha no offense to SG’s satay though, but this has won my heart over. Actually there are quite a few BBQ/grilled pork stalls in the Old Quarter but I really like this stall because it is clean, the order chit is in English, the prices are economical and the location is more peaceful and easily located. The food is also served with spicy chilli sauce and mint leaves. Best when accompanied with cool Saigon beer. DELICIOUS!!! (Opens at night only.)


Ho Chi Minh Museum, Vietnam Military History Museum, Hoa Lo Prison

(TBC… stay tuned :))



Vietnam 2016: Sapa (Day 2)

Day 2: 

Trekking at Muong Hoa Valley, Lao Chai, Tavan, Giang Ta Chai

First things first, if you’re on your own for the first time, it is best to hire a guide instead of being gungho about having an ‘adventure’. Google Maps is of little help and so, there probably isn’t any adventure to speak of in the end.

Before you set off, I’d recommend packing light and wearing sensible shoes. It rained the night before our trek, making the paths very muddy and slippery. Moreover, we had to walk in the rice field for stability during some parts of the journey and inevitably destroying our shoes with the mud HAHAHA! Many of the local guides wore/brought rainboots, which is pretty non-slip and easy to clean mud from. Personally I think that’s an excellent idea!

There are many online agents which may arrange tours for you and TripAdvisor forums would give you a good idea of recommended options. As for us, we booked a tour with the hotel for 300,000 VND (~15USD) that started from 9:30am to 3pm (ended at 3:30pm in actual).

The ‘actual’ Muong Hoa Valley which we saw. It is clouded by fog from the rain sighs…

A minibus fetched us from our hotel and we met ~10 other travellers who were mostly westerners except for a Taiwanese family of 4. We were dropped off at Lao Chai, and began our descent into the valley. Everything was smooth for the first few kilometers of trekking as we were walking by the roadside. On the way, our guide also showed us the weaver and corn grinder used by the locals. And a few hours later, we settled outside a hut for lunch, which comprise of rice and 3 dishes. It was yummy and restful…plus we exchanged our travel experiences with our groupmates from other countries. 🙂 If only we knew what was about to come later! 😛

We started out with a comfortable trek and could take in the scenery and take photos at our leisurely pace. As mentioned in earlier posts, harvest already ended so we didn’t see the golden rice field as expected.
Hmongs dominate this part of Sapa and this tour was led by one official paid rep + many unpaid, unofficial calefares who helped us along as well and later sold us their crafts

After lunch was…simply outta the world for me! >< I have never done such ‘mountain’/’dirty’ trekking before, where the paths appear over the years under the footsteps of many people who needed to cross the mountains. Like I mentioned before, the conditions were not ideal because of the rain. Even so, some parts required us to cross streams, cut through bamboo forests and walk along the edges of the rice terraces…which was extremely challenging for me and a greater obstacle for my dad who is XXXL sized and wore his old shoes to Vietnam. #OHDEAR

The type of terrain that we trekked through in the afternoon
Some parts of the rice terraces had really really narrow edges so I had no choice but to walk in the rice field to keep my balance haha

Thankfully, the ‘calefares’ shone during the difficult parts and did their best to assist everyday in overcoming any difficulties. Personally, I feel that even though there is an another for their helpfulness, there were still ‘sacrifices’ made on their part to help us and without them, the guide alone wouldn’t have been able to keep the whole group together. So I felt somewhat contented to repay their kindness and help with my patronage for their crafts. A very fair exchange, I’d think, but some of our group mates felt otherwise and refused to budge under the persuasion…


Vietnam 2016: Sapa (Day 1)

So after getting to Sapa safely owing to my recommendations on this blog, what should you do there? NO WORRIES! Auntie Low (aka Photoggirlxuan) is here to provide more info. (Btw if ‘Xuan’ means ‘spring’ in Vietnamese, should I change my URL to ‘photoggirlspring‘ for the sake of these posts? hahaha)

Personally, I found Sapa very hard to plan because there isn’t a definitive guide to tell you where and how to go to Sapa’s main attractions. I got most of my information from online forums and blogs; and even so, it is difficult to solidify my plans before reaching Sapa. An analogy: imagine a friend recommended you to go Chek Jawa and it is your first time hearing of it. Perhaps you wouldn’t know that it is found on Pulau Ubin, and by the time you did, you’d be confused on how to get there (well, bus + ferry + bike = complicated). Only after you find yourself in Chek Jawa would you roughly know what is the point of this attraction.

So in my post, I’ll try my best to describe my experience! 😀

Fried bamboo rice is a must-try in Sapa!

Day 1:

Ham Rong (Dragon Mountain), Love and Silver Waterfalls

By the time we reached Phuong Nam hotel, it was around 8:30am. I chose this place to stay for our next 2 nights because it is in the middle of Sapa centre (just like most of the popular hotels) and boasts a terrace with fascinating views. Sadly to say, that pretty much sums up its plus points… I felt that it isn’t as good as what reviewers claim it is.

Tourists, including us, flocked to this hotel and in mornings and evenings, the front desk was packed with travellers who required the attention of the counter staff (at most 2 at any time). Hence, I felt that the staff weren’t approachable wrt my questions as they were swarmed with other guests. (TIP: Choosing a hotel which boasts good service is better than another with great mountain views. This is because the hotel’s service is very, very important to help you plan your journey.) They give you information on what to see, how to get there, how to plan your whole stay in Sapa and book additional services for you. Unlike Hanoi, there are few travel agencies and online tourist information available. Moreover, this hotel did not let us bathe or check in early after reaching Sapa even though their reviewers said they did… Hmmmmm…

Amazing views from the hotel

Disappointed that we were not  entertained by the staff, we left shortly in search for breakfast near Sapa’s Notre Dame cathedral, which was built in 1895. A Sunday mass was in procession and it was so full that many church-goers simply stood outside their doors to participate in the procession. As compared many churches in Europe, it was humble and simple in design. Nonetheless, I was really impressed by the religious Catholics in the past who put in so much effort to spread their religion everywhere, even to the minorities living in inaccessible, mountainous areas. I imagine the standard of infrastructure more than a century ago would have posed many challenges to build a cathedral in the middle of Sapa’s current tourism hub. Today, many of these tribes people are Catholic, owing to the dedication of their past colonial rulers.

Breakfast was simple – we tasted Sapa’s famous bamboo rice and rice rolls filled with pork and mushroom for the first time. With our tummies filled, we headed to Ham Rong, whose entrance is 0.5km walk away from the cathedral. Walk down a road named after the mountain and up a flight of stairs; there you’ll reach the ticket counter! Each entry costs 70,000VND.

Hmong girls attending service outside the Notre Dame Cathedral
Attractions in Ham Rong

Ham Rong was teeming with local tourists by the time we arrived. There were Vietnamese couples, families, groups of friends, school tours etc…obviously this place was very popular with the locals! Some of their ladies even rented the traditional costumes of the ethnic groups to wear and take photos in. Surprisingly, we spotted very few foreigners like us…perhaps because most travellers prefer ‘less touristy’ and more adventurous places, hmmm.

Trekking up the mountain was very comfortable and the whole journey was literally a walk in the park! Throughout the whole trail we were greeted by many flowers and views of the surrounding mountains. At the later parts, we saw many huge rock formations that formed the ‘Heaven Gate’ and finally when we arrived at attraction #21 ‘Golf clouds’ (LOL), we saw… (was it heaven?)

A bird’s eye view of Sapa centre, the mountain base where we admired its many flowers, and the radio tower (extreme left)

All in all, although Ham Rong doesn’t offer what many came to Sapa for, it is definitely worth a visit simply because not everyday needs to be risky and muddy, right? Haha! (Tip: Visit Ham Rong when you’re too tired to do any more intense trekking.)

After lunch, I had planned to go ‘Muong Hoa Valley‘, which was said to look like this:

The promised views!

Unfortunately, if you directly typed its name into Google Maps, you’ll be led instead to a travel agency of the same name…-.- So we mistakenly went there only to find ourselves still in Sapa centre, surrounded by hotels and eateries. Later, I used Tripadvisor’s location but ended up in another part of Sapa centre zzz. Quickly, I went to ask a nearby hotel for advice and the friendly receptionist told us fluently everything we needed to know about the Sapa in 15 minutes. She was a saviour to us and I could see why she had the luxury of time – her hotel wasn’t as busy as ours! It looked really nice from the outside, even though it probably didn’t offer fantastic views because it wasn’t facing the mountains. To do her a favour, the hotel is ‘Sapa Elegance Hotel‘.

SO… It turns out that ‘Muong Hoa Valley’ runs through the homes of a few ethnic communities which we planned to visit on our 2nd day. With what’s left of the afternoon, we decided to book a taxi for 400,000VND to visit the Love and Silver waterfalls.

After a 30min uphill ride and a short stop along the highway to take photos, we arrived at Love Waterfall. (Tip: Don’t bother walking to visit these places – they’re really far away. Pay special attention to this tip because a group of ang-mohs staying at my hotel were adamant about trekking to these waterfalls. Good luck mates!)

Like other attractions, we paid an entrance fee and took a scenic trek (around 15 minutes) before reaching the base of the waterfall. Another 10 minutes later, we saw the main waterfall, which is nothing quite like what I’ve seen before. The Love Waterfall is really tall! Fine, silvery streams of water glaze over lush green moss covering the rocks…adding glitter to the original land formation.

Love Waterfall
Soaking our feets and taking in deep breaths at the waterfall’s base 🙂

In total, we spent 1.5h here. Next, we visited Silver Waterfall which costs 20,000VND to enter. To reach the best viewing spot, there is no paths to trek along and it is accessible by a flight of stairs at the side of the entrance. Thus, we only spent 30 minutes here.

The Silver Waterfall reminds me of a desktop water fountain fixture because the water flows from one level to another. It is also taller and more majestic than the Love Waterfall.

See the stream cascading down from one level to another?

And that concluded our half day trip to view these waterfalls. According to the kind hotel staff mentioned earlier, she told us to complete our sightseeing with the following: Muong Hoa Valley/Lao Chai/Tavan, Cat Cat village, Fanxipan mountain and Fanxipan Legend (a new cablecar). Which did we go in the end? Read on to find out!



Vietnam 2016: Sapa (Intro)


is home to a great diversity of ethnic minorities.

is the attraction of my dreams which I had long wanted to go.

is the proof that modern people who haven’t found a harmonious relationship with nature may not be more advanced after all.

Red Dzao women of the Dzao tribe leading us along in Ta Phin village. Without their guidance, we’d be ignorant of the marvels which stretches ahead of us.

First of all, with regards to duration of staying there, 3d2n is sufficient – neither too long nor short. (Actually 2d1n could cut it as well without rushing at all, but since the train journey getting to there is already so long, why not make the trip more worthwhile?)

Secondly, as stated before, Choose your period of visiting wisely. Definitely don’t go in winter (Nov/Dec/Jan?) because it is freezing and snowy. The locals stay indoors to keep warm and according to them, it is very dreary and many of their farm animals, sadly, die of cold. 😦 So if you want to trek ‘snow capped mountains’, think again – most likely any activity will be kept to a minimum.

March to May is good for viewing lush green rice terraces but it would be warm and humid. Which is why I feel that September is an ideal visiting period because it offers both good views and weather for you to enjoy the experience. That being said, our local guide suggested July because it rains very often and you’d catch sights of the tribes people farming on the rice terraces and even join them in their work! Take note though – it will be extremely muddy and slippery when it rains.

Our trekking guide (a 22 year old Hmong tribeswoman) letting us try raw sticky rice. The rice terraces are supposed to be filled with golden harvest as seen in the background during September.

One more important thing is choosing your mode of transport. Overnight trains are by far the most popular option and prices range 28USD to 40USD per way depending on 1) Which service provider you choose and 2) Which third party site did you procure your tickets from. For us, we chose King Express, which is one of the cheaper available options. I did not want to choose a higher tier option because I felt that there isn’t significantly better quality that more expensive services provide.

And by the way, all these services are operating different carriages of the same train, which means that the service providers are only limited in determining the quality of the cabin, but not the experience of the journey.

After choosing the service, I had to buy my tickets from an online seller. I found that many tourist-friendly websites offer hefty prices…but truth be told, they make the user experience very reliable, comfortable and easily-navigable. In the end I went with VD Travel, which is a Vietnam-based travel company that had the cheapest price available for King Express. The downside is that their website is much simpler and does not provide customer testimonials. Additionally, there was zero reviews on the internet except one Google review from a Malaysian account. I was extremely dubious at first, but thankfully the manager provided his Skype account for us to chat and I felt more at ease booking through them.

One really long train with different cabins operated by separate companies

Although less conventional, the payment was made through a 3rd party payment service (eg. PayPal) called OnePay and I was praying that whole time that I wasn’t falling into a scam. In the end, everything turned out fine – we got our tickets and the package even included pick-up service from our hotel to the Hanoi railway station. We also ordered our airport transfer (2 way) from them because their price was much, much lower than what is offered by hotels and than the usual airport taxis.

As I found the seller to be trustworthy and efficient, I’d highly recommend approaching him for your Sapa needs (hahaha)…

You can contact VD travel here:

Besides from booking online, you may buy tickets at the train station (not advisable as the sellers do not speak a word of English), through your hotel staff, from the many travel agents in Hanoi’s old quarters or (from what I’ve heard…) at the airport. It is advisable to book early as the tickets get sold out quickly during peak season. From my observation, the trains were indeed, quite full.

As mentioned earlier, there are other modes of reaching Sapa.

  1. Day train: Make your 8h journey in the day to take in the views along the way (although I wouldn’t think there’s really spectacular views to be seen heh)
  2. Overnight bus: From online forums, I realised most people are concerned about safety because it is believed that the drivers are usually overworked and tired. However, if safety is guaranteed, I think this is a good option as the trains tend to be rocky and unsteady for most parts of the journey, making sleep on the overnight trains elusive. This is option is cheaper as well.

We arrived at Lao Cai train station on time at 6:25am. (Many online reviews also concur that the trains in Vietnam leave and arrive quite punctually, so be at least an hour early for your departure to avoid disappointments!) Upon exiting the station (or to be more precise, exiting the train), we were ‘welcomed’ by a throng of taxi drivers offering taxi transfer to Sapa. (Oh yes, btw the train does not go to Sapa directly but it is ~1h drive away from the Lao Cai terminal.)

Thankfully, we booked (or rather I did) the hotel’s mini-bus transfer service for 50,000VND (~2USD) and it dropped us off at our hotel directly. If not, you may opt for the public bus (painted in yellow, red and white) in front of Thien Hai Hotel, which is only around 100m away from the Lao Cai station. It charges only 20,000VND per way but from online reviews, I gathered that it is squeezy and the bus drivers sometimes drive too quickly on the winding mountain roads. That being said, it is still a cheap, popular and reliable option amongst travellers. The bus comes at every 30 minutes intervals.

Scenery along the way to break the *yawns* dullness of this very-long post. First impression of this place: it reminds me of Cambodia

Of course, you may still opt for private taxi hires; afterall, there is aplenty of them waiting for you at the station. The prices are still reasonable although marginally higher. Just be careful not to fall for the MINIBUS SCAM!

I think that it is unfortunate that because of these black sheeps, Vietnam has been dubbed as ‘Viet-Scam’ but victims of these con-men…. :/ So watch out my friends!

Vietnam 2016 (Prelude)

While my circle of friends probably know by now that I like to chronicle my travels through FB photo albums, blogging on the other hand, is something new. I wanted to write about this trip even before going because the planning was NOT straightforward and I had to do a lot of research to decide on the best arrangements. Therefore, I have also gathered a wealth of travel information for Hanoi and Sapa which I’d like to share. Hope you find this helpful!

I remember gathering my first impressions of Vietnam from @dreachong’s Instagram posts of her Sapa trip. Sapa is a mountainous area in Northern Vietnam and the first thing I thought when I saw her photos was, “OH MY GOD this is so beautiful I have to get there some day!” Within the next few days, a photog friend of mine had returned from Vietnam and also recommnded me to visit Sapa. Since then, Vietnam has been on my bucket list. And since it was close to home, the idea was a feasible one. However, for every single break in year 1 and 2 of uni, I couldn’t find travel buddies until…

Fast forward to October 2016, a one week break was around the corner and I was panicking because it seemed like yet another opportunity to visit Vietnam has been wasted due to lack of company… This is despite appealing to both my Facebook and Instagram followers… T^T At the last minute, my dad agreed to go with me and I am eternally grateful to him!!!

It is both our first visit to Vietnam and we’re both thrilled because my family hasn’t taken a trip this year. Furthermore, October is an ideal time to visit Vietnam for several reasons.

  1. It is an off-peak season and prices are generally lower.
  2. The weather is not too warm, unlike in summer where it can reach above 40 degrees. I can imagine how that’d make sipping coffee by the roadside an extremely unpleasant experience. Thankfully in October (which is also autumn), we could do so comfortably without breaking into sweat.
  3. If you are lucky, harvest in Sapa may not have taken place yet and you could be treated to sights of golden rice terraces. (Unfortunately, we were too late and I’d advise you to go instead in September – this is also according to out local guide. This is despite many sites stating that early October still offers golden scenery – not true!)
See lah, everything cut finish liao…

Unfortunately, the cheapest and most convenient carrier, Vietnam Airlines, had sold all its economy tickets for the date which we wanted to travel on. >< In the end, we took Jetstar and had to transfer between the international and domestic terminals at Ho Chi Minh’s Airport. Due to this stopover (2h+), our trip became twice as long (3h vs 6h) and the total amount was more expensive as well… (260+SGD vs 320+SGD) T^T

Lesson learnt: book your tickets early! p.s. Vietnam Airlines fly from Singapore to many Vietnam cities directly

Transferring from HCM to Hanoi

Outline of our trip: 1 night in Hanoi – 1 night onboard King Express – 2 nights in Sapa – 1 night onboard King Express – 2 nights in Hanoi. It was 8d7n in total, with 2 nights spent on the overnight train between Hanoi and Sapa.

Reflecting on the trip, we would have done ourselves (including our pockets) a favour if we went and also booked everything earlier. However, we were already working with whatever precious pre-trip time was left so I guess it couldn’t be helped. There are some short take-aways from this trip which I’d like to share as well:


  1. Seeing how the tribes people of Sapa live in the mountains for their whole lives suddenly made me feel that what I’m currently doing is so insignificant as compared to these people who only know their traditions and the seasons for their whole entirety… I can’t draw a clear link as to why I had this realisation out of the blue… Perhaps it is because their humble acceptance and commitment to whatever fate has handed them is extremely admirable, shadowing our relatively superficial pursuits…

    While we worry over faulty MRT and getting good grades, these ladies worry about overcoming natural roadblocks and making a livelihood
  2. Vietnam’s history: I’m ashamed to say that I would hardly have known about how Vietnam became a communist country/fought with America/was led by HCM (aka Uncle Ho) before visiting Vietnam. Thankfully we selected a few museums to go during this trip and I really learnt a lot about Vietnam’s past, which I must say is extremely interesting. While Singapore turned from a fishing village to a modern city, Vietnam is a story of how an impoverished colonised country fought their own battle to be freed from bigger powers like France and US.

    Do you know why HCM did for Vietnam?
  3. If Vietnam was a city in Singapore – I kept wondering how Hanoi and Sapa would have become very different if they were as open and pragmatic as our country. As I was chatting with a local, I learnt that the Vietnamese prize peace and safety of their people and nation above all else, including the speed-bumps that hinder their development (such as corruption and air pollution). Although this would mean the Vietnam’s economic progress and SOL may be hampered in the next few years, I appreciate the way things are now; for example, how unlicensed road side stores can operate anywhere along the roads and how COE is not (yet) implemented despite the crazy traffic and bad air quality.


Read on…!