Hanoi

Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam. The city was established more than 1,000 years ago (on October 10, 2010, it celebrated its 1,000th anniversary), and over the years had been an important political city in Vietnam. In the 19th century during the Nguyen Dinasty, the capital was moved to Hue, but in the 20th century Hanoi served as the capital of French Indochina, then the capital of North Vietnam, and now the capital of Vietnam. Today Hanoi is one of the major ports of entry into Vietnam and it’s the second largest city in population. It’s a popular destination among tourists visiting Vietnam especially for those wanting to learn about the rich culture and history of the city and to taste some of the best street foods you can find in the world (the popular noodle soup dish phở is perhaps the most famous dish thought to originate from Hanoi).

We visited Hanoi twice during our trip to Southeast Asia at the bookends of our visit to Vietnam. Since we only had one week allocated for visiting Vietnam during this trip, we decided to spend it in the northern part of the country (since Kristi had been to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and we didn’t have time to go to the central part of the country). We arrived in Hanoi in a flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia, and then spent several days in Sapa near the border of China, and in Ha Long Bay at the coast east of Hanoi. We went through Hanoi during the transit, and spent some time before and after the trips to these other areas.

It was winter time when we came to visit Hanoi in December, so the temperature was roughly in the 50s and 60s F when we were there. It was quite pleasant to walk around with light jacket on.

We stayed mostly in the Old Quarter part of Hanoi, and for the most part of our stay there we walked to the places nearby that we wanted to visit.

The photo below was taken near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum that we visited on our first full day in Vietnam. This monument commemorated the 1,000th anniversary of the establishment of the city of Hanoi. It’s quite impressive to think of how old this city is.

1,000th birthday

Good Morning, Vietnam

After the flight delay at the Siem Reap International Airport, we finally left on our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. We arrived in Hanoi more than two hours after the scheduled arrival time. It was pretty late in the evening by then, so it did not take long for us to get through immigration and wait for our luggage. I had requested a pickup service through the hotel where we’re staying in the Old Quarter part of Hanoi. I was a little worried that because our flight was delayed we would miss the pickup. However, thankfully the driver actually patiently waited for us, and we were able to locate him when we exited the airport.

The drive from the Hanoi Noi Bai Airport to the Old Quarter took about twenty minutes or so. Hanoi seemed quite more modern than Phnom Penh, but not as developed as Bangkok. When we got closer to the Old Quarter we saw what we read in the guidebooks: narrow streets and very dense areas. It was weekend evening, so there were still quite a lot of activities out on the street.

When we arrived at our hotel, the Hanoi Serenity Hotel, we were welcomed by the young lady at the front desk that doubled up as the concierge and also a tour business. She gave us our room assignment, and it was on the fifth floor of the building. There was no elevator to go up, so she had one of the hotel staff members helped us with our luggage to go to our room. Originally we were planning on at least getting a dinner at a restaurant in Hanoi for that night. But it was close to 11 pm by the time we settled in our room, and since we’re not even familiar with the area near the hotel and we had a long day following, we decided to just call it a night.

In the morning, we got up pretty early, and we went down to the ground floor to a breakfast area at the back of the hotel. There they had complimentary breakfast made fresh to order. We looked at the menu, and I ordered scrambled eggs and bacon. The breakfast items were pretty much like what I expected, though it was served with a baguette. Similar to Cambodia, some of the French colony influences remained in the culture, including the use of baguette for sandwiches or as part of a meal. The baguette in Vietnam seemed to be lighter and more airy than the French baguette I had elsewhere.

Along with the meal, we could also make our own coffee serving. This became the favorite way to start the day for Kristi and me… making a nice cup of hot Vietnamese coffee mixed with condensed milk (cà phê sữa nóng). After the nice meal and coffee, we’re ready to start our day exploring Hanoi. Technically we were checking out from our room that morning as we would be going to Sapa that night, but the lady at the hotel front desk was nice enough to allow us to leave our luggages in our room, and she said they would bring those down to the ground floor and store them for us while we went out and about in the city, and we could just pick up the luggages before we leave in the evening.

Here was the nice breakfast I had that morning, the scrambled eggs, bacon, and baguette.

Breakfast

Traveling Business Class

After our visit to the Bakong temple outside Siem Reap, our tour guide Vanna and driver Hour took us to the Siem Reap International Airport to catch our continuing flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. For this leg of the trip, we decided to fly Vietnam Airlines as they were the only airline that flew direct from Siem Reap to Hanoi. Our other options for that day were either flying AirAsia with transit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Bangkok Airways with transit in Bangkok, Thailand. Both options would essentially require us to leave early in the morning and travel the whole day, and we would risk getting stranded if for whatever reason we couldn’t make the connecting flight. So we didn’t want to take a chance, and decided to go with the Vietnam Airlines option. For that day, there were two flights we could consider, and we decided to take the earlier flight so we could get to Hanoi earlier in the evening, and also to have a fall back option in case there is anything wrong with the scheduled flight. When we booked the flight, we found out that the only seats available were in business class. We decided to go with those even though obviously they were pricier than the economy class, as the business class price was still within our budget and making the schedule was important to us given what we had planned the next few days in Vietnam.

When we arrived at the Siem Reap International Airport, the check in process was quite smooth and nice as we could go through the business class line. When we got to the counter, however, we found out that our flight was delayed by at least an hour. Not a good news to hear, but since we’re flying business class, we were given vouchers that would allow us access to use the Executive Lounge at the Siem Reap International Airport to wait for our flight.

Another thing we learned at check in time was that there was a USD $25 airport tax per person that we had to pay to depart from Siem Reap. We had that taken care of by the time we reached the security check area, but we had to wait for few minutes as a group of Japanese tourists that were in front of us reached the front of the line and found out about the airport tax there. Since they didn’t know before hand, they tried to argue with the officer at the security checkpoint to no avail. Fortunately we were not in a big hurry as our flight was delayed anyway, so waiting for the argument to finish didn’t have any negative impact to our plan.

We went to the Executive Lounge, and it was pretty nice to relax there and waited for our flight. They had complimentary snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and drinks available for the guests, and the seating area was quite comfortable as well.

We ended up spending more than two hours there until our flight was finally ready to go. Ironically the other Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi ended up leaving within ten minutes to our flight’s departure time.

The actual flight to Hanoi was about two hours, and it was quite a pleasant flight. We had a nice light dinner on the way there; it was pretty good but nothing especially memorable; they served westernized dish with some touch of Vietnamese/Asian flavors, clearly considering the typical western travelers who go on this particular route.

The photo below was taken while we were waiting at the Executive Lounge for our flight. You can see the nice ambience inside the Executive Lounge. I guess this was what we ended up paying extra for.

Executive Lounge

Wealth Equals Happiness?

While waiting at the foot of the Bakong temple when my cousin Kristi went up to the top of the towers, I had an interesting discussion with our tour guide Vanna. He asked me at one point about my background, and I told him about growing up in Indonesia but then continuing my education and now living in the United States. He said I must be very fortunate and it must be ‘living the dream.’ He also said that it must be nice living in a wealthy country like the United States as you don’t have to deal with the poverty like in Cambodia. That when I told him that while I certainly agree that I feel blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to get to where I am today, life in the United States may not be as ‘nice’ as it might seem to be to those looking from the outside. It has its own set of problems.

I told Vanna about some contemporary issues that we’re dealing with in the United States. I live in the area of the country that was ranked highest in the list of counties in the United States based on the median household income (in comparison, that number is almost 40 times the average annual income of people in Cambodia). On the surface, it’s a very nice area with many single-family homes, well manicured lawns, nice cars on the street, and people seemed ‘happy.’ But the reality is that a lot of the people here are living beyond their means, and their under heavy debt to finance such nice living. About 1 in every 1,000 homes in the area received foreclosure notice in the last year (and Virginia is actually not doing as bad as many other states in the US like California or Nevada). When I asked Vanna if he’s ever heard of the term foreclosure, I drew a blank stare. Even after I explained the concept of people borrowing money from the bank to purchase a home, and then if they couldn’t pay up, the bank would reposess the home, that idea was such a foreign concept to him that he was very surprised to hear that such ‘wealthy people’ would be in financial trouble like that. I also told him about one of the executives of a large company that manages the home mortgages committing suicide after being under heavy stress on the job. Also, the fact that there are so many broken homes in the United States — divorced parents, the concept of ‘blended family’ with the step parents/children/sibling — a lot of things that was foreign concept in Cambodia. Basically, my point was that even in ‘wealthy country’ like the United States, there are problems, and simply making more money does not really make it problem free — just different kinds of problems.

So what was the point of all of these? I think it shows that sometimes we think ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ and seeing life is better elsewhere. After seeing the difficult life that they live in Cambodia as they are rebuilding from the years of civil war, I can’t fault them for wanting to have what others elsewhere in the world have. However, it’s important also to think that having the material riches does not make life trouble free, and there are also other things in life that contributes to the sense of happiness like the relationships one have, the belief that one has about the meaning of life, etc. In fact I thought it’s interesting to hear frequent comments from visitors to Cambodia about coming to the ‘land of smiles’ where they seem to be greeted with friendly faces everywhere in the country, even when meeting people who may not have much materially. You don’t hear that kind of comment from people visiting to a ‘powerhouse’ city like New York City, for example (in fact my initial impression of New Yorkers from the first business trips I made there was that they are very cold, individualistic, and it didn’t seem to be a friendly place to be around).

As a visitor who is fortunate to have the means to be able to travel and visit places like Cambodia, my lesson learned is to appreciate the gift of life that I have and be grateful of the circumstance I’m in (even though at times life is also challenging/difficult even when you have things materially). I think it’s also important to not be a snob, feeling entitled, and looking down at the locals who may not have as much materially. These folks may have other things that we don’t have (for example, a closer-knit family, or wisdom and contentment that come from perseverance through hard times), and in general I think we should respect the people we’re visiting as we’re merely guests at their home. Also when considering such difference between the income level there and where we come from, I think we should be generous especially when we’ve been provided with great service. And sometimes the gratuity does not have to come in the form of money — it can be in the form of souvenirs/keepsakes from our home country, or even just simply doing something nice for those who serve you, like inviting them for a meal during your trip. You’ll make wonderful friendship (and memories) that way.

The photo below was taken by Kristi from the top of the Bakong temple tower. You could see some locals — looked like they’re female monks — coming to the temple as a group to worship. It’s probably a good example of something rich that they have (culturally, spiritually) that you may not see in other places where the emphasis is more on material things.

Worshipper at Bakong

Bakong

Bakong is another temple in the Roluos area near Siem Reap, Cambodia. This temple was the first temple built with a temple mountain design (where the temple has tower(s) that symbolizes Mount Meru in Hindu mythology). This design was then used in constructing many of the temples in the later era in the city of Angkor, including the famous Angkor Wat. Another aspect of the design is to have a moat around the temple complex, symbolizing the ocean surrounding Mount Meru.

Today Bakong is still used for worship. There is a working monastery on the grounds of the temple. When we visited the temple, unlike other temples we visited, we actually saw more locals coming to worship than tourists coming for sightseeing.

This was the last temple we visited, and by that time in the afternoon, I was already pretty tired and I didn’t really feel like climbing the steps up to the top of the temple tower. So I decided to just wait down there with our tour guide Vanna while Kristi went up to see the scenery from up there.

The photo below was taken on the way into the temple complex, after we passed the bridge crossing the moat. You can see the tall temple tower in the distance, and the shape of the tower is similar to what you can find at the Angkor temples like Angkor Wat.

Bakong