Exploring Hanoi on Foot

When you’re visiting a city, one of the considerations you need to make when planning your trip is how you’re planning to get around when you are there. This is especially important when you have only limited amount of time to spend in one city (as often the case with those who can only take short time for vacation and need to make the most from their time off). Reading guide books, especially those with city-specific information is really helpful in determining the best mode of transportation. There are some cities Los Angeles, CA, or Dallas, TX, where everything is so spread out and there is not really any convenient public transportation to take you anywhere, in which case the best way to get around is to rent a car. On the other hand, you have places like New York City or Boston, MA, where there is good public transportation in the city and in fact it’s actually inconvenient and very expensive to drive, in that case the combination of using public transportation (like a subway train or bus) and walking would be your best bet. Then there are places like Washington, DC, that’s somewhat in between; if you happen to be in the city center, you can use public transportation and walking, but if you need to go to the suburbs, you would need to drive as the public transportation is not as extensive. The key is to now your destinations and plan out how to get from place to place ahead of time.

Before visiting Hanoi, Vietnam, I read about the city, particularly the area where we were going to spend most of our time there, the Old Quarter. What I learned was that the place was quite compact and with its narrow streets, the best way to get around especially for the short distance is on foot. The locals ride scooters; perhaps something to try by intrepid travelers but may not be recommended especially if you’re not used to riding in a somewhat chaotic environment. There are taxis around that you can take if you’re too tired to walk or the distance is a bit far away. But from our experience riding taxis several times in Hanoi, unfortunately I didn’t really have much good things to say about the experience.

Another important thing to do when planning a visit to a city with limited time is to map out the route you will take to go from place to place when you’re in the city. This way you can determine the most efficient route to take so you don’t end up spending more time getting from place to the other than the actual visit to the places. One thing I found helpful was to use Google Map to find places on the city map, and then get a general sense of how far or close the places are. Surprisingly Google Map today can be used to find landmarks in many places around the world, including Hanoi. So prior to our visit, I already had a high-level picture in my mind about the route we will take when we’re in Hanoi.

Once you get to the destination city, another helpful source to consult is your hotel’s concierge or front desk. You can get them to confirm that the route you would take for the day is indeed a good way to go, or else recommend different route or way to get to the places you want to visit. When we were in Bangkok, Hanoi, and Singapore, the hotels where we stayed at also had complimentary city maps that you can request. The maps that we were given by our hotels were quite helpful as they specifically had mark on the map where the hotel was located, so you can use that as the starting and ending points of your travel.

The photo below was taken as we walked in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. You could see here how narrow the streets were, and how pedestrians, motorcycles, and cars had to share the narrow street to navigate. In this case, you could see someone with a BMW SUV (in itself it was interested to note in Hanoi — it must be the sign of prosperity coming to this country) trying to navigate the streets of Old Quarter Hanoi. I’m not sure I would do that myself.

Street in the Old Quarter

Derleng Tours

Derleng Tours is a local tour company in Cambodia based out of Siem Reap. We found out about Derleng when we were about to book a room at the Kool Hotel for our stay in Siem Reap. They had an option for a three day, two nights package that included the lodging at the Kool Hotel and private tour guide and car touring the Siem Reap/Angkor area. I was very impressed and thankful for the excellent service they provided during our visit to Cambodia. Below is an excerpt of what I wrote about them in my review on TripAdvisor — the least I could do to thank them.

During the planning stage few months before the trip, I contacted Derleng Tours via email. They were very responsive and helpful in arranging our trip. When I also asked for information regarding transportation and tour guide for Phnom Penh, they responded with a customized package that included the transportation in Phnom Penh added. What I appreciate was that they gave us the option for a tour guide as we requested, but actually recommended that we wouldn’t take up that option. The reason was because their primary operation was in Siem Reap, and they didn’t have tour guide that they could recommend for in Phnom Penh. If we had insisted to get a tour guide, they could arrange one to come from Siem Reap to guide us in Phnom Penh, but the guide wouldn’t be as knowledgeable about Phnom Penh that they didn’t want to risk not meeting our expectations. I found this very customer focused, and gave the feeling that they’re looking out for our best interests and not trying to take advantage of the situation to up sell their service.

The drivers we had in Phnom Penh were very courteous and knew their way around. We had a little mishap during the start of our full day trip in Phnom Penh, but Derleng folks managed to resolve it when we called them very early in the morning. The day ended up to be memorable, and we had lunch with our driver that was a unique experience in itself.

Derleng also helped us arrange our transportation from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We had wanted to travel by bus and I also asked if they could arrange our transit from the hotel to the bus station in Phnom Penh and from the bus station to hotel in Siem Reap. They responded with an offer to arrange the whole travel (I think pretty much at cost). They also suggested that we would go by van rather than bus; pretty much same pricing, but typically faster because vans are more nimble than buses in navigating the highway traffic. Again, they gave us the suggestion without being pushy, and we took up their suggestion (this was the experience I wrote about in several posts last week about the trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap).

The Siem Reap part of the trip was organized and executed flawlessly. Our tour guide, Chea Vanna, was very friendly and knowledgeable about the places we visited during our three-day stay in Siem Reap. I particularly enjoyed having discussions with him learning about Cambodian culture and what life is like there, and sharing about American and Indonesia culture and life in comparison. By the end of the three day excursion, we pretty much considered him and our driver as our new friends, more than just our tour guide and driver.

In the end, we had a wonderful experience visiting Cambodia, and Derleng Tours had a big part in making our trip smooth and memorable. I definitely would recommend them to anyone planning on going to Cambodia.

The photo below was taken on New Year’s morning at Angkor Wat. It was me, Kristi, and our guide Vanna.

New Year's morning at Angkor Wat

Transportation to Siem Reap

After visiting Phnom Penh, the next destination in our Southeast Asia trip was Siem Reap, another area in Cambodia where Angkor Wat and other temples are located. To travel from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, we considered several transportation options. The first option was to fly. This would be the fastest way to get there, but it’s also the most expensive, and there wasn’t much to experience on the way there. The second option was to take a boat. This was an intriguing option to consider, as it would definitely be a new experience for us. You could also see some village life on the river banks along the way. The cost was much cheaper than the airfare. However, some people who had traveled this route said being on the boat for four hours could get boring after a while, and the boats were not necessarily the most comfortable environment to be for that long of period. That brought us to consider the third option, traveling by land. This was the typical option taken by locals as it’s the cheapest and there were many options of operators to consider. Some travelers recommended this option because it also allows the travelers to mingle with locals, and you get to see countryside scenery along the way. There was also a stop in the middle so you could stretch and rest for a little bit before continuing the journey. It took around four hours to drive to Siem Reap, so time-wise it’s roughly the same as taking a boat.

Once we decided to travel overland to Siem Reap, then we had to decide which travel operator to use. We could either hire a private car, ride a passenger van, or ride a bus. The private car option was obviously the most expensive, and you get the whole car for yourself. It’s nice, but we wouldn’t get to mingle with locals as much. So we initially thought we would go by bus, as some of them had pretty extensive schedule, and supposedly they had restrooms on board, and even attendants. In the end, we ended up going with a passenger van as recommended by our tour company. They said the cost of going by bus was roughly the same as going by passenger van. The difference was that passenger vans typically end up traveling faster because they are smaller and nimbler than the buses.

The photo below was taken during our van ride to Siem Reap. You can see in front of us another van / minibus going the same direction — that particular one had full cargo that included two motorbikes.

Travel to Siem Reap

Incheon

I would consider myself a seasoned traveler since I traveled very frequently for my old job. At least that was the case within the United States. Even when visiting new cities in the US, the routine was typically the same: finding the baggage claim / ground transportation area, getting to the car rental place, and following GPS or printed map to get to my destination. Well, when you’re traveling internationally, it’s completely a different story. Faced with an unfamiliar protocol / routine in a different culture with its own language / script, and I felt like a rookie traveler again.

When I landed at Incheon after the first leg of my trip between Washington, DC, and Jakarta, all I knew from my itinerary was that I had a 22-hour layover before my next leg of the trip, and I was going to get a hotel room for the night. After what seemed like a scavenger hunt to find the Korean Air staff who had the hotel assignments, I found myself in a little minivan with three other passengers being driven off the airport to a nearby area called the Airport Town Square. We were dropped off at our designated hotel, Hotel June. The driver spoke very little English, and motioned us to go to the hotel receptionist desk. Fortunately the receptionist spoke English pretty well, and explained to me and the other passengers about our meal coupons that we could use for dinner that night and breakfast and lunch on the following day, all served at the hotel’s restaurant. Apparently there is shuttle bus going to the airport every so often, so depending on when our next flight was, we could tell them which one to go on.

When I got to my hotel room, it was yet another new experience. I had a Platinum Elite status with Marriott Rewards at that time since I stayed so much time on the road at Marriott hotels in the United States, so you would think I could easily adjust and make myself home at any hotel room. Here, I was like someone discovering a hotel room for the first time. It started with learning how to use the room key as the main switch to turn on electricity in the room. Then more discovery on how things work in the room: figuring out the light switch with labels in Korean, using the sophisticated toilet and shower in the bathroom, and using a PC with Microsoft Windows with Korean language/encoding and Korean keyboard to browse the Web. It was very much unlike anything I had ever seen in any hotel in the United States.

I also ventured outside the hotel to walk around the neighborhood. The area was full of transit hotels like Hotel June, and there were many restaurants around. I like Korean food, and there were many of those places that looked like they had really good food, but I was deterred by the fear of not being able to communicate, especially after seeing the signs and menus all in Korean with very little, if any, English translation. And I didn’t know how much things typically cost, so I was worried that I might get ripped off if I didn’t know what to expect. But simply wandering around the neighborhood several blocks from the hotel was a good experience to observe a new culture.

The photo below was taken during the night walk through the neighborhood. Note that there was practically no English on any of the signs.

Incheon Airport Town Square

Korean Air

The first part of my long trip from Washington, DC, to Jakarta was a 14-hour flight from DC to Seoul. Looking back and thinking about what I remembered about the experience made me think of some things that make me look forward to experiencing an international flight (in comparison to typical domestic, shorter distance flights).

When you think of international flights, two things that come to mind are typically the long distance and the time it takes to complete the flight. As such, the obvious emphasis from the airline perspective is to ensure that the flight is as comfortable and enjoyable as possible for the passengers. This means wider seats, longer leg room, selections of in-flight entertainment, and good food/refreshments. Very different than shorter distance flight where typically the passengers care more about getting to the destination as fast as possible, and the airlines try to maximize the load and have expedient turnaround.

Another aspect with international flights that sometimes become the differentiator for the airlines is the cultural/national influence of the carrier’s country of origin. For some of them, the airline and the service it provides represent their country/culture, so they would take it seriously and serve with pride (I don’t think you would see this from any of the US-based carriers). For me personally, this aspect I think makes a big difference between a flight experience that is simply good to the one that is memorable. I think my first flight experience on Korean Air was an example of that.

The first impression on the aircraft was good with modern, clean, and spacious cabin of their Boeing 777. The boarding process was efficient, the flight attendants were welcoming with smiles, and as the result the passengers seemed to be happy to start their journey. Then there was the Audio Video On Demand (AVOD) system, which has the job of occupying the passengers mind during the flight to make the long flight seems to pass quicker. It did a good job for me, as I was able to find a couple of movies I had not seen, and found all kinds of music from various Asian countries to listen to.

Then there was the food. On a 14-hour flight, we went through some snacks and several meals. So there were several occasions where they needed to provide good variety of food that the passengers would enjoy. With Korean Air (and similarly, with some other Asian carriers), they would provide options for either western-style menu or Korean-style menu. This is to address both the westerners who don’t really care for trying Korean food and also the Korean nationals and others who actually are looking forward to having their national dishes. I think this part was one of the highlights of these international flights, as you get to try something that’s unusual for American experience.

Lastly, another factor that may make an international flight memorable are the passengers themselves. Depending on the flight route, you can expect different demographics making up the list of passengers. For example, going from DC to Seoul, you can expect to find a majority of the passengers being Koreans who are going to their home country. It was interesting to people watch and see how people from different cultures behave.

I took the photo below just before we took off. There were two mothers traveling in this long flight with their young children. They were given the bulkhead seats as the Korean Air flight provided the bassinet to place their little children in so they’re comfortable during the flight. These two little kids did very well during the flight and didn’t cry or got upset at all. And they made for a fun source of entertainment from watching them play and make facial expressions.

Little kids in Korean Air flight