Hanoi Serenity Hotel

Hanoi Serenity Hotel is a hotel in the Old Quarter area of Hanoi, Vietnam. We stayed there on two separate nights, the first night upon arrival in Vietnam, and the last night before we left Vietnam. We found the hotel on TripAdvisor and booked the rooms online via Expedia.

A couple of days before our arrival, I contacted the hotel via email to arrange a pickup service from the airport. They responded in timely manner, and we didn’t have any problem meeting our driver even though our flight to Hanoi was delayed more than two hours.

The hotel building was laid out similar to most buildings in Hanoi Old Quarter area, very narrow, deep, and tall. This resulted in an interesting layout where to get to the rooms you would have to take the stairs up – not too bad if your room happens to be close to ground floor (our first room was on third floor), but it could be quite an exercise if your room is on the upper floors (our second room was on the sixth floor). This should be a consideration especially if you have little children or anyone who might have problem taking the stairs, since there was no elevator available.

On the ground floor, the hotel had a small breakfast area where every morning complimentary cook-to-order breakfast was served. You could get typical western-style breakfast fare like scrambled eggs, ham, and bacon served with a Vietnamese-style baguette. They also served fresh fruits and Vietnamese-style coffee (with condensed milk if you prefer).

The lady at the front desk was very helpful during our stay. She helped us providing directions to places we wanted to visit (they had complimentary map of the Old Quarter area — very helpful during our walking excursion in the area). She also allowed us to leave our packed luggage in our room for the day even technically we were already checked out. This allowed us to do sightseeing around the city without having to lug our luggage around. The front desk also served as concierge that could help guests arrange trips in and around Hanoi. We didn’t use their service other than for transportation from/to the airport, but many other guests seemed to do so.

The hotel room was pretty spacious, clean, and comfortable. There was Wi-Fi connectivity available, though the connection was a bit spotty at times.

The photo below was taken in front of the hotel. You can see the tall but skinny hotel building that is quite common to see in Hanoi.

Hanoi Serenity Hotel

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

Using Cash in Hanoi

One of the considerations you must make when traveling to a foreign country is how much cash you’re going to carry with you, and in what currency. On one hand, having cash in the right currency handy with you allows you the convenience of being able to make purchases especially at the places where banks or foreign exchange places are not easily found. On the other hand, carrying cash with you is somewhat risky because if somehow you lose them, there is pretty much no way you could trace and get them back.

In the United States, I usually have a small amount of cash with me wherever I go, though in most cases I use credit card to pay for purchases. Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere, including in store in small towns. For me, not only it’s convenient and provide some protection in the event I lose the credit card, but also it helps me to keep track of my spending as those purchases will show up on the following month’s credit card statement.

When traveling to Vietnam, however, we knew that even though we have our credit cards with us for places that may accept them, we also carried a reasonable amount of cash with us because we knew that very likely we would like to make small purchases at street vendors and we would also go to a couple of places outside Hanoi where the likelihood of finding banks or foreign exchange places would be very small. We figured it would be easier to get Vietnamese Dong in Indonesia than in the United States, so Kristi was in charge of getting that taken care of prior to our trip.

After breakfast at the hotel, we started our first full day in Hanoi with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Complex. From looking at the city map, the location seemed a little too far to reach on foot from our hotel, so we decided to take a taxi to go there. We asked the lady at the hotel front desk about getting a taxi and also about the estimate pricing to go to the Ho Chi Minh complex. She told us the rough amount she thought it would cost us to get there. We had enough cash in hand for that, so we thought it wouldn’t be a problem. I also obtained a city map from the hotel that I thought would be useful especially later on in the day when we expected to walk around in the Old Quarter area of Hanoi.

The taxi cab we ordered arrived, and the driver understood some English and got it right away when we said we wanted to go to the Ho Chi Minh Complex. As we drove there, I tried to follow our route on the map. And this was when it started to go somewhat wrong — at least I thought it was.. The route that the cab driver took to go there seemed to be a ‘scenic route’ — i.e., not the most straightforward route to get to the destination. I like to think may be there were road closings or detours that he had to take, or may be he wanted us to see parts of Hanoi that are nice for tourists to see (we did drive past the Hotel Metropole, one of the nicest places one could stay in Hanoi, along the way), but I think he took us through that route so he could run up the meter.

When we finally arrived at the Ho Chi Minh Complex, the taxi driver stopped near an entrance (we were not even sure that it was the right one where we should be going to enter the complex). He seemed to be illegally stopping, so he kind of rushed us to pay and get off the taxi. Kristi pulled out the cash for paying the cab driver, but since this was our first spending in Hanoi, all she had was a large bill. The cab driver shook his head and said he didn’t have any change. Since we’re in a rush, and we didn’t want to have to spend yet more time dealing with this situation, we decided to just let him keep the change (I think that was like more than 30% tip for the already more expensive than expected trip). In the grand scheme of things, fortunately it was not a very large amount when we converted to the US dollars, but it still left a bad taste from our first visit to Hanoi.

The lesson learned from this experience was that you should be prepared not only with some cash in local currency, but also with various denominations on the cash at hand including some small notes.

The photo below was taken at the Ho Chi Minh complex on our way out of the complex. Similar to many tourist attractions elsewhere, they had a refreshment area where visitors could get foods and drinks. This would be one of those places where having cash, especially the small notes, could become handy. This particular stand sold the Vietnamese version of hot dogs — looks like they also had grilled meat on a bun, though from the picture on the card it looked like it’s pork instead of beef.

Hot dog stand

Safety Issues

When visiting a foreign country, one thing to consider is the issue of personal safety. Prior to our trip to Cambodia, I did some readings on the safety issue for visitors there, and tried to be knowledgeable and prepared. One important thing to get prior to an international travel like this is a travel insurance, which for a reasonable price could cover potential cost in the event of emergencies (like health issues, theft, etc.). I think regardless where you go, that should be something you should have for your peace of mind.

Specifically on Cambodia, some concerns/risks typically mentioned are: crime (especially in big cities like Phnom Penh), malaria (in rural areas), and landmines (leftover from the war time, but still present especially in rural areas). For us, we were not worried about malaria as we’re only visiting for a few days, and we’re mostly in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The landmines risk was not a concern either as we’re traveling with tour guide and on well-traveled path (not going to the jungle on our own). As for crime, I wasn’t too worried initially, but I did have quite expensive photographic equipment in my backpack that might be of a risk for theft. One of the guidebooks I read even said to be careful carrying expensive camera in Phnom Penh as there had been reports of people getting their camera snatched by people on motorbike while walking on the sidewalk.

I asked our tour guide Vanna about that, whether we need to worry about theft. Vanna said that he thought Siem Reap area in general was a safe place to be; we need not worry about getting mugged or anything like that. He said generally when things were lost, people were pretty honest and items were found or returned, though if you have cash in a wallet, for example, those might not be recoverable.

I didn’t think much about this, until after our trip to Banteay Srei. After we visited the temple, we stopped near the public restroom area as Kristi needed to use the restroom. Vanna and I waited for her outside, and we had pretty good discussions about some things. After Kristi was done, we went to our van to continue our day trip. We had been driving away for about 15 minutes or so when I realized that I didn’t have my DSLR with me. I looked around my seat in the van, and couldn’t locate it. So we immediately took a U turn and rushed back to Banteay Srei. The restroom area was the last place I remembered having the camera with me.

When we reached Banteay Srei, Vanna and I ran to the restroom area, and when we got there we saw a local Cambodian family holding my camera, and trying to figure out who the owner of it was. I went to them and use hand gestures to told them that it’s mine, and then showed them a couple of photos on the camera that had my photo on it to prove that it was mine. I thanked them for keeping the camera, and we left Banteay Srei to continue our trip.

Vanna said that I was very fortunate that we got back in time to retrieve the camera, and that there were these honest people there who ‘kept’ the camera until the time we came and retrieved it almost half an hour after we left there. Afterwards, I thought about the whole situation, and I wondered how I would’ve felt had I lost my camera. Though obviously there would be the monetary lost — the lens on the camera was more expensive than everything else I carried during that trip combined — I think what I would’ve lost even more were the shots I had in the memory card that couldn’t be replaced. So I would agree with Vanna — I was very fortunate — and it also taught me some lessons: 1) always back up your memory cards, 2) you should have travel insurance in case the unfortunate event happened to you, 3) if you’re not careful with your belongings, you can lose it, no matter where you are, and 4) there are honest people everywhere and don’t have stereotype or assumption that because you’re going to a developing country, people are after your expensive belongings.

The photo below was taken that morning at Banteay Srei as we entered the temple. The crowd size was still pretty reasonable in the morning — there were more people coming later in the day.

Crowd at Banteay Srei

Getting Around Angkor

One consideration you need to make when planning a visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia, is how you will get around the area during your visit. With around 400 square kilometres with many points of interests to visit, you need to plan out your transportation option ahead of time to make the best use of your time there.

Since there is no lodging option available within the Park, most visitors stay in one of the lodging options in the city of Siem Reap (about six kilometres south of Angkor Wat). You can find transportation options quite easily in the city. Travelers typically visit the temples either by buses for large tour groups, or by vans, cars, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, or bicycles for independent travelers. What you need to consider is the distance of your travel/route, the cost, the time you have, and the weather conditions. If you’re going to one of the remote temples, you may want to make sure that you have a way to get back or go to your next destination (i.e., it may not be easy to get public transportation from there). Also, depending on the time of the day or the season of the year when you’re traveling, it might be very hot during the middle of the day or it might be raining. And negotiating transportation for the whole day may be cheaper than getting transportation from point to point.

For our visit to Siem Reap, we had a tour company arrange our transportation, so we had a driver with air-conditioned van and a tour guide ready for our day trips there. Even then, we had to make plan adjustment on the first day. Initially, we were thinking of ‘going healthy’ and spend our first afternoon touring the area in bicycles. Sounded like a good idea, until we found out the reality that afternoon that a) we were pretty tired after our trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in the morning, and b) it was hot and humid outside. Our tour guide suggested that we went by air-conditioned van instead, though if we still insisted to go by bicycle, he was ready for that too. We followed his advice, and that turned out to be the right thing to do. We were able to spend more time at Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng that afternoon, and reserved our energy for a longer day trip the following day. Our driver also had a cooler full of cold bottled water, which was very nice to have especially as we walked around the temple area in the heat of the day.

The photo below was taken from our van on our second day as we’re about to enter Angkor Thom. You can see some modes of transportation that others took: by tuk-tuk, on foot, by bicycle, and — in some areas — on an elephant.

Angkor transportation

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

The Kool Hotel

The Kool Hotel is a boutique hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, area located about 15-minute drive from downtown Siem Reap. We picked this hotel as our place to stay based on the reviews on TripAdvisor. We ended up booking our stay as part of a tour package arranged with Derleng Tours (which was located at The Kool Hotel itself).

The hotel is located on a quiet residential street off the main highway in Siem Reap. It’s far enough that you can enjoy quiet retreat if you need a break from the activities in and around the town, but close enough that you can get to the the market / Pub street area within minutes on the complimentary shuttle van or by tuk-tuk.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were welcomed by the front desk staff, and as our room was being prepared, we were served cool and refreshing pandan-infused ice tea, and warm towels to refresh ourselves after a long trip from Phnom Penh. We were escorted to our room not long after that. The room was nice and clean, though we found ours a bit small in size. But since we spent most of the time out and about, this wasn’t issue.

We also went to the on-site restaurant for lunch. It was pretty nice. They served both Khmer and western dishes. The food was quite tasty, and the staff was attentive. Near the restaurant area, there was a swimming pool. We didn’t use the facility, but during the day time we saw families with kids enjoying the pool.

The photo below was taken just outside or room. You can see the nice shade outside the rooms with trees and landscaping around. It provided nice oasis especially after you go out in the sun during the day.

The Kool Hotel