Category Archives: Vietnam

A Visa question for Vietnam

I had some questions from Swedish readers about the Visa requirements to Vietnam. Straight from the Visa office mouth to you:

As a Swedish citizen, you must have a visa to enter Vietnam, if you plan to stay longer than 15 days. For stays of 15 days or less you need no visa but you must be able to present a ticket for departure on arrival to Vietnam.

All other citizens are required to get Vietnam entry visa before departure (Vietnam visa issued prior to departure by Vietnamese consulates or embassies) or a pre-approved Vietnam entry visa (visa is issued on arrival at Vietnam’s International Airports) supplied before arrival in Vietnam.

Since there are only a lucky bunch of us that do not need a Visa there might be some questions raised from inexperienced check-in staff at your departure airport. One time I got stuck in Bangkok for an hour while convincing the check-in staff that Swedes have a no Visa requirement. Only after several phone calls to colleagues did they let me through. Swedes do not need a Visa since we aided Vietnam during the war, or something like that. So go there, feel VIP at the border and enjoy Vietnam.

Halong Bay cruise review

Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage Site where some 3.000 islands create a picture perfect get-away in the Gulf Of Tonkin. The scenery is very romantic and your camera will snap many pictures during the cruise.

Sunset over Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

Your first contact with Halong Bay is with Tour Agents in Hanoi or other cities in Vietnam. The Tour Agents have themselves never visited Halong Bay or stayed at the accommodation they recommend. They purely base their opinion on commission and the information sent to them by the Cruise companies, hotels and resorts. The Tour Agent will show you several books with pictures of both cruise ships, accommodation and suggested itinerary. After careful screening and many questions to the Sinh Cafe Tour Agent we selected Asia Cruise 2 nights tour including an overnight stay at Monkey Island resort. We wanted to splurge so we opted for the $10 extra  Deluxe accommodation at the resort. The Superior bungalows, a downgrade from Deluxe, also looked great with large rooms and nice ocean views. We paid $94 for our package which included a $11 discount. All tours except for Hanoi Backpackers  ($130) are excluding drinks on the ship or in hotel/resort. They allow you to bring your own water, but soda or spirits will be confiscated or you must pay a surcharge (approx. 100.000 dong).  The average party-goer will spend 2 million dong per person and others 300.000 dong. The prices range from 50.000 dong for a cocktail, 35.000 for a beer and 25.000 for a soda. There is only one ATM in Cat Ba and you have to request a stop there. Its best to go to an ATM in Hanoi or Halong City before you depart.

At 8:30 am we where picked up by a tour representative at our Guest-house. Once on the bus we where informed that Asia Cruise was fully booked and we had been transferred to Hapro Travel. The representative ensured us that the ship was in the same condition as Asia cruise and our experience would be the same, or even better than the one we had paid for. We had no problems with this transfer as the ships seem to all look the same from the pictures we had seen at the Tour Agent. One thing we did ponder over was if we had actually ended up with the correct tour group since we had specifically requested a ‘No Party’ cruise (see party cruise here) and the people in our bus where already drinking Vodka from bottles. But early into our transfer to Halong City, where the ships depart, we where told that the party crowd where going on another ship. The party crowd went on the Asia Cruise ship that we initially booked. Make sure when you book that you do not end up on a party cruise, if you do not want to of course. Most cruises are geared towards the party crowd since they spend equal value  in spirits to that of the entire cost of the tour. We met a group of English girls on the day after their party cruise and they said it had been “a very, very messy cruise”.

Halong City is the gateway to Halong Bay with hundreds of ships waiting near shore for their tourists. The hotels in the area are high-rise, plain and empty.

Once on the ship we settled into our small but nice cabin. Dinner was served at 6 pm and we got acquainted with our fellow travellers. After dinner we did some squid fishing and sang Karaoke. At 10 pm the crew turned off the Karaoke and most guests went to their cabins.

Last song for the evening: Dreams with Fleetwood Mac. Did we do this song justice? Think not 🙂

The sea food dinner experience was average and the entertainment below average. If you do not eat sea food then request with the Tour Agent that you get other food. The squid fishing was more of a joke among participants as the crew stuck a long bamboo rod into our hands, pointed to the water and said “Squid”. The Squid fishing lasted in total 10 minutes as we all had a turn for 1 minute before happily giving up the bamboo rod. The Karaoke was an IKEA set-up where you make your own fun with the equipment provided. A smaller group stayed and sang favourite songs from the extensive selection provided. Our ship anchored in a bay together with  32 other ships for the overnight stay.

In the morning we where awaken at 7 am for a transfer to Cat Ba island and new adventures. In Lonely Planet Cat Ba island is described as “something straight out of Jurassic Park”. I am very sure that the author never visited Cat Ba as the island is more accurately described as “one long asphalt road connecting the other jetty”. Before we took off to ‘explore’ Cat Ba we had to wait for another group to join ours. When they did arrive, one hour late, it was the party crowd that we travelled with on the bus from Hanoi.

On the way to the other Jetty we stopped for hiking or biking near the Cat Ba National Park which was such a disappointment. We opted for the biking and where given very bad bikes near total breakdown. Most of the bikes did not have working breaks. With these bikes we cycled on one straight road, stopped, waited and turned around and cycled back on the same road. It is very unclear what the actually intention was with the biking. Maybe the Vietnamese believe that we do not have bicycles in our countries so cycling on the road, turning around and cycling back again satisfy our sense of adventure. The biking lasted for 1 hour and if you opted for the trekking they take you into to park for 1,5 hours. You where also given an option of visiting a cave which was used during the war as a hospital. For a quick walk into the cave you have to pay 20.000 dong. The entry fee is not included in the package.

From Cat Ba we where hurdled onto a smaller boat for our transfer to Monkey Island and its exclusive resort.

Monkey island resort is nothing like the pictures in the Tour Agents book or on their website. The pictures must have been taken more than 10 years ago and optimized by a Photoshop wizz-kid (see pictures on their website and compare to above). On Monkey island we went Kayaking, swimming and trekking to a nearby beach where we fed some monkeys. Monkey island is average for Vietnam standard and a dump compared to islands in Thailand. On the beach there is construction on both sides and a concrete sand-wall in the middle. The water was dark and murky with a funky smell.

The return journey to Halong City gave camera-trigger-happy travellers several opportunities for beautiful snaps of cliff formations. Its amazing what mother nature can do when we do not intervene.

Is the 2 night tour worth $94? No its not, but the most comfortable way of exploring Halong Bay is by package tour. How do you rate the accommodation? If you ignore words like ‘Deluxe’ or ‘Superior’ and just go with the word ‘room’ then you will not be disappointed. The room value is somewhere between $8-$12 per night and we give it 3/10. Are the ships in good shape and do the feel safe? The boats are average and provide basic accommodation (bed, cold shower). Safety is not really a concern since you are always surrounded by a minimum of 30 ships. If something goes wrong with the one you are on, its a 20-50 meter swim to another one. Is the information given by Tour Agents and Lonely Planet really that inaccurate? Yes, the information given is inaccurate. Keep this in mind when you book the tour so you do not get disappointed.

One of our Tour representative, Mr Ty, explained the Vietnamese view concerning ‘what you see at the Tour Agent you do not get’. The words “same, same but different” is a fun joke for tourists to have printed on their T-shirts but for the Vietnamese its serious words. They really mean it when they say “same, same but different”. For them a room is a room, deluxe or not deluxe. For them a ship is a ship and the name or standard of the ship is not important. When we book a tour and are shown pictures of accommodation and activities we take it to heart and are truly disappointed when these pictures are very far from the actual experience. The Vietnamese cannot understand our feelings since we were given accommodation, we sailed on a ship and cycled on mountain bikes. The lesson for all tourists is to enter into a Halong Bay journey with no expectations and treat every step as a naive child would. Then we can guarantee that you will have a great time.

Cruise ships in Halong Bay

Below you find the most popular Cruise Ships that sail in Halong Bay. I took the pictures during our Halong Bay journey.

Hanoi firar 1000 år

Hanoi är Vietnams andra största stad efter Saigon med 6,5 miljoner invånare och minst lika många motorcyklar. Från år 1010  till år 1802 var Hanoi den politiskt viktigaste staden i Vietnam. I oktober år 2010 firar Hanoi 1.000 år som stad med pompa, flaggor, uppträdanden och gatufest.

Vi hade tur att vara på plats under “1.000 nam thang long” invigning. Efter att vi checkat in tidigt på morgonen hos Hanoi Backpacker Hostel gick vi ned till sjön Hoan Kiem Lake för att gå en promenad. Väl vid sjön upptäckte vi att det var där alla festligheter ägde rum och vi hade kommit i tid till den officiella invigningen.

På kvällen utbröt kalabalik runt festivalområdet då över en halv miljon människor samlades. Det uppstod flaskhalsar runt några av scenerna där folk knuffades och slogs för att ta sig fram. Vi fick ta till flykt bakom en pissoar och gå en omväg runt festivalområdet för att undvika trängseln. Vi såg kvinnor som grät och män som försökte hålla folk borta från sina barn som klämdes.  Tyvärr fick kvällen ett tråkigt slut men vi är glada att vi fick vara med och fira stadens 1000 år.

Det gick inte att ta sig fram till uppvisningarna på scenerna då det var alldeles för mycket folk. Om man kunde önska något vore det att de kunde ha organiserat festivalområdet bättre. Kanske nästa gång de firar 2000 år så gör de rätt.

Top-five in South East Asia

It is very hard to come up with the perfect top-five as there are so many factors to consider. We decided to just go with our gut feeling as its based on first hand experience instead of conducting an empirical study. We will scribble down  some more top-fives as we go along.

Beaches

1. Koh Wai, Thailand – a gem in the Koh Chang archipelago.
2. Perhentian islands, Malaysia – truly white and powdery beach.
3. Pulau kapas, Malaysia – endless and empty it embraces the island.
4. Kuta Lombok, Indonesia – underdeveloped and pristine.
5. Nha Trang, Vietnam – a taste of Europe in Asia.

Shopping
1. Singapore –  both bargain prices and high-roller tags.
2. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – clean, organised and easy to find your way.
3. Bangkok, Thailand – bargain hunters Mecka.
4. Hoi An, Vietnam – dream for tailor shopping.
5. Phuket, Thailand – growing into a shopping princess.

Food
1. Singapore – from fast food to Asian delights.
2. Dalat, Vietnam – cheap but with expensive taste.
3. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – this city has it all.
4. Bangkok, Thailand – good mix of Asian and global foods is available.
5. Luang Prabang, Laos – charming eateries and French inspired food.

More top-five will be published soon.

A picture smörgåsbord from Vietnam