Vietnam & China
- Submitted by: Hans en Mirjam Damen
- Submission Date: 10th Feb 2005
Although US dollars are still widely accepted everywhere in Vietnam, it sometimes pays to pay in dong. Most museums will quote a price in dollars, but accept dong at 10.000 dong to the dollar. Given the exchange rate of 11.000 dong to the dollar this means a 10 % profit.
There are quite a lot pirated English books for sale, especially in Saigon at incredible low prices. The 1995 edition of the Lonely Planet guide sells for $ 6. We won't be surprised if this information is not publicised in the next (legitimate) edition.
It's no longer necessary to show the receipt of your travellers' cheques if you're changing money. Cashing them is a hassle-free five-minute operation.
Like almost anywhere in Asia, tourists are overcharged in Viet-nam. Therefore always bargain for everything, it will make your stay in Vietnam a lot cheaper.
Immigration at the airport is very efficient, provided you have brought an extra visa form and passport-size picture. Money can be changed in an open-air bank, 40 metres to the right just outside the exit of the arrival hall.
Sinh Cafe has an excellent one-day trip to the Mekong Delta. It costs $8 and even includes a packed lunch. Our guide had been working for the Americans around the end of the Vietnam War and had been unemployed for 20 years after a six-month tour in re-education camp. In one day he tried to make up for 20 years not speaking English, so we got 10 hours of lecturing on all aspects of Vietnamese life from the cradle tot the grave. Great guy!
The Sinh cafe open-end tour to Dalat-Nathrang-HoiAn-Hué is not good value at $35 as they use over 30 year old fifth-hand Chinese city buses. It's even worse value the other way around, because they leave out Dalat, as the city busses cannot make the steep ascend from Nathrang tot Dalat. Fortunately we only took the Saigon-Dalat-Nathrang leg and minibuses for the rest of the journey. Use minibuses and buy your souvenir T-shirt yourself.
There is a Baskins and Robbins ice-cream parlour on Tran Hung Dao Boulevard!
According to the survival kit the revolutionary museum used to have very good guides. Well, that probably was the case when entry was free and the guides depended on tips for their income. Nowadays you pay 20.000 dong and the eager guides have become bored civil servants.
The war crimes museum is far from objective and at some times nauseating. There is an excellent small Pho restaurant opposite its main entrance and we suggest that you take your breakfast before visiting the museum.
There's a well stocked supermarket at the first floor of the department store at Nguyen Trung Truc street.
Crime is on the increase in the streets of Saigon and we not only say so because a pick-pocket stole our camera. We spoke to lots of tourists who had things stolen, and foreign residents told us that it is a real plague. How about a group of twenty elderly French tourists who were stripped clean of all their bags by a gang of 25 boys only seconds after they left their hotel to go on a daytrip? We weren't to optimistic about filing a report (for the insurance) with the police, but that went excellent in a little police station on Ho Tung Mau street. We were helped by a friendly female police officer who had learned all the relevant questions by heart (no much feedback though) and a policeman even walked us to a shop to get us a copy of the report. It's probably possible to buy your stolen camera back at the Huyn Thuc Jang market just south from Le Loi street where it was stolen.
The Vieng Dong hotel has non aircon rooms for $ 12.
We did not encounter any problems with the authorities in Dalat. There are now more hotels allowed to accept foreign tourists. We paid $ 7 for a double in Cao Nguyen hotel at 90 Phan Ding Phung.
Motorcycles with driver are for rent at $ 6 a day. Make it absolutely clear that you've hired them for the day and that you are the one that decides where you want to go. Don't pay them before you're back at your hotel and if they want extra money during the trip, just walk away. Good, safe drivers though.
The sites in and around Dalat aren't so special and you can see them all in one day. After visiting the crazy monk we wondered who is crazy; the monk or the tourists. We won't discuss the quality of his paintings, but prices have gone up steeply. The monk asks now at least $ 10 for a small drawing. He is still a nice guy at the start of the meeting, but his attitude changes if you're not willing to pay the prices he asks. Even if only 10 % of the tourists fall for his sales pitch, than this means that the crazy monk is at least the richest monk in Vietnam and one of the richest inhabitants of Dalat.
Some prices: Bao Dai palace: 10.000 dong, Cam Li falls: 3000 dong (not worth it), Crazy House 3000 dong (funny!). Valley of love: 8000 dong (including insurance, For a quiet stroll you only have to pass the shops and walk 500 metres).
Just like Dalat, the accommodation situation in Nathrang has improved with a lot more hotels accepting foreigners. As we arrived in town just before the 30 April - 1 May holiday, it was a bit difficult to find a room. We found a superclean double with air-conditioning and hot water for $ 12 in the Huong Nam hotel at 13b1 Hoang Hoa Tham street. It's a very friendly family run operation that also books good value tours and minibuses.
The Cham towers are currently under reconstruction, but still nice to visit at 5000 dong. Try to plan your visit at a time when there's is not a cruise ship docking in Nathrang harbour. 700 American cruises descending on three small Cham towers is more than you can imagine. They make a good distraction for the 100 or so beggars also at the site.
From the back of the site of Cham towers you can see a shipyard about 500 meters upriver. It can be reached be leaving the Cham towers to the left. After 200 metres take the unpaved road to the left and find the shipyard by trial and error. It's a traditional operation with friendly staff that allow you to walk around and see everything. Please be polite, so this wharf will go on welcoming tourists.
The Mama-Hahn boat trip has become so popular, that they've chartered a second boat and sometimes over 60 people make the trip. We spoke to people who found so many people on the boat too crowded. We took a boattrip with South Sea Tours, not crowded, with good food and transport provided from and to our hotel.
We stayed in a large room in the Thien Trung hotel with airco and hot water for $ 13.
The Hoi-An tourist board sells a combination ticket that allows you to visit 4 sights from a collection of seven for $ 5. The Japanese bridge is included in the ticket, but can actually be visited for free, as it is on the public road.
A lot has already been said and written about the cafe des Amis. You choose between Fish and Vegetarian and that's the only choice you have. Le patron decides what you eat and after that his 10 year old waiters start bringing the great food, singing along with the French chansons from the worn-out taper ecorder. If after two nights and two great meals you decide to eat there for the third time, you are considered a special guest, and you get a whole duck for two persons.
Comparing the Cham ruins of My Son to the Borobodur in Indonesia is an insult to the latter one. We're not sure whether visiting the site is worth the cost of hiring transport to My Son (reckon about $ 6 per person) and the entrance fee of $ 5. Getting to the site from the river is easy, as the government has taken over the operation. You pay $5 for crossing the bamboo bridge over the river, the minibus to the ruins and the entrance fee. It's a great walk 2 mile walk from the bridge, but there are no discounts if you don't want to use the minibus.
The Morin hotel is currently under reconstruction until at least the beginning of 1997. The Le Loi Hue hotel has double rooms for $15 to $40 and very small single rooms for
The Hung Vuong hotel has double rooms with TV, airco and hot water for $ 10. The restaurant has good and cheap food. The hotel is also the agent for the Sinh cafe open end tour which is bad value at $ 35.
All the tombs around Hue cost a ridiculous $ 5 entrance fee. We heard from locals that tourists are actually avoiding the city or staying just a short time because of these steep prices. As there is no wall around Thieu Tri tomb, it can be visited for free and it doesn't differ much from the other tombs.
The road from Thieu Tri's to Tu Duc's tomb is bad, with a broken bridge about halfway. It can be conquered, but both halves are very steep. Take care!
The ambience at the restaurant on top of the Huong Giang hotel is great, the food is good, but we have serious doubts about the level of hygiene in the kitchen. We both had tremendous stomach trouble after eating there, which proves that in Asia it's best to see your food being cooked.
The cafe's opposite the Hung Vuong hotel rent bikes for 7000 dong a day.
A soft sleeper from Hue to Hanoi costs 48.000 dong. The railways don't want your dollars no more, but this is not the case for its employees, so they will happily sell you a ticket for $ 48. There are only 4 soft sleepers available for sale in Hue, so book in advance as far as possible. Buying a hard seat- or sleeper-ticket and bribing the staff on the train for an upgrade is no option, as most trains are booked out solid.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum closes at 10.30. Naturally there is no entrance fee, they only charge 4000 dong for guarding your bag. We personally are not sure whether the maintenance of uncle Ho is done by Russian experts or by experts of Madame Tussaud's.
Ambassadors' Pagoda was one of the temples in Vietnam we liked best. Very peaceful in the middle of city bustle, very friendly worshippers and a great assortment of temple 'souvenirs' for sale.
Hanoi's prisons are rapidly disappearing and being converted to high-rise officeblocks and hotels. The nicknamed Hanoi Hilton might actually become real!
The Lotus guesthouse has become too expensive at $ 12 for a small room without windows. We stayed in the Nam Phuong ll hotel at 26 Wha Chung. A nice double room with aircon and hot water costs $ 13. Next door from the Nam Phuong hotel there is a cultural centre with regular musical performances. We stumbled upon a very entertaining song contest and even had the honour to speak to the female singer who won the 'very most emotion' prize.
There is an excellent Com-Pho place on the north side of Hang Khai street between Na Chung and Le Thai To streets.
Don't do it yourself; take a trip. They cost as low as 20 dollar with some bargaining. We booked a two day / one night tour at the New Ton Dan guest-house, but it was organised by Queen Cafe. Good value at $ 23, clean room, good bus, two boattrips and cheap food provided.
From Hanoi to the border
Tickets to Lao Cai are sold at the foreign counter in the main railwaystation. The trains depart from the Hanoi 'B-station'. From the main station, walk north 350 metres, dan 70 metres east (left) and 70 metres south (left again). The daytrain (LC3) departs at 05.10 AM and arrives at Lao Cai at 16.00 PM. To get to the border hire one of the 200 motorcycle guys standing in front of the railwaystation (10.000 dong) or walk 3 kilometres down the road to the right. The border closes at 1700 PM Vietnamese - or 1800 AM Chinese time. Provided your visa states 'Lao Cai' as an exitpoint, crossing the border is hasslefree. If not, you pay $ 40. Your passport is stamped. You pay the customs 10.000 dong for a form and you pay another 10.000 dong to cross the bridge. Chinese immigration is amazingly friendly. We were invited into the immigration office and friendly asked to sit down and 'would you please fill in this form?' Less than four minutes later we were allowed into China and we never saw any customs. The bank of China in Hekou closes at 1600 PM, but you can change leftover dong in shops to the left of the immigration office. The hotel opposite the borderbridge changes cash US dollars.
Arriving back in China after a long time pissed me off a bit. Kunming has loads of expensive hotels, high-rise officeblocks, lots of cars, fancy dressed women; this was not China as I experienced it 11 years ago. After a couple of days my mood changed. Because of my experiences during my first visit I expected lots of red tape and nasty, uncooperative people and many hassles. It was nice to notice how the attitude of the Chinese people has changed (at least in Yunnan province). We met lots of nice people, who were very helpful even if they didn't speak one word of English. For example: we were brought to a busstation 20 minutes away, people sprinted 200 metres to catch a bus for us, we got free breakfast at a noodle stand and people we're very friendly almost everywhere. I liked the change.
The hotel opposite the borderbridge is quiet expensive at 240 Yuan for a single - and 360 Yuan for a double room. The Hekou hotel can be reached by walking up the street to the left from the bridge and taking the first (steep uphill) road to the right. The Hekou Hotel has rooms for 50, 60, 100 (aircon and hot water) and 150 Yuan.
Several trains leave Hekou for Kunming every day. There is a direct train at 13.20 PM (LC3), a hard sleeper (the only sleepers available) costs about 80 Yuan. The ticket window is open during four periods a day related to the departure of the trains. The trip to Kunming takes about 16 hours and the train passes through really magnificent scenery. To kill the time after dark: beer and reasonable food are for sale in the train's restaurant.
We arrived at 0600 hours in Kunming were brought to the Camelia hotel by taxi and had the traditional skirmish with the taxi driver. Even if you write the price down (which we did: 3 Yuan), you might get into a fight over the price (no, we are not going to pay you 30 Yuan).
The Camellia hotel has 'common' double rooms for 140 Yuan. The rooms are OK, but the beds are lousy; try some rooms (and beds) before you decide to stay there. The Yunnan Typical Food restaurant has good food (try their Sichuan-style pork: it's great). There are some nice sidewalk cafe's between the Typical restaurant and the Camelia that sell nice cold beer. Forget about draft beer; it's much more expensive than the bottled variety.
The Bamboo temple is a must-see (10Y), but forget about the golden temple. To many tourists, they charge 20 Yuan and after that you still have to pay to get into the separate building. If you go there anyhow: there is a nice botanic garden at the back of the premises, where they don't charge anything. Chichi park is as good as any other chinese landscaped park. Go there on a Sunday and watch parents spoil their one kid.
The Camellia hotel has straightforward trips by minibus to the Stone Forest for 40 Yuan. They start at 0800 PM, get to the park at 1100 and go back around 1430 PM. Entry to the park is another 33 Yuan. OK, the Stone Forest is a bit touristy, but should not be missed. Walk 200 metres past the chinese tourgroups and find yourself almost alone between the stone peaks. The scenery is amazing and gets even better once you climb up one of the peaks (not the official one with the tourgroups, but the one in the middle of the park without the railings). We thoroughly enjoyed the Forest and think it was one of the highlights of our visit to Yunnan.
We flew from Kunming to Lijiang for 330 Yuan and from Dali to Kunming for 300 Yuan. The airporttax was 50 Yuan in both cases. CAAC has changed to Yunnan Airlines and their office is no longer opposite the Yunnan Typical Food restaurant, but has moved a block south. Getting a ticket is pretty straightforward, there are some employees who know some English. Payment is cash-only. The airport bus still leaves from behind the old CAAC building and takes you to the airport in about 20 minutes for 2 Yuan. Silkair has flights from Kunming to Singapore twice weekly. The international departure tax is 90 Yuan.
All the hotels in Lijiang are under reconstruction following the earthquake in the beginning of 1996. It was difficult to find a room, but the Funshan, although under reconstruction, had some rooms left on the fifth floor for 170 Yuan. Hot water only from 7 to 11 PM.
We are not sure at what time the map of Lijiang in the travel survival kit was made, but we suspect that it was drawn after a couple of Xing Tao's. Just like Mao it's 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong. Speaking of Mao. Opposite his statue there's an excellent steamed dumplingstand. We ate good food at Mama Fu's and the Old Market cafe. In spite of a lot of stickers: the Old Market Cafe does not accept Diners Card.
We rented mountain bikes for 12 Yuan a day opposite the Mao statue. The ride uphill to Baisha is a bit heavy because of the thin air at 2400 metres. Fortunately it's downhill all the way back.
In Dali we stayed at the Red Camellia hotel a.k.a.qua the no 2 guest-house. They have dormbeds for 10 Yuan, doubles for 30 or 90 with shower and luxurious rooms for 180 Yuan. The no 1 guesthouse has rooms for 110, 2000 and 240 yuan. The Red Camellia has excellent mountainbikes for 10 Yuan a day. They are great to go biking through the paddy fields and to the lake.
On Mondays there is a (mini) tourbus to Shapin market for 13 yuan. The public minibus is 6 yuan one-way, so there's not much profit in taking either one. A taxi to the airport takes 40 minutes and costs 80 Yuan. No room for bargaining, as the plane leaves at 07.40 in the morning and there's no public transport at that time.