By: Ed Uy
PHOTOS by Rose Razon, courtesy of Cebu Pacific Air
AS I did my daily morning routine of half a sit-up, two reps of jumping jacks and thought of breakfast while brushing my teeth, I glanced out the window to marvel at the scenic view of the city, made even more picturesque by the thin fog and slight drizzle.
It was then that it began to sink in—after 35 long years of planning, visa denials and postponed trips, I was finally spending my first morning outside the Philippines.
I wanted to open the window and shout “Good Morning Vietnam!” in my most Robin Willams-esque voice, when I realized that aside from a few Hollywood movies, Miss Saigon and Pho Hoa, I knew very little about the country where I was going to spend the next three days.
But before entering GMG (Google-Mo-Geek) mode, I went to the first mandatory site every Pinoy traveler visits—Facebook—which, unfortunately (as confirmed later) was not accessible in Vietnam.
I felt a sudden panic as I raced down the hotel café, but was thankfully pacified by the delicious buffet spread and the warm “Gwood Mwoning” greeting of the staff.
When I first received the invitation to join a select group of lifestyle writers to cover the inaugural flight of Cebu Pacific’s new Manila-Hanoi-Manila route, I was honestly a bit hesitant.
My perception of Hanoi was an old rustic city, damaged by several wars, surrounded by myths, and would just look like a cross between Intramuros and Corregidor. I had always imagined my first trip to be somewhere grand like New York or Paris, or more modern like Singapore or Hong Kong, instead of a historical and cultural tour.
Headed by its president and chief executive Lance Gokongwei, Cebu Pacific underscored the importance of its latest twice-weekly direct service, as he led a contingent of media, Philippine and Vietnam tourism officials, and several other dignitaries that included President Benigno Aquino 3rd sisters Balsy, Pinky and Viel Aquino on the maiden flight.
“This step reinforces our commitment to continue expanding the largest Philippine national flag carrier’s reach in the Asia-Pacific region, and promote air travel to destinations not previously easily accessible to our passengers,” said Gokongwei during a short ceremony held at the departure area in Terminal 3 on March 17.
|Extreme Book Reading
Gokongwei added, “The addition of Hanoi to our international network means that we will now be able to cater to the air travel needs of a broader Filipino and Vietnamese market. Cebu Pacific becomes the only Philippine carrier to serve both the northern and southern areas of Vietnam, providing more access for Vietnamese residents to enjoy the shopping, eco-adventure and entertainment attractions the Philippines has to offer. This will also open more avenues for business collaboration as well as trade and investment opportunities,
“We are proud to be a catalyst for tourism boost and the growth of air travel through our trademark budget fares that usher more Filipinos to travel for the first time. The country is now more accessible to foreigners because of the budget flights. Our vision is to assure the public that low cost airfare will continue no matter where we fly.”
|Social Networking Hanoi style
When the media had the chance to interview Philippine Ambassador to Vietnam Jerril Santos, he expressed his belief that the new route will spur cultural and tourist exchange between the Philippines and Vietnam.
“The OFW [overseas Filipino workers] profile in Vietnam is very good,” Santos stated with pride. “There are only about 5,000 Filipinos working in Vietnam, most of them are teachers or hold managerial positions in industries like hotel and restaurant and construction,” he revealed.
“Jollibee has over 20 branches in Vietnam and more than 50 Filipino companies have begun investing here like San Miguel, Universal Robina Corp. and United Pharma,” he also shared.
“Of that number only around 200 Filipinos are living in Hanoi,” he added. “But they like it here because the economy is stable. It’s a nice, beautiful country. They can learn a thing or two from us, and us from them. It’s mutual.”
Dr. Nguyen Van Tinh, Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism director general, also expressed his optimism with the development saying it gives “Vietnamese people a chance to find out why it is more fun in the Philippines and at the same time, for more Filipinos to taste Vietnamese food, coffee and culture.
“Vietnam and the Philippines have a lot of similarities not only in history but also in culture. There is a lot of potential we can develop in between our countries—from security, to economics, politics and tourism. The new route will further develop our relationship. I hope that one day, there would be everyday flights from Manila to Hanoi and vice versa.”
Our Hanoian tour operator Ngo Tach Lam also expressed his excitement saying the Philippines presents a fresh new destination for Vietnamese people looking for new places to visit.
With the Facebook issue now suppressed by the morning buffet, I was in for another surprise as I asked for the dollar to Vietnamese Dông (VND) exchange rate. Given that $1 is about VND20,000 (or P1 = VND500); and using my mathematical prowess of asking someone else to compute, I readied my bag for several bundles of cash when I pulled out my crisp $100.
So I was a bit disappointed when I was just handed four VND500,000 bills, still being a millionaire was overwhelming thought. If you ever want to feel what’s it like to be a millionaire, keep in mind that Hanoi is just two hours away.
Citadel sightings and temple runs
As we began our tour, Lam, our guide, gave us a brief background of the city and each of the historical places we were about to visit.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the country’s second largest city.
Lam says its name literally means the “city inside the river.” The city celebrated its 1,000 year founding anniversary in October 2010 and “city of lakes” and has become a thriving metropolis with a French colonial soul. It is a cultural center littered with pagodas, temples and historic monuments, and has been included as one of Frommer’s Top Destinations.
Among its lakes, the most famous are Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake, Halais Lake (H? Thi?n Quang in Vietnamese) and Bay Mau Lake.
Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as Sword Lake, is the historical and cultural center of Hanoi, and is linked to the legend of the magic sword. According to legends, Emperor Lê Lôi handed a magic sword called Heaven’s Will, which helped him win his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty, back to the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) in the lake. It is also where the lake derives its present name, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword,” replacing its former name of Luc Thuy, or “Green Water.”
The West Lake or (H? Tây) is a freshwater lake in the center of Hanoi. It is the largest lake of the capital and a popular place for recreation with many surrounding gardens, hotels and villas. A small part of West Lake is divided by Thanh Nien road to form Truc Bach Lake.
The lake is bordered with many significant places in the history of Hanoi. The Tran Quoc Pagoda, which is the oldest pagoda in Vietnam was built in the 6th century. Near Tran Quoc Pagoda is Quan Thanh Temple, one of the Four Sacred Temples of ancient Hanoi.
Touring around the city, one couldn’t help but admire its urban planners, who have done a splendid job of building its structures around the lakes while preserving the scenic views. They have become tourist destinations and a place where locals can chill out relax, and as The Daily Tribune reporter Deni Rose Afinidad said, is the perfect place for “Hanoi-noing.”
One of the most remarkable temples we visited was the Temple of Literature. Declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the temple was once a school for the country’s princes and later transformed into the country’s first university and as Hanoi’s center for learning. It has also become a venue for staging grand cultural events of the city.
Another memorable destination was the Bat Trang, pottery village. According to the Lam, the place is quite famous as tourists and businessmen from all over the world drop by the village to buy all sorts of home decors and ceramic ornaments.
Hanoi has 1,350 craft villages, 273 traditional craft villages and 47 crafts. Other notable craft villages include Van Phuc silk; Phu Vinh Rattan weaving; Chuyen My oyster encrusting; Son Dong Rock capturing, Duyen Thai lacquer; and Quat Dong embroidery.
The city has inherited many French architectural style buildings such as the Hanoi Opera House, Presidential Palace and the many buildings around Sword Lake, Old Quarter and Trang Tien Street.
During our visit, the Hanoi Opera House became the venue of the Vietnam-Philippines Friendship Concert. Vietnamese officials and Philippine luminaries had an enchanting evening as they were serenaded by some of the best artists of both countries including internationally renowned pianist Raul Sunico; veteran stage actress and singer Joanna Ampil and Rachelle Gerodias of the UST Conservatory of Music. They were joined by Vietnamese artists, music adviser and conductor Honna Tetsuji, pop singer Duc Tuan, and renowned violinist Bui Cong Duy.
We were also able to catch the infamous Thang Long Water Puppet show, where puppets made out of lacquered wood were made to portray a local folklore through dancing in a waist-deep pool. Lam explained that it was a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century and originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. It’s a unique show to say the least, and one of the must see attractions according to Lam.
|một cái gì đó đáng nghi (something fishy)
Touring the city can sure whet up one’s appetite and it’s a good thing that the local cuisine does not disappoint. Even if you’re not much of a veggie eater, the sauces and dips always comes to the rescue—plus there’s always the sticky rice and spring rolls to look forward to. Love coffee? Then be sure to try out the famous Vietnamese blend.
And while we never ate the way most of the Hanoians do—on small stools in the sidewalks, we were able to sample “street food” such as sausages cooked on top of big slices of onions (which I have tried to emulate at home). A word of caution though, be sure to check out the wares or utensils before buying from street hawkers.
One of the best places to sample local cuisine is the Old Hanoi Restaurant, which as Lam told us was recognized as one of the world’s best. The place itself is very nice and reminded me of one of those old restaurants in Malate. The owner even approached us and said that dining at Old Hanoi means “partaking the art of Vietnamese cuisine.”
|tôi quên điều này (i forgot what this is 🙂
Among my favorites were the Banh cuon nhan thit—an Old Hanoi-style steamed rice pancake with pork and shitake; Bo nuong la lot, Grilled beef wrapped with “Lot” leaves; Tom sot me, Pan fried Prawn with tamarind sauce; and Lon kho to dat que thanh, stewed pork with cinnamon sticks. Other equally tasty dishes were the Nom Ga hoa chuo, Banana flower salad with chicken; and Stir-fried Water morning glory with garlic.
|Banana dipped in Lemon sauce (i know wt?)
It’s also worth noting that all their sticky rice meals taste awesome, you’d wished it came with unlimited rice. It’s a wonder why the Vietnamese people don’t get fat as we did not see any obese or overweight Vietnamese. Maybe that’s why I got a lot of odd looks from the locals—or maybe it was because of my flaming red hair.
|Eggplant turned tempura yumyum!
Just like their figure, Vietnamese buildings are also very lean and narrow and are built like “tubes.” Lam says the prices of land in Vietnam are quite high, so instead of buying a large piece of land they just build higher structures.
Quickie at the Old Quarter
To complete our Hanoi experience we dropped by the Old Quarter, and played “patintero” with the scooters who seem oblivious to the concept of pedestrian lanes or giving way. It was during this quick four-hour tour/shopping spree that we really were able to immerse in the local culture—and finally use up those millions of Vietnamese Dong.
The Old Quarter showcases the unique charm of Hanoi. Each street in the area is said to be named after a type of artisan, like a shoemaker, clothesmaker, silk trader, jewelry maker and reflect the items being sold in that particular area.
Haggling is the only way to really get good deals, so good luck practicing those bargaining skills you mastered from Divisoria. Knockoffs of NorthFace backpacks, Kipling luggage and Samsonite bags are plenty and quite cheap as some good souvenir buys.
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Aside from being the designated group marker (again because of my red hair) I also prided myself as the most eligible bachelor in our group (since all the guys were married). So while they tried to avoid looking at the beautiful Vietnamese women, I was able to try out all my smile and wave combinations (inside the security of our tour bus of course) and I could proudly say that I did manage to get a few positive responses (two out of 10 nods was a record).
Still, I never knew I how much hidden appeal I had, until I decided to have a Vietnamese massage. It was the first time I had a pretty young therapist, and she made me feel like I was Derek Ramsay, John Lloyd Cruz and Xian Lim (or some Vietnamese hunk) all rolled into one, as she squeezed, pinched and drummed away at my belly for almost an entire hour—only to burst my bubble as she began to screech “where’s my tip?” as I desperately tried to explain that I already left it at the reception.
So much for my happy ending.
Hanoi’s highs and lows
Despite my initial skepticism, Hanoi proved to be a great travel destination. If you can, make sure to visit Ha Long Bay, which is just about a three-hour bus ride away from the city.
When planning a trip to Hanoi, it’s best to find a good tour guide as majority of the locals don’t speak or understand English and to maximize your itinerary. Be careful of riding taxi’s as they tend to overcharge and have tampered meters. Ask your hotel for the reputable taxi companies and make sure to agree on a price and write it down before getting on the taxi. Also carry your hotel’s business card so they will know where to take you if you get lost.
Cebu Pacific’s Manila-to-Hanoi flights are on Tuesdays and Saturdays, while the Hanoi-to-Manila flights are on Wednesdays and Sundays. The lowest possible year-round Go Lite fare is P2,499.