Thursday, July 31, 2014

Flying over central highlands of Vietnam

On the second day of our Vietnam trip with VietJet Air, we flew to Da Lat in the south central highlands. Just half an hour away from bustling Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and it's a different world that's much more laid back.

Da Lat in Vietnamese means "water/stream of the Lat people"- da meaning "water". The Lat are the indigenous folks there and we were told they are short, plump and rosy-cheeked. Most of them are farmers.

Da Lat is 1,500m (4,500ft) above sea level with a temperate climate. It's supposedly like Genting Highlands in Malaysia, but it being summer, I found it still pretty warm - like 28-30 deg C? Still much better than the searing 35 deg heat in HCMC though. Bet it's really nice in winter though.

The VietJet counter at the HCMC domestic terminal
We left from the HCMC domestic terminal, which is right next to the international one. If you take a bus from HCMC, it may be 7-9 hours (depending on traffic). Flying is so much faster.

Da Lat's Lien Khuong Airport is pretty new
Da Lat's Lien Khuong terminal is pretty new. It serves a lot of local tourists, especially from the North who are just beginning to explore their country.

There's a half hour ride to the city of Da Lat from the airport, passing by nice pine trees
From the airport, there's still a half hour ride to the city (30km). You can choose the shuttle bus for only 40,000VND (about US$2) or go for the taxi for 250,000VND (about US$12.50). It's a no brainer. Bus wins (just make sure you specify your drop-off destination). You do get a scenic ride past some pine trees on the way up.

Yes, Da Lat has its own Moulin Rouge, complete with windmill

There's lots of French style architecture in Da Lat, because the French colonials used to build villas here to escape from the heat of Saigon. There's even a Moulin Rouge (complete with windmill) restaurant and an Eiffel Tower look-a-like.

The food at Moulin Rouge is Vietnamese fare though
Despite the French facade, it's Vietnamese fare here at the Moulin Rouge. The soup (upper left) was interesting because it had this spongy vegetable stalk that none of us had tried before. Grilled pork with fried glutinous rice cake (bottom left) was also good. And it seemed that everywhere we went, dessert was watermelon and dragonfruit (so much so we started making bets on whether that would be the next dessert).

Durian seller in Da Lat
Durian seller under a tree opposite the restaurant. Durians are not grown at this altitude. They are brought up from the warmer regions below the mountains.

Bao Dai's Summer Palace
Da Lat was also the hunting ground of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai. This is his summer palace, which was built in the 1930s. It houses the grand meeting reception halls, office, and personal artifacts. The art deco building must have been avant garde then, but now it's like a time machine bringing us back to an emperor's hedonistic heydays.

The rooms are frozen in 1930s art deco
The building has 25 rooms. The lower floors are all business. The upper floor has bedrooms for the royal family. Interestingly, the emperor and empress had separate bedrooms (well, he had about five wives/concubines, and multiple children). Everything was left as is, including the furniture.

There's a kitschy imperial throne room where you can take photos
At one end of the lower floor is a kitschy throne room whose grandeur contrasts with the staid decor of the rest of the palace. This is where you can play at being an imperial ruler and take photos (for a small fee, of course).

The kitchen at Bao Dai's Summer Palace
The more interesting parts are the areas that were in actual use. This is part of the kitchen.

It's really a place that time forgot
All in all, it really is like a place that time forgot.

Random flower in garden of Bao Dai's palace
The palace still has gardens (including a miniature maze). I don't know what flowers these are, but they are pretty.

After the palace, we went to see another cultural site.

Da Lat's railway station was designed in 1932 by French architects Moncet and Reveron
The Da Lat Railway Station, completed in 1938, is a national historic monument, thanks to its unique design. French architects Moncet and Reveron combined art deco with Vietnamese elements. The high, pointed roofs are characteristic of the Cao Nguyen communal buildings of Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Da Lat Railway Station's unique design earned it national historic monument status
Colourful windows under each of the pointy roof bring light into the spacious hall.

Steam locomotive at Da Lat Railway
The old steam locomotive is one of the two trains on display here. They used to have 11 of these.

While the station's no longer connected to the main Vietnam rail network, it still sees services to Trai Mat, where you can visit the Linh Phuoc pagoda.

Random flowers at the railway station
Hydrangeas grow very well in Da Lat. There were lots in the garden in front of the railway station.

Random flower near Da Lat railway
Close up of a random flowering plant, probably some exotic mimosa.

We also visited the Flower Park, which showcases some 300 varieties of flowers. Lot of foreign blooms were imported for cultivation in Da Lat over the years, and it is also known as City of Flowers.

The Flower Park in Da Lat
You'll see lots of families, tourists and couples here (Da Lat is also known as "honeymoon city").

Ngoc Lan Hotel near Da Lat city centre
We stayed at the Ngoc Lan Hotel.

Some rooms are more spacious than others
I got a really spacious room. You could do cartwheels in here! Others had a much more cosy configuration but with added balcony.

Our tour guide had earlier told us there is no airconditioning in Da Lat - it simply was not necessary because of the cool weather. But it didn't sink in until I saw that my hotel room really didn't have aircon.

My very own R2 unit - for blowing airiPhone 4S photo

Only this air cooler unit that you roll out and plug in next to your bed. A very amused friend nicknamed it my R2D2. Sadly, the cold air function was disabled. Only the regular fan works. I nicknamed it Bad Robot. Fortunately, temperature does drop a few more degrees at night, so sleeping with just the fan was fine.

Clean and simple bathroom with tub
Bathroom was decent and clean. Oh, the hotel had a spa with really cheap massage services. Like US$8 for a full-body massage - I forget how long...45 mins? 120 mins? I can't imagine how much cheaper it would be for massages outside the hotel!

Dinner at Nha Toi or "My House"
Dinner was at Nha Toi, which means "My House". Nha = House.

Chinese-Vietnamese fare for dinner
A very safe spread of Chinese-Vietnamese dishes, salad and soup.

Really nice stuffed grilled baby squid
The grilled stuffed baby squid was remarkable. Didn't look like much, and no, I didn't know what they were stuffed with, but they were addictive!

Da Lat produces its own wines
Da Lat also has a nascent wine-making industry. This bottle of red came recommended.

Da Lat city centre becomes "Hell Market" - a night market so named because it once had no lighting
The city centre comes alive at night with Cho Am Phu or "Hell Market", which is so named because a long time ago, they didn't have any lighting. Imagine everything in darkness or candlelight.

The stalls are numerous, stretching all the way down the streets, but many sell the same things - clothing, woollen wear, chips/snacks, dried goods.

Unlicensed food vendors always on the lookout for police
There are also lots of street food vendors, hawking all manner of grilled goodies - corn, sweet potatoes, squid, sausages, and so on. Many are unlicensed and always on the lookout for police. We saw them pick up and run - not easy with the hot coal grills!

Lots of streetside stalls selling snacks and drinks
Soy milk is very popular here, and some of them come flavoured with green/mung bean, sesame or peanut. But what caught our attention was the lady (on the right) who was making these crispy rice paper rolls - bánh tráng nướng.

Bánh tráng nướng - grilled rice paper roll with shrimp-egg-scallion mixture
There's a savoury mixture of egg, shrimp and scallion cooked on top of the rice paper which acts like an edible skillet! It's a hot crispy mess but so so delicious. Bánh tráng nướng - I will remember this.

French-style breads and pastries are popular in Da Lat
French style rolls and pastries seem popular here. Again the French influence.

BBQ street food
The locals were all going for the skewered BBQ treats. The chicken claws look extra gigantic though. Kowai! Scary! I will stick to dainty phoenix claws.

Da Lat is also famous for strawberries
Da Lat is also known for strawberries. You'll see them fresh or preserved in jams. We also saw other goods like dried shredded artichoke, red and white ginseng, artichoke tea, green tea, vegetable chips and sweet potato chips, etc. Much of it really cheap.

The market is also near Xuan Huong Lake, the big scenic lake that is the heart of Da Lat. A breezy night there can be lovely. Or you can head to the various cafes for some hot Vietnamese coffee. This is a town where you can chill and take your time.

There's more to explore in this capital of Lam Dong province but we head back the next day to see more of Ho Chi Minh City.

Day 1: Ho Chi Minh City - Pho, Thien Hau Temple, Cyclo Ride, Water Puppet Show, Saigon River Cruise
Day 2: Da Lat (this post)
Day 3: Ho Chi Minh City

Many thanks to VietJet Air for the media familiarisation trip. 
Photos taken (except where indicated) with the Canon 5D MkIII kindly loaned by Canon Singapore

I love this baby!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City on VietJet Air
Xin Chào! Hello Vietnam! VietJet Air started daily flights from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City from 23 May 2014, with fares as low as S$20 one way before taxes (with taxes, a return trip can still be below S$150).

Singapore is the second international destination (after Bangkok) for this young airline that just got off the ground Christmas 2011. It began as a low-cost carrier in Vietnam but is now the second richest airline there in two years, with 30% market share. Every day it operates over 100 flights to 25 destinations. It just launched services to Seoul, and is looking at Siem Reap and Taiwan soon.

Saigon street scene - easily dominated by motorbikes
This means there are now more affordable flight options to and within Vietnam, which is a huge (long and narrow) country to explore.

VietJet Air invited media to experience Ho Chi Minh City, the home base for most of its flights. This is my first time in the city that was formerly exotic Saigon.

VietJet plane with extra legroom in front for premium fare passengers
The VietJet Airbus A320 planes are well-maintained, and some of them have extra roomy stretching space in front for premium fare passengers.

Five spice chicken with sticky rice, and fresh young coconut
The inflight food is prepared from Vietnam. This is their signature Five Spice Chicken with Sticky Rice  (50,000VND or US$2.50) - kind of like a "lor mai kai" (steamed glutinous rice with chicken). The chicken has bones though, which I was surprised to see, but lean and sweet. The fresh coconut (40,000VND or US$2) is a real joy, especially if you are lucky to get a young one, and can crack it open wide enough to scrape out the succulent flesh.

The VietJet office is in this building, so is Canon!
VietJet's head office is in CT Plaza, Tan Binh district. It's not far from the airport - in fact, it's one of the first buildings you see even before you deplane. Tan Son Nhat International Airport is just about seven kilometres from the city centre too.

I also always see Canon buildings right near the airport whenever I go to Vietnam. Well, the nice folks at Canon Singapore loaned me a 5D MkIII for this trip, and I am super glad for that, because that camera is an absolute dream to use, and the photos don't need as much editing!

We had a formal welcome reception
We were given a rather grand formal welcome at the meeting room.

VietJet Managing Director Mr. Luu Duc Khanh
It was a great honour to meet VietJet Managing Director Mr. Luu Duc Khanh, and key members of his team. They spent some time answering our questions and giving us a tour of their office. There's a bright and cheery vibe about the company.

This is the VietJet CEO "office"
This cubicle here is the CEO's office - right in the thick of everyday action. No pretentious rooms or fancy furniture. Plus, a no-door policy is better than an open door policy!

Staff training centre at VietJet
The staff training centre is also where they hold briefings.

We have to say, the VietJet uniform is quite cute. It's totally different from their national costume, the ao dai, but it makes the staff look perky and youthful, don't you think?

Well the visit was cool but soon it was time to see Saigon.

There is so much to see in Saigon
It's another world just less than two hours away. I love the old and rundown parts of town.

More scooters than cars in Ho Chi Minh City
What used to be swampland is now the largest metropolis in Vietnam, its economic hub and home to 12 million people. It's nice that they have tree-lined boulevards because the traffic in this city of can be overwhelming.

Bánh su kem sầu riêng - Choux cream pastry on the street!
And I am looking at street food! Bánh su kem sầu riêng - gosh, choux cream pastry from a little road stall!

Three on a motorbike is a pretty common sight
Three on a motorbike is a common sight. But man, that kid needs a helmet. So does the schoolgirl riding pillion.

Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu (The Pagoda of the Lady Thien Hau)
We visited the Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu (The Pagoda of the Lady Thien Hau) in Cho Lon (Chinatown). Built around 1760, it is one of the oldest temples in HCMC. This temple is Chinese-style and is dedicated to the deity that protects sea-farers. She is also known as Mazu and is revered by southern Chinese maritime provinces.

Incense at
The temple is famous for its large incense coils, some of which can burn for a month. Visitors can buy these, attach their names to the coils and let the incense smoke carry their prayers to the deity. Always so hypnotic, these circular rings of incense.

Incense burners at Thien Hau Temple, Saigon
I reckon these are incense burners. Giganormous ones. Emblazoned with the words Thien Hau Hall, they also feature intricate carvings.

There are two altars flanking the entrance.

Remember to look up
Don't forget to look up. Porcelain dioramas adorn the rooftop and tell many stories.

Pho with mixed beef at Phở Đệ Nhất (Võ Tuấn)
And for our first meal in Saigon, a hearty bowl of pho with all the fresh herbs (in the south they like to add bean sprouts, saw leaf, cilantro, mustard leaf and lime). Oooh the chili slices look mild but they sting! The beef broth is clean-tasting and subtle, perhaps a little on the plain side, but you can jazz it up with all the condiments you like.

Phở Đệ Nhất (Võ Tuấn) is a pho chain
Phở Đệ Nhất (Võ Tuấn) is a chain specialising in pho. This one is just conveniently down the road from Thien Hau Temple.

Adrian on the cyclo, Vietnam's traditional way to get around
After lunch, a little ride back to our hotel on the cyclo! These pedal bikes are fast disappearing from the city, which is a pity because they are much more charming and environmentally friendly to boot!

Cyclo rides that zipped by neighbourhoods
I used to think these and trishaw rides are such tourist traps, but this turned out to be pretty fun. These old men could pedal and went at a brisk pace, zipping in and out of traffic. We still were able to see a lot of the neighbourhood and fascinating details of everyday life.

Just a little bit scary
Yeah like this guy. Hope nobody calls out to him and makes him turn around!

However, caution is necessary in other aspects - hold your belongings close to you because snatch thieves will help themselves as they ride by. The drivers even told us not to hold up our mobile phones taking pictures.

Also, hiring a cyclo off the streets on your own can be dicey. There are scammers who will try to fleece you. Try to get yours through your hotel or tour company. More tips on avoiding taxi and cyclo scams here.

Liberty Central Hotel in Saigon
We reached our destination, the Liberty Central Hotel, in less than half an hour. Interestingly, there is a huge wall painting of an elegant lady in a cyclo.

Bedroom in Liberty Central Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City
The bedroom is comfortably sized, like most business hotels.

Bathroom is modern and very clean
The bathroom is also contemporary and clean.

The view of Quach Thi Trang roundabout in front of Ben Thanh market
From my window I could see the Quach Thi Trang roundabout with the bronze statue of the famous General Tran Nguyen Han.

The water puppets bring a story to life including fireworks
After freshening up, we went to see a traditional water puppet show. These are really popular in Vietnam. The whole story is told in Vietnamese, but you don't really need subtitles - the puppets make the tale come alive with amazing dexterity. And there's even fireworks at the end!

Water puppet theatre is performed by actors waist deep in water
Sometimes you wonder how stick puppets can do so much. The puppet masters are all behind the screen, waist deep in water.

Saigon River Dinner Cruise
Dinner was aboard a Saigon River cruise ship. This Chinese junk sure has gotten an upgrade!

Another cruise boat in the shape of a green-eyed fish
There was another one behind us, in the kooky shape of a fish.

Saigon River dinner cruise in a dining cabin that has both Eastern and Western elements
The interior is like that of an old paddleboat steamer but with Chinese style furniture and decorations. Lots of old white men (maybe old GIs returning to visit) there. It is pretty warm without air-conditioning though.

Food aboard Saigon River dinner cruise
The food is a nine-course sit down menu. Highlights - the appetisers of Chả giò (minced pork sausage) and Chạo tôm (sugarcane prawns), Thịt heo nướng & Bánh hỏi (grilled pork and rice net noodles), and the amazing Bò nấu đậu (beef stew with peanuts), a legacy from the French.

The cruise takes you past the Ho Chi Minh City skyline
But the draw is really the view of the Ho Chi Minh City skyline and the night lights.

Saigon river night scene

Buildings at night by the Saigon river

Another Chinese junk style cruise boat
We also drift past another Chinese junk. This one has sails that changes colours.

Ho Chi Minh City Hall
The evening comes to a close and we head back to the hotel, passing by the Ho Chi Min City Hall which looks really grand at night. It is not open to public though.

The historic Rex Hotel, as captured on a moving bus
And nearby is the historic Rex Hotel, which has seen 80 years of Saigon's development. It was also the scene of daily American press briefings during the Vietnam war. This is the heart of the city with the opera house not far away. It would have been nice to explore the area. These are photos taken from the bus.

Next up:
Day 2: an excursion to Da Lat in the central highlands of Vietnam
Day 3: more sights of Ho Chi Minh City

Many thanks to VietJet for the familiarisation trip. Photos taken using the Canon 5D MkIII kindly loaned by Canon Singapore

I love this baby!
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