Day 69 | Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok aka the world’s biggest water fight

Day 69 | Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok aka the world’s biggest water fight

We spent our last night in Southeast Asia in Bangkok during Thai New Year (Songkran). Coming from Hanoi this was our one night stopover before leaving Bangkok for Paro, Bhutan the next morning.

For the second night in a row, we were woken up by the Vietnam Railway staff members knocking on our sleeper cabin door. We said goodbye to the Australian retiree couple we shared our cabin with and then left the train. This was our third and last time transiting through the Hanoi railway station. We walked through the streets of Hanoi to the Holiday Gold Hotel, repeating the same path we had tread just three days earlier coming from Hue. The town was almost empty at this early hour of the morning (5am).

We got to the Holiday Gold Hotel, woke up the staff once again and picked up our luggage. The very friendly staff member called a taxi for us and we were able to pay him using a mix of VND that we had left and USD that we had brought with us from New York.

The taxi ride was as expected without traffic. Once at the airport, we repacked everything so it would fit in our two pieces of carry-on luggage and two backpacks and then checked in. But when we arrived at the Air Asia check in booth, we were told that carry on items were limited to 7 kg per bag and that it would cost us $72 to check in our two rolling suitcases which were both around 11 kg. We were outraged by the prices especially because paying in advance was much cheaper at $10 per bag up to 15 kg. There was no way we were going to pay that much. Seeing we were visibly upset, the lady was nice and told we could repack our stuff so that we would only have to check in one of the two suitcases. We did exactly that and ended up paying only $36. Still an exorbitant fee for a single bag but we had no other option.

Hanoi airport

We went through immigration and security without trouble before reaching our gate. It was 7am then: despite our two rounds of playing Tetris with our luggage, we were still super early for our 9am Air Asia flight. We used that time to catch up on writing the latest yolomimo blog post.

The flight duration was about two hours and we landed in Bangkok for the second time. Maurice was anxious to go through the Thai immigration for the third time of our trip after his weird experience of being questioned by an immigration officer in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago. Luckily, he didn’t encounter any issues. We picked up our luggage, changed some dollars to THB and hopped on an airport bus to the BTS Skytrain station. As we walked from the bus stop to the Skytrain station, we started seeing many people selling water guns on the street.

Bangkok's skytrain

We realized the water guns were for the celebrations of Thai New Year aka Songkran. Tons of young people were on the train ready for the most epic water battle of the year. Once we got off the Skytrain, it took us a while to find our hotel. We had to go through the maze of two large connected shopping malls before finally getting to the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. The hotel itself is very luxurious, probably on par with the Park Hyatt Saigon we stayed at while in Ho Chi Minh City. We were assigned to a corner room.

After taking the obligatory walkthrough video, our first priority was to finally take a shower. We had been unable to bathe ourselves for close to 72 hours by that point! It felt truly amazing! We later took a few pictures of the hotel’s premises. We checked out the outdoor pool which we swam in later that night.

Pool at the Hyatt in Bangkok

The spacious lobby tastefully decorated with trees.

Spacious lobby at the Hyatt

We left the hotel around 2:45pm, searching for Inter, a very well reviewed restaurant serving Thai cuisine in our area. However due to the festivities for Songkran we were unable to walk through the overcrowded streets to our destination. There were tons of people having fun in the streets. We did get splashed a few times on our way.

First we stopped at the Erawan Shrine next to the hotel.

Erawan shrine

Crowds were forming at every overpass over major intersections. It was a long traffic jam getting to the other side of the street.

Crowds forming for Songkran

We were not prepared for the water fight, for example, we didn’t even carry a bag to protect our camera. So we tried to keep a safe distance from getting soaked.

Revelers on line for the festival

We did take some picture of the young people excited to splash others.

Supersoakers ready

This was the core part of the festivities in the Siam Square area of Bangkok. This animation captures the revelers marching down the street.

Water fight

We eventually gave up looking for the restaurant and ended up eating at Peppery Thai Bistro, a Thai restaurant located inside the food court of the Siam Paragon shopping mall. It was great to be able to enjoy true authentic Thai food again! We finished our lunch pretty late, shortly before 5pm.

Pad thai again finally

Since we had to go to bed early tonight we agreed to skip dinner and instead have a lot of desserts! We started with bubble tea from Coco.

Bubble tea

Then we walked to nearby Siam Center mall. We saw Tom Cruise on our way. (Who I don’t particularly like but why not pose for a photo anyway #BeingAsian).

I don't even like Tom Cruise

At Siam Center mall, we grabbed ice cream at Gelate.

Gelato next

Alas our dessert binge ended early as we weren’t hungry anymore. We did pass by Annette I Tim Tuk Tuk, a gelato on a stick food stand built into a tuk tuk.

The walk back to our hotel took a long time as the area was still super crowded with people coming to spray everyone with water.

Never far from the super soakers

We stopped at an overpass to record this animation of the infamous Bangkok traffic in the early evening with cars, tuk tuks and motorbikes.

Infamous Bangkok traffic

At the hotel, we used the business center to print necessary immigration documents for entering Bhutan tomorrow. While I worked with the staff to print out our documents, Maurice sat down on one of the two provided massage chairs in the relaxation area of the business center. That machine, an OSIM ulnfinity, was amazing (we later found out it retails for about $11,000). I joined Maurice and we both stayed there getting a full body massage for a good half hour.

Next we left for the hotel’s swimming pool. The water in the pool was pleasantly warm and for a while we were the only ones there. We also tried the hot jacuzzi which we were lucky to have for ourselves before returning to our room. A second shower and an hour of repacking optimization aka Tetris later, we were ready to fall asleep in the super comfortable King bed. But only to wake again at 4 AM for our 6 AM flight to Bhutan.

Day 68 | Between two sleeper trains, a short visit to Sapa

Day 68 | Between two sleeper trains, a short visit to Sapa

Today was a super quick visit to Sapa, a small town famous for its landscape full of rice terraces as well as its ethnic minorities. Together with our friends Amandine and Laurent, we explored Cat Cat Village and hiked around Ham Rong Resort. We then parted ways as we took a sleeper train back to Hanoi while they stayed in Sapa for an extra day.

The four of us woke up when one of the train agents knocked on the cabin’s door, announcing that we had arrived at Lao Cai, a city close to the border between Vietnam and China and the terminus of our train. We had a good night of sleep despite the train’s movement and noise.

In front of the train in Lao Cai railway station

Before leaving the train, we had purchased transfer tickets to Sapa by shuttle from a lady selling them on the train. We knew this was not a scam and that the price was good because Mimi had researched it online before the trip. We boarded a minivan just minutes after leaving the small train station. It was full of tourists.

The road to Sapa was very winding, going through beautiful hills that make this region of North Vietnam such a popular tourism destination. On the way we saw plenty of rice paddies though the visibility was disappointingly bad due to the foggy air.

The ride lasted for a bit more than an hour. We arrived in Sapa and got dropped at Quang Truong Square, a large pedestrian place popular with local and tourists alike. As soon as we came out of the minivan, a group of six local women started selling us various items and asked us if we needed a place to stay for the night. Fortunately they were not nearly as persistent as what we had feared after reading about Sapa scams online. We declined and they did not follow us. We kept walking along the square.

Lucky Laurent

Our priority was to find a place to have breakfast. Laurent was unanimously designated as our tour guide for the day and brought us to The Hill Station cafe.

The Hill Station

After ordering food, Amandine and Laurent looked up hotels for the night as they were not coming back to Hanoi with us on that same day. For us it was convenient since it meant we would be able to drop off some of our stuff we did not need at their hotel. Not that we were carrying heavy backpacks that day, but it’s always nice to hike without excess weight on our shoulders.

The cafe was almost empty but we thought breakfast there was very good and took our time eating and planning what we wanted to see.

Breakfast at The Hill Station

We then walked in town to find the hotel they had booked. On our way there we passed by an elementary school with many kids playing in the playground. At their hotel, the receptionist gave us and them a dirty look when we said we wanted to use the room to drop some stuff. Apparently they were concerned we would all sleep in a room normally provisioned for two adults only. They said it was too early in the morning and claimed they did not have a room ready yet so we had to put our bags in a corner of the common space.

Then we went to Cat Cat village. The view from the road to get there was beautiful despite the sky still being very foggy. We stopped many times to take pictures of the incredible landscape surrounding us.

Hills surrounding Sapa

Rays of sun hitting the rice paddies terraces on a Sapa hill

Rice paddies terraces

We arrived at the entrance of Cat Cat Tourism Area.

In front of Cat Cat Tourism Area entrance

To go further we had to pay the entrance fees. We then walked all the way down to the small river that flows in the valley separating two groups of hills. The hike down was pleasant and we passed by some farm animals including little piglets that Mimi went crazy for.

Piglets in Cat Cat Tourism Area

We walked on a bridge over the small river with a view on water wheels. A manmade waterfall created a nice visual contrast between the slow and fast moving water.

View over the river flowing through Cat Cat village from the bridge

After crossing the river, we stopped at a view point looking at another waterfall – natural this one – directly feeding into the river from the opposite side we came from. The four of us took couple pictures there, starting with us.

Yolomimo in front of a small waterfall

And then following with one of Amandine and Laurent.

Yoloamlo in front of the same waterfall

I also had some fun with our DSLR’s high burst mode to capture the waterfall in action. Somehow I developed a renewed interest to animated GIFs, an ancient “Web 1.0” technology that I found more user-friendly than YouTube videos in some situations.

Waterfall from the view point

We kept walking up and got to see the water wheels from closer.

Water wheels on the river flowing through Cat Cat Village

Climbing back up was a bit of a struggle and the temperature was getting hotter. We passed by many arts and crafts stands. Cat Cat Village is home to many ethnic minorities in Vietnam and selling handmade goods locally made to tourists represents a big part of their economy.

Walking in Cat Cat Village

We crossed the river again using another bridge. It was my turn to get a picture with the ladies.

Me and the ladies

The air cleared out a little bit so it was easier to see the rice terraces.

Rice terraces

As we got back to Sapa town proper, we first stopped by the hotel Amandine and Laurent booked for the night, named Boutique Sapa Hotel. The room was ready now so we asked yoloamlo to give us a quick walkthrough of their room for the readers of yolomimo. Of course they had no choice but to accept.

After that we went for lunch at Little Sapa. We had good Vietnamese food there and ended with Vietnamese iced coffee.

Vietnamese iced coffee

After that we wanted to do a second hike to the radio tower hill that is recommended for its view points. It took us a while to find the correct path to get there. We had to pay another fee to enter the area where the radio tower is located. The fee gave us access to the entire Ham Rong Resort.

It was well worth it. We hiked uphill for a while until our path was blocked by a closed gate. There were other trails and we kept going. We passed by a small cave named Love Cave so of course we took a cheesy picture in front of it.

Love Cave

We also passed by a giant swing.

Having fun on the giant swing

Yoloamlo looking all serious all of a sudden.

Yoloamlo being all serious

Although we were not able to go to the radio tower, we found a trail leading to a pretty amazing view point over Sapa.

View of Sapa

The clouds were hiding the sun.

Clouds hiding the sun

We saw the radio tower from up there too.

Radio tower

A cool guy from Sweden who also gave us travel tips about Sapa took pictures of the four of us posing.

Yoloamlo and yolomimo

After taking pictures from the view point, we exited the park through flower gardens where tourists were renting traditional costumes of ethnic minorities to take pictures.

Flowers at Ham Rong Resort

On our way back to yoloamlo’s hotel, we saw several 7-8 year old girls carrying their little toddler-age brothers/sisters on their back and selling handmade jewelry. Not only were these kids not attending school but their parents were also forcing them to look more desperate by carrying their little siblings on their shoulders. We were appalled.

Back to the hotel we picked up our bags then Laurent and Amandine walked us back to the church where taxis and buses load up with tourists going back to Lao Cai. It was almost time to say goodbye to them, for the second time of our trip.

Street in Sapa

Laurent managed to get us two seats in a minibus that was just about to leave. Concerned about scams, we made sure to agree on the price with the driver before getting in. 40,000 VND per person we said, and he replied OK.

The guy drove recklessly, honking at motorbikes, other buses, people crossing the road and even got dangerously close to hitting a small dog. An hour later we were dropped at the Lao Cai train station. The driver tried to scam us by pretending the price was 100,000 VND. Despite our previous agreement, the price had magically increased. It was the second time a driver tried this trick on us and since we didn’t fall for it the first time in Hue, we were not going to fall for it here. We remained calm and refused to comply with his demand. He eventually played the classic “I don’t want any of your money” trick on us, which of course we had already seen before and did not work. He didn’t speak a word of English and even called a young Vietnamese guy that was at a nearby cafe to come act as a translator. That didn’t change anything for us. We just gave him 80,000 VND and left.

We had a quick dinner at Terminus Restaurant, a restaurant right in front of the train station. The food there was mediocre despite being the number one restaurant in Lao Cai on TripAdvisor. The staff was very friendly however.

We got to the train early enough to finally be able to record a video of the sleeper cabin. This was our third sleeper train in Vietnam in just five days, after the Hue to Hanoi one and the Hanoi to Lao Cai one just yesterday. The other cabins looked very similar.

A couple of Australian retirees showed up minutes before the train departed. They came from a more luxurious cabin, the AC wasn’t working and the train attendant moved them into our cabin, which otherwise would have been empty except for us. They were both divorced and remarried and were on a four week trip to Vietnam. We agreed to swap out bottom beds with them since they could not climb to the upper level. We chatted with them for some time (the guy knew a bit of French) before going to sleep.

Day 67 | A surprise in Ha Long Bay and more sights in Hanoi

Day 67 | A surprise in Ha Long Bay and more sights in Hanoi

We visited the Surprise Cave in Ha Long Bay and then our cruise returned us to Hanoi. From there we visited the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, the pleasant Temple of Literature, ate two dinners and then caught the sleeper train to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa.

It was very hard waking up at 6am today but we had to get ready for tai chi on the boat’s roof deck. We got there a few minutes late, Amandine and Laurent were already there.

Tai Chi on the Bhaya cruise

The weather was still foggy but the scenery was beautiful nonetheless.

Next morning in Ha Long Bay

After tai chi we had a quick breakfast in the restaurant with just toast & jam, milk & cereal, yogurt and some pastries.

Then it was time to go for our visit of the Surprise Cave with our guide Tung. Our guide made dirty jokes but also managed to give some interesting explanations during our tour of this massive cave with three separate chambers.

Entering the Surprise Cave

Mysterious lighted cave

The tour guide made us guess what this cave feature looks like. He finally answered it’s a cannon. He pointed to the trajectory of the cannon and in fact there was a hole in the ceiling that looked like cannon marks. Coincidence?

Like a cannon

Stalactites oh my

Fab four in the cave

Pretty lights in Surprise Cave

The cave is a popular stop for many tourist cruises and we felt rushed along its winding paths.

Cave swarmed with tourists

Another view in the cave

We left the cave and enjoyed a view of the spectacular karsts from shore.

Misty morning on the Ha Long Bay island

After our visit of the wonderful cave we came back to the boat to check out of our rooms and have brunch. Once again, Maurice and I got special vegetarian dishes prepared specifically for us. Desserts were very good too with fruits, opera cakes and mango mousse that tasted like mango lassi.

Desserts at brunch

Filling up our plates

We got back to the pier where we started less than 24 hours ago. We are going to miss Ha Long Bay.

Waving goodbye to the boat staff

We jumped in the shuttle for the four hour return trip to Hanoi. Again Laurent sat in the front while the rest of us stayed in a row. We stopped once at a souvenir shop just like on the way in yesterday.

When we arrived in Hanoi we asked the driver to drop us directly at the Hoa Lo Prison, which he did. Hoa Lo is ironically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots who were imprisoned there during the Vietnam War. We went through the prison. The prison was established by the French while they were ruling over Vietnam. It is small but has a lot of Vietnamese Communist propaganda that was funny at first but eventually became a little annoying. The museum was made up of several rooms dedicated to different periods of history. In the first building, we learned about the horrible ways Vietnamese prisoners were treated by the French guards from the early 1900s to Vietnam’s independence (a few of them eventually managed to escape the prison via a sewage entrance) whereas in the second one we were relieved to learn that the American POWs (including senator John McCain) were pampered by their Vietnamese captors. They played sports, learned about Vietnamese culture and even celebrated Christmas in Hoa Lo Prison. Obviously it’s all propaganda and after fact checking on Wikipedia we had a very different version.

Models of Vietnamese rebels imprisoned by the French at Hoa Lo

Photo of John McCain revisiting Hoa Lo

Maurice took this candid photo of Amandine, Laurent and I planning the next steps of our day in Hanoi.

Planning the next steps

We left the museum to walk to the Temple of Literature. It was supposed to only take 17 minutes of walking according to Google Maps but due to the horrible sidewalks and crazy traffic it took us much longer, about 45 minutes. On our way there, a female street vendor literally blocked Amandine against the wall with her basket of bananas. It was super unexpected but also kind of funny. The woman let Amandine go with a smile but it made us think about how on average street vendors were a lot less pushy than we had anticipated, this one being an obvious outlier. We purchased tickets and entered via the beautiful gardens.

Tiger at the gate of Temple of Literature

We all loved this temple. We explored the outside and inside of the temple. We saw a handful of couples taking engagement pictures there. There are stone turtles holding stone slabs all over the complex. The slabs contain the names of all those individuals who successfully passed the royal exams. We could see why this was a popular temple for students preparing for finals.

Turtles holding slabs

Inside the temple complex

Inside the Temple of Literature

We were able to take another one of our “walking through the columns of a temple” videos. This is the third one after Mandalay’s and Vientiane’s and as usual you should make sure to watch until the end.

At first there were a lot of people at the temple (in particular big Asian tour groups) but towards the end of our visit we were almost alone, making it easy to take very nice pictures without strangers.

Good luck for scholarly pursuits

AmLo feeling the same

Bonsai tree in front of the pond

Last ones leaving the temple

We left the temple a few minutes after the official closing time (I was actually the last person to exit the complex) and walked towards Lenin Park which was very close. At the foot of the unimpressive statue, guys were playing soccer or skateboarding. Next to them some girls were practicing dance moves of famous K pop songs. We were happy to see that between Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam has a strong youth culture.

Lenin statue

For us, having skipped lunch, it was time to head for dinner. Laurent picked Bun Bo Nam Bo as he really wanted to try bun, a Vietnamese dish that consists of vermicelli rice soup usually paired with beef. The restaurant had a good mix of locals and foreigners so we figured it would be an authentic experience without exposing ourselves to the risk of getting food poisoning.

Check out those Buns

We all liked the food but decided that it would not be enough to keep us from getting hungry later at night when we travel by sleeper train to the Sapa region. Next we hunted for a banh mi place in the same neighborhood. We found Banh Mee. We ordered one sandwich each and they were good but not as good as My Banh Mi in Saigon (which Maurice and I went to three times).

Dinner part 2 at Banh-Mee

At last we were full enough to go back to our hotel and repack. The hotel’s staff was still very nice despite us not being customers anymore. We were able to change and pack our daypacks for our trip to Sapa. We left the hotel after giving a generous tip to the staff.

We walked through town to the railway station. Once we got there, Amandine and Laurent purchased their own return ticket and we boarded the sleeper train. We loved sharing a cabin the four of us. Slumber party!

Looking into our train cabin

Through the train window

Working on yolomimo

We chatted for a while before agreeing to go to bed around 11 PM, pretty tired from a very active day. The ride was a lot bumpier than our previous sleeper train between Hue and Hanoi so it took us some time to fall asleep.