Farewell to Hanoi, en route to Cambodia

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I didn’t see anyone make a purchase from this street vendor, so I can’t say what’s inside these leaf-wrapped bundles. This young woman’s entrepreneurship is typical of what tourists see on Hanoi’s streets.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the eighth post in the series about our experiences.

We returned from Bai Tu Long Bay to the same Hanoi accommodation we stayed at before our cruise, the Art Boutique Hotel. Our first room, while adequate overall, was compact. It had everything we needed and good air-conditioning, but not much room to maneuver. We rearranged where the laptop computer and supplies for making tea and coffee were on a desk to create more surface space. Luggage racks would have been a big help as well.

The only window was a tiny one in the bathroom. When I booked the room online, I had requested a “quiet” room, and as this was away from the street, the potential for “quiet” was present.

Unfortunately, one evening construction work was going on in the building next door until 10 p.m. We weren’t the only guests who (politely) complained, more than once.

And we also had a problem with the drain in our shower. We mentioned it before going out for our daily activities, but it was not fixed when we returned. There may have been a misunderstanding about the sink vs. shower drain.

After another complaint, made gently in person to the front desk staff, a man came to our room to clean the drain. Many sincere apologies were made by staff for not having solved the issue the first time.

So perhaps to make up for these inconveniences, when we rechecked in, we were given an upgrade to a daylight room at the front of the hotel, with a walk-out balcony and a fine view of old Hanoi. Chairs and tables outside needed a good cleaning, but we did appreciate the overall gesture.

We could hear street and traffic noise, but by bedtime, it wasn’t a problem.

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An early evening view of Hang Dieu Street from the balcony of our room at the Art Boutique Hotel in Hanoi. Space is at a premium, which means it’s easier to build vertically than horizontally.

The next morning, we noted that the breakfast options had been upgraded (more buffet choices, particularly fresh fruit) and the menu had been retyped and resided between new covers. We had been doing fine with baguettes, robust coffee, juice, eggs and pancakes, but it was nice to see the improvements.

As if still trying to make up for the drain and noise issues, a day after we checked out, I received an email thanking us for our patronage and offering a 20 percent discount off our next stay. And if we weren’t planning to return, that our friends and family could use the discount.

As I said in my May 26  post, the welcome mat is out.

On our last half-day in Hanoi, we walked from our hotel in the Old Quarter to Hoan Kiem Lake, where we had visited previously with our Food on Foot night tour (see June 26 post). No cyclo or taxi needed this time. Part of the fun of wandering a city is looking at the shops, what they’re selling, and the busy street vendors, who offer a fantastic variety of wares.

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Ngoc Son Temple (to right of bridge) is a popular spot to visit at Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s reached by crossing the Rising Sun Bridge. The temple is dedicated to Gen. Tran Hung Dao, who repelled the Mongols in the 13th century; La To, a patron saint of doctors; and Van Xuong, a scholar.

We took a leisurely stroll all the way around the lake. An arched, red bridge leads to a small island at the north end of the lake, the chief structure of which is Ngoc Son Temple. There is a charge to walk on the bridge to the islet, and we skipped this.

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This young couple, perhaps newly engaged or newly married, was posing for pictures by the lake. In an earlier photo I took from a distance, she is holding a bouquet of red flowers.

A beautiful young woman, dressed in an ao dai of white, short-sleeved lace top and purple slacks, and a man, possibly her fiancee or husband, made a handsome couple. They were posing for professionally shot pictures on the promenade.

In Ho Chi Minh City the next week, we saw two other brides, in Western traditional white wedding gowns, at two other locations having their wedding pictures taken with their new husbands.

After we completed our lake lap, we had a little time to kill before heading to the airport. I saw a sign in a cafe window that said “egg coffee,” so we headed to the red-facaded Note Coffee.

Its claim to fame: Multicolored Post-it-like notes papering the walls, overlapping the ceiling and flapping in the upstairs windows, thus the name. They aren’t just for decoration, either. All had writing, some in English and other languages, and a good many in Vietnamese.

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The Note Coffee in Hanoi, a place for young trendsetters to hang out, and maybe leave a message for a secret admirer.

The vibe here seemed to be young, hip and a place to court — or moon over — a special someone. For hours at a time.

Susan had an egg coffee — different and not as good as at Giang Cafe on our food tour — but it came with a hand-written note that said (in English): “Have a great time in Hanoi. Enjoy your holiday.” The lighter egg was swirled in the shape of a heart in the middle of the cup.

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A friendly note accompanied our coffee stop across from Hoan Kiem Lake.

After five-and-a-half days covering Hanoi and our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise, it was time to move on to Cambodia.

Cambodia: The heat is on

We touched down at the Siem Reap airport shortly before sunset. The immediate impression: jarring heat, especially noticeable after the comfortable temperature and cloud cover for most of our time in Hanoi and on Bai Tu Long Bay. No skyway from the plane to the terminal here: Visitors walk outside from the tarmac to the airport buildings.

We had both secured our visas before leaving the United States, so we cleared immigration quickly.

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Passport stamps at Siem Reap Airport incorporate the towers of the UNESCO World Heritage site at Angkor Wat.

One exceptional souvenir: the passport stamp for Cambodia. No boring outlined square or rectangle with a date inside, that could be affixed almost anywhere in the world. Vietnam’s immigration stamp features a small airplane, but otherwise it’s without frills.

On arrival, the passport stamp installed in Siem Reap is an octagon, adorned at the top edge with the outline of the famous towers at Angkor Wat, the reason most visitors journey here. The departure stamp is similar, though the exterior border is an oval.

A brilliant red-orange sun was beginning to set as we settled into a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motorized vehicle) that our hotel sent to fetch us (service included as part of the bill) for the 15-minute ride into town.

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This flatbed is turning onto the center lanes of one of the main roads in Siem Reap. For safety, vehicles of lesser size and horsepower are relegated to the lanes on either side of the wider center road.

One of the main roads leading from the airport to town varies by width. The main center lanes are for large vehicles, such as trucks, cars, buses and minivans. On either side sandwiching the center road are narrower lanes for slower vehicles such as scooters and bicycles. Separating the traffic according to horsepower and vehicle size seemed to a workable and safe solution in order to lessen the possibility of accidents.

On National Highway 6, tourists can choose from more than 60 hotels, many of four- and five-star international standard. These hotels, some with spa facilities, are away from the bustle of downtown Siem Reap. Several resorts also boast golf courses, including one designed by six-time major championship winner Nick Faldo.

We opted for an in-town property, walkable to the colorful market, restaurants and several of the local wats (temples).

Our room at the spotless Soria Moria was the most spacious of our trip. The hotel was founded by a Norwegian woman, Kristen Holdo Hansen, who is a big proponent of sustainable and responsible tourism.

Through the years, each of the Cambodian staff, many from impoverished backgrounds, have had a chance to invest in the 38-room hotel. “The goal is for the local employees to own and manage the business independently and continue to help developing their own community,” the website says.

A yearlong exchange opportunity with a hotel in Fornebu, Norway (in greater Oslo), also gives Cambodians a chance to have extensive training in the hospitality industry in Scandinavia, while Norwegians come to work in Siem Reap, everyone benefitting from the raising of cultural awareness. Check the website for other information about how the Soria Moria is empowering its workers through education, literacy and management programs.

Quick reference: Art Boutique Hotel, 65 Hang Dieu St., Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi; artboutiquehotelhanoi.com The company also has two other properties in Hanoi, the Art Trendy Hotel, and the Hanoi Marvellous Hotel and Spa (the newest of the three). The website links to the other hotels.

The Note Coffee: Gui tai 64 Luong Van Can, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, Wat Bo Road, Salakamrouk, Siem Reap, Cambodia; thesoriamoria.com

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