Hanoi Day 4 (12 Aug 19) – A Short Walk Around Hoan Kiem Lake

This is our final day in Hanoi. Our flight departs at 6.30pm, gave us half a day to finish up the few sights that we did not manage to visit on our first day in Hanoi. My friend and I deliberately keep the itinerary today very light, so we can get back to the hotel and freshen ourselves up before leaving for the airport. We very much wanted to visit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. However, when I checked with the staffs at the front desk of the hotel, I was disappointed to be informed that the mausoleum is closed on every Mondays. Guess we will have to visit the next time if we ever come back to Hanoi.

St Joseph Cathedral of Hanoi

After breakfast, we made our way to St Joseph Cathedral of Hanoi, which is located west of Hoan Kiem Lake. St Joseph Cathedral of Hanoi is the oldest church in Hanoi, built in 1886 and is one of the first structures built by the French colonial government. The Neo-Gothic style church has two bell towers that resemble Notre Dame de Paris and is nicknamed Notre Dame of Hanoi. St Joseph Cathedral overlooks a small plaza in front of the church. It is distinct that the original white colour church has given way to soot, with most of the structure covered in patches of black spots, which gives the church an aged character.  The church was not crowded at the time of our visit, allowing us to take pictures of the church without any interruptions. As we entered the church, a staff member of the church informed us that the church will be closing in 1 min, I think we were lucky to have the chance to visit the interior of the church. 1 min is sufficient for us to take some pictures of the interior of the church.

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St Joseph Cathedral of Hanoi

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Taking a wefie at St Joseph Cathedral

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St Joseph Cathedral

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Side building of St Joseph Cathedral

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Inside the St Joseph Cathedral

 

In Search of the Vietnamese Egg Coffee

After exiting the church, my friend wanted to try the famous Vietnamese Egg Coffee that we did not manage to try for the past three days. We went enquired at a few cafes around St Joseph Cathedral and finally managed to find a cafe that sells the Egg Coffee. The Egg Coffee tasted creamy and rich and has a very unique texture to the coffee. After coffee, we walked around this area of Hanoi, stopping by a few shops to do some last-minute shopping for souvenirs. Somehow, we ended up in the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake and popped by a supermarket nearby to shop for souvenirs. Soon it is time to head back to the hotel. When we returned to the hotel, we had some time to take a dip in the swimming pool in the hotel, which helped relieve the summer heat.

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We finally got to try the Vietnamese Egg Coffee

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Hanoi has numerous old buildings such as this

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Statue of Emperor Ly, founder of the Ly Dynasty in Vietnam on the eastern side of Hoan Kiem Lake

Till Next Time, Hanoi

Our arranged airport transfer arrived came 15 mins earlier than the destinated pick up time. Anyways we were ready to depart for the airport for our flight back home. Along the way, the sights we have seen flashed by the car window reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the trip despite being short. The locals are friendlier and more patient than I expected. The sights and the locals that we have come across is what made this Hanoi trip enjoyable.

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Ready to check-in at Hanoi Not Bai Airport

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Taking our last wefie in Hanoi

Afterthought

I thought four days is sufficient to cover most of Hanoi and the surrounding sights such as Halong Bay and Tam Coc unless one is going to Sapa for a trek, which usually requires two days. I thought the day trip is sufficient for Halong Bay and does not require anything more than a day unless one wants to experience sleeping on the cruise ship in Halong Bay. For first-timers going to Hanoi, our itinerary for the four days are as follows for reference:

  • Day 1: Exploring around Hanoi
  • Day 2: Day Trip to Halong Bay
  • Day 3: Day trip to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu
  • Day 4: Finish up the sights in Hanoi

Hanoi Day 3 (11 Aug 19) – Tam Coc & Hoa Lu: Halong Bay on Land and the Ancient Capital

When I started to plan for this short trip to Hanoi, I was certain that Halong Bay is a must-visit destination. I started to look around what other places we can visit for our third day in Hanoi. There were several day trips we could take, it is either we visit Perfume Pagoda, Trang An or Tam Coc & Hoa Lu. The main attraction for Perfume Pagoda is the Buddhist temple complex and there is no pagoda, so we strike that off the list. The main attraction at Trang An is Bai Dinh Pagoda which is completed only recently in 2015. Tam Coc & Hoa Lu gave us a little of nature and a little of history. We chose the day trip to Tam Coc & Hoa Lu.

Onward to Ninh Binh Province

Our trip to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu resides in Ninh Binh Province, about 2½ hours drive south of Hanoi. Our guide, Long, and the driver came by our hotel to pick us up at 7.15am and proceeded to pick up the other four pax in the tour group around Hanoi. Along the way, we drove past numerous paddy fields and saw some graves in the middle of the fields. Long explained that it is customary in Vietnam to have the landowner to be buried in the field in a way to bless the field. As we were driven into a small town in Ninh Binh province, Long drew our attention to a European palace-like building. This is Thanh Thang Palace home to a wealthy Vietnamese businessman who wanted to live in a palace and he spent $17 million to build this palace. The building has a domed gilded roof and elaborately-decorated arch and is inspired by several European styles. Long described this as the Taj Mahal of Vietnam.

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We drove past numerous paddy fields on our way to Tam Coc

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Thanh Thang Palace, the Taj Mahal of Vietnam

After the 2½ hours drive, we reached the first stop of the day. One of the itineraries is to have lunch at the home of a Vietnamese family. This two-storey building has a large front yard and belongs to a wealthy family. Long explained the original owner of this house is a Vietnam war veteran who was handsomely rewarded by the Vietnamese government for his contributions during the war. We rested at this house momentarily before heading out in a bicycle for our ride through the countryside in Tam Coc.

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The Vietnamese House that we will be having lunch

Cycling Through the Countryside of Tam Coc

Long arranged with the owners of the house to loan us bicycles and a traditional Vietnamese straw hat for our ride to the countryside of Tam Coc. The mountain bikes that Long arranged were perfect for the ride through the rough gravel countryside paths that Long led us through. Along the way, we were treated with gorgeous views of the countryside. The field of bright green pastures filled with paddy and what seem like lotus plants as well as some with wild plants in the foreground and limestone mountains draped in their green garments of the summer season in the background seemingly watching over these pastures like their guardian angles are what we see along the way. These limestone mountains looked like those we seen in Halong Bay yesterday, no wonder the locals dubbed Tam Coc as Halong Bay on land. The ride was scenic and relaxing coupled with the unpolluted fresh air of the countryside, and at times we spotted some wild goats taking their forenoon stroll through this area, I totally enjoyed the ride. We rode past the Ngo Dong River and stopped momentarily at a bridge for some photo opportunities.

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We cycled through the countryside of Ninh Binh province

 

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Taking a wefie with our guide, Long

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We pass through this amazing view of the limestone mountains during our cycling

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View of Ngo Dong River

Thai Vi Temple

We made two stops on our 1½ hour ride through the countryside. We arrived at Thai Vi Temple, which was built by King Tran Thai Tong in 1258 after he led a victorious fight against the Mongol Empire. The king gave up his throne to his son and retired to this place after the war and became a monk. The only temple made of entirely of monolithic greenstone, Thai Vi Temple is a small and tranquil temple surrounded by limestone mountains. This temple is a little off the beaten path and there are not many people at the temple at the time our visit. Passing through the small main gateway to the temple, the temple grounds open up to a huge foreyard. A small tower is erected on both sides of the foreyard facing the temple. A drum and a bell are installed in the left and right tower respectively. The grey stone colour temple houses the statue of King Tran Thai Tong. Entering the main temple building, we spotted an old man playing a traditional one-string Vietnamese guitar – Dan Bau and stopped to listen. It is amazing the variety of notes Dan Bau can produce with just a single chord. Long told us this man is the guardian of the temple. He is a musical wiz and can play all sorts of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments and the best thing is he self-taught to play these instruments. The guardian of the temple played another two different types of flutes made of bamboo, the male flute or Sao Truc and the female flute or Sao. We were given some time to walk around the temple grounds. I spotted a tomb-like structure behind the temple building and asked Long about it. Long explained the tomb I saw was the tomb of a general.

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Entrance to Thai Vi Temple

 

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Thai Vi Temple main building

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Thai Vi Temple up close

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The courtyard of Thai Vi Temple

Cavern by the River

After spending another 10 mins, we left Thai Vi Temple and continued our cycling trip around the area. Long led us to a cavern by the bank of Ngo Dong River. The view here is breathtaking. The river snakes around the limestone hills on both sides as though giving in to the might of the hills. Immediately in front of the cavern, another taller limestone mountain with a dragon statue and a pavilion can be seen. For a 500 step climb up this mountain, the view is worth the climb as it allows visitors to truly appreciate the beauty of this Halong Bay on land. We rested for 5 mins and headed back to the Vietnamese house for a traditional Vietnamese lunch.

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Cycling to the caverns near Thai Vi Temple

 

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Wefie by Ngo Dong River

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Limestone mountains from the caverns

Rowing Down to the Three Caves

After lunch, we headed to the bank of Ngo Dong River for our 2-hour boat ride down the river to the three caves. As we were walking to board our boat, Long cautioned us that the vendors will try to sell us drinks and snacks for the boat paddler. He recommended us not to buy these overpriced items and instead tip the paddler if we wanted to. There are numerous small metal boats docked at the boarding area, each boat has a maximum capacity of two visitors (but we did see some boats with three or four adults on it along the way down Ngo Dong River). We boarded one of the boats and soon found ourselves being rowed on Ngo Dong River. We were treated to limestone mountain ranges lining themselves along the river, as though they are welcoming us. It is interesting to see the paddlers in this area uses their legs to row the boat. The boat trip is very peaceful, I would imagine the boat ride will be more pleasant in other seasons when it is not as hot. As we were being rowed on Ngo Dong River, we were able to see numerous limestone mountains, some at a distance while others up close. Regardless of the distance between the mountains and the river, the view was unspoiled and unobstructed. It seems like taking the boat ride along Ngo Dong River is the only way to get close to these mountains as there did not seem to have any road connections.

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This is where we boarded the boat that took us down Ngo Dong River passing through the three caves

 

 

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No wonder they called this place Halong Bay on land

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The scenery along Ngo Dong River

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The scenery along Ngo Dong River

The boat paddler rowed the boat along the bends of the river and the changes in the landscape did not cease to amaze us. Every mountain looks different in shape and size as though each has its own character. We found ourselves coming to the first cave, which provided us with shelter from the hot summer Vietnamese sun. The cave is similar to Luon Cave we visited in Halong Bay yesterday. We were rowed along the river that runs under the limestone mountain. Looking up, we could see the limestone formations underneath the mountain. There is little clearance between the boat at the cave, we were able to touch the ceiling of the cave. The scenery instantly changed from the darkness of the cave to one that has limestone mountain ranges covered with lush green vegetation lined on both sides of the river as soon as we exited the cave. These mountain ranges look as if it stretches forever on both sides of Ngo Dong River.

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The first cave we went under along Ngo Dong River in Tam Coc

 

 

 

Very soon we found ourselves on the part of the river than flows through the second cave, which is relatively shorter than the first cave. It did not take too long for the boat to exit the second cave and continued our journey down the river. We were still taking in the scenery that this Halong Bay on land offers.

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Approaching the second cave along Ngo Dong River

 

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The scenery along Ngo Dong River after the second cave

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The scenery along Ngo Dong River after the second cave

As we were near the third cave, I spotted a few boats on the river with only one person on the boat. These boats gathered at the entrance of the third cave and are the so-called floating market that Long had told us earlier on. Rather than being a real floating market that sells goods where locals can come and buy from like those in Thailand, this floating market is nothing more than a few boats trying to sell their wares to tourists to come down the river on these sightseeing boats. This market looks like they are there for the tourists. Our boat went into the third cave but did not go through the cave unlike the first two we came across. It does seem that there is no way through the third cave from where we were. The third cave looks the same as the first two we saw on our way here. This is where we took a u-turn and headed back from where we came from. Exiting the third cave, our paddle took her momentarily rest for one of these floating market boats pulled up to our boat. True to what Long had told us earlier on, this vendor begin to persuade us to buy a snack and drink for the paddler. I rejected her offer and the paddler noticed no sale from us and started to paddle the boat back to where we embarked from the boat. The scenery looks repetitive on the way back, probably the scenery is still fresh on our mind, and I felt bored after awhile hoping that we would get back sooner.

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Approaching the third cave along Ngo Dong River

 

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The so-called floating market outside the third cave is just the locals trying to ambush tourists in buying their overpriced merchandise

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On our way back to the pier

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Some of the stunning limestone mountains along Ngo Dong River

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On our way back to the pier

Hoa Lu – The First Capital of Vietnam

After some 45 mins rowing on the boat, we reached where we started. The rest of our group mates had already reached the shores and were waiting for us. Long gathered everyone on the vehicle and started to make our way to Hoa Lu ancient citadel, our last destination of the day. The drive from Tam Coc to Hoa Lu ancient citadel took around 25 mins. Along the way, Long narrated the importance of Hoa Lu. Hoa Lu served as the capital of Vietnam in 986 AD when the first emperor of the country, Dinh Tien Hoang united Vietnam. In 1010, when the Ly Dynasty was formed, the emperor shifted the capital to Hanoi, which remains the capital of Vietnam to this day. From the moment we alighted the vehicle, I can see why this area was chosen as the first capital of Vietnam. The limestone mountain ranges serve as a great defence for the palace. A lone Chinese styled stone gate lies at the end of a short bridge over a moat with two stone lion sculptures welcomed us the moment we arrived at Hoa Lu ancient citadel. There are no palace walls or any reminiscence of palace walls here.  As we got closer to the gate, I was a tad disappointed. It appears this gate is relatively new and shows signs of it being rebuilt. Passing through the gate, we were greeted with a sight of a huge piece of empty land, which seems like where the palace of Emperor Dinh originally sat on. These days the only remains of the Dinh Dynasty are the two temples in the grounds of Hoa Lu ancient citadel. I feel this place can be easily replaced with a trip to the top of the mountains with a view of Tam Coc. What we saw was an empty plot of land that replaced the original palace and two rather old temples in Hoa Lu ancient citadel. Without our guide, we would have no context to the importance of these temples and the stories behind them.

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The gate to the ancient capital of Hoa Lu ancient citadel

 

Temple of King Dinh

Long brought us to the Temple of King Dinh, located in one corner inside Hoa Lu ancient citadel. The Temple of King Dinh is a temple that the locals built in the former palace grounds to commemorate King Dinh Tien Hoang. Passing through the main stone entrance to the temple, we came across a small garden before stopping at the second entrance to the temple. At the short wooden temple entrance lies a big stone with dragon carving. Long explained this is a replica of the Dragon Bed that King Dinh used back in 948 AD. A short walk after the wooden entrance, we arrived at the main temple building. With the limestone mountains as the backdrop, the Temple of Kind Dinh is quite a modest building for someone as important as King Dinh in Vietnamese history. The small temple building, mainly made of wood, has very heavy Chinese influence with statues of dragon installed on the roof. A statue of King Dinh is installed in the temple for locals to pay their respects to the late King. The temple and the temple grounds are not large and it did not take us long to look around.

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Introduction to Temple of King Dinh

 

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Temple of King Dinh

 

Temple of King Le

Leaving the Temple of King Dinh, Long brought us to the Temple of King Le, which is located within mere steps away from the Temple of King Dinh. Temple of King Le is another temple that the locals built to commemorate King Le Dai Harm, the commander in chief who succeeded King Dinh. The entrance to Temple of King Le is slightly taller with a two-storey roof structure but with designs that are not as elaborate as that of King Dinh. At the entrance of the temple, Long pointed to another Dragon Bed that was used by King Le. Unlike the one outside the Temple of King Dinh, this Dragon Bed is just a plain stone and does not come with any carving. Similar to Temple of King Dinh, Temple of King Le is made of wood and has simpler decorations on the temple roof. However, the beams at the temple are intricately carved with mythical Vietnamese creatures such as dragons. Temple of King Le is smaller than that of King Dinh, perhaps out of respect to the first emperor of Vietnam. There are three statues installed in the Temple of King Le: statue of King Le Dai Harm, the statue of Empress Duong Van Nga and statue of his successor, King Le Hoan. We did not spend much time in the Temple of King Le due to its size. Long gave us some time to explore around in Hoa Lu citadel, but there is nothing much to explore in this area. The place where the palace was supposed to be at is now an empty plot of land.

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Introduction to the Temple of King Le

 

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Temple of King Le

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Intricate carvings in Temple of King Le

Back to Hanoi

We arrived back to Hanoi a little after 7 pm due to a traffic jam along the way back. My friend and I were the last to be dropped off. After reaching the hotel, we headed back to our room and freshen ourselves before heading out for dinner. We walked along the French quarters in search of dinner and dined at a relatively small restaurant where a group of locals were dining. After dinner, we walked around a little before heading back to the hotel to rest for the night.

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We were able to catch a glimpse of Hanoi Opera House at night when walking around searching for dinner

 

Hanoi Day 2 (10 Aug 19) – Halong Bay: Home of the Descending Dragon

No trip to Hanoi is complete without a trip to the magnificent Halong Bay. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, Halong Bay is busy every day with tourists flocking to this part of Quang Ninh Province to admire the beauty of the bay. Halong literally means descending dragon and got its name from folklore. Legend has it that Halong Bay is formed when the gods send dragons to assist the Vietnamese to fight against their invaders. The family of dragons spit out jewels that turned into islands dotting the bay to form a wall against the invaders. After winning the battle, the dragons liked the peace in the area and decided to live in this bay. Halong Bay consists of 1969 islands and only half of them have been named.

Journey to Halong Bay

At the time of planning, my friend and I were not interested in staying overnight for the sunset or sunrise in the bay. I figured a day trip to Halong Bay is sufficient. We booked our trip to Halong Bay from Klook. The tour company organised a bus to pick us from our hotel at 8.30am, with our guide named Thann. Before setting off from Hanoi, Thann notified the group that we will stop by a pearl farm for 30 mins then head to a nearby marina to board our cruise around Halong Bay. Along the way, Thann gave us some background to the sights we drive by. The drive to Halong Bay took three hours, which my friend and I used to catch up some rest.

Halong Pearl

After travelling for close to 3 hours, we were woken up by Thann who explained Halong Bay used to be populated with floating villages. These floating villages’ main livelihood is pearl farming. Most of these villages have since been shifted to land thanks to new methods of pearl farming. Shortly after, we arrived at one of the pearl farms – Halong Pearl. Thann handed the group over to a guide who explained to us the different types of pearl and their grades. We were given a live demonstration by one of the staffs in Halong Pearl on the intricate methods of cultivating pearls in the oysters. The staff also showed us how they harvest these pearls while explaining the oysters once being harvested, the meat will go on to be made into delicacies and the shell into artworks. After the short demonstration, we were led to a showroom where products of pearls are being sold. This visit to Halong Pearl feels like one of those typical tourist traps that are in every guided tour trips. However, the difference is this company make it feels like something to do so that they can put a tick in the box. With merely 30 mins set aside for this visit, 10 mins of which is used for the explanation of pearl farming, and 20 mins for us to roam around. Needless to say, practically all of the people in the group did not visit the showroom. All of us were just standing outdoors, looking out at Halong Bay in the far distance and eager to sail out to the bay. After the visit to the farm, the tour bus swung by and picked us up. Thann briefed the group that we will be heading to Tuan Chau island in Halong Bay, barely 10 mins drive from Halong Pearl to board our cruise to Halong Bay.

First stop: Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave

The two-deck cruise boat wasted no time and set sail into Halong Bay as soon as the group completed boarding. The lower deck of the cruise boat resembles a restaurant where we were sited at the table, in groups of four. The upper deck, accessible via the stairs in front of the boat is an open deck for tourists to get a better view of the surroundings in Halong Bay. As the boat is pulling away from the marina, Thann told us the three places that we will be visiting around Halong Bay today. As the boat was sailing out to our first stop, Sung Sot Cave, lunch was served course by course. Lunching with the view of the numerous limestone islands in Halong Bay popping out and disappearing before our eyes is absolutely fantastic. These limestone islands stood majestically from the waters in Halong Bay like mushrooms sprouting on the ground after a rain. Some of these islands with tall pillar-like shape are untouched by humans. These numerous limestone islands were formed some 300 million years ago, and if they can talk I would imagine the interesting stories they will tell. Thann would have some stories to share on some of these islands that we are sailing past. In between courses, my friend and I would occasionally head up to the upper deck to take some pictures of the surroundings in Halong Bay. Not all the islands are the same, some islands are tall and slander which seems to make a landing on them impossible. There are islands that have gentle gradients with fields of greeneries that looks like meadows grown on them. Yet there are some that looked bare with their stony and tall cliffs with trees growing on the top of these islands. The waters in the bay are very calm, making sailing onboard through the bay relaxing.

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Panoramic view of Halong Bay

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There are 1969 such limestone islands in Halong Bay

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And we sailed into Halong Bay

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The locals named this “Money Island” as it appeared on the VND200,000 bill

After sailing for almost 1 hour, and having finished our dessert, Thann announced to the group that we have arrived at Bo Hon Island, where the famous Sung Sot Cave is situated. Sung Sot Cave is one of the largest cave in Halong Bay. Thann cautioned that the way to the cave involves a 100 steps climb to the entrance, but we will be rewarded with great views of this part of Halong Bay and the magnificent cave structure. For me, I just want to get away from this Vietnamese summer heat. The stairs case towards Sung Sot Cave is rather narrow, allowing only one person to climb at a time. How right is Thann, as we reached the mid-point of the climb, a viewpoint allows us to see this part of the bay. From this viewpoint, a handful of limestone islands draped with greeneries sitting in the emerald waters coupled with the clear blue sky, the view is stunning. 

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Viewpoint on Bo Hon Island, halfway to the entrance of Sung Sot Cave

We only stayed at the viewpoint momentarily and continued our climb to the entrance of the cave.  It did not take us long to reach the entrance of the cave, the road narrows and we even have to bend at some parts as we go further into the cave. The further we go into Sung Sot Cave, the cave seems to get bigger and bigger. It is difficult to imagine how a small hole in the mountains can grow to such a massive size. The ceiling of the cave is decorated with stalactites like chandeliers. There is a designated one-way path for us to walk in Sung Sot Cave. Not far from the entrance in Sung Sot Cave, Thann gathered our group and brought our attention to a carving on one of the stones in the cave. This is one of those “I have been here” imprint left by visitors to the cave, except that this engraving is left by the French who discovered this cave in 1901. As we walked in the cave, Thann pointed out some rock formations that the locals resemble things they are familiar with in their daily lives. A 15 mins walk inside Sung Sot Cave we came across a cannon, a tortoise (which Thann mentioned we will get good luck by touching its head and I did win the lottery that night after touching the head of the tortoise. Coincidence much?) Romeo and Juliet, a dinosaur head, a giant snakehead amongst other things. At the exit of the cave, we were rewarded with another stunning view of Halong Bay before we descend the stairways towards the pier and boarded our boat to the next stop.

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Halong Bay from the viewpoint outside Sung Sot Cave

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Halong Bay from Bo Hon Island

Next Stop: “Bamboo” Boat Ride to Luon Cave and Lake

The next stop wasn’t far from Sung Sot Cave. It took us 10 mins to sail from Sung Sot Cave to a floating platform where we had the option of either kayaking or take a so-called “Bamboo” boat. We did not want to get wet, hence my friend and I opted for the “Bamboo” boat ride. Our cruise boat came alongside a floating platform which faces a huge limestone cliff that has vegetations grown only towards the top of the island. This is part of Bo Hon Island. After disembarking at the floating platform, we headed to grab a life vest and headed for the “Bamboo” boat ride. The so-called “Bamboo” boat is not made of bamboo, rather it is made of metal capable of carrying up to 12 passengers. The boat is manually paddled by a staff member. I guess the former incarnation of this boat ride was made of bamboo and the tour operators might have figured replacing it with the metal boat not only saves maintenance cost, but it is also safer for passengers. They did retain the manual paddling of the boat which might be the only link between now and then.

The “Bamboo” boat was quickly filled up with passengers from our cruise. We were lucky to snag the front row seats on the boat as these seats gave us great views of the surroundings and are also best for photo taking. The paddler started to paddler the boat towards the huge cliff in front of us. Below the cliff, there is an opening roughly around 2m or so, sufficient for the paddler to do his job standing up. This opening is Luon Cave. It is an amazing feeling passing through the underside of the cliff that stood like a pillar holding up the sky. In Luon Cave, we can see the formation of limestones that seem to drip into the emerald waters below. The limestone formations in Luon Cave is not as impressive as that we saw in Sung Sot Cave. In Luon Cave, we were able to see limestone that stood the erosions throughout the millions of years since these karsts were formed. At some parts, it seems that a thin piece of limestone is holding up the entire cliff. I can’t help but wonder what will happen if the limestones give way while we were paddling under the cave.

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The way to Luon Lake is through Luon Cave

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The limestone formation in Luon Cave

Luon Cave is not a huge cave. It took the paddler 5 mins to paddle to the other side of the cave. At the end of the cave tunnel, the scenery opens up to a body of water. This is the Luon Lake. Luon Lake is surrounded by a range of limestone mountains on this part of the island and it seems the only way to gain access to this lake is through Luon Cave. Here the waters are calmer and there is a chance that we might see some monkeys which lived on this park of Bo Hon Island. But the monkeys do not seem to be at home at the time we visited. The air in Luon Lake is still with no wind, our paddler was wise to paddle the boat to a shady area, away from the hot summer sun. Here we are, sitting in the boat and not making headway enjoying what would otherwise be a peaceful scenery not for the singing of two boats filled with Chinese tourists. Luckily they left moments after our arrival, thus returning the peace to this area. The tranquillity coupled with the dangerous rocky mountain ranges, each covered with thick vegetation, making this spot a very relaxing spot. We enjoy watching the kayakers on their kayaks, some struggling to keep their kayak on a straight course, others having water warfare with their fellow kayakers. We stayed here for another 10 mins before our paddler made a U-turn and paddled the boat back to the floating platform through Luon Cave.

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Kayakers at Luon Lake

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Luon Lake is very peaceful

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It took us about 5 mins to paddle through Luon Cave to reach Luon Lake

Final Stop: Ti Top Island

We boarded our cruise boat once again and sailed pass the islands of Halong Bay for another 20 mins to our next destination – Ti Top Island. Thann came on his portable PA system and informed the group that our next and final stop of this day trip around Halong Bay would be Ti Top Island. We were given 30 mins on the island to either swim on the beach or to climb up to the top of the island. My friend and I looked at each other and exclaimed: “we will do the climb”. As we approached Ti Top Island, we saw the number of people swimming in the small beach of Ti Top Island, my friend and I was glad that we took the option of climbing to the top of the island. After landing on Ti Top Island, we headed to the stairs for the climb to the top of the island, passing the small beach for those who want to swim in the sea. The beach is very small and was overcrowded with visitors. There is barely any space for anyone do to decent swim or to relax by the beach.

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Ti Top Island

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The small and crowded beach on Ti Top Island

The climb took us 15 mins to reach the top of the island. Halfway up the long and narrow stairs to the top of the island, we came across a viewpoint which offered yet another stunning view of Halong Bay. Here we saw Islands surrounding the waters around Ti Top Island with dozens of cruise boats anchoring off the island. After taking some pictures, we headed up to the top of the island. After another 7 mins climb, we reached the top of Ti Top Island. A pavilion sits with a commanding view of the view of Halong Bay at the top of the hill. There is a small crowd at the pavilion. From the pavilion, we were able to get a stunning 360° view of Halong Bay. The view here is breathtaking! If not for the number of people up here, the pavilion can be a perfect spot to enjoy the tranquil in Halong Bay. There are two views at the pavilion. On the more crowded side, numerous limestone islands resting in the calm emerald waters of Halong Bay nearer to Ti Top Island can be seen. One can even see the islands that spread in Halong Bay over the horizon. The view here is perfect for photo taking. I find the other view at the pavilion to be less scenic perhaps partly due to vegetation next to the pavilion and partly due to the bright sun. Nonetheless, this side of the pavilion provides a great spot for a sunset viewing of Halong Bay. 

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Panoramic view of Halong Bay from the top of Ti Top Island

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Panoramic view of Halong Bay from the other side of the pavilion

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View of Halong Bay from the top to Ti Top Island

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View of Halong Bay from the top to Ti Top Island

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Taking a wefie at the top of Ti Top Island

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View of the Halong Bay from Ti Top Island

After spending a good 5 mins at the pavilion, it is time for us to descend from the hilltop and get to the rendezvous point with the rest of the group. We boarded the boat as soon as Thann has accounted for all the people in the group. The cruise boat sailed back to the marina once everyone has boarded. On the way back, we sailed past the islands that we saw on our way out. At this point, the scenery felt a little repetitive. It took us another 45 mins to reach the marina.

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Last look of Halong Bay

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Last look of Halong Bay

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We sailed on this peaceful waters of Halong Bay back to the marina

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Halong Bay near sunset

Back to Hanoi

We were ferried back to Hanoi on the 3-hour bus ride after disembarking from the cruise boat. The air conditioner on the bus is a huge relief to the hot weather. As we would reach Hanoi at around 8 or 9pm, we requested Thann to drop us at the walking street so that we can grab dinner before heading back to the hotel to rest. We alighted near the walking street and made our way to one of the restaurants on the north of Hoan Kiem Lake. We spotted this restaurant the night before. Cau Go restaurant sits on top of the building that was able to provide us with a great view of the entire area at night. Tonight there seems to be some outdoor concert going on. The street is crowded with people, especially near to the stage where the concert is held. After dinner, we headed to the Trang Tien Plaza for a short walk. Trang Tien Plaza mainly sells branded goods such as LV, Gucci to name a few. There did not seem to be people shopping in these shops, the plaza is still crowded with shoppers, who like us, were here for the air conditioning. We headed back to the hotel to rest for the night. After all, we still have an early day for our trip to Tam Coc the next day.

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View of Hoan Kien Lake from Cau Go Restaurant

Hanoi Day 1 (9 Aug 19) – Hello Vietnam, Hello Hanoi

My friend and I visited Hanoi over a super long weekend in Singapore. Since we have never been to Vietnam before, it would be interesting to explore a new country. The flight schedule for our trip was perfect for us to maximise our short stay in Hanoi, the first flight out of Singapore and last flight back home. During the planning of this trip, I gathered that most of the sights in Hanoi can be explored in a day or two. Hanoi is a gateway to the magnificent Halong Bay.  

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Landing into Hanoi Airport

Arrival at Hanoi

It takes 3½ hours flying from Singapore to Hanoi. Our flight arrived at Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport slightly before noon. Clearing custom at Hanoi Airport was a breeze, very soon we found ourselves at the concourse of the airport looking for our pre-booked airport transfer. It took us another 40 mins to reach the hotel we were staying, which is in the heart of Hanoi. After checking in, my friend and I wasted no time and headed out to explore the sights in Hanoi after settling our luggage in our room. Most of the sights in Hanoi are located West of Hoan Kiem Lake and only a handful are found in the French Quarter, where our hotel is located.

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Arrival at Hanoi Noi Bai Airport

Exploring Hanoi

Since we have more time to spare for today, our plan is to visit the sights in West of Hoan Kiem Lake, which is further away from the hotel and leave the few sights in the French Quarter, nearer to the hotel on the last day prior to our departure.

Hanoi Opera House

Our first stop of the day is the Hanoi Opera House which is a mere 3 mins walk from the hotel we were staying. The Hanoi Opera House is a yellow building that overlooks a roundabout in the French Quarters. The European influenced building was completed in 1911, designed by French architects. The facade of the building has eight roman columns that seemingly supporting the roof. There are five Roman styled balconies on the facade of Hanoi Opera House. The Opera House now functions as a venue for local and international plays. As our time is limited today, plus I figured we will not be able to enter the Opera House without watching a play, we decide to head to the other sights in the Old Quarter in Hanoi.

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The European inspired Hanoi Opera House

Hoan Kiem Lake and the Turtle Tower

Departing from the Opera House, we headed towards the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Along the way, we passed by the southern part of Hoan Kiem Lake. My friend and I decided to take a slight detour and spend some time at Hoan Kiem Lake. Hoan Kiem Lake these days is where locals hang out in the midst of the hot summer sun. The shades provided by the trees planted around the lake makes it an ideal spot to hide from the heat by the sun. From the southern part of Hoan Kiem Lake, we spotted the iconic Turtle Tower sitting isolated on a small island in the lake. The Turtle Towel, also known as Thap Rua Tower to the locals, is a three-storey white structure built on an island that does not seem to be accessible to visitors. The architecture of the Turtle Tower seems to be heavily influenced by the Chinese, with  Chinese styled roofs and dragons sculptures on the roof of the tower. There did not seem to be any works done to restore or refreshen the Turtle tower.

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Thap Rua or Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake

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One of the French-styled buildings that are a common sight in Hanoi

Flag Tower of Hanoi

After taking some pictures and taking a momentary break from the heat of the sun, my friend and I continued our journey to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. The walk to the citadel took us about 25 mins. Along the way, we passed by Hanoi Military Museum. We decided to skip visiting the museum as we are not interested in visiting the Hanoi Military Museum as it displays the equipment that was used during the war. We skirted the parameters of the museum and came across the iconic Flag Tower of Hanoi. One will not miss the Flag Tower as it has a huge flag of Vietnam flying on the top of the tower. The 33m Flag Tower was built in 1812 as an observatory tower to the citadel. We stopped by the tower to take some pictures and headed to the citadel, which is about 5 mins walk from the Flag Tower of Hanoi.

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Flag Tower of Hanoi up close

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Take a wefie with the Flag Tower of Hanoi

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

After some walking, we finally reached the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. We initially did not plan to stay at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long for too long. From my research of this site, I thought the southern gate is the only attraction to this place, which would take us at most 15 mins tops. However, once we pass through the gate, there are more things to see at this site. Passing through the ticketing building, a large well-manicured courtyard befitting of that found in oriental palaces was before our eyes. Further into the background is the South Gate of the palace, the only remaining structure of the palace that visitors can get up close to. The South Gate was part of the surrounding wall to the palace and acts as the main entrance to the palace in its hay days. A two-storey yellow building sits on the palace walls with a commanding view of the courtyard as well as the Flag Tower of Hanoi. We passed through the gate to the back of the wall, here is where one can climb up an easy flight of stairs to the top of the wall. There is nothing much inside the building on top of the wall, but the view here is amazing. We spotted an abandoned building behind the South Gate.

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The southern gate of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, the only remaining structure of the Imperial Palace

Just when we thought we were done with this site, we spotted a number of visitors heading further into the complex instead of heading towards the main entrance. Curious, we followed their footsteps and discovered there are more to see at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long than the South Gate. Along the way, we spotted a building that seems to be air-conditioned, a great relieve for us from the scorching sun. We entered this building to find that there are displays of the relics that were being dug up during the archaeological digs within the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. We walked further into the complex and found some buildings that randomly displays items that are not related to the history of the Imperial Palace, rather these exhibits give us a good understanding of the culture and the livelihood of the Vietnamese. After a while, the buildings seem repetitive and we got a little bored of this place. We headed out from where we came from after spending about 45 mins in the Imperial Palace. Time to head to our next destination.

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The South Gate from inside the complex

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

We did not expect to spend so much time in the Citadel of Thang Long. As it is approaching 5pm, the closing time of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, we took a Grab to the mausoleum hoping that we can visit before it closes. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is one of the must-visits in Hanoi, it is where the father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s body lies for visitors to pay their respect. We arrived at the entrance of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at around 4.30pm and was told by the guard that the mausoleum has stopped accepting visitors. Disappointed, we headed to the next destination, the One Pillar Pagoda, which is next to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

One Pillar Pagoda

In order for us to get to the Pagoda, we had to skirt around the parameters of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The alternate entrance to One Pillar Pagoda at where the entrance of the Ho Chi Minh Museum is. From this entrance, we turned right and walked around the Soviet styled building to reach the entrance of a small temple. The One Pillar Pagoda is located inside the temple. I would have expected to see a tall structure as the “pagoda” word associated with the name of this attraction seems to suggest that. When I came to the entrance to the temple, I was a little sceptical that the pagoda is located within the temple grounds as there did not seem to be any tall structures insight. As we were entering the temple, we were stopped by one of the monks in the temple who told us that our Bermudas are too short. Well, we unfolded our Bermudas and the monk gave us the green light to proceed to the One Pillar Pagoda. It turns out visitors to the One Pillar Pagoda should at least wear shorts that cover their knees. As we passed through the door to what seems like a garden behind the temple, a short structure came into our sight. The One Pillar Pagoda is essentially a wooden house built on a single stone pillar in the middle of a small lotus pond. The original One Pillar Pagoda was destroyed in 1954 by the French, the structure today is rebuilt from in 1955. My friend and I walked up to the stairs to the One Pillar Pagoda and paid our respects to the deity that is installed in the small temple complex. As we were walking around, we spotted some westerners in shorts shorter than ours. This is when we realise there is an alternate entrance to the One Pillar Pagoda which does not require one to go through the temple. The dress code is more relaxed from this alternate entrance.

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The One Pillar Pagoda

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The One Pillar Pagoda

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The temple where the One Pillar Pagoda is housed

Tran Quoc Pagoda and West Lake

Tran Quoc Pagoda located on a small island in the southeastern part of the West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi, is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. Our Grab driver was nice enough to make a U-turn in the busy road and dropped us right in front of the temple, saving us the need to cross the busy road. Exiting the car, the rustic brown 11 tiered pagoda is immediate insight. We can’t hold our excitement upon seeing this iconic pagoda and start snapping pictures while we were on the bridge leading towards the pagoda. As the temple closes at 5pm, according to google, we were not hopeful that we would be able to enter the temple grounds. Nonetheless, we approached the door to the temple hoping to get a more close up shot of Tran Quoc Pagoda. We were surprised to have found out that the temple is still open at the time of our visit. My friend and I wasted no time and head inside the temple to see the pagoda up close.

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The iconic Tran Quoc Pagoda

Tran Quoc Pagoda is housed in the temple grounds immediate to the left of the entrance to the temple. Standing amongst a forest of Buddhist stupas, Tran Quoc Pagoda is the tallest amongst the stupas. Up close there are statues of Buddhas being placed on every tier in each side of the brick laid pagoda. There are a couple of temple buildings in the grounds Tran Quoc Pagoda is housed in. One of the temple building is closed to the public, while the other building has statues of monks being installed in them. Tran Quoc Pagoda temple complex is rather small, it did not take us more than 10 mins walking around the temple complex.

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Taking a wefie with the Tran Quoc Pagoda

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Tran Quoc Pagoda up close amongst the Buddhist stupas in the temple complex

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The West Lake, Hanoi’s biggest lake where the Tran Quoc Pagoda is located

It was time for dinner, my friend and I wanted to taste some authethanic Vietnamese food. I am not much of a foodie and for my trips, I usually settle whatever restaurant or food join that I bumped into along the way. As we are not familiary with this area, we did a Google search for any Vietnamese restaurants nearby. Amongst the few restaurants that popped up on Google map, my friend and I settled in a restaurant named Home nearby the West Lake for our first Vietnamese meal in Hanoi. The food was tasty and flavourful and I particularly liked the decor and ambience of the restaurant. We were recommended Bun Cha which originated from Hanoi.

Hanoi at Night

After dinner, our plan was to head back to the hotel and rest for the night as we had to wake up early the next day for our day trip to Halong Bay. As we alighted from the Grab car, we noticed the street we passed by this morning was closed to traffic. We were surprised to see that the busy street next to Hoan Kiem Lake filled with traffic a few hours ago is now emptied of vehicles. In replacement, the locals came out to relax and walk along the street. The vibe of this area at night is totally different from the day. At night, it feels as though the locals came out to party. There were people gathering around in circle playing, or street performers dancing and singing. As we were walking, we spotted the Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem and the Ngoc Soc Temple illuminated at night.

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This part of the street is closed to traffic and people just stroll along the road

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Ngoc Soc temple in Hoan Kiem Lake at night

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Turtle Tower at night

We continued walking along the street and came across the Hanoi Night Market, which is only opened during the weekends. Stalls after stalls in the night market seem to stretch with no end in mind. The night market resembles those we seen in Thailand and the goods on sale seem repetitive after a while. We managed to walk to the end of the night market and decided to head back to the hotel to rest for the night.

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Hanoi Night Market

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Locals come out at night to shop along the street

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 8 (25 May 18) – Shopping In Namba Area and Night View of Osaka City from Umeda Sky Tower

 

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Namba Shopping District

Our shopping day today lands us at Namba area. At the time we arrived at Namba area, most of the shops are still closed. Shops in Namba area opens at 10am. As we still have time, my friend and I went over to the Nankai Train Station to attempt to redeem our train tickets to Kansai International Airport for tomorrow when we depart Kansai. We had previously purchased the tickets online. However, at the station, we were told to head over to OCAT Building to redeem the vouchers and come back here for the tickets. Since the shops are still not opened yet, we headed to OCAT Building which took us about 10 mins walk from Nankai Train Station. After redeeming the vouchers, we headed back to Nankai Train Station and sorted out the tickets. I told my friend we were lucky that we had decided to settle our train tickets on today rather than on the day of our departure, as it would be too rush to have to sort out the tickets the next day. On the hindsight, we should not have ordered the tickets online and should have purchased the tickets at the train station instead, this will save us the time walking back and forth.

Other than the Takashimaya Department store above Namba subway station, I find shopping in Namba a tad confusing. The shops seem to be arranged overall the place, feels very different from Osaka Station (might be due to the fact that we were rather familiar with the shopping in Osaka Station, after all, we have been passing through there since day 1 of our arrival in Kansai). Unlike most departmental stores, which has only at most 2 levels dedicated to men’s section, Takashimaya in Namba has men’s section in every floor, occupying a corner of each floor. Walking through Takashimaya seem no different from the other departmental stores we have visited. We left Takashimaya and headed to Carnival Mall. Carnival Mall does not have departmental stores, it is like HEP5 Shopping Mall we visited the day before. There are independent stores in Carnival Mall. Most of the men’s stores are located on the top 2 floors of Carnival Mall.

Shinsaibashi Shopping Street

After we were done with Carnival Mall, we headed for Shinsaibashi Shopping Street. We originally wanted to take a subway from Namba to Shinsaibashi but upon seeing a shopping street across from Takashimaya Departmental store, we decided to check it out. Ebisubashi-Suji is where we ended up. Ebisubashi-Suji is a covered shopping street with shops on both sides of the street. Most of these shops are pharmacies. There seem to be a pharmacy on every street and spaced out every few shops. Most of the products offerings are about the same, some shops do not offer tax refund here.

As we were walking, suddenly the place seems familiar. We ended up in Dotonbori without us realising. That is the food street that we have been coming for the past few days. As we were a little hungry, my friend and I got the takoyaki balls that was sold out shortly after we gotten ours a few nights ago. From Dontonbori, I told my friend we do not have to take the subway after all Shinsaibashi Shopping Street is just right across the bridge.

We got to Shinsaibashi after eating our takoyaki balls. Shinsaibashi is another cover shopping street that seems no different from Ebisubashi-Suji. There are the same pharmacies that seem to be everywhere and shops selling sports shoes. The price of the goods is not any different from Ebisubashi-Suji. My friend has gotten a pair of shoes and we had gotten backpacks from the Adidas shop. After some walking, we thought the shops are getting repetitive and decided to head back to our accommodation to leave our stuff before heading out for dinner. My friend had to collect the pants that he bought the day before near Osaka Station.

Umeda Sky Building

After collecting my friend’s pants, we headed for dinner. We ended our trip to Kansai, Japan by visiting the Umeda Sky Building. Umeda Sky Building is a 10 mins walk from the nearest Osaka Station. It is pretty out of the way compared to the rest of the attraction. Umeda Sky Building Observatory is also covered under the 2-Day Osaka Amazing Pass. Most visitors come here for the sunset over Osaka City and that is also the time when it is most crowded. The journey observation deck is one of the highlights when visiting the tower. The iconic floating escalator that connects the 2 building towers had us feel as though we were floating in the sky. The observation has 2 levels, the lower level is the enclosed area where we had a 360º view of Osaka city. However, the view from the upper open observation deck is more stunning. From the upper deck, we had an almost unobstructed view of the city. The view here is much better than that from the HEP5 Ferries Wheel. As it was at night at the time we arrived, the upper level is illuminated with ultraviolet lights. These lightings have the floor illuminated looking like stars in the sky. It is windy here and from here we could see the floating escalator that we have travelled on. Looking out into Osaka City, this is a great way to end our trip to Kansai. Ironically our trip to Hokkaido last year also ended up with a night view of Sapporo. We headed back to our accommodation to pack our luggage for tomorrow’s flight home. After visiting 2 Japanese Cities 2 years in a row, we are unlikely to return to Japan until some time later. It is off to explore other countries and other cities in the world.

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Panoramic shot of Osaka at night from Umeda Sky Building

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Our last wefie in Osaka

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 7 (24 May 18) – Creating Instant Noodles and Shopping Around Osaka Station

 

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View of Osaka City from HEP5 Ferries Wheel

We spent the last 2 days of our Kansai trip in Osaka. Unlike my previous trips where I did not cater time for shopping, we dedicated 2 days to shop around in Osaka. There are 2 main shopping areas in Osaka, 1 at Osaka Station and another at Namba area. Today we shopped around in Osaka Station Area.

Cup Noodles Museum

Our first stop today is the Cup Noodles Museum. There are 2 Cup Noodles Museum in Japan, one of which is located in Osaka. To get to the museum, we took the train to Ikeda station (this station is not covered under the 2 day Osaka Amazing Pass) and walked for about 5 mins. The Cup Noodle Museum is relatively empty at the time of our visit. Entrance to the museum is free. Once inside the museum, there are exhibits on the origins of cup noodles and cup noodles were prepared and sold in the early days. There is even a mock-up shed where the world’s first instant noodles were created and how it was created. Down the hall, there is a tunnel display of the instant noodles that was sold in Japan throughout the decades.

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Nissin Cup Noodle Museum in Ikeda

The highlight of this place is that we get to make our own cup noodles. My friend and I each bought an empty cup (at ¥300 each) and was escorted to a table where we start doodling on the cups. After we were done drawing our cup, we approached the end of the room where we customised our cup noodles with ingredients and flavouring. Our customised cup noodles were sealed right before our eyes before they were given to us as a souvenir for us to bring back. We headed to the 2nd floor of the museum where there is a class for visitors to make the ramen noodles from kneading the dough to the finished product of the noodles. My friend and I did not participate in this activity. It took us about 1 hour to finish visiting the Cup Noodle Museum.

Shopping in Osaka Station

We headed for shopping at Osaka Station. There are a number of shopping malls in the vicinity of Osaka JR Station. We headed for the HEP5 Shopping Mall, which is across the road from Osaka Station. The HEP5 Shopping Mall has 6 levels and sells mainly clothing and shoes. We saw the ferries wheel on top of this building and will be back later in the evening after the shops are closed. After shopping around in HEP5, we headed to the departmental stores right on top of Osaka station. The Daimaru store occupies 15 storeys while the Lucca occupies 10 storeys. There is another Hankyu Departmental Store across Osaka Station. We did not go into this store as the product offerings are the same in all these departmental stores.

HEP5 Ferries Wheel

One good thing about getting the Osaka Amazing Pass is that other than allowing us to take the subway for free, we can also visit 36 spots for free. Some of these include riverboat ride, entering the Osaka Castle and taking a ride on HEP5 Ferries Wheel. My friend and I returned to HEP5 at about 8pm, after most of the shopping malls have closed to ride on the Ferries Wheel. The HEP5 Ferries Wheel is located on the 7th floor of the building. The ride on the ferries wheel takes about 15 mins, with the highest point being 106m from the ground. The views on the ferries wheel aren’t that great as the glass looks blurry and we did not have a good view of Osaka city. I would not have ridden on it if it is not covered under the Osaka Amazing Pass. After taking the ferries wheel, we headed back to our accommodation to rest.

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HEP5 Ferries wheel is located on top of a shopping mall

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On the streets of Osaka at night

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 6 (23 May 18) – The Temples of Kyoto: Wandering Through the Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari-Taishi, to the Zen Gardens of Ginkakuji, to the Majestic Water Temple of Kiyomizu-Dera

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Torii gates of Fushimi Inari-Taishi

Fumishi Inari-Taishi (伏見稲荷大社)

Visitors to Kyoto will bound to make a visit to Fushimi Inari-Taishi, a shrine that is dedicated to The God of Rice, Inari. The shrine was built in 711, just celebrated its 1300th anniversary recently. Our journey to Kansai today brought us to Eastern Kyoto, our first stop is The Temple of Thousand Torii Gates – Fumishi Inari-Taishi. We were hoping to get to the shrine early to avoid bumping into huge crowds, after all, Fushimi Inari-Taishi is one of the visited and photographed spots in Kyoto. I figured it would be boring (not mentioning mainstream) if we just visited the main shrine and walking through the very busy Senbon Torii, other than these sites, we planned to hike up to the top shrine in Mt Inari, hoping to get a good view of the surroundings from the top. The 4km hike up Mt Inari would take about 2 hours. Despite the drizzle, Fushimi Inari-Taishi is still packed with crowds. At Romon (樓門), the main gate of Fushimi Inari-Taishi, we spotted a single storey structure that is decked in bright red pillars and beams with white coloured walls, as the centre part built slightly higher than the side structures.  A little further from Romon sits Honden (本殿), the main shrine of Fushimi Inari-Taishi. Visitors are only allowed to pay their respects to the 5 deities enshrined here at the entrance of the shrine, where 5 bells are installed for prayers to ring prior to their prayers.

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We were greeted with hordes of visitors at Romon, the main entrance to Fushimi Inari-Taishi

After paying our respects at Honden, we started our hike up Mt Inari through the first stretch Torii Gates, know as Senbon Torii (千本鳥居). Senbon Torii has the highest concentration of torii gates, estimated to be thousands. The torii gates are lined up almost back to back with very little gaps. Walking through these bright red torii gates gives me an almost magical feeling. I have been seeing pictures of Senbon Torii, and now that I am here, it just feels so surreal. Owing to its fame, the number of visitors here is also the highest. It is very difficult to take pictures of the torii gates at Senbon Torii without capturing someone in the shot. My friend and I ended up walking through the torii gates, taking very few pictures. At one point under these torii gates, we came to a split path. The right side leads upwards towards the inner shrine, whereas the left path is for visitors to descend from the inner shrine. Moments later we arrived at the inner shrine of Okusha (奥社奉拝所). There are 3 buildings at Okusha, 2 for temple administrations and 1 is where the deity is enshrined. We also spotted a queue where people seem to be touching some stone. As the queue was rather long, plus we have to cater time to hike up Mt Inari, we did not join the queue.

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The torii gates at Senbon Torii Gates

Fushimi Inari-Taishi consists of many smaller shrines spreading on Mt Inari, which we spotted on the hike up to Mt Inari. The torii gates pass Okusha are much larger than those we have seen so far. This part of Fushimi Inari-Taishi is where the crowd started to thin out. From here onwards, we were able to take more pictures with no people in it. Along the way, we saw Kumatakasha (熊鷹社) shrine with a large lake behind it. Along the way, we also came to a rest area. There is a small tea house looking shop that sells food and drinks. I highly recommend people making a trip to Fushimi Inari-Taishi to make a hike up here. It is here we saw Kyoto city from a higher ground. We continued our way up the peak, along the way seeing more smaller shrines. Some shrines are bigger while others seem to be a cluster of smaller shrines. At some points of the path, it felt that the shrines have merged with nature. The forest air is crisp and fresh, possibly due to the rain. We finally reached the top of Mt Inari where the shrine Inchinomine (一ノ峰) is located. We were a tad disappointed that there are no viewpoints at the peak of Mt Inari. From Inchinomine, the path turns downhill. The shrines here are more spread out. We also spotted some torii gates that seem to be newly installed. We see more nature on our way down. Once at the base of Mt Inari, we headed to Kyoto JR Station for our next destination.

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View of Southeastern Kyoto from Mt Inari

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The Shrine on the top of Mt Inari

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺)

We originally planned to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace after we are done with Fushimi Inari-Taishi. However, due to the downpour, we spent additional time at Fushimi Inari Taishi, which caused us to miss the English guided tour timing. We decided to change our destination and wanted to visit Kiyomizu-Dera. While queuing for the bus, we realised bus number 100 goes to both Kiyomizu-Dera and Ginkakuji. We decided to make a trip to Ginkakuji. Ginkakuji is a short walk from the bus stop we alighted. Along the way, we walked past the famed Philosopher’s walk. I told my friend we would take a look at Philosopher’s walk if we have the time after visiting Ginkakuji.

Ginkakuji is built in 1482 and served as the retirement villa for the owner, mirroring the Kinkakuji which was built by the owner’s grandfather. Ginkakuji was converted to a temple after the owner’s death in 1490. The named Ginkaku was given when the owner wanted to cover the pavilion with silver foil, however, this did not materialise till the day the owner passed on. Entering Ginkakuji, there is a short walk from the main gate before we reach the inner gate. Passing the inner gate, the highlight of Ginkakuji, Kannon-den (観音殿)or Ginkaku (銀閣) was on the right of the entrance. Ginkaku is a 2 storey wooden structure sitting by a small pond. The silver pavilion is much simpler and smaller than Kinkakuji, perhaps due to the owner does not want to dwarf the works of his grandfather. Ginkaku still retains its original look (and colour) the day it was built. Similar to Kinkakuji, a silver phoenix taking flight stands on the roof of Ginkaku. Having visited Kinkakuji the day before, looking at Ginkakuji feels like a knockoff from its golden version. Afterall it is modelled after its famous golden version.

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Ginkaku, the Silver Pavilion

Next to Ginkakuji is where Kogetsudai (向月台) is located. The Kogetsudai is a large open space with a volcano structure made of white sand, which represents waves and Mt Fuji. Next to Kogetsudai sits the Hondo (本堂) and Togudo(東求堂) side by side. Built of wood, the Hondo is out of bounds and is one of the largest buildings in Ginkakuji. Similarly, the Togudo is also made of wood, this is the oldest Shoin style building that has survived earthquakes and fires throughout the centuries.

Perhaps the most iconic feature of Ginkakuji is its zen gardens. Almost half the area is dedicated to the zen gardens. There are 4 ponds in Ginkakuji in total, of which 3 are visible to visitors. Passing the Toguko, a path that leads to the moss gardens in Ginkakuji, which leads to a viewpoint up a small hill. Walking around the gardens feels therapeutic and peaceful. From the viewpoint up in the hills, we can see the whole of Ginkakuji and the town in Northeastern Kyoto. Ginkakuji is rather small, it took us 30 mins to finish walking around the grounds of Ginkakuji. Unless one is interested in zen gardens or happens to have spare time (like us), Ginkakuji is hardly worth the time to travel to this part of Kyoto. We originally wanted to take a walk down Philosopher’s Path, however, after walking past, it felt like walking behind someone’s backyard. We gave up the idea of walking down Philosopher’s Path and headed for our next destination in Kyoto.

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View of Ginkakuji and northeastern Kyoto from the hill in Ginkakuji

Kiyomizu-Dera (清水寺)

We took the same bus that brought us to Ginkakuji to Kiyomizu-Dera, which is one of the more iconic temples in Kyoto. It took us 7 mins to walk from the bus stop to Kiyomizu-Dera, passing by some wooden buildings along the way. Walking on this street feels as if we are being taken back in time. The street is now filled with shops selling souvenirs. Kiyomizu-Dera is at the end of this street, the first indication of arriving at the temple is the bright red 2 stories main gate. The 14m tall Nio-mon (仁王門) is the main gate that welcomes visitors daily. Sitting on top of a flight of stairs, Nio-mon looks commanding. Walking past Nio-mon, just right behind it, is where the Sai-mon (西門) is located. We were not particularly impressed with the Sai-mon, but are more captivated by the 3 stories red pagoda behind it. From Sai-mon, we spotted another pagoda across on the other side of Kiyomizu-Dera.

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Nio-mon, the main gate to  Kiyomizu-Dera

As it was approaching closing time (we only had 45 mins at the time we arrived at Kiyomizu-Dera). My friend and I wasted no time and headed into the main hall – Hondo (本堂). The Stage in Hondo is the most iconic feature in Kiyomizu-Dera, thanks to the location it is built on. The Stage is essentially a veranda, protruding out of the Hondo, built on the steep cliff, supported by 18 pillars that measure 13m tall. However we were a tad disappointed to learn that Kiyomizu-Dera is undergoing preservations works, most the iconic Kiyomizu Stage is covered in canvas and scaffolds, except for a small section that allowed us to take a peek down from the veranda. After offering our respects to the god in Hondo, my friend and I proceeded to the other parts of Kiyomizu-Dera.

From Hondo, there is a path that splits into lower and upper path in Kiyomizu-Dera. We took the upper path as this is where we can get a good view of Hondo. There are a couple of buildings on this side of Kiyomizu-Dera, the Okuno-in Hall (奧の院) resembles Hondo, but at a smaller scale. Similar to Hondo, there is a veranda at Okuno-in Hall where we got great shots of Hondo (if not for the hideous canvas). We continued on the path leading to the pagoda located opposite Hondo. From Hondo, this pagoda seems far, but the distance between the 2 structures is not as far as it seems. Arriving at this pagoda, it looks the same as the first pagoda next to Nio-mon. As Kiyomizu-Dera is closing soon (announcements were being made on its closing time), we headed for the waterfalls in the temple grounds.

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The veranda at Okuno-in Hall is a great picture spot of Hondo

Coming from the pagoda, we took the lower path that leads to the waterfall. Otowa no taki (音羽の瀧) is one the iconic features in Kiyomizu-Dera. It is the pure waters from the mountains here that gives the temple its name. Otowa no taki is a pavilion that has 3 streams of water flowing down from the mountains. It is believed that each of these streams grants different wishes, but drinking from all 3 streams will bring bad luck. I tried drinking from one of the streams, the water tasted like tap water and is very refreshing. One of the good thing about coming to Kiyomizu-Dera when it is about to close is the absence of large crowds, my friend and I did not have to queue for the spring water nor are there crowds that obscure us from taking pictures. If one were to come here when it is about to close (the temple closes at 6pm), do come at least 1½ hours before it closes.

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Taking the last wefie before we leave Kiyomizu-Dera

We hurried out Kiyomizu-Dera as it was about to close.  As it was dinner time, my friend and I had dinner in one of the small bento eateries (they were delicious and not pricey at all). We spent the rest of the night shopping in Kyoto before heading back to Osaka.

 

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On a double-decker train heading back to Osaka

 

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 5 (22 May 18) – The Nature and the Ancients of Kyoto: From Arashiyama to Kinkakuji

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Kinkakuji in Kyoto

For the next 2 days, our travels in Kansai region will be spent visiting the sites in Kyoto. There are a lot of historic places to visit in Kyoto and it would not possible to see everything given the time we will be spending in Kyoto. Numerous guides online provide guides for visitors to Kyoto. I was initially planned on following one of these guides. After some planning, I was telling myself why settle for some guides with places that I am not interested in? A few iterations later, I finally settled on the places I wanted to visit in Kyoto, the beauty of a free and easy trip. We spent our 1st day visiting the sights northwest Kyoto and 2nd day in the southeast Kyoto.

Arashiyama (嵐山)

We started our Kyoto travels with Arashiyama, which is famed for its scenic views of the river and the Bamboo Grove. There are 3 train stations that serve Arashiyama area namely Hankyu-Arashiyama Station (阪急嵐山駅), Randen-Arashiyama Station (嵐電嵐山駅), and JR Saga-Arashiyama (嵯峨嵐山駅) located at the south, central and north of Arashiyama, respective. We opted to take the train to the southeast of Arashiyama so that our journey will start from the south and end up in the north of Arashiyama where we will catch the Sangano Scenic Railway.

Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋)

Leaving Hankyu-Arashiyama Station, we headed towards the Katsura River (桂川), where the famed Togetsukyo Bridge is located. We reached Katsura River within minutes and there lies the 155m Togetsukyo Bridge in a distance. The view from the riverside was beautiful. With Togetsukyo Bridge in the foreground and the spring green trees on the hills behind the bridge, no wonder visitors flog here for a picture on the bridge. We walked towards the bridge and was treated to more scenic views of a small raised dam, which looked like a waterfall on the river bed. There are sightseeing boats that dock in the nearby pier. Crossing Togetsukyo Bridge, we came to the built-up area of Arashiyama. The view of the bridge from this side of the river presents a different view, however, I prefer the view from the side near the Hankyu-Arashiyama Station, mainly due to a lesser crowd there.

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Panoramic Shot of Katsura River from Togetsu Bridge

Arashiyama Rickshaw Ride (京都人力車)

The buildings in this part of Kyoto looks rustic and as though they are from a page out of a history book. As we were waiting to cross the road, we saw rickshaws with visitors on them. Though not in part of our plan, nonetheless we tried a 30mins ride on the rickshaw. Despite being touristy, riding the rickshaw through Arashiyama is a good way of orienting ourselves around Arashiyama. It is also a good way of seeing the sights around this town for those who have little time in this area. Our rickshaw driver introduced us to the various sights along the way. Everywhere in Arashiyama town is crowded with visitors, our rickshaw driver is very skilful in manoeuvring the rickshaw through the hordes of visitors, especially when he was turning into the Bamboo Grove. The main highlight of the ride is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. As the rickshaw driver pulled us through the Bamboo Grove, he suddenly turned into a small road that is free from visitors. The rickshaw driver explained this is a road that is reserved for rickshaws. On this road, we can feel the peacefulness in the Bamboo Grove. The Bamboo Grove is split into 2 parts, the area before the train track is crowded with visitors. as compared to the area after the train track. There is a small Shinto shrine near the train track. Somehow this is where all the visitors turned back and headed back to the town. We made mental notes of where to go to after we are done with the rickshaw ride. The driver pulled us pass the train tracks to the part where there are lesser people. It is here that the rickshaw driver made a brief stop and took pictures of us on the rickshaw. We made a u-turn and head back to Katsura River where we boarded the rickshaw. As we thought that our ride will be ending soon, the rickshaw driver made a turn into a side road. On this road, we felt the peacefulness of Arashiyama once again. There are some rustic buildings on this road. Soon we were on the side of the road that we boarded the rickshaw. This marks the end of our rickshaw ride. After a few pictures with the driver, we headed back to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

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Map and rate of the Rickshaw that we rode in Arashiyama

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My friend with the rickshaw driver

Tenryuji (天龍寺)

As we were walking towards the Bamboo Grove, we came to Tenryuji, one of the temples on the main road in Arashiyama that we have passed by on the rickshaw just now. My friend and I headed into the compound of this temple. There are quite a number of visitors to Tenryuji. The attraction of this temple is its zen gardens. After walking for another 5 mins, we came to the Kuri (庫裏).  Entering the compounds of the temple is free, however, there are different charges on the admission to various buildings and gardens. Kuri is a relatively small white building triangular roof and is built in 1899. The Kuri is considered one of the 7 major buildings according to the principles of Zen. We felt this place is a little touristy and did not enter Kuri. As we were rushing for time, we exited Tenryuji and headed for the Bamboo Grove.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (竹林の小径)

Minutes later, we arrived at the entrance to the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Having been here moments earlier, we know exactly which spot to go to where there are lesser people. In the area before the train tracks, we couldn’t really appreciate the bamboo grove. Most of the time we were squeezing with other visitors and this area is very bad for photos. As we were making our way past the train tracks, we made a brief stop at the Shinto Shrine in the midst of the Bamboo Grove. Nonomiya Shrine (野宮神社) is a small shrine that the locals come to pray for marriage. There are several small structures in Nonomiya Shrine, consisting of the main prayer shelter and several boards for visitors to hang this wishes. As the shrine is rather small, we exited the shrine after taking some pictures.

The train tracks that cut the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove into 2 parts is right next to Nonomiya Shrine. We continued our walk in the Bamboo Grove past the train tracks. This is where we felt peace in the Bamboo Grove. There are significantly lesser visitors to this part of the grove, making strolling in this part of the grove a relaxing one. It is here we can hear the rustling of the bamboo leaves as they dance to the rhythm of the wind. My friend and I turned into a small area where we stopped by on the rickshaw earlier to have our photo taken on the rickshaw. This is a perfect spot for pictures with the Bamboos and lesser people. It is recommended for those visiting Arashiyama Bamboo Grove to walk past the train tracks and come here to get away from the crowds.

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On the rickshaw in Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Sagano Scenic Railway (嵯峨野トロッコ列車)

Leaving Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, our next stop is the Saga Torkko Station where we planned to board the Sagano Scenic Railway towards Kameoka. The station about 7 mins walk from the rear exit of the Bamboo Grove. The 25 mins Sagano Scenic Railway runs along Hozugawa River between Arashiyama and Kameoka, after which it will turn around and return to Arashiyama. There are 5 carriages on the Sagano Scenic Railway, 1 of which is open air. We originally wanted to take the open air carriage but was told all seats in this carriage are taken. Our plan of taking the train up to Kameoka was also changed on the spot as the next train available is some 2 hours later. We did not want to wait and opted for the return train ride from Kameoka instead. As our JR pass is still valid, we took the JR towards Umahori Station and waited for our train to come by. Arriving at Umahori Station, we took a 5 mins walk from the JR station to the Scenic Railway station. Along the way, we saw some farmlands in rural Kyoto.

Our train ride arrived on time and we boarded the train as soon as passengers alighted. The cabin of the train is made of wood, giving the train a rustic feel to it. As the train left the station and started on its 25 mins journey towards Arashiyama, we were treated to views of the wilderness in Kyoto. The dramatic scenery saw Hozugawa River turns from being peaceful to angry with rapids in certain areas. The river also widens and narrows as the train runs alongside the river. We saw the hills on the opposite side of the river donning on their spring green coats and at some point of the journey, the hills gave way to the river as Hozugawa River snakes through the mountain ranges. We even saw boats at some point of the river, where visitors chose to brave through the rapids of Hozugawa River as their return option towards Arashiyama. Initially, we were worried that the seats we were assigned will not give us much of the river view as one side of the train tracks will be facing the mountains. We were lucky to have assigned seats on the left side of the train as we realised on the return trip the left side has more time with the sceneries of the wilderness of Arashiyama.