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Archive for March, 2013

Vietnam is known as “the country of motorbikes”, without doubt, riding motorbike is the best way to experience the local daily life. You are solo traveler, interested in discovering the local living, while not prefer seat in a bus or waste your money for expensive taxi? “Xe Om” is your choice!

So, what is “Xe Om”?

“Xe Om” is used to refer the motorbike taxi that you sit behind a local driver on his motorbike and he will take you to your address. In Vietnamese, “Xe Om” means “Hug the driver”, but wait, you don’t have to do so, and the driver seems to not expect it either. Just sit firmly behind him and enjoy the great view.

A Xe Om are available on the streets

A Xe Om are available on the streets

Where can I find them?

Xe Om are available almost every street in big cities. If you see a man who is sitting on his motorbike on the street side, helmets hang on his motorbike, with sign board: “Xe Om”, that’s the person you are looking for. Some of them do not have sign board, however, it’s not difficult to realize them as they always give eyes contact and body language to welcome you when you approach.

Even in some remote mountainous area where the car cannot reach, a local Xe Om is an ideal transportation. No Xe Om with sign board there, but any local guy can be your motorbike driver.

View from Xe Om that I took in Pu Luong Nature Reserve -  where the road is not for car.

Taking Xe Om in Ngoc Son – Ngo Luong Nature Reserve – where the road is not for car.

How to take a Xe Om?

Just show the driver your address, ask and negotiate the price, wear the helmet then sit down on the pillion. The price should be: 8.000vnd – 15.000vnd per kilometer, depend on how good bargainer you are.

Any tips?

– You should write down the address, in Vietnamese and show it to the driver to avoid any misunderstanding

– Do not forget to wear helmet for your safe travelling. Normally the driver prepares 2 helmets, 1 for him and 1 for his client. Sometimes you can see people drive motorbike without helmet, especially in the remote area, but wearing helmet when driving is obligated.

– Maps! Yes, Xe Om drivers are living maps. You are confused or getting lost even with the city map in hand? Don’t hesitate to come to Xe Om and show them where you want to walk to. They will show you the shortest way, on map or easily by body language.

– You can ask your hotel to find a trustworthy Xe Om driver, and hotel staff can also help you to negotiate the price.

Nowadays, Xe Om is not only popular with local people but also for foreigner travelers  If you are travelling alone and would like to save the cost while still discover local culture the most, a Xe Om driver can be good travel companion. Most of them do not know English, but you still can find some drivers, normally in tourist sites, who can speak English a little bit or at least can understand you. They are so open to travelers  can take you to any corner and never mind showing you the best of their country.

So, are you ready? Get out of the hotel,  speak loudly “Xe Om” and start the trip!

 

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I love travelling and I always think one day I have to take my backpack and go to Ha Giang, a dream destination of travellers. And Yes, I did it! A really trip in my life!

Magnificient views that you can't find anywhereelse

Magnificent views that you can’t find anywhere else

On the northern of Vietnam, after 300km drive on national Highway 2, Ha Giang appears as high as the clouds, magnificent mountains, has always attracted me who love travelling by bike and exploring.  In return for its location in a region with tough natural conditions it is blessed with magnificent views that you cant find anywhere else: rugged rock mountains, breathtaking scenery and the Nho Que river which weaves through the mountain ravines.

The best time to visit Ha Giang is March, during wild peach flowers blooming everywhere or November during the rice harvest and the scenery is magnificent with mountaintops hiding in the cloud.

My 2 days – 3 nights  route was Ha Giang – Quan Ba –  Meo Vac – Dong Van

Day 1: Ha Giang – Quan Ba – Yen Minh – Meo Vac

We arrived in  Ha Giang in the early morning (about 4am), checked in a guest house to refresh and take a relax after whole night on bus. It was so lucky for us as the sun shined brightly and it’s good for photography. I was also excited to for my first far away trip on motorbike. We started the first day to Quan Ba, a small town on the way up.  The road from Ha Giang to Quan Ba was pretty sloping but not too difficult. The air is fresh, not only revitalize and wash away the dust busy town but also postpone messy worries in my mind. During the journey, I will forget about it, to live my own  way for a few days.

Fairy Mountain in Quan Ba

Fairy Mountain in Quan Ba

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On the way we passed by the Heaven Gate and the Fairy Bosom (two smooth karst cones) in Quan Ba. We arrived at Meo Vac town in the late afternoon, peaceful and quiet place!

What I missed from this trip was Khau Vai love market, which is organized once a year at the night of the 16th March, Lunar calendar. When spring comes, the local people of Ha Giang flock to visit this popular market.  In the evening, the sound of the wind in the trees, panpipes, and singing echoes through the forest. It’s said that the love market originated from the romance between a H’mong boy and a Giay girl. Their love for each other caused hostility between the two clans. In order not to cause a bloody confrontation, they were forced away from each other. The boy and the girl swore that even though they could not live together and would have to marry someone else, they would meet  once a year on March 26th in the evening at Khau Vai. From this beautiful tale, the Khau Vai love market was formed. It has become a place for anyone looking for, or wishing to celebrate love, from young people to married couples.

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Local market at Yen Minh

Ethnic minority girls

Ethnic minority girls

It has become a place for anyone looking for or wishing to celebrate love from young people to married couples

It has become a place for anyone looking for or wishing to celebrate love from young people to married couples

Day 2: Meo Vac – Dong Van – Lung Cu

On the second day of our trip, we traveled toward Dong Van old town and on the way we passed by the Heaven Gate .

We visited very early morning market on the way out town where local people selling pigs at the market – it’s was rarely chance for me, I have never seen this scene before. The market is held once a week (on Sunday) and the locals bring their own agricultural products and animals to sell over there. I must admit that I couldn’t know which ethnic minority groups the locals at the market belong to based on their colorful dresses.

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We said good bye to Meo Vac town and moved on toward the most beautiful section of the trip – Mapileng Pass, which is only 7km in length. Possibly speaking, Highway No. 4C (Meo Vac – Dong Van ) is the most difficult and dangerous road which was built in Vietnam. It is called “the Happy Road” because its completion opened an opportunity of better life for the ethnic minority people living in the remote region. 1,000 volunteers participated in building the road from 1959 to 1965. It even took 11 months to build one km of Mapileng pass (total length of 7km) as it was the most difficult section. We stopped several times on the way for taking photos. The landscape along Mapileng pass is one of the best natural landscapes I’ve ever seen in Vietnam. Some sections of Nho Que river run on the border line between Vietnam and China. We were also amazed at the view of Mapileng gorge which is the deepest gorge in Vietnam. This is the end of the Happy Road!

Nho Que river weaves through the mountain ravines on Mapileng pass

Nho Que river weaves through the mountain ravines on Mapileng pass

Ma Pi Leng pass

Ma Pi Leng pass

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We arrived Dong Van town at 9am. It’s such a nice small town, not like Hoian where I loved the most but it’s lovely, too.  The first thing I did after arrival this town was to walk along the main street. There is a famous cafeteria named “Old town cafeteria” (Cà phê phố cổ) which has preserved traditional architecture of the old houses in the town. It was pity that I had very little time in town so I had to leave even I did not want.

Dong Van town

Dong Van town

Ancient houses at Dong Van town

Ancient houses at Dong Van town

Next destination is Lung Cu, where is very close to China. I was so excited to see Lung Cu flag tower at the northernmost point of Vietnam ’cause I have heard a lot about this place but until now I had a chance to see. Again we enjoyed great mountain scenery along the way. The flag tower  is located 22km away from Dong Van. It was first built in 2001, then re-built and completed in 2010. We had to walk up 704 stairs. There are totally 839 stairs to the top of the tower, however the tower is only open when the soldiers come in to replace the flag. It was so nice to get the chance of getting to the top of the flag tower and could see China on the other side of the mountains.

Lung Cu flag tower

Lung Cu flag tower

A young Tay girl greeted us with a friendly smile. She wore traditional dress of white Tay women. Her voice was always in my mind when I leaf. Then, we stop to visit a small village, named Meo Van near the Chinese border. This village is located about 22km on the way back to Quan Ba. This tiny village consist of only about dozen H’mong houses whose light flicker like glow rooms against the darkness of night. Meo Van is not as well known as many other destinations but that is part of  my attraction.

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"Tam Giac Mach" - Beautiful flower in Ha Giang

“Tam Giac Mach” – Beautiful flower in Ha Giang

We traveled back to Ha Giang and also spent a short time visiting the Wang family’s castle (Wang is “Vương” in Vietnamese). It is the castle of H’mong King in the early 20th  century. The Wang family was wealthy and powerful in the region. Mr. Vương Chính Đức (1865 – 1947) became the King of H’mong people in Chau Dong Van district (consisting of 4 districts of Ha Giang at present). The H’mong King was very rich because he exported opium to other countries. The castle was built during 1919 – 1928. You can find the Chinese, French and H’mong architecture in the castle.

I wish I could spend two more days in Ha Giang and could stay at each destination longer, 2 days trip was so short. Unfortunately, I could not extend my days off, so I had to go back to Hanoi for working. It is a good reason to go back to Ha Giang again in the future!

October, November is the best time to travel to Ha Giang, when the rain is less, cool weather and “Tam Giac Mach” flower blossom. The sky is clear for a magnificent view and great shooting. And schedule your trip to travel there in the weekend as the local markets are open.

Here are the markets that you can visit during the journey:

– Quyet Tien Market (Quang Ba town): Saturday

– Dong Van Market: Sunday

– Meo Vac Market: Sunday

Happy Travelling!

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Is this a norm to tip in Vietnam? Should we tip our driver and tour guide? How should we tip the waiters and the bell captains?… are all the repeat questions on travel forums. And you? I believe you always have such kind of question while packing for a trip to a new destination, especially to awakening Asian countries.

Apparently, Vietnam hasn’t got a custom to tip but the “open door” policy in the late 1980′ had paved the way for many a cultures and practices to be arrived. When private economy was excepted, good international brands invaded, iphone and ipad are used widely, travel and hospitality industry become a hot career to the young workers. In such a case, tipping is gradually becoming a concept that is more often to be known among service industries as travel, hotel and restaurant as well as some related others.

Tipping

Since tipping was originally not a norm and being a new concept, it is also not a compulsory thing to do and very much base on how services delivered. If you are treated well and get the excellent service, leaving a tip is something you might consider. If the service or delivery is low, then definitely not a penny handed. Presumably if the staff ( guide/waiter/driver/chambermaid…. ) makes your travel/stay a memorable one with extraordinary services, let’s view the following references:

  • Chamber maid: $1-$1.5 per night
  • Waiter: $0.5 – $2 depend on the small or the big meal
  • Guide: $7 – $10 per day
  • Driver: $3 – $6 per day
  • Bell Captain: $0.5 – $1 per luggage up/down.
  • Taxi driver: $0.5 or round up the payment. If it is a long journey, then tip like driver.

These sharing is from my real experience and observation over a decade traveling inVietnam and working in this travel industry. I hope it will be of some help and that you have a guideline to follow, just in case.

Happy planning and traveling!

Indochina Voyages Team.

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