Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Vietnam vacation

Vietnam...seems an odd choice to go on vacation, right? Well, to be honest, I wouldn't have thought of it either until a few friends who visited a resort there absolutely raved about it - and after our hectic Cambodia vacation, I really wanted something relaxing. So, Vietnam it was! That was the easy part. Then started the booking process - I cannot begin to explain how stressful it is to get tickets to fly from Shanghai for the week of Chinese New Year! I had run into the same issue in October - that time I thought it was because I had left it too late - but no, doesn't matter - expect to pay an arm and a leg if you want to travel during those 2 weeks!

Also, the driver and the maid were both on vacation at the same time - so Sunny had to go to a kennel, and we had to take a train to Shanghai the day before instead of driving straight to the airport. The train, of course, is really very convenient - half hour from Suzhou to Shanghai, we barely had time to get settled! We had a day in Shanghai, and we were planning to spend it at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum - as luck would have it, the Museum was closed for just that one day for maintenance. So what else can you do when you're at the Metro stop for the Sci-Tech museum? Why, AP Plaza is located right there - so we shopped! That's right, like we had done on all our previous visits to Shanghai, we shopped!

Lobby of the Royal International
Our hotel in Shanghai was the Royal International - picked solely based on proximity to Pudong, and the availability of an airport shuttle. Although it was quite a run-down neighborhood, the hotel was decent. It actually had a Vegas air about it - very flamboyant decor - pink exterior with the words 'Royal' in a flowery script in neon! They were understaffed because of the New Year, but they assured us that a shuttle would be available at 6:15 am to take us to the airport. Sure enough, 6am next morning, we get a call from reception, asking if we had ordered the shuttle. Whew, sigh of relief, the shuttle is here - except, it wasn't! We waited for over 30 minutes in the lobby, waiting for this shuttle to arrive 'any moment, now'! Wow, flashback to India! Finally, we just had them call us a taxi, and we made it to the airport barely in time for our flight! Again, why had I picked this hotel - because they promised us an airport shuttle!!! Now if this had happened in the US, the hotel would have surely picked up the tab for the taxi, and probably offered us breakfast too! Here, all we got was a surly apology!

It's a short flight to Ho Chi Minh City - only 4 hours. The Vietnamese visa is kind of like visa-on-arrival. I had applied to an agency online, and they had sent me an approval letter. At Ho Chi Minh, more dollars were paid, and our passports were duly stamped! We had a short layover before our next flight, but we resisted the temptation to go out into the city. We did have an unexpected celebrity sighting at the airport - Christine Ha - she just won Masterchef US, and we had been watching the final episode just couple of weeks ago! After much back and forth, Manasi and I took a picture with her - hey, I'm already having such a good time in Vietnam!!

A short walk brought us to the domestic terminal , which could not be more different than the international! The international terminal was - well, international! The domestic, strangely enough, was reminiscent of the dusty, sepia-tinted pictures from the British Raj days. It was like walking in to a railway station in India! The Vietnam Airlines flight was not too bad - I just don't like small planes, never have! As soon as we landed in Cam Ranh airport, all doubts were laid to rest! Our hotel was waiting for us - there was my name in big, bold letters - and they had cool face towels and bottles of water for us! They were meeting some other people too, and as soon as everybody had their luggage, we set off!

Our resort - the Vinpearl Luxury - is actually located on an island, the Hon Tre island. The closest city mainland is Nha Trang, which is a good 30km away from the airport. So it was good that the hotel had arranged to pick us up! It was already dusk, but the drive must be quite scenic. I hadn't expected so many hills! We were first driven to the Reception center on the mainland, and then by yacht to the island. A little bit about Vinpearl - they actually own the entire Hon Tre Island, and they have 4 different attractions there. The Vinpearl Luxury, of course, which is villas. The Vinpearl Resort - the big hotel. And then the Vinpearl Amusement Park and the Vinpearl Water Park. The 2 parks are open to public, and a cable-car is available to make the crossing. For the resort guests, there is an option of yacht or speed boat.

By the time we were shown to our beach villa, we were quite exhausted, but also very hungry! Being vegetarian is really hard when you travel to these exotic places. The restaurant in the resort didn't really have anything we could eat, so we decided to head to the Amusement Park to try the Food Court there. Did I mention that as guests of Vinpearl Luxury, we had the run of the island?! We were in luck - we found some really good fried rice at the food court. Back in the 90's, University Circle in Pune had all these Chinese food stalls - believe it or not, the same exact taste to the fried rice! All that was missing was the Manchurian gravy and the American Chop Suey! Not only was the food good, we had an awesome view! The cable car towers were all lit up - they looked like an entire row of Eiffel Towers - with the the little cabins bobbing like so many Chinese lanterns. And the fresh sea breeze! Heaven!

The next day, after breakfast, we headed to the Amusement Park again. Once upon a time, I really loved going on all the rides - the wilder, the better! Now, a carousel is pretty much all the excitement I can handle! Manasi, on the other hand, is just at the right age for all these fun rides. She is quite fearless, and even when she's afraid, she still wants to go on the ride! So she did! Including one, which, in retrospect, she absolutely should not have done - I'm going to call it the Wheel of Death! That's right - she's in that wheel - which did one entire 360 degree turn, rotating all the time. So at one point, she was basically hanging upside down high up in the air! Ajey went on that one with her, and he was pretty shaken too! Enjoyed all the other rides though! The only thing she wasn't allowed to do - surprisingly, was to jump on the giant trampoline! You now what - she just went on the Wheel of Death - I'm sure she can handle a trampoline!!!

The Underwater World was next - when was the last time I was in an aquarium? It was pretty cool - they have one of these tunnel things that you walk through so that the fish are swimming all around you. They had a couple of sharks - strange to see how all the other fish swam away quickly whenever a shark approached!! The real attraction at this place is the Mermaid show - we actually saw that on our last day here. What is the Mermaid show? Well, they actually had 2 'mermaids' in full costume, tail and all, wave to the spectators for 15 minutes. And the place was absolutely packed!!! It was unbelievable - all this crowd - not just kids, mind you - pushing and shoving to see a woman dressed as a mermaid!! It's not real, people - just a woman in costume!!!

We still had one more attraction to visit before we called it a day - the Musical Fountains - now who can resist that?!! The setup was pretty good - the fountains had a backdrop of artificial rocks, all the better to show off the pretty lights - plus, they had stadium seating for the audience! The show was titled 'A Journey around the World' - started off prosaically enough - seriously, if you've seen one of these shows, you've seen them all!! Then much to our surprise, they played 'Dhoom', a very popular Bollywood number - now that, we enjoyed!!! 

The day after was Waterpark day - again, Manasi wanted to go on all the rides and slides - and she did! It was actually the first time for all of us at a water park, so we were really looking forward to it!As in the Amusement park, a couple of rides were a bit edgy - but mostly, it was all fun! Today was also the day we had decided to take the cable car to Nha Trang. So after a short afternoon nap, we headed back to the Park. Much to our dismay, the queue for the cable car stretched on an on - made sense, people were heading back home after spending a day at the park. Then we noticed another queue - 'for Vinpearl Guests only' - we pretty much were able to walk to the front of the line and get on without any waiting!! On the other side, things were equally crazy! There were tons of people waiting for cabs - and once again, the Vinpearl Luxury worked its magic - we were in a cab and on our way within minutes!!

Nha Trang is a pretty standard tourist town. Lots of boutiques, lots of restaurants, lots of vendors! The taxi driver dropped us off at a busy intersection, promising to meet us there in about 3 hours. We browsed through a few stores - lots of crocodile skin products - purses, belts, and even whole crocodile skins! Now that would be a good conversation starter!! I own a number of things bought in US with the label 'Made in Vietnam' - so I was looking forward to picking up some good bargains. Did find something I liked - and the label said ' Made in Singapore'!!! Is it just me, or is something really weird here??!! Dinner was pizza at an authentic Italian tratorria - the proprietress was Italian, settled in Nha Trang for 15 years - followed by dessert at a French patisserie across the street!

Last day here - Ajey found out the gym offered yoga lessons by the pool. Well, the yoga was done, but they had an 'Iron Ball' training if we were interested. It sounded like some heavy duty workout, so I was a bit reluctant. Showed up on the beach, our instructor brings out this box with 10 iron balls in it, all stamped 'Made in France', and starts explaining the rules of Iron Ball - which basically is petanque, a hugely popular game in France! So, five years after we leave France, here we are, playing petanque on a Vietnam beach! Life is strange!

After checking out the Indoor games - bumper cars and such - and the unforgettable Mermaid show, we went to the Resort side of the island to have lunch. Our side of the island, the beach faced the mainland, so the waters in the bay were really calm. Here, it was the open sea, and the high winds made for a spectacular sight! Loved how the hills came down almost to the beach level. It started to rain, and it did get quite chilly by the time we headed back to our villa. Spent the rest of the day lazing around, packing and moping that the vacation was almost over!!

We once again had an early morning flight back, and this time the shuttle was right on schedule! The hotel even packed us a breakfast! The flights back were pretty uneventful, but we still had to go through one more adventure before we reached home! We landed in Pudong airport, our train back to Suzhou was from Hongqiao airport. Both connected directly by Metro Line 2, we thought its going take tops 1 hour. It didn't. Yes, we missed our train. And yes, it was the last train back to Suzhou. So now we had 2 options - find a hotel and catch a train in the morning. Or find a transport back to Suzhou. We decided to find a taxi - of course we had to bargain - didn't make it to Suzhou till almost midnight. For some reason, this driver refused to take us home - he was going to drop us off at the Suzhou railway night. Only, after the last train is gone, there are no taxis to be found at the station. Thankfully, we had asked this driver to wait with us till we found a taxi - which was almost an hour after we reached Suzhou! Staggered home, freezing cold and starving! 

So there it was, our vacation in Vietnam! Would I recommend it? Most definitely! The best part about Vinpearl, what made it stand out was that we were free to come and go. Most resorts hold you captive - once you're there, you have to eat at their ridiculously overpriced restaurants and pay exorbitantly for drinks. Vinpearl had its fancy restaurants, but it also had the food court in the amusement park - a can of beer charged at $6 at the resort was $1 at the park! Plus the amusement park and the water park means there is something else to do other than the beach and pool, especially if you have kids with you! I would have liked to see a bit more of Vietnam, though - maybe a day in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi? We were in Vietnam, but for all practical purposes, we could have been anywhere!

We're all back to our routines now - already counting the days before our next vacation! When? Where? Only time will tell...

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