We have spent our last week in Vietnam in the north of this fantastic country, which has continued to impress us. We spent the first half of the week in the northern highlands at the town of Sapa, which lies near the Chinese border. To get to there we took an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai and from there it was a windy 40 minute bus ride up into the mountains to the town. Ascending through valleys of cascading rice terraces we had some glorious views.
Sapa was founded as a French hill station in 1909 and is a quaint place with some grand colonial architecture and a spectacular setting. The town is also a great place from which to visit some of the hill-tribe communities, such as the Black H’Mong and Red Dzao tribes, which inhabit some of the surrounding hills. To get out to these remote villages you have to do some trekking and we had pre-booked a tour with a homestay through the Sapa Summit Hotel. It was handy booking through the hotel as we could have a shower and breakfast before setting off on our trek. We were pleased that our friendly guide, Xing, was from one of the communities – the Black H’Mong. Xing’s spoke good and dressed in the traditional way for her tribe. She also carried her baby on her back, wrapped in a basic sling, throughout our tour.
As we walked through Sapa we were joined by many friendly, a bit of a sales ploy, ladies from the Black H’Mong community. All were dressed in the same way with an indigo blue long gown (embroidered with colourful patterns to distinguish age and skill), leggings, a tall hat, and if they are married large heavy earrings.
Owing to the altitude of 1650m it is no surprise that Sapa is regularly shrouded in cloud, and it was misty and damp as we walked along the trails of the Muong Hoa Valley. We passed through several villages along the way, which given their setting and colourfully dressed residents were very picturesque.
With the damp conditions the trails were muddy and slippery, despite us wearing trekking shoes, however the locals in their sandals they seemed to have no problem and regularly had to give us a hand!
To get to our lunch stop at the Lao Chai village we had to cross a river on a rickety old suspension bridge, it didn’t feel particularly safe but it made for a good photo opportunity!
Our homestay was in the Ta Van Village, which is inhabited by the Dzay people. Five of us (Lisa and I, Lawrence from the UK, Naja from Canada, and Jay from Korea) stayed with a lovely family in their wooden house in the centre of the village. The villagers seemed to be used to tourists (there were lots of homestays and even a tourist pub!) and very friendly. It was raining so we relaxed with muddy and sweet Vietnamese coffee overlooking the rice terraces – you don’t get this at Starbucks!
Whilst our hosts couldn’t speak much English we could have a basic conversation and they seemed to like having us around. They cooked us a banquet of a meal, food is very important to the Vietnamese, that we all sat down and ate together. After the meal our hosts insisted on sharing a bottle of rice wine with us, which whilst tasting a bit like paint thinner our hosts seems rather partial to!
It was the homestay experience we were hoping for and we had a lot of fun and really enjoyed the small insight we had into their lives. Here’s a photo of us with the family, on the left, and our guide Xing at the front – the photos wonky as I don’t think the H’Mong lady who took it had ever used a camera before!
After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and coffee we trekked out through the rice terraces where workers were laboriously tending to their crops. After crossing another dodgy suspension bridge we stopped at a waterfall for another photo opportunity.
Further up the mountain we had lunch at a H’Mong village where we were harangued one last time by the savvy (sales) ladies – “buy something from me?”cheap price”. Their sales pitches were quite humorous and with many of their souvenirs the result of their own handy work we happily bought a few things from them – once we had negotiated a sensible price!
After lunch we took a bus back up the windy road to Sapa. It had been a really great couple of days, trekking through the fantastic scenery and meeting the tribes is one of our favourite Vietnam experiences. We had the rest of the day to ourselves in Sapa so we had a walk around the town, which has a small catholic church at its centre.
By now our legs were feeling a little tired so we relaxed a while in a nice French cafe that sold good coffee and cake! Dinner was included at our hotel and we were served up pumpkin soup, spring rolls, and chicken curry. Unfortunately, we think, something in this meal gave us food poisoning as we spent most of the night and next day running to the toilet 🙁
We had planned our tour around a visit to the vibrant weekly Bac Ha market, which is a gathering for people from the various communities every Sunday. Sadly we were in no condition to visit the market so we had to miss out – it gives us a reason to come back!
Instead we stayed at the hotel most of the day, whose manager wasn’t too sympathetic and made us pay a fee to stay longer in our room! It wasn’t a great day but thankfully we felt well enough to take the overnight sleeper train back to Hanoi in the evening. We slept like logs for the whole journey and arrived in Hanoi feeling much better.
After a lazy morning in Hanoi we decided we had had enough of being in hotel rooms so visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is a holy site for many Vietnamese as his embalmed corpse is on display here. We didn’t go in as it is closed in the afternoons but its grand dimensions make it a very imposing sight from the outside.
Also in the complex is HCM’s former stilt house residence, the presidential palace, and the icon of Hanoi the ‘One Pillar Pagoda’, which was built to represent a lotus blossom, which to the Vietnamese is a symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.
By this time we hadn’t eaten much for nearly 36 hours and our bellies were rumbling. Noodle soup is good when you’re ill, and as luck would have it the staple meal of Vietnam is beef noodle soup – Pho Bo. The Vietnamese eat Pho Bo for Breakfast, and despite initial reservations we actually enjoyed having it for breakfast once or twice.
The noodles must have helped as we felt back to normal again the next morning, which was good as we set off early on a three day tour to one of Vietnam’s most famous sights – Halong Bay. This majestic and mysterious natural spectacle is a World Heritage listed site that features thousands of limestone pillars/islands formed over 20 million years into various shapes and sizes.
There are lots of tour companies who will take you to Halong Bay all seemingly offering a similar experience, so after a bit of research and recommendation from fellow travellers we plumped for ‘Christina Cruises’. They picked us up at our Hanoi hotel in their minibus for the four hour journey to Halong City. We then boarded a traditional wooden Junk that would take us on a cruise around the bay. In recent years tourists have drowned as a result of poorly maintained boats sinking so I was relieved that ours looked in a seaworthy condition!
There were about twenty of us in the group, which included Vietnamese as well as Western tourists – notably a large group of friendly Israelis. Firstly we had lunch, which was a bit of a feast with fish, squid, chicken, spring rolls, and some battered deep fried sweet corn that was surprisingly nice!
As we ate lunch we cruised out to into the bay and from a distance it looks like the pillars are all one but as you get closer you realise they are all individual rocks jutting out of the sea. Our first stop was at the Thien Cung grotto that is a gigantic cave hollowed out of one of the pillars. We were told we were visiting a cave but we didn’t expect it to be so impressive, it took quite a while to walk through all the chambers and it was so expansive I wondered how the rock above us was supported.
After the cave we went out in a kayak, Lisa in the front and me ‘the engine’ in the back, which allowed us to get up close to some of the formations and explore some of the hidden lagoons. It was good fun, although we had to be careful to avoid the numerous cruise boats that either didn’t notice us or didn’t care if they hit us! We paddled around a floating fishing village where the residents cheerfully waved at us and took in the views of the formations towering above us.
Our tour guide was quite disappointing as he didn’t give us any info except telling us quite aggressively what time we should be where. We visited what he described as a beach but it was more of a mud bath, thankfully we didn’t have to hang out on ‘the beach’ as we found a staircase up to a lookout point at the top of the pillar. Whilst a bit of an effort to get up there the views overlooking the bay were spectacular.
We slept over night on the junk, which was anchored in a calm lagoon between several pillars and in our cabin it was hard to tell we were even on a boat. It was scenic spot to spend the night and we watched a glorious sunset from the top deck.
When darkness fell we tried our hand at squid fishing, a bright light at the front of the boat was used to attract the squid to the lures we dangled from our cane rods. We gave it a go for an hour or so but didn’t get a bite, but nevertheless it was a relaxing and fun way to spend the evening.
We slept well on the Junk and next morning as we ate breakfast we cruised through the bay past countless pillars to the large island of Cat Ba where we disembarked. Jungle clad Cat Ba is the only populated island in the bay and has surprisingly large town at its southern tip. We did a trek up to a high point on the island which gave us a view across it. It was a steep and slippery trail to the top and we were soon sweaty profusely and attacked by swarms of mossies as we trekked through the jungle. When we reached the top the view was OK but I wouldn’t do it again!
After lunch at a restaurant in Cat Ba town we had the afternoon to ourselves and whilst most of the tourists stayed in a hotel there we were glad we had opted to pay more to stay in a bungalow on remote Nam Cat Island. To get there we took a bouncy little boat, piloted by a kindly old man, about 30 minutes along the bay. As soon as we arrived we loved the tranquillity of the place and the view from our bungalow, which stood on 3m stilts above the water, gave us one of the best bedroom views we have had in 14 months of travelling.
It was a great place to relax and enjoy some peace (not easy to find in Vietnam!), and when we got too hot we jumped into the appealing water to cool off.
In the evening we enjoyed a nice BBQ dinner and went to sleep listening to the water lapping at the legs of our bungalow. If you do a tour to Halong, it is well worth the extra cost to stay at these bungalows.
Next morning we took the same boat back to Cat Ba and then after picking up the other tourists from the town took a bus back to the port where we boarded our Junk. We then cruised back out through the ever impressive formations back to the mainland.
Then it was a four hour bus ride back to Hanoi, which was slightly ruined when our guide handed out review forms and then didn’t like the feedback we gave him – not very professional! But nevertheless we had thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Halong Bay, it is a lovely place.
Back in Hanoi we enjoyed some more Bun Bo Nam Bo (see the previous post) for dinner, and took it easy. Whilst we enjoyed the buzz of the city we found it a Hanoi’ng (pardon the pun) place to walk around as it’s a constant battle to weave your way through small streets full of scooters.
Yesterday, after one last Pho Bo we boarded a sleeper bus for a gruelling 20 hour journey to Vientiane in Laos. We had debated whether to fly (1 hour but $190) or take the bus ($25), and in the end opted for the cheaper option and actually it wasn’t that bad.
We slept much of the way and when not sleeping I found the Stieg Larsson ‘Millenium’ book I am reading very engrossing. There wasn’t a toilet on board so the bus stopped every few hours, including a few hours for the border formalities, which meant we could stretch our legs.
We arrived in Vientiane, which is Laos capital city, around 15:00 this afternoon and we were immediately struck by how quiet it is compared to a Hanoi – it looks like Laos is much more chilled that bustling ‘Nam!
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vietnam, a place where anything is possible, and you can see some of the photos from our time there here.