I arrived in Hanoi (or Ha Noi) fairly late in the evening and was immediately given a small taste of the traffic that awaiting me:
The first part of my Vietnam trip was focused on the northern part of the country, in particular Hanoi itself, Ha Long Bay and hiking around Sa Pa. Since I had quite limited time in the north I decided to be a little less adventurous in my travelling, and so I organised some tours to Ha Long and Sa Pa through my nice Hanoi Hotel, Hanoi City Hostel. This meant I had a full day to explore Hanoi before heading to Ha Long.
The first thing people tell you about Vietnam is the traffic, and it didn’t disappoint. There are scooters everywhere (including occasionally on the pavements) going in every direction. Most intersections are uncontrolled and so result in a form of organised chaos where everyone slows down slightly and weave around each other as vehicles approach from all directions. The amazing thing is that the system seems to work really well – traffic is constantly flowing with very few traffic jams. Accidents do occasionally happen but, as everyone is driving quite slowly, don’t seem to be too serious most of the time. It really is entertaining to sit at a little street bar on an intersection and watch the traffic for a while.
The first thing you have to learn in Vietnam is how to get across the road amidst all this chaos. Fortunately the Vietnam road rule of ‘you are only responsible for anything in front of you’ makes it easier than it would first seem. Basically you need to wait for a small gap (checking both ways as scooters can approach from any direction) and then to walk confidently and at a consistent speed across the road (but still keeping an eye on what’s happening around you). The scooters will work out your path and weave around you – any hesitation messes this up! It doesn’t take long to get used to this approach (having a few, but not too many, beers helps) and I found Hanoi to actually be a really easy place to walk around, and much easier than Myanmar. I’ve heard that Saigon has even more scooters, so I’m interested to see what that is like.
I spent my day in Hanoi wandering around the area near the old town, checking out the little lake and it’s beautiful gardens at the bottom of the old town, and enjoying the vibrancy of the city (quite a change from relatively sleepy Myanmar). I also went to the slightly weird Revolutionary museum, which consist mainly of revolutionary letters and pamphlets (all in Vietnamese), some personal items from various revolutionaries, and photos of people doing revolutionary things. There’s no real explanation of the people and events involved (I suspect this is something all Vietnamese people know really well), and so it ends up being a little arbitrary. This appears to be a bit of a theme in Vietnamese museums. I also got to sample some of the local beers (including several microbrews), and even discovered what appears to be Hanoi’s quite discreet version of Hooters, called (strangely enough) Vuvuzela. I also had some really nice food – not a spicy as Thai or Myanmar food, but with really good flavours – including a special type of beef noodle dish called Bun Bo Nam Bo at a tiny restaurant that only served this one dish for just under $3. You sit at a communal table and your food arrives within a minute of you sitting down. A Hanoi is also famous for its street food, with little stalls selling 3 or 4 dishes, all quick to cook and delicious. I’ve heard that many people in Hanoi mainly eat at these places, as it can be cheaper than making the dish at home. It’s best to head to one that is full of locals.
The next morning I hopped on a small bus to begin my Ha Long Bay tour. The tours are all fairly similar, with you spending one night on the boat, and seem to cover exactly the same sights, with the only differences being the level of comfort on the boat and the quality of the food (with the really cheap boats being a sight to behold). You can also choose to stay a extra night of two on one of the islands after the standard boat tour. It is possible to do a one day tour from Hanoi, but given that the drive is 3.5 hours each way, this is not a great option. Given my short time in Vietnam, plus the fact that I’ve spent quite a bit of time relaxing at beaches around the Pacific, I decided to not extend my tour, but people I spoke to who did it really enjoyed (especially those a bit traumatised by Hanoi).
The only thing to note on the drive down was the rest stop at a stone carving and crafts shop. This is fairly standard in Vietnam, with every opportunity to get you to buy something being utilised in this case you are dropped off at the entrance to the shop and told to meet your bus again in 30 minutes at the exit. The things for sale at this place were particularly horrifying, and I managed to get a few shots before being told off for taking photos.
Onto the main attraction – Ha Long Bay. Ha Long is a Unesco World Heritage site and is a large bay dotted with over 3000 limestone islands. It is quite similar to Palau, but with taller islands all grouped much closer together, and with a slightly muddy water instead of the bright blue of Palau. The net result ends up being more impressive than Palau, especially when you get to view the bay from any sort of height. It is a very touristy place, and so there are lots of boats and people everywhere, but I found that the beauty is enough to distract you from this.
I was on the Halong Dolphin boat, a slightly more upmarket boat that I got as a bit of a last minute deal. I was joined by a Canadian and Japanese couple who worked for one of the main companies running trips to Anarctica and the Arctic, two Norwegian ladies on a month long holiday and an Indian family who were working in Saigon. The boat was good, with comfortable rooms and lots of good food, and the people on the trip were really nice (I was a little concerned I’d end up with a pensioner tour group). Something to watch out for on these sorts of tours is that you can order wine by the bottle or by the glass. However, you need to be very specific if you only want a glass, as it seems the default response to you agreeing to some wine at dinner is for them to open a whole bottle for you. This happened to some people on our boat, but the crew eventually fixed it, but you have been warned!
The first stop on our tour was Surpise Cave, which lives up to its name. After a short steep climb you get to the entrance of the cave which is a fairly standard limestone cave with a nice view over the bay. However it is the next chamber that is the surprise – after going through a small passageway you enter the main cavern, a massive area lit up by coloured lighting. Photos don’t do it justice but it is spectacular. The caves are around 10000 square meters in size, most of that in the main chamber. The exit to the main chamber gives you a good view onto the bay.
The cave was followed by a bit of kayaking before heading back to our boat for some sunset drinks, dinner, more drinks and if you are interested, some karioke (fortunately no-one on our boat was). The following day we headed to an Island with a nice little swimming beach and a short climb up, some stairs to a viewing spot. We then slowly headed back to the port to start our trip back to Hanoi (with another stop at the carving shop in case we had changed our minds about anything).
We arrived back in Hanoi in time for me to grab some food, change and catch my overnight sleeper train to Sa Pa, one of Vietnams main trekking spots North west of Hanoi near the Laos and Chinese borders. You can either catch a fairly bumpy train or a cheaper, slightly faster but just as bumpy bus, but after all my bus trips in Myanmar I was keen for the relative comfort of the train. I opted for a bed in the top of the range 4 sleeper soft sleeper carriage (soft unfortunately is not meant to describe the mattresses which are anything but). The journey took around 12 hours (the train was 2 hours late and you need to catch a 1 hour bus from the train station to Sa Pa). As you drive up to Sa Pa you see the wonderful scenery – green hills and steep valleys covered in rice paddy terraces and forests, with the cloud covered peaks of Vietnam’s highest mountains in the distance. Sa Pa itself was a lot bigger and more touristy than I thought, which many hotels, restaurants, tour companies and gear shops than I expected. The town is surrounded different villages of the mainly H’Mong and Dao people (who despite living within a few kilometres of each other have completely different languages and only started to interact in the last 15 years of so when they started to both learn Vietnamese). The ladies from the villages in their traditional clothese often act as guides for the treks, and also wander around the town and along the trekking route trying to sell you hemp bracelets or bags. As in most tourist places in Asia you are get approached by lots of people trying to sell you the same thing, and soon you develop a instinctive ‘no’ response. The sellers then adopt the ‘very sad and hurt’ look to try to get you to change your mind. Fortunately being from Joburg I am fairly immune to this tactic. Interestingly, the ladies never cut their hair, with single women wearing it down in a ponytail, and married women wearing it carefully wrapped around their heads.
After arriving a the hotel we set off for our overnight trek, with us spending one night at a homestay in the local village. We had quite a small group, with a young German lady and a young Danish couple. There was a bit of excitement near the start when two scooters had an accident about 10m behind me and right in front of the German lady. It seems that one of the riders was on his phone and swerved into an oncoming scooter. There was a bit of blood and what appeared to be a broken wrist, but the locals didn’t seem too worried and we headed off. Our guide told us that the person on the phone would have to pay for all the damages, as he would be considered the guilty party. Back to the hike, it was a fairly gentle downhill most of the way, passing villages and rice terraces and the ever-present views of the valley below. The weather was perfect – a light breeze, a bit of sun and fairly warm. We only covered 12 km in the first day before arriving at our homestay, which is a bit shorter than I would have liked, and the terrain was fairly easy going, so you didn’t feel very tired at the end. The trail was one of the fairly standard trails around Sa Pa, so you see quite a few other hikers along the way, and there are lots of places to buy drinks and snacks along the way. The homestay was very comfortable, with good food, cold beer, a hot shower and no noisy animals / music to wake you up in the morning. The village also has three little bars, some with wifi and pool tables (!), which detract a little from experience. However, they have a great view over the valley and are a comfortable place to have a few relaxed beers. The toilet in the bar we went to was a first – a hole in the wooden floor straight into one of the little canals surrounding the rice paddies! We had a chilled night having a few beers and chatting with the Japanese guy and Finnish lady also staying at the homestay, before heading to bed.
The next day the weather took a turn for the worse, with the cloud moving in and cloaking the valley. About 3 minutes after we started walking the rain started and it rained on and off for the rest of the 6km hike. The rain made me realise why the hikes here are shorter than normal – because the terrain is very steep and often on clay, when it rains (which happens quite often) the paths become very slippery, and you go a lot slower. A couple of people slipped, but nothing serious, but it can be a bit scary! We stopped at quite a cool waterfall (no pictures because of the rain) and made it back to town in the early afternoon for a much needed warm shower. All the other people in my group were heading back to Hanoi that afternoon, and so after a quick beer they headed off. I decided to treat myself to a fancier than normal restaurant which served really good local food (The Hill Station Signature) before grabbing a few beers and then heading to bed.
The next morning I did a short 6km walk down into the valley and back to see one of the villages and a waterfall, all in glorious sunshine. The walk was part of the tour I’d organised, but it was something that can easily be done without a guide, as it is very easy to find out where to go (just follow the tourists and lines of little stalls). You stop at a few shops / workshops on the way and the waterfall is nice but nothing special. On the walk up we didn’t have to wait for the group so I headed off on my own to try get a bit of exercise out of the walk – the 3km walk down had taken about 1.5 hours! I think that extending the homestay trek by another day instead of spending a night in Sapa would have been a better option. Comparing the trekking to Hsipaw in Myanmar’ I’d say that Sa Pa has more spectacular scenery and is more comfortable, whereas Myanmar feel less touristy and is much more peaceful and a lot more challenging. That said, it is possible to organise longer treks away from the main trails, but this requires a bit of time, effort and money.
That evening I caught the sleeper train back to Hanoi, arriving back at around 5:30. I’d arranged with my hostel to head back there for a shower and to leave my bag, as I was catching the sleeper train to Hue that evening. During the day I visited the Ho Chi Min museum (very beautiful and modern, but still suffering from a lack of a narrative) and walked around some parts of the city I hadn’t been to yet. Fortunately the Ho Chin Min mausoleum was closed for ‘annual maintenance’ – I wasn’t hugely keen on seeing a dead body. Before heading to the train station I grabbed a delicious bowl of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) at a street stall, just as the sun was setting.
Next stop Hue, as I make my way down South for the second half of my Vietnam adventure.