Hanoi / Sapa / Halong Bay
01.03.2013 - 10.03.2013 20 °C
We didn't think it would take us this long to update you all on our travels but we haven't had (and still don't have) free computer use in any of our accommodation so we have caved in and paid! We are now in Northern Thailand as we meander down to Singapore for our flight to Australia at the start of May. No pictures yet as the internet cafe we are in won't let us upload. But you can find all of our pics (be warned there are 100's!) on Flickr if you are interested.
Hanoi (1st March - 2nd March)
We arrived in Hanoi from an overnight bus but thankfully we were able to get into our room at 8am in the morning after a complimentary breakfast so we slept in the morning before checking out Hanoi in the afternoon. We visited some museums about the war and the Hoa Lo prison (aka Hilton Hotel) where American pow pilots were held hostage during the war (including ex US presidential candidate John McCain). Museums in Vietnam have lots of interesting artefacts but lack a narrative to them so we didn't spend long looking at them as Alice's appetite for war related museums has been exhausted!
On our second day we ate breakfast in the restaurant and spoke to some other travellers who made us jealous of their travel stories and made us want to change our plans! We wandered round the old town in Hanoi including the small Hoan Kiem lake which is in the centre of the city. The old quarter was quaint and full of narrow streets which were interesting to walk round. That evening we were on the move again with an overnight train to Lao Cai, a town in the northwest of Vietnam near the Chinese border. As we were only able to book our train the day before we had to take hard seats. This was the most uncomfortable form of transport we have taken so far and it was 9 long hours on the church pew like bench from 2200 to 0700 the next morning. The train started off in Hanoi very quiet and Alice and I thought we might get a bench each but we weren't so lucky. The seats layout was two benches (enough for two people) facing each other with a small by the window. Within an hour the train was packed. There was another travelling couple on the train who we spoke to who were travelling on a budget and hard seats was their preferred choice but they found it difficult to buy said tickets - they were told they could only buy the more expensive ones. Anyway, their plan for the night was to drink through it which in hindsight might have been a good idea. Alice tried to sleep by resting her head on the bag on top of the table and had little success while I didn't even bother trying to sleep - the train was incredibly noisy, we were (un)lucky enough to have the bench beside the toilet and the carriage door so people were continuously walking past going for a smoke. It was quite an experience watching the other people in the carriage, especially the old couple who got on and the man took the bench to sleep on while the lady pulled out a plastic sheet, lay it on the ground and slept under two benches facing each other.
Sapa (3rd March - 6th March)
From Lao Cai we took a taxi to Sapa which was about an hour away along a steep and winding road into the hills. Again we got lucky because at 0930 we were able to get into our room after buying some breakfast. We had a nap in the morning and then ventured out in the afternoon. The area around Sapa is famous for its range of ethnic tribes and mountain views so the majority of people come to do some trekking. On our first day we wandered down into the valley to Cat Cat village, an ethnic village only a couple of kms away. We had to pay to get in which I thought was cheeky as there wasn't a lot to do or see.
For the next two days we splashed out a bit and hired a private guide to take us on a two day trek with a homestay included. She met us at a hotel in the morning and she was from a Black Hmong tribe. She spoke very good English despite only learning it from tourists. We walked out the town and into the mountains and another tribe lady with two kids quickly tagged onto us. As we climbed up into the hills, it started to get a bit muddier and stickier so we were relieved we weren't climbing in rainy season. As we climbed up the valley, the mist began to clear and the impressive views visible. Lee, our guide, explained to us about the way of life of the tribes people and was very informative. We stopped for lunch at a local house (if you can call it that) and then continued to a village where we would stay the night. When we got to our accommodation the woman and two girls who had followed us all day asked us to buy some of their handmade products. I hate this form of tourism as they were trying to make us feel guilty given they had followed us all day. I wouldn't have bought anything if it was me but Alice gave in to their sales pitch and bought a bag (which in fairness she has used a lot). We gave the two little girls a packet of sweets we had carried but the lady then gave the two girls some money so we think it wasn't even a mother and her daughters which was even sadder. It was labelled as a homestay but it was really the equivalent of a barn with beds upstairs and a plain communal area downstairs. There was a Spanish couple also staying so we stayed in and played cards as we had been warned about the local dogs who can smell foreigners and will go for you so there was no way I was leaving the four walls of the room. The owner's son watched us play cards and then proceeded to win almost every game of Uno we played which was very impressive.
On the second day of the hike we didn't walk as far. After breakfast, we walked towards a waterfall which was impressive but had little water. We had to walk through a bamboo forest which was really slippy and not much fun to walk through. From the waterfall we walked to our lunch spot and then it was a short stroll to where we were picked up. Today some ladies tried to follow us but I quickly made sure they realised we weren't buying anything. To compensate for our horrendous journey to Lao Cai we had soft sleeper beds back to Hanoi. That was a much more pleasant experience!
Halong Bay (7th March - 9th March)
From the train we stopped off quickly at our hotel to change our day bag and then went to the tour office to be picked up for our Halong Bay tour. From Hanoi it is a 4hour journey to the port which we both spent trying to sleep. At the port we quickly boarded our boat along with 7 others and set off to the Bay. The boat was really nice and massive for only 9 guests. We had decided to pay a bit more for this tour as we have heard horror stories about the cheap tours and we were glad we did. As we sailed out of port we were served a lovely seafood meal and then had time to relax before we kayaked to an island which we could climb to give amazing views of the Bay and swim on the beach. For "big attractions" we sometimes feel disappointed when we see them for real but Halong Bay definitely met our expectations! At night we ate on the boat and had an early night as we were still recovering from our overnight train.
On the second day we visited the (unimaginatively named) Amazing Cave along with most of the other tour boats in the bay (there are something like 150 of them and 500 day boats). We then sailed to Cat Ba island where we would spend our second night and cycled around to see some of the island. In the afternoon we kayaked and swam again. At night we stayed in a plush hotel and went to a local bar with the rest of our group who were good company.
Our last day entailed an early start at 0700 and travelling most of the day back to Hanoi where we arrived at 1700. In the evening we had a fresh beer (less than 20p a glass - can't go wrong) when a young boy of 12 approached us and asked to practise his English while his dad also had a beer. He had only been learning for 3 years but was incredibly good and it was a nice way to spend our last night in Vietnam before I went to watch the rugby while Alice had an early night.
Hanoi (10th March)
On our last day in Vietnam, we got up early to go and see the area around West Lake which we had deliberately left for today. We had thought about going to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but the endless queue put us off so we had a look in the museum beside it and went for a wander around the lake before taking the bus to the airport where we will fly to Laos.