Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa Valley

For the last week of winter break, Emma and I headed to North Vietnam. We flew into Hanoi, a city that is far more different from Bangkok than I had imagined. The first difference was the temperature (it was + 7 and we were FREEZING cold), the second was that the cars drive on the right hand side of the road (guess I could have done a little more research before we left) and the third was the seemingly unnecessary honking. The drivers seemed to constantly lay on the horns. The city itself had some interesting elements (French influence, delicious food, quaint coffee shops, markets, and thousands of motorbikes), but it was very congested in the main areas, busy, loud and unwelcoming. Within a few hours, we were talking about how much we missed Thailand and friendly Thai people.

After spending a day in Hanoi, we went on a two day / one night Dragon Pearl Junk Boat tour in Halong Bay. The water was calm, the scenery was breathtaking and the air was crisp. We had a cute little cabin with a shower better than the one in my apartment (go figure), ate seafood galore and enjoyed the company of an American couple from Chicago, a family from Japan and a family from Singapore. We had a chance to go kayaking, explore Thien Canh Son Cave and visit Vung Vieng fishing village. In the evening we sipped hot coffee on the boat deck, talked about traveling in Asia and watched the sunset over the rock formations.

The following evening we took the night train north from Hanoi to Lao Cai, which is about an hour and a half drive from Sapa Valley (where we booked a home-stay trek with the same tour company). Surprisingly Emma and I both slept well, despite the itty bitty beds and abrupt halts every few hours. I think it was a combination of the Gralvol (every traveler’s best friend) and the train rocking that made for a good night’s sleep. In the morning, we were hustled onto a bus in Lao Cai which took us to Sapa town. While we waited for the tour company to open, we had Vietnamese noodle soup for breakfast in a wood-stove heated restaurant. It so was nice to get out of the damp cold and warm up by the fire. Sapa has so many neat shops to buy trekking gear, full of Northface jackets, shoes, socks and  snow pants. We had fun browsing and I bought a pair of windbreaker pants, warm high socks and fleece gloves to help beat the cold.

We started our trek around 10AM with a local guide named ‘Me,’ two young Danish travelers and an entire crew of  local village women. The ladies chatted with us in broken English, held our hands while we slid down muddy slopes and smiled the whole way. They wore traditional colorful scarves on their heads and carried plastic covered baskets full of purses, scarves, bracelets, pillow cases and blankets on their backs. When we stopped for lunch they wanted us to buy from their souvenir baskets. Some were slightly aggressive and pushy, but we still felt obligated to buy considering they had just trekked for two hours with us (literally holding me up half the way). I bought a scarf, hand-made purse and pillow case from the women who walked next to me most of the way.

Despite the fog, the scenery in Sapa was unlike anything I have ever seen before. It felt like we were in the clouds looking out over the rice paddies and small villages. It was surreal – a completely different world. Sapa Valley has only had electricity for five years (mostly to cater to tourists), but still feels like stepping back in time. The butcher shop is a wooden table on the street with slabs of meat and the grocery store is a small open space with canned goods, rice and a few fruits and vegetables. Every home we passed had a small farm with chickens, ox, pigs and donkeys. There were always local people walking along the paths and occasionally motorbikes whizzing past us. Somehow in the midst of all this, Emma and I found a spa where we stopped for a much needed foot massage. We were given blankets, had our feet dipped in warm water and herbs and electric heaters set next to us. Luxury.

The home-stay part of our trip was the best! The house owner cooked us delicious traditional meals. We ate, ate, ate and ate! Me started a small fire in a big metal bowl in the middle of the living room. We huddled around it to keep warm, drinking green tea and beer in the evening. We played with the family’s small puppy and young children. While we sat around the fire talking, Me was sewing traditional clothing for her children (which they get every year at Chinese New Year). She told us stories about her life, talked about her family, religion, work and the changes she has experienced in Sapa with the influx of tourism. Her laugh was contagious and I loved having the chance to get to know her.

The only thing I would have changed about this trip is spending more time in Sapa Valley and less time in Hanoi. If you happen to be in Vietnam, don’t miss Halong Bay and Sapa Valley – they were both incredible experiences that I would do again in a heartbeat! I also have Me’s contact information for anyone who would like to do a trek with her. 🙂