Hanoi part 1 & Sapa
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, and with a population of around 7 million it is the second largest city. Hanoi was the last stop of our open-tour bus ticket. Our big bus dropped us off a bit outside of the old city center: big busses are not allowed in the old center. It was raining when we arrived. When getting out of the bus we got jumped at by loads of locals who offered us hotels and rides to anywhere. The bus driver told us that all people on the bus get a free ride by taxi or motorbike to the hotel they booked, or to the standard hotel in which their travel office resides. We took a taxi to their standard hotel to take a look at it. It was nothing special and a bit pricy for what you get. We decided to look on and booked a room at bamboo hotel in the end. Nice place, recommended. From Hanoi we did a trip to Halong Bay and to Sapa. In between we again stayed at bamboo hotel. Do not get the room on the top floor: we stayed there one night on which it rained a lot, the window leaked and lots of my stuff got wet. The rest of the rooms are fine, recommended.
On the first day we explored the area around the Hoan Kiem Lake in the old district. Bamboo hotel is located on about two minutes walking distance of the north, north-east side of the lake. We made a slight detour out of the district to pay a visit to the Thai embassy. I needed to apply for a two month tourist visa since I already used two free 30-day visas (by entering through air) and one free 14-day visa (by entering through land). To my surprise paying for the visa was not needed (they were supplying free visas for a limited period).
During that day we booked a 2 day, 3 night trip to Sapa, leaving the next evening. We would spend the first night in the sleeper train from Hanoi to Sapa, the second night in a hotel and the last night again in the sleeper train. The package costed about 80 dollar per person (I think) and included breakfast, lunch and dinner for the two days in Sapa.
Located in Vietnam’s remote northwest mountains, Sapa is famous for both its fine, rugged scenery and also its rich cultural diversity. Sapa is an incredibly picturesque village that lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as “the Tonkinese Alps”. Sapa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.
We got picked up from our guest house by a minibus which dropped us off at the train station. Here we exchanged our coupons for train tickets to the closest station next to Sapa: Lao Cai. From Hanoi it is a 9-hour train journey to Lao Cai. The group was divided over two sleeper trains. We were on the train which left about an hour after the first one. We shared a soft sleeper cabin with a German couple, being on the last of the two trains. The bed was just long enough and I slept quite good. When arriving at Lao Cai station we showed our sticker with the logo of our hotel and got on the bus supplied by the hotel. To my surprise the people arriving in the first train, had already been waiting an hour in the same minibus. We got dropped off at our hotel: Global Hotel, where we had time to take a shower and eat from the breakfast buffet. The buffest was nice. You could order noodle soup and eggs were made the way you wanted on the spot. For the dinners you can choose from a few options. If you’re with two persons, you have to share your main dish, which in our opinion were all too small.
The weather was bad: it was raining and the visibility was almost zero because of fog and clouds. We did not have any raingear so we bought a poncho at a stall, which first wanted to charge us a ridiculous high price, but I got him down to a fair price.
I was expecting a big group for our first day of walking. By my surprise our group consisted of four people: two Irish people and us. We walked down the road, leaving Sapa, heading to Cat Cat village. It kept on raining and raining – with a few dry minutes in between. Visibility was horrible. Cat Cat village is located a few kilometers’ walk from Sapa. The whole way is downhill, leaving the normal road soon enough, to be followed by a path comprised of lots of steps descending the hill. Our guide stopped at a few houses, selling handmade stuff. The stops were more of “waiting for the rain to stop” then “buy something here” stops. The walk down the steps was quite boring because of the quietness, rain and the bad visibility. There were not many locals alive and rocking.
With good weather though, the views walking here seem to be breathtaking. We ended our walk at a – worth seeing – waterfall followed by a really aggressive stream. The way back is up, yes, only up and up. For the lazy people: there is locals who want to take you to Sapa after paying them 20,000 VND. We walked back together with our guide. Micky and the guide – being a thin girl a little bit older than us – had the same pace on the way back: (very) slow. :p In the evening we did not do much, we “enjoyed” our included and too small meal at the Hotel and walked around in the small city.
The second day started much more promising. When I opened the curtains in the morning it looked quite clear, with a bit of clouds. We took off with a slightly bigger group of 8 people. Our walk today consisted out of visiting three villages. I’m not sure but I think it was Ban Ho, Lao Chai and Ta Phin. As soon as we got on the road to the first village there were so many tourists heading the same way in small groups. It looked a bit like a line of ants having found something sweet, securing it and bringing it back to their mansion. I really wonder how this place is in high season, since it is low season right now.
Our guide today was a woman from a local tribe. You really had to concentrate to understand everything she was explaining. We walked from about 9.30am to 2.30pm, having 45 minutes lunch at noon. Our guide was very informational while walking and visiting the three villages. In one village we visited a primary school and a little hospital. The primary school was sponsored by Unicef which could be easily spotted by all the big logos on the kids’ bags. Our group separated from the others at the second village, where we took a quiet path, ending up in a cornfield through which we walked.
The weather was nice and sunny. Well, until the last bit. It started pouring like crazy. We sheltered at a school but it did not look like it would stop anytime soon. Our guide said that it was not far anymore so we decided to just walk since we both had our poncho with us. The head part of my poncho broke off, enabling the big drops to soak my bag and back slowly. After walking through heavy rain for 15 minutes we arrived at our last stop. Here we got picked up by the minibus of the hotel. After a well-needed shower we got picked up by another minibus who descended the road to Lao Cai train station like a rally driver. Here we changed our coupons for train tickets. We had tickets for the train at 9pm which meant we were supposed to wait for 2.5 hours. The train departing one hour earlier was not full so we could hop on this soft sleeper train where we shared our 4 person cabin with a Vietnamese mom and her two little kids.
Take the soft sleeper train, giving you a pretty decent night of sleep (especially if you’re used to Thai sleeper trains)
Get a decent English speaking guide. They do supply a lot of information about the villages and surroundings