After a few days in Panama City we flew back to Vancouver (our hometown) for a bit of an extended layover. As we were able to find flights from Panama to Vietnam via Vancouver that were the same price as connecting flights through the US, the decision to stopover at home was easy. Catching up with our families was the perfect way to break up the South American and Asian legs of our trip.
We landed in Hanoi, Vietnam at 11pm on January 31. Since our visas for Vietnam weren’t actually good until February 1, we had to wait around in the customs hall for the date to change over. The fact that our visas were not valid until February 1 actually caused quite the kerfuffle at the Vancouver airport – the airline was very hesitant to let us board the flight since they can be fined for allowing passengers to board the plane without proper documentation. After some convincing on our part, a very helpful agent with the airline, and our promise that we would not attempt to go through Vietnamese customs until after midnight, we were allowed to board the plane. In the end, it took us two and a half hours to check-in to our flight – next time we’ll pay the $30 to change our visas in advance! Ironically, once we arrived in Vietnam, a customs agent noticed us waiting around and asked why we weren’t proceeding through customs right away. When we told him our visas weren’t valid until midnight, he smiled and processed us through right away.
With a population of nearly 7 million, Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital) is a vibrant city with sidewalks full of food stalls and streets teeming with motorbikes. We, however, were in Hanoi during Tet (the Vietnamese Lunar New Year), so many of the stores and restaurants were closed for the holiday. While this created some challenges in booking tours and onward transportation, the city was relatively quiet and, as a result, was actually quite pleasant to walk around. We spent three full days in Hanoi and we were never short on things to do. In addition to walking around and taking in the craziness that is Hanoi, we hit some pretty decent attractions including the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (never has a guy that’s been dead for 40 years looked so good) and Hoa Lo Prison (or the “Hanoi Hilton” which jailed US prisoners during the American War in Vietnam, but was first used by the French to jail and execute Vietnamese revolutionaries). We also visited some beautiful temples around town that were absolutely packed with Vietnamese praying, lighting incense, and leaving money (many Vietnamese believe that performing these acts in the first few days of the new year will bring good luck). And, of course, we ate. We ate in restaurants and we ate the street food – Pho Bo (noodle soup with beef), Bun Cha (BBQ pork) and Bun Bo Nam Bo (dry noodles with beef) are just a few of the delicious dishes we tried. Hanoi’s nightlife was also right up our alley – cheap street side beers until midnight at which time everything closes and everyone must go home (a stark contrast to South America where things don’t even get going until after midnight).
From Hanoi we headed east to Halong Bay for a three day / two night cruise around beautiful Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. On board the Dragon Pearl Junk (a 20 person boat operated by Indochina Junk), we cruised around some of the 3000 limestone islets that dot this gorgeous seascape. Thankfully some of the pre-research we had done at home about the different junks that cruise Halong Bay paid off – the Dragon Pearl itself was beautiful, the seafood was phenomenal and it’s route took us to some of the more isolated areas of the bay. Apart from simply enjoying the scenery, the dinner in a cave on the first night and the kayaking on the second day were the highlights of the trip.
After Halong Bay we made our way back to Hanoi and boarded an overnight train for Lao Cai (the transportation hub of Vietnam’s far north). A one-hour minibus ride from Lao Cai took us straight to Sapa – a touristy town in a very picturesque setting. The biggest draw in Sapa is undoubtedly the hiking opportunities that are available in the surrounding countryside. From Sapa, we did an easy two day hike that meandered through terraced rice fields and indigenous hillside villages – the scenery was superb. Although we could have probably done the hike on our own, we decided to arrange it through a local agency (Sapa O’Chau) that provided us with a guide and setup our homestay for the night. We were ultimately glad we went with Sapa O’Chau since all of their tours are private. As a result, our guide Pang (a 23 year old young woman from the H’Mong tribe) was more like a friend than an official tour guide over the two days. In chatting with Pang, we learned so much about life in Vietnam and about the various hill-tribes. Pang also led us down some of the paths less travelled because after lunch on the first day we hardly saw any other tourists or pesky locals trying to sell handicrafts (the saleswomen are so persistent that they will actually follow you for about two hours all the way from Sapa to the village where most people stop for lunch).
Staying with a local family in a homestay was also a nice part of the Sapa hike. Dinner at the homestay was a delicious variety of local and other Vietnamese dishes served with a healthy amount of rice wine. The children also learned to play the card game “war” simply by watching us (they spoke no English and of course we speak no Vietnamese). We eventually turned the cards over to them and amused ourselves by watching them take turns playing this new game.
After the hike we spent a night in Sapa only to wake up early the next morning and visit the Sunday market in Bac Ha, a town two and a half hours by minibus away. This turned out to be a nice day trip to a colourful market packed with indigenous people selling everything from vegetables to live water buffalo and jewelry to soup bowls (some of the stuff was actually quite nice, if we only had extra space in our packs…).
Conveniently the road between Sapa and Bac Ha passed through Lao Cai so that we could bailout early and catch the train back to Hanoi and then further south.
Where we stayed: Golden Sun Palace in Hanoi (good for the price) and Sapa House in Sapa (again, good for the price).
Best meal: “Splurged” at Hill Station in Sapa.
Best experience: Believe it or not, the Sapa hike edges out the Halong Bay cruise.