I struggled a bit in Hanoi, I’m not sure if this is because I had spent the last ten or so days in the beautiful serene countryside of Vietnam, but there was something about being in the middle of all the traffic again that I didn’t like. Don’t get me wrong Hanoi does seem like a great city and I don’t think I gave it the time it deserved. To get to Hanoi from Halong we paid 150000 Dong (£5.30) and the journey took around 3.5 hours. We got quite lucky really, our boat trip in Halong Bay over ran by 1.5 hours and I thought we had missed our bus. I checked with the guy at the hostel before booking and he said he could guarantee that we would be back by 11:45, so we should book the 12:30 bus. I was a bit dubious but I trusted him. Anyway he was wrong, we got back to the hostel at 13:30 and thought we’d have to wait around for the 16:00 bus. As I said we got lucky, the bus driver was sitting in the hostel reception drinking coffee and it turns out we were the only 2 people on the bus so they had waited for us. I think the typhoon had scared most people away so nobody had committed to going to Halong Bay during this time. I don’t know how they made money out of this trip, there was the driver and a “guide” who spoke English on the bus and then just us 2 passengers. When I say guide I mean a man who told us when to get off and go to the toilet and when to get back on the bus. We arrived at our hostel around 17:30 and went out to meet Jesper and Naomi for an Indian before they caught an early morning flight to Myanmar via Bangkok. They had never had Indian food before we introduced it to them in Nha Trang, and they now love it. They had spent 3 nights in Hanoi, and tried a different Indian every night!
I spent my first day in Hanoi getting some insulin sorted for the next couple of months of my trip and then that evening went for a walk around the lake. We were staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and they shut off some roads from bikes and cars in order to set up a night market and make it safer. However this means that the parts where the cars and bikes can go is absolutely crazy. The lake is really nice at night, everything is lit up and you can find some restaurants with lovely views from the top floor overlooking everything. There is a bright red bridge that leads to an island with a temple. It costs 30000 Dong to go to the island and you can get some nice photos of the temple and views from the middle of the lake. The following day we went to try the famous Hanoi egg coffee. When the French occupied Vietnam they wanted a way to sweeten their coffee as there was no milk available. They invented a way of whisking up the egg white as a replacement for the milk and sugar that they couldn’t have and this has since developed into using condensed milk. I have to say I prefer the condensed milk, the egg coffee was okay, but incredibly sweet and thick and you just feel like you need another drink afterwards.I got recommended a place near the lake called Hanoi Time Coffee Shop. It is really hard to find, down a tiny alleyway between 2 shops and then up 3 flights of twisting stairs. It is nice inside however and you can sit on the balcony and get more nice views of the lake. There are plenty of museums in Hanoi including the history museum, revolution museum and a war museum, along with the temple of literature and the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh himself. However between September and November he gets flown to Russia for restoration, it’s all very weird and not something I would particularly want to see anyway.
From Hanoi we caught a bus to Sa Pa (Sapa). It is worth shopping around for the best price as they vary greatly. There are also lots of options to do an organised trekking trip costing around $75. However we paid 230000 Dong (£8.30) for our bus, leaving at 07:30 and arriving at 13:00. There are 2 options for the bus. The morning one or the night bus leaving at 21:30 and arriving in Sapa at 04:30. I wanted to take the day bus in order to get some great views of the countryside along the way. We were meant to be picked up from our hostel between 06:00-06:30 but the shuttle bus rocked up at 07:15, I was starting to think they’d forgotten about us. We were all transferred to the main bus which left at 07:25, stopped twice along the way before arriving in Sapa. We chose not to stay in Sapa, instead staying in a home stay in Ta Van Dzay, a tiny village about 8km from Sapa. A taxi to Ta Van Dzay costs 170000 Dong by the metre and you also have to buy a ticket for 75000 Dong per person in order to enter the area. This money supposedly goes toward the local community and restoration of the area, I really hope it does. The homestay we were recommended was called My Tra Dzay and is one of the nicest places I’ve stayed on my travels. It is run by an Australian guy called Andrew, along with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. The beds are so comfortable, they are only mattresses on the floor but that doesn’t matter and there is a balcony running round the whole upper floor with hammocks where you can chill looking over the mountains and rice terraces. The food is also amazing, you have a choice for breakfast which is $3, a choice for lunch which is $5 and for dinner they get everyone together in the evening, everyone pays $5 and you sit around chatting and enjoying the amazing buffet, the vegetarian spring rolls are to die for. There is a fridge with drinks that are all $1, including a big bottle of tiger beer and they rely on honesty, there’s a pen and paper next to the fridge where you mark down what you’ve taken and at the end you pay for everything.
The walks around this part of Vietnam are amazing. Nearly all the homestays you go to will tell you that you need a guide, don’t listen to them. When you first arrive at the My Tra homestay Andrew will give you a map and explain a great 2 hour loop that you can do around the surrounding mountains and rice paddy fields, arriving at a waterfall half way and then walking through a village on the way back. Most places charge $20 for a guide to do this. There is also a walk up to a church on a mountain that you can do yourself, some people went up exploring and met some guys with a guide that had paid $90 for something they could have done themselves. When you are out walking and exploring, the local people in traditional dress will come up to you and follow you round asking for money at the end claiming they helped you out. Just be polite and say no thank you. If they try to sell you something and you say “maybe later” they will follow you back to your hostel and wait outside until you leave again. After over 6 weeks in Vietnam I think I’ve found a nice polite firm way to reject people, without being too rude. With the 2 hour loop you can take little dirt tracks up the mountains, through bamboo forests or up to the top of the waterfall if you want to extend your walk and exploration, you can’t really get too lost unless it gets dark. Just make sure you give yourself plenty of time. On our second day 4 of us decided to catch a cable car up to the top of Fansipan Mountain, the highest peak in Indochina at over 3000m. There must be something about me and mountains, when I climbed mount Fuji I couldn’t see a thing due to the weather, when I got the cable car a torrential downpour started and again I couldn’t see a thing. I’m going to give up with mountains for a while. Apparently the view is amazing and is well worth the 600000 Dong (£21) per ticket but for us it was a waste of money. A return taxi to the cable car station costs another 600000 Dong, split between the amount of people in the taxi. The driver will come back and pick you up three hours later. Once you get off the cable car at the top you have to climb about 400 steps to reach the summit. They seemed to be doing a lot of building work up there, even in the storm and this seems a shame as its taking away from the natural beauty.
This part of Vietnam is amazing, and where you stay makes a big difference. I would recommend not staying in Sapa itself, find a homestay in a small village, especially the My Tra Homestay in Ta Van village. It’s the same in most parts of Vietnam, at the places you’ve heard of tourism is taking over, you need to get a little bit off the beaten track in order to experience proper Vietnam. From Sapa we are catching a bus, well a couple of buses to Laos which not many people do, they normally head back to Hanoi then catch a direct bus to Luang Prabang or Vientiane. However this costs a lot more money and is nowhere near as interesting and I’m really looking forward to the next part of my trip.