Arriving in the morning on the overnight train from Hoi An, the first thing to hit me about Hanoi was the heat and humidity. We’d arrived in mid-July, coinciding with the rainy season, but I was still surprised by the difference between North and South Vietnam, Hanoi being appreciably hotter than HCMC. We were staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and were very glad of a little air-con when we arrived.
Our time in North Vietnam was split between the classical activities of exploring Hanoi, trekking in Sapa and relaxing on a cruise in Halong Bay.
I think by the time I’d reach Hanoi, I was a little tired of the hectic, hot, South East Asian city, and I didn’t really push myself enough to fully experience it. However, a very memorable day was spent by taking a walking tour with HanoiKids, a free tour given by students from Hanoi, who want to speak English and show off their city. My guide, Nhat, was great, really friendly and had lots of interesting stories. She took me around the Old Quarter, the French Quarter and the Lake of the Restored Sword, taking me for an Egg Coffee and Vietnamese ice-cream in cafes that I’d never have entered on my own. Also, we visited the Temple of Literature and National University and enjoyed Bun Ca together. I recommend anyone to check out www.hanoikids.org to book a tour of Hanoi, it’s a really nice organisation.
The only other sites we visited were La Maison Central, the old French prison, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Both are quick attractions, the prison taking about an hour, and the mausoleum taking only 5 minutes if there’s no queue (you will be shuffled past Ho Chi Minh’s body quite rapidly, but it’s a very surreal thing to see). They’re interesting to walk around and are historically important for Hanoi, just make sure you arrive early at the Mausoleum, and are appropriately dressed.
I had a great time in Sapa, I think it was my favourite part of North Vietnam. I did a four night, three day tour, with one night in a hotel in Sapa, the second night in a homestay, with a return overnight train.
Sapa is the central town of a highland area where small communities of different ethnic minority groups live. The landscape is beautiful, consisting of rivers running through valleys that are coated in lush, green paddy fields and topped with ruggedly high mountain peaks. As it was the rainy season, the skies were a bit grey and the paths were a little slippery, but the green from the growing rice was incredibly vibrant at this time of year.
The true stars of this trip are the women from the different ethnic groups,who work as guides for the treks. They speak English well and provide lots of interesting information about the local way of life and how things differ in Sapa to the rest of Vietnam. Amazingly, these women are able to walk unaided, in flip flops, carrying their babies on their backs, whilst holding the hands of clumsy tourists.
The homestay is a worthwhile experience. The accommodation was perfectly comfortable, and there’s a hot shower and western toilet. Also, staying in a homestay means you’re able to walk further(farther??) from Sapa, into the highlands, and you can see a traditional Sapa house.
My first day in Sapa was rather easy, with a 6km walk to Cat Cat village along a tarmac road. In addition to the village belonging to the H’Mong people, we saw some hemp weaving and indigo dyeing, an impressive waterfall and some traditional dancing. My second and third days were more strenuous, with a 12km and 10km hikes, through Lao Chai, Ta Van and Giang Ta Chai villages. The paths were difficult to walk over, undulating and muddy, but the views were spectacular. The paddy terraces were beautiful to see, and I ended up with way too many photographs.
I think if you wanted to go to Sapa without a tour, it would be completely possible. The paths are very well marked and there are plenty of people to follow. However, you might want to hire a local guide for one day, just to learn about their different lifestyles.
Our Halong Bay trip was slightly rushed, as we only had a couple of days left in Vietnam. We took a two day, one night, trip, staying in a hotel on Cat Ba Island (Lee gets sea-sick so no overnight boat stay like most people do!).
On the first day we travelled from Hanoi, taking about 4 hours, stopping at both a craft market and pearl shop. Neither stops were aggressive with sales tactics, but the time delay was a little frustrating, and the pearl stop was actually a little interesting. We started cruising by about 1pm and ate a nice lunch on the boat. Soon after, we visited Dong Thien Cung, an impressive cave, lit to highlight the many geological features. There were a lot of people there, but we tried not let that detract from the experience. We then sailed around the bay for about 4 hours, stopping to jump off the boat and have a swim. The day was a pleasant and relaxing experience, lying on the top deck, watching the many kursts pass by. Unfortunately, it was a very overcast day, with thick grey cloud, and I really don’t think Halong Bay was showcased to its full potential. We were impressed by the scenery, but I think it would have been a truly unique experience if the sky had been blue and the water sparkling.
I didn’t want to mention the tour companies I went with for Sapa and Halong Bay, but I thought it was worth noting that both companies I booked with transferred me to a different company for either part, or the whole, trip. I found this annoying, as I’d spent time researching the companies, reading reviews and looking at the various accommodation options. However, once you’re on the tour, there’s not much you can do. You have to just go along with it, let the frustration go and just enjoy your new tour group. I’m not sure if it’s worth trying, but maybe ask your tour operator before you book whether you’ll actually be taking the tour with them or a different provider. Any way to try and avoid unexpected heated discussions is always welcome in my book!!!