Touring Halong Bay and Sapa
Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
26Trip End Dec 2004
Anyway, we've been happy to partake in tourism Vietnamese style the past two weeks in the north. Hanoi has been our launching pad for two side trips to Halong Bay and Sapa -- both stunning, peaceful and unimaginably picturesque.
We did a 3-day trip to Halong Bay with Handspan Adventure Travel, one of the many tour operators located in Hanoi
The first day was spent sailing around the bay. We stopped at Hong Sung Sot Cave(Vietnamese for Surprising or Amazing Cave), which was indeed surprising and amazing. By far, this series of three caves was the largest we'd ever seen. In mid-afternoon, the boat stopped for us to take a quick swim. Andy jumped from the top of the boat (see action pic!) only to find the water wasn't as deep as originally assured. Luckily, the sea floor was soft and muddy, and he was more shocked by the frigid water than hitting bottom. We spent the night on the boat talking about U.S. politics and swapping Vietnam travel tales with the Irish couple Kate and Noel. Our boat crew came back a bit before midnight after enjoying a few drinks at nearby Cat Ba Island. They soon had us on the floor playing a Vietnamese drinking game that involved putting your hands behind your back and knocking a beer can over with your nose. Ironically, the small-nosed Vietnamese men and ladies could do this trick but the big-nosed white men could not.
The next day, a smaller boat took us to Handspan's base camp, which was a small, beautiful, isolated beach with a few huts and a main gathering area (hopefully you can download the video clip!)
The third day was spent traveling by boat back to Halong City and then by bus to the noise and traffic of Hanoi. We immediately booked our next tour to Sapa, which would leave the next evening on the overnight train. Sapa is a former hill station nestled in a beautiful valley close to the Chinese border. It's known for its scenery, trekking, and diverse hill tribes.
We were joined on our Sapa tour by a German neurologist named Jenny. She was much more fun than her occupation might suggest. Hung was our burned-out tour guide, who seemed in his own world most of the time. On our first day, we descended into the valley and ate lunch by the river. For lunch, Hung had brought us bread already spread with jam and a can of minced pork. This was the first time either of us had eaten a "Spam and Jam" sandwich and probably the last. We didn't know then that it would be the only day the sun would make its appearance during our five days in Sapa.
Along a mountain path, a man was crouched over the bloody carcass of a large unidentifiable animal (don't worry, there's not a picture posted)
We then trekked to our first homestay with a Dzay hill tribe family in Ta Van. A woman, her son and two of her daughters lived in a simple, clean and sturdy wooden house. We slept on mattresses laid out on the second level, which most families use for storage. That night, the eight of us huddled around a small table covered with dishes for dinner. It wasn't long before the vat of rice wine came out, and we were all doing shots of the potent stuff, laughing and having a good ol' time.
The next day was a grueling 17 km hike up and down the hills, all covered with terraced rice paddies
The third day was uphill all the way to where a jeep picked us up and brought us back to Sapa. We checked into our hotel and rested the rest of the day. We spent the next day shopping and bargaining in Sapa with Black Hmong and Dao women and girls trying to sell us clothing, pillowcases, blankets, earrings and bracelets. Sapa has become quite the tourist destination, and Saturday is its main market day.
On Sunday, we did a tour with Sapa Nature Tours to Bac Ha for its weekly market
We are now in Hanoi until tomorrow morning when we leave for our fourth country, Laos. Since Hanoi to us was nothing to write home about, we won't.
Our Northern Vietnam recommendations: Handspan's kayaking and boat tour in Halong Bay, Cat Cat Hotel and Restaurant in Sapa (preferably when there's no fog), Bun Cha (rice vermicelli with roasted pork and vegetables) in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and Bac Ha Sunday market with Sapa Nature Tours.
Our "Shoulda Coulda Woulda" in Vietnam: Visited after the rainy season in September, taken a basic Vietnamese course, skipped Hue, gone to Sapa on our own and booked with a local tour operator, and stayed away from the evil Prince Hotel on Hang Cot Street in Hanoi.