Kep (Cambodia) to Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) around 5am after another fun bus travel adventure. This time we opted for the “sleeper bus” instead of the hotel one, which was a little more comfortable, and a little less awkward. Sophia and I (we said goodbye to Sabine and her friend as they stayed in Cambodia a bit longer) were taking a flight from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi that evening, so we didn’t bother getting a hostel. It was just going to be a long long day… All we did was find a place to store our large backpacks for the week, shopped around a bit, got full body massages to kill time, and packed only our day packs to take to the north of Vietnam. We packed with the following thought in our mind: “I have really only needed this so far in South East Asia, so that is what I’ll take and a little less of it.” We were exhilarated to only travel with a small backpack for a week. Inspired by the UK wrestler Sebastian Radclaw we met at Otres, who traveled for 3 months with nothing but a plastic shopping bag tied to a broken mop, we thought we could do one single week. (However 5 days before he left to go back to England, the day we said goodbye to Otres, his plastic bag broke… It was very sad.) And we could have definitely done it, and also we actually did it, but it turned out not to be ideal, because it turned out that the north of Vietnam, is not as warm as the rest of South East Asia… We plan day by day, so we didn’t really research that well. Anyway, that night in Hanoi, after some flight delays and miscommunication with the hostel, we finally laid down in a real bed for the first time in 43 hours, and slept.
When we arrived in the middle of the night, we were surprised how deserted the streets were. We thought we were in the touristy area. The next day however, the streets had transformed from empty tree lined lanes into streets of mayhem with scooters, cars, buses, cyclists, pedestrians, street vendors and people transporting goods on their back, bike, or what I’ll call “Vietnamese carrying scale”. The Old Quarter is a maze of little streets, but at some point became recognisable by the goods they were selling (there was what we called “tin man street” and “shoe city” and “the narrow street with the little restaurants and pubs”). We had 2 goals that day: organise a Halong Bay tour and celebrate Halloween, because why the hell not. We succeeded at both.
More Hanoi pictures taken on several days:
The following day we were picked up from our hostel to go to Halong Bay. A bus journey of about 4 hours got us to the harbour, absolutely filled with masses and masses of tourists and we were expecting another Angkor Wat experience. So this is how it goes: you book a cruise, you go on a boat with a varying number of people, you have lunch, you go to some caves, you go kayaking, swimming, dinner, sleep on the boat, breakfast, and cruise back the next day. It depends on the price and company how many people there will be on your boat, what caves you go to, what quality the kayaks and gear have, the comfort and cleanliness of your bed and room, the quality and taste of your food and the general state of the boat itself. But there are so many cruise liners and so many tour operators and agents and price differences that it’s really difficult to find the right one. You’ll also be on a boat with people who will have paid double or less than you did. We didn’t choose the right one. We stupidly opted for the “party cruise”. Now, we’re both very much against organised fun and things that call themselves “party” cruises, it’s cheap and idiotic, but we did it because: 1) the nice lady in the agency said a lot of people really enjoy it and though it’s hard to find recommendations for a cruise, this particular agency rated high on Trip Advisor, 2) she said the ages varied from 18 to 35, 3) we thought it might be nice to be on a boat for 2 days with people who actually want to talk to each other, 4) because really you saw all the same things on each cruise anyway. It wasn’t the cheapest cruise, which we thought would mean that the boat and the food would be decent. So it turned out that the boat was absolutely fine, the food was absolutely rubbish, and we were absolutely the only kids on board born in the 80s. But never mind that, we just rolled with it.
Unfortunately, the weather that day wasn’t very nice. It was kinda chilly actually! And not sunny. And windy. We were cold. The guide kept talking about swimming: “There’s no swimming in the cave!” “…and then there’s time for swimming.” “The more time you spend kayaking, the less you can spend swimming.” “No swimming allowed at night, if you go swimming, you’ll be in the water for the rest of your life”. We weren’t thinking of swimming at all, we were cold. So we got to the cave, which granted, was a pretty cool cave, but they ruined it by putting in different coloured lights. Then we cruised through the lime stone rock formations, and as I said, no matter what cruise you’re on, that bay is pretty damn magnificent. We quickly changed the terrible “party music” the staff put on to some good and more relaxed music and enjoyed the sights. Unexpectedly, but thankfully, because the bay is so large, all of the cruise ships scattered and most of the time you could only see one or two other boats. In the bay where we anchored for the kayaking, swimming and to spend the night were maybe about ten other ships, but all out of ear shot. We went kayaking, despite being cold, and noticed how warm the water was. It was literally like a lukewarm bath, so we decided to go swimming anyway and together with the other kids, we jumped off the boat and floated down the current. After that we had too many margaritas.
The next day it was sunny and the bay looked about a million times more beautiful, but we didn’t cruise for very long, got back to the harbour, and back to Hanoi.
The next day in Hanoi we roamed around a bit and got some bus tickets to go to Sapa, a village in the very north, near the Chinese border, surrounded by mountains with rice terraces and inhabited by several small ethnic groups. We took a sleeper bus again, which arrived at 3am, but you could stay inside until 6am to catch some more sleep. I didn’t. Not a minute. When we got out it was raining, misty, and really ffing cold. We were definitely going to need some jumpers. We found our way to the tour operator with which we were going to ride around on scooters that day. I, stupidly, left my drivers license in Ho Chi Minh, as it had been one of those things I hadn’t needed so far. So no driving for me, I went on the back with the guide. But first things first, we found some jumpers, had some hot chocolate and got ready. It was so misty, that we could see about 10 meters in front of us. The entire day. So we saw NOTHING of the amazing views that were apparently there. Peng, our guide, kept saying how beautiful it usually is, so I guess we just had to take her word for it. Meanwhile I just chatted to Peng on the bike. She’s from the Black H’mong people and her family are farmers. Not farmers who farm and sell whatever on the market. No, they just farm for the family. They have their rice, their vegetables, their cows, their chickens and what not and lead a pretty much self sustaining life. Peng didn’t go to school, but started working as a guide at age 16. She learned English from talking to tourists, and I suppose that’s where she got her general knowledge also. As curious as she was, she just kept asking us medical questions, which was quite odd, but also quite funny.
We stopped at a handicraft workshop where they showed us how they make the Vietnamese batik prints and got to do some of our own. Chilled to the bone we were happy to sit next to the fire that’s used to keep the wax liquid. Afterwards we went to our homestay. Using a narrow footpath we scootered up and down until we got to the house. A family of 5 lived there; mum, dad and 3 children. We entered the dark house and headed for the first fire we saw. Turns out we sat down at the fire used for cooking, but that was ok. The family greeted us but other than that went about their days. Before the dinner we had with the family, we were invited to take a herbal bath. Yes please! We sunk ourselves in the two tubs (wooden barrels, which by the way I thought is so much more comfortable than our baths), and let the warm herbal goodness indulge us… Two shamans had been invited to the house because the mother had been having headaches, and last time the shaman came she felt better afterwards (pretty sure she was having a migraine). The entire evening he was chanting, clapping, clicking, while no one really seemed to pay attention to him. Later all the men participated and they tried to get the good spirits to find their way back into the house. There was hopping around, searching corners with torches and waving of white cloths. Meanwhile, we were trying to explain Peng the difference between ibuprofen and paracetamol, and what antibiotics do. Irony much? At some point Sophia and I were ready for bed, so we slipped past the shaman and went to the bathroom to brush our teeth. Next we heard a terrible noise. It came from a chicken. They were now using a chicken for the ritual. We were pretty sure it was going to be sacrificed, but we never heard or saw it.
After a great night of sleep on a hard mattress and a thick blanket, we got up, had breakfast, and went back to Sapa to return the scooters and start a hike. That day the weather was a little better, yet still quite cloudy. We hiked past rice patties and through little villages for about 5-6 hours. It was incredibly muddy and thankfully they gave us some rubber booths, because if your feet wouldn’t be ankle deep in the mud, you’d be wading through a stream. A couple of local ladies were following us while they were making hemp threads. They were actually supposed to try and sell us things, but they never offered anything, which was slightly confusing. Every party of hikers we saw had some of those ladies following them, one for each person. Ours gave up after lunch, and we continued with our guide. Even though cloudy, the views were wonderful, and we enjoyed our easy (mostly downhill) hike. At the end we were picked up by a van that brought us back to Sapa.
After some semi-hot showers we got a sudden craving for cheese. (Actually not so sudden as we have it all the time. There’s not much cheese around these parts!) As Vietnam is a former French colony, we thought there had to be some cheese around. I googled and found a picture of something that looked like cheese fondue, so that is where we went. They didn’t have cheese fondue. So we ordered aubergine covered in cheese as a starter and cheese burgers as a main. The cheese was fairly disappointing: tasteless and plastic-like, so still our cheese-hunger hadn’t been satisfied. We got a chocolate fondant as desert to tame the craving, which was delicious so at least we had that.
The following day we walked around Sapa a bit and headed back to Hanoi once more, only to spend the night and fly back to Ho Chi Minh the morning after.