Hi everyone! We are still in Vietnam and loving it here! It has everything from beaches, beautiful countryside, and history to choose from. We are making our way from north to south of the country and stopping along any city we think we would like to visit. We are about half way now in Hoi An. But for this post, I want to focus on where we have visited while in Northern Vietnam.
We arrived at our hostel and they offered us free beers at check-in. So that’s a good start. After our 24 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang, it was really all we wanted besides a real bed. Of course, we dropped our bags off in the room and decided to enjoy the beer downstairs in the common area. We started talking to a Brazilian guy and two Danish girls at the table next to us. Before we knew it, we were all off on a mission to find a place that served Bia Hoi, local daily brewed beer that is pretty cheap. We walked through the old quarter, which is where our hostel was located, and made our way through all the crazy, horn-blowing motorbike drivers, tourists, and vendors until we found a place. The lady said they ran out of Bia Hoi, but we decided to stay and enjoy a few beers and appetizers anyways. We sat on low plastic stools at a small plastic table on the sidewalk and were able to people watch while we socialized. The majority of sidewalks are used to park the motorbikes, so there is a mix of people walking and people on motorbikes, along with some cars trying to get through the tiny streets. Even though the old quarter itself has a certain charm to it, it can definitely be a bit stressful and annoying to walk through it. You cannot wait for someone to let you cross the street because you never will be able to if you do. You have to just go, ignore the honking horns, and be on your way. After a couple beers, we all headed back to the hostel for their second happy hour which included free beer for the hour (they had two HHs every day! One at 6-7pm and one at 10-11pm). Before we knew it, we had a little dance party and ended up staying up much later than I was expecting. It was a fun evening and nice to be in a big city again.
Below is a short clip of us walking through the busy streets:
The rest of our time in Hanoi was pretty much a repeat (it’s hard to turn down free beer) though we did stay in one night. For our first real meal there, we tried a popular Hanoi dish called Bun Cha, which is a pork and noodle dish. Everything is served separately and you mix it all together as you please. When the lady first served us, some tourists asked if they could take a picture of our meal. And then the lady saw that we did not know how to begin to eat the dish and pretty much put mine together for me to show us how to combine everything. Overall gist, just mix it up and eat it. 🙂 It was very delicious.
We did go on a walking tour of the old quarter which included trying egg coffee, which is a small, strong coffee with a whipped egg white and sugar on top. You stir it all together and enjoy. It was pretty good actually and something I may try and recreate when I get back home. We also went to Hoa Lo Prison, which was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. It is now a museum in which you can read about the history and see the living quarters of the prisoners.
Besides that, we just walked around on our own and enjoyed being in a larger city for a few nights. I like small and quiet, but I also like big and loud and Hanoi was perfect for the latter.
After Hanoi, we decided to head northwest to visit Sapa, which is a region known for beautiful views of rice patty fields stepped down along the side of mountains. We stayed in a homestay in a small village named Ta Van, which is in the middle of a valley and has amazing views. The homestay was run by an Australian guy, Andrew, and his Vietnamese wife, Lan. They cooked meals for us and we ate a family style dinner with everyone both nights we were there. Andrew explained the nearby trails to us and gave us a map with his directions as well. So instead of using a guide, we just walked through the trails solo. The trails are really just the same paths that locals use to navigate through the rice patties. Hiking through the sometimes steep and muddy trails gives you a tiny sense of what their daily life working in the rice fields is like. You also walk through the village, see the hospital, schools, etc.
Honestly, the pictures don’t do it any justice. It was really gorgeous and peaceful. We hiked through the area for about 3 hours, hoping it would not rain. Luckily for us it did not, but of course on the day we plan to leave, the sun comes out and for the first time we see the mountain ridge.
The ride to Cat Ba was a little rough. To start, we took an overnight train from Sapa to Hanoi (which was a lot more comfortable than the overnight bus). We arrived at 4:45am, took a taxi to the bus station, and hopped on a bus towards Cat Ba. We had to take a bus, ferry, bus combo since Cat Ba is an island. The bus/ferry combo was packed with Vietnamese families heading to the beach for the day or weekend (it was a Saturday). Though they are very nice people in general, they just do not have the same travel etiquette that most western countries do. They yell to each other from across the bus and they have no concept of a line. So needless to say, we had to dig deep for patience to make it through the journey.
Finally, we made it to our hostel. The island was packed with both Vietnamese and backpacker tourists, so lodging was a bit hard to find. We booked in advance, but still ended up staying in a 28 bed shared room. It wasn’t horrible, but not something I would want to do again. Our time in Sapa made us forget how stupid hot it actually is in most parts of Vietnam. We walked around Cat Ba to see some of the beaches (which were super busy) and ended up sweating so much, we needed to retreat to our old ways of walk some, take a break, then repeat. The highlight of Cat Ba for us was the day trip to see Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay consists of several Karst mountain islands and are really beautiful to see. We kayaked thorough some of them and we were able to go swimming as well.
We were also in Cat Ba for the Euro final soccer game between France and Portugal. The game was at 2am and the city had set up a huge monitor by the bay with several seats and tables. We took a late nap, and somehow still woke up at midnight, went to grab a few beers and then watched the game. The place was filled with more locals than I was expecting. The majority were cheering for Portugal. Though I did not care too much about the game, I am glad we made ourselves wake up to see it. It was very cool and reminded me of the large monitors that were set up in the cities in Brazil that hosted games for the World Cup.
Northern Vietnam is so beautiful and has so much to see, however I will mention that there was a decent amount of garbage in certain areas of Ha Long Bay and along the rivers in Sapa. We spoke to Andrew, the Australian in Sapa, and he mentioned how he tried to get the locals in the village to all contribute to have street trash cans and pick up for only a couple of dollars a month and no one was interested. They do not see it as a problem yet and aren’t taking a proactive stance. Once it becomes a problem, then they will address it, but by then it will be too late which is sad to say.
Well that’s all I’ve got for now. Hope you have a great weekend!
-The horrific conditions of the colonial prison was clear to any visitor, so I felt all the ubiquitous propaganda (survivors of the prison comprised much of the Communist government) was a bit overkill. And apparently Americans were happy there, playing basketball and celebrating Christmas and shit. Whatever.
-Sapa was originally populated by the ethnic minority groups before its breathtaking views and cooler climate naturally attracted the French. While agriculture is still the main industry, many of the minorities, especially the Hmong, increasingly rely (rather annoyingly) on tourist (mostly Chinese now) income.
-Andrew was a sweet man. He has a good life in Sapa now but I do wonder what made these expats pack up and leave one day for a completely strange country. For most men I think it’s women. The rest of them probably have something they wanted to leave behind.
-Cat Ba was a shitshow, especially with the lodging situation we had. We heard from others (we slept with ear plugs) that a couple was fucking in a 28 bed dorm room. Good for them I guess.
-Ha Long Bay is internationally recognized for its beauty and was designated by the United Nations’ UNESCO as some sort of heritage site. Apparently that designation doesn’t carry much weight in Vietnam since the bay is now overdeveloped and apparently there is a major shipping channel right through the heart of it. I also noticed our boat captain release the contents of the on-board septic tank on the return journey.
-I think karst is just the fancy way of saying limestone.
-This could be a completely wild and false guess but I think the Vietnamese were rooting against the French because of the colonial past. I am pretty sure I heard the locals next table over snickering when the French tourists got up and sang their national anthem.