f Vietnam: Sapa, Halong Bay, Hanoi.


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Vietnam: Sapa, Halong Bay, Hanoi.

October 19, 2015 /

Dear neglected space,
I'm back to leave you with some happy memories from my recent trip to Vietnam.
This impromptu trip gave me one of the best memories.
I loved the trip to Sapa especially. It was nothing glamorous.
I went without make-up, flat & oily/sweaty hair,
dirty bottoms from falling onto the muddy ground, stayed in homestays, etc,
yet it nourished my soul
and left me with so many beautiful and warm memories.
Simple travels are the best kind to truly relax and replenish.
Traveling is undoubtedly therapeutic.
It allows you to escape from your problems and leave them aside completely (temporarily of course);
by the time you return, you are usually able to look at them from a different perspective,
and somehow, they do not seem as big or as terrible as you initially made them out to be.
You find a new form of energy to deal with these problems, and move on with life.

'Why do you go away? So that you can come back.
So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours.
And the people there see you differently, too.
Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.'
--Terry Pratchett

In a week, I visited Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi.
Let me begin with the pictures, followed by some descriptions/details of the places I went.

How to get to Sapa
We spent our first 2 days in Hanoi, and left for Sapa on the second night.
We thought this would be safer than leaving straight to Sapa on first night,
just in case there was a flight delay (because I took an afternoon flight).
 We took an overnight train (8 hours) from Hanoi to Lao Cai.
Train ticket was booked via their website, & we took 'SapaLy' (4 berth cabin).
It was not easy to fall asleep on the bumpy ride. I finally managed to doze off at around 2am,
and woke up at 5am. This was how my cabin looks like:
From Lao Cai station, there was transport arranged by Sapa Sisters
(the tour guide company I signed up for).
We paid an additional USD6 each for the transport + hotel for breakfast and a quick shower.
NOTE: Since we chose to stay at homestays for my 2 nights in Sapa,
we had to leave my big backpack in the hotel for the 3 days,
and only carried another smaller backpack with the things we required for the next 3 days.
We forgot to ask about this and naively assumed that there would be transport to bring us our big backpack each night.
Hahah. So it may be easier for you if you pre-pack your stuff so as to not be in a panic mode like me
and re-arrange my stuff in a small room, 30 minutes before beginning my trek. 

Tour Guide in Sapa
If you intend to do trekking in Sapa, I highly recommend getting a guide, for safety reasons.
For my 3D2N in Sapa, we had a personal guide, via Sapa Sisters. This is not an advert for Sapa Sisters. I just found them after doing my research 2/3 days before the trip and only confirmed the booking with them the day before flying off. My experience with them was okay and generally, I had no complains about them. My guide could speak English, and so communicating was not quite of a problem. I am sure there are other guides/companies which are as good or perhaps even better, but I just thought I could share with you the one I chose since it turned out to be okay for me. According to the weather forecasts and the locals, it was supposed to be raining the whole week when I was in Sapa. True enough, it rained the moment I set foot in Sapa.
We started trekking in the rain, which was really challenging because it made the muddy ground really slippery. Going down the slopes/steps in the rice fields was quiet scary. With a guide, it was obviously much safer because she knew the safer routes to take and she was our bridge of communication. Also, some villages actually require permits. So with the tour guide, everything was arranged for us, including the meals.

Other 'Guides' in Sapa
The moment you embark on your trek, you will be followed by some H'mong ladies (or young girls).
I heard from my guide, that there will usually be one tagged along to one tourist.
Since there were two of us, we had two ladies tagging along with us;
some tour groups had a bunch of ladies following them.
Basically, they would follow for the 3 hours trek til your lunch location,
in hope that you will purchase something from them from the baskets they carry on their back,
containing some souvenirs (scarfs, pouch, bookmarks made from leaves, etc)
Truth be told, since I have read about them before, I was initially not quite receptive towards them.
At the beginning of the route, when they offered their hands to hold and support me
while I make my way down the slippery slopes, I rejected their offers politely.
So did le buddy. We were afraid that they would haunt us to purchase a lot of things from them at the end of the journey.
However.. less than 10 minutes after, we realized that we really needed their help in making our way through the muddy ground/slopes.
I don't know why but my guide was walking a little ahead, so while I was lagging a little behind
and feeling helpless, I could only reach out to the lady following close to me.
From then, we started accepting their offer to hold/support us, and thinking back now,
I would not have survived Day 1 without their help.
(On Day 2 and 3, the routes we trekked at were much more manageable.
And surprisingly, no H'mong ladies followed us on these two days.)
True enough, halfway through the journey, the ladies attempted to sell us the things which we politely rejected, because we already intended to pass them a small token of appreciation - cash, without purchasing anything from them since we really did not want the stuff.
(which we did at the lunch location. They smiled and left without pestering us anymore to purchase from them)

There were also several young girls who would pop out of nowhere at your resting areas,
and they would look at you with puppy eyes (literally) and start asking you to buy things from them.
This is an example of how the conversation would go:
'Buy from me, please.'
'No, thank you.'
'Yes, thank you.'
'No, thank you.'
'Yes, thank you.'
& it went on and on............ We just kept saying 'no, thank you' politely.
From what I gathered online, if you purchase from one of the girls,
you may soon see a whole group of them gathering around you asking you to purchase from them too.
It is really tough to reject, especially with their puppy eyes..
but we decided to be firm (politely of course). 

I would highly recommend homestays in Sapa, but honestly, I think this is not for everyone.
Hygiene and living-conditions wise, I think not everyone will be able to accept it.
I suggest that you do more research online to find out a lil' more on what to expect,
before deciding whether you want to go ahead with homestays.
Here are some pictures of how my homestays looked like:

Homestay 1

Homestay 2

For us, we did not manage to sleep well on both nights, but we enjoyed the experience nonetheless
and I was glad I had the chance to experience it.
On the second night, we actually stayed in my guide's place as there was a change in the itinerary.
On both nights, we stayed together with 3 other French tourists, who were led by another guide.
So the 5 of us spent quite some time chatting over beer,
and the dinner sessions together with the hosts were especially cozy.
Breakfasts were made of thin pancakes , bananas and honey, and of course, Vietnamese coffee.

The places I visited:
We were given options to choose easy/difficult routes for the different locations.
So if you are more adventurous and fit, you can opt for the difficult routes for all the locations.
I did not have any proper trekking shoes, so I rented the boots at USD2 per day,
which was honestly not very comfortable for the sole,
but very useful for walking on the wet areas and quite good for the muddy ground too.
On Day 1, we left the hotel at 9am and headed to Y Linh Ho followed by Lao Chai
(a Black H'mong Village) for lunch,
and passed through several rice fields and beautiful landscapes along the way.
It took us about 3+ hours due to the rain.
After lunch, we trekked for another 1.5 hours and arrived at Ta Van (a Zay village)
where we stayed for the night.
On Day 2, we began our day at around 930am and trekked through a bamboo forest to a waterfall,
before arriving at Giang Ta Chai (a Dao village) for lunch.
After that, we trekked to Su Pan, where we stayed for the night. 
On Day 3, we did a 3+ hours trek to Ban Ho, had our lunch there
before our bus came to pick us up and sent us back to the hotel.
Arrived at the hotel at around 4pm, had a quick shower,
managed to shop around the area for a while before taking the bus at 515pm back to Lao Cai.
Had dinner at Lao Cai, took an overnight train back to Hanoi.
Took a taxi (remember to insist on meter charge!!) back to the hotel
which we stayed in for the first night, had a quick shower at the hotel
(There were two common toilets for guests to shower, which I felt was a really good service),
before the bus came to pick us up for Halong Bay.

How to get to Halong Bay
As mentioned above, the bus (arranged by the cruise we signed up for)
picked us up from our hotel at around 730am.
It took around 4 hours to reach Halong Bay.
Arrived at around 1130am, sat at the lounge for about an hour before boarding the cruise.

Cruise or Day Tour?
We wanted to experience the cruise, so we went for a 2D1N stay
(You can opt for 3D2N, but for me, 2D1N was more than sufficient because of the cloudy weather.)
There are several cruise companies to choose from, and I think it really depends on
how much you are willing to set aside for your experience in Halong Bay.
Depending on how much you want to spend, and how long you want to spend there,
you can choose to go for:

1. Day tour (cost around SGD50 I think)
2. Budget cruise 
3. Mid-range cruise
4. Luxury cruise

I did not have sufficient time before the trip to research more on the cruises,
so we just went ahead with the one recommended by our hotel.
Paid USD150 per person.
 I think the one I took belonged to the mid-range cruise,
and I honestly think it was over-priced (either that or I was overcharged :X).
Not to be critical, but I felt that the food was really average for the price that I paid for.
Fortunately, the service was good.

What I did in Halong Bay
Life in Halong Bay was slow and peaceful and.. slow.
Made a trip to Floating Village after lunch,
and we were given an option to kayak/swim afterwards,
but some of us just headed to the sundeck to chill.
Before dinner time, there was a Vietnamese Spring Roll Cooking demonstration.
The next day morning before breakfast, there was a Tai-Chi session but I gave that a miss.
After breakfast, we explored Hung Sung Sot aka Surprise Cave.
Had another session of brunch before checking out of the cruise.
(Squid-fishing and a visit to a beach were included in the itinerary,
but I have no idea why they were excluded eventually.)
Basically, it was just 'chill and relax' kind of trip.
By the way, Halong Bay is a UNESCO Heritage site,
and also one of the new seven wonders of nature!
& indeed, it was beautiful even though it was cloudy.
Although I did not get to see beautiful sunset or a clear sky filled with stars,
the sight of the vast sky and the emerald green water was calming, therapeutic and refreshing.

What I did in Hanoi
We stayed in the Old Quarter area, and we skipped most of the tourist spots
(Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hoa Lo Prison,
Long Bien Bridge, Dong Xuan Market, etc.)
We just wanted to walk around to explore our area,
enjoy the food and immerse ourselves in the atmosphere. 

List of places we visited & the food that we had:

1. Hoan Kiem Bridge

2. Cho Hom Market
We only did a 10-15 minutes tour of this market to have a look at how it was like.
This old market has a charm of its own is known for as a cloth market.
Wished I had the motivation to wake up early to visit a wet market too! 

3. Bia Hoi Corner (Ta Hien Street)
This was probably the highlight of our stay in Hanoi.
We had our Bia Hoi (fresh beer) at 5000 dong (approximately $0.32) per cup.
Bia hoi is refreshing and light (relatively lower alcohol content, approximately 3%),
and easy to drink. We came here on all three nights,
visited the Green Pepper (which was packed with tourists)
and the other stall right opposite (beside PANDA) and the latter was our preferred choice.
It was really interesting to sit by the road on a small stool, and just people-watch.
The junction right in front of us was constantly packed with traffic (human and vehicles)!
We also had a great time spending hours interacting with different people from all walks of life.
This experience was priceless.

4. Pho (Vietnames noodle soup) @ 10 Lý Quốc Sư street
A friend recommended this, and true enough, it was SO satisfying!

5. mỳ vằn thắn (wanton noodle soup) @ 22 Hang Phen
Randomly tried this since it was near to our hotel,
and we loved it so much that we woke up earlier to have it again on the morning
before we left for our flight.
For 35000 dong (approximately S$2.50), there were steamed and fried wantons,
slices of pork, egg, a bit of pork liver, some greens, a huge fried dumpling,
and of course the noodles in the soup.

6. Bun Cha (Pork Vermicelli) @ 1 Hàng Mành street
We were surprised to find TWO stalls side by side,
both claiming to be the real '1 Hang Manh'.
Eventually, we went ahead with the one on the right (yellow colour),
which we believed was the real one.

7. Banh Mi @ 25 Hang Ca 
For this humble small stall to make it to #2 on Tripadvisor, I guess it says alot.
The place is very small, yet it was packed with tourists on both nights that we visited.
We did not get to try banh mi from the other stalls so I cannot compare,
but we really liked the one we had at this stall!

8. Banh Cuon @ 14 Pho Hang Ga
Banh cuon is a Northern Vietnamese dish that migrated to Hanoi.
Thin steamed rice flour pancakes filled with minced pork, mushrooms and shrimps,
served with a fish-sauce-based dipping sauce, fried shallots and fresh herbs.
It is kinda like our 'chee cheong fun' but even nicer!

9. Sticky rice @ Xoi Yen (35 Nguyễn Hữu Huân)
Xoi is a traditional Vietnamese dish, made of rice and corn
and you can choose your toppings (pork, chicken, egg, etc.)
Xoi Yen is really popular and as expected, it was crowded with locals and tourists.
I think this is a MUST-HAVE in Hanoi!

10. Coffee @ Cafe Giang and Cafe Dinh
What is Vietnam without coffee?!
Drip-coffee, yogurt with coffee and egg-coffee, I tried them all!

The thought of drinking my coffee with raw egg added in it seemed daunting initially,
but I was absolutely wrong.
From what I gathered, egg coffee is usually made by whisking the egg yolk
with condensed milk and sugar to form a fluffy mixture, before adding the coffee in.
The creamy froth complemented the bitterness of coffee so well, & it had an unique fragrant aroma. I had my egg coffee at Cafe Dinh, & I wished I tried it at Cafe Giang too.


With this, I conclude this post on my Vietnam trip!
Some of the photos were snapped by me, and some by  Joey
Still feeling blessed, to have these wonderful experiences and memories,

that are mine to remember. :)
If you have any question, feel free to leave a comment or
drop me an email at shanshine@shinekoh.com,
and I'll try my best to help you with whatever I know!

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