North Vietnam: Hanoi – Halong Bay - Sapa
Apparently the 3 month, multi-entry visas we arranged at the Vietnamese embassy back in San Francisco are not that common at the Hanoi airport immigration department. We were at the front of the passport line after getting off the plane (hustling to the front of the line has become part of our routine). However, after watching the immigration agent inspect her passport for about 5 minutes, Rawson was surprised when the agent stood up, walked out of the booth and asked her to follow him. Dragging her cohort husband along they followed the agent to another counter and were told to wait there. 30 minutes later the agent came back and put us back in the original line with no explanation whatsoever, stamped us through, and off we went to baggage claim. 30 minutes later, and an empty carousel we still had no bags. We were a bit nervous but finally they came through, last two lonely bags; How that happens when you only had a 45 minute layover in Hong Kong, who knows?! LIFO anyone? But thankfully, arrive they did! And we’re off to Hanoi! Charlie’s friend from growing up in STL, Adam S. has lived in Hanoi for the past 8 years, unbelievably lucky for us as Adam has acted as a sort of personal travel agent extraordinaire pulling out all the stops in treating us to his connections with EVERYTHING. None of his suggestions/connections has yet to disappoint. First stop, Horison Hotel Hanoi. Adam hooked us up in the 5 star hotel on the executive club level for two nights at a great rate, wink wink. It was a very comfortable entry into Vietnam to say the least. We met up with Adam the following day for lunch and to catch up on his Vietnamese adventures. He’s had quite an exciting few years here working for an NGO. Adam has been… generous doesn’t quite cover it, with helping make our trip over the top.
Hanoi is a charming city of about 3.5 million which is laced with lovely lakes and topped with willows and twinkling lights….. and lots of honking…. LOTS! The French influence is apparent and makes Hanoi look like an impressionist painting with conical hats and long black pony tails. It’s just charming. One afternoon we met up with Adam for a Vietnamese custom, Bia Hoi. That’s draught beer, but they make it daily, include no pasteurization and serve it fresh at cafes along the streets of Hanoi where the men (usually only men) sit at little plastic tables and tiny plastic chairs or stools. We liked this custom very much, even in 90 degree heat. Oh, did we mention that it’s HOT in Hanoi? After Happy Hour we headed out to a recommended restaurant, Highway 4, in the old quarter. Vietnamese charm abounds at this 3 story classic. Charlie took one look at the menu and knew he’d be eating bugs tonight, locusts specifically. He says they are tasty but Rawson was afraid that the Larium (malaria meds) might play funny tricks on her dreams if she ate big bugs for dinner, so she passed in favor of fresh spring rolls which are always a safe bet. Ordering bugs for dinner does invite conversation, however, and we were fast friends with the table next to us who was an assorted group from the UK and Canada. We joined their table and shared our bugs and then we all made our way out on the town together. A little later out than we had planned, but a great time hanging with fellow travelers.
The next morning, a little foggier than planned, led us to our next Adam adventure, Halong Bay, which is on the northeast cost of Vietnam. Listed as a World Heritage site in 2008, Halong Bay is wonder of the world with its protruding limestone formations. There are seemingly thousands of them. The ancient, accompanying legend is that a giant dragon came charging down from the mountains, his massive tail swinging wildly, tearing up the ground. As he dove into the China Sea, the water sprayed up, filling in all the trenches the dragon’s tail had dug. Legend has it, the dragon is still occasionally seen, giving Halong Bay its own Loc Ness monster of sorts. We stayed at yet another amazing hotel, feeling almost guilty, for 2 nights before boarding the Bhaya Cruise ship #3 for a birthday extravaganza. Yes Rawson is officially almost 40. Cruising Halong Bay is the way to see everything up close and personal. We arrived on board to welcome cocktails and at once felt like we were in Agatha Christy’s “Death on the Nile”. The ship is a classic junk/steam ship design exquisitely done in replica of the royal ship owed by the last Vietnamese king. We were in the best suite they had to offer with a rain-fall shower and our own private deck overlooking the bow. Not bad Adam! Following an elaborate lunch buffet we anchored near the floating villages of Halong and each pair of guests climbed aboard a little row boat like deal (think Venice, but boats are literally tarred baskets), to be rowed through the limestone cliffs by one of the villagers. Our “rower??” seemed to be intent to be out in front, which afforded us awesome views/pictures without other boats in the view. Back on board we took in the sunset and got acquainted with our fellow shipmates. Saturday we celebrated Rawson’s birthday in style. After breakfast we visited Surprise Cave where during the American War, as it’s called here, hundreds of Vietnamese took refuge from the bombing. We had an adventurous trip back to Hanoi aboard a locals-only bus driven by a mad man who was passing on every curve and blowing the horn the entire way. Our options being terror or humor, we managed to laugh the entire way. The driver seemed to take particular amusement from the bumps that, sitting in the last row, sent our heads almost to the ceiling. We arrived back in Hanoi along with the rain from the tropical storm of the day and took cover back at the Italian restaurant where we’d met Adam the first day. They had free WiFi and a nice rosė, so we were all set. We waited out the storm and managed to make our way to the train station for our overnight journey to Sapa in the mountains of northwest Vietnam.
Although the overnight train was not the best train experience on record, traveling by train is always a cool experience in that it feels so old school to us Americans. Arriving in Lao Cai (end of the northwest train line) you are only 5 km from the Chinese border. An hour and half bus ride later, we arrived in Sapa and checked into a hotel to get some rest. Luckily for us, the first day we arrived it rained incessantly, so we felt no guilt for lazing away our first day in Sapa. We got up on a first full day there to low clouds, but with scatterings of blue sky peaking through. The best way to describe the weather/surroundings is a line the hills of San Francisco without the city. Patches of fog creep over and around the hills giving occasional stunning vistas out on the valleys and the peaks jutting skyward. Fansipan peak is a 2-3 day hike out from Sapa and it the ceiling of Indochina at 3148 meters (around 10k ft). Sapa itself sits at 1650 meters (about the same as Denver), so for us lowlanders, it’s a bit of a challenge on those first days of hiking! The town of Sapa itself is rustic and charming. Filled with French influenced architecture and cuisine (though not the best we’ve had), the town is filled to the brim with tourists and ethnic minority folks hawking their wares on the street. Although it can be a bit overwhelming with all the Hill Tribe ethnic minorities (the Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and Red Zao (Dao) and Zay peoples) chasing you up and down the street trying to sell their handcrafts, after being here a week, Rawson and Charlie have become less interesting to them, and we are pretty much left alone. To those of you interested in coming here, a simple “no thank you” will get them to give up. OK, maybe it takes saying it a few dozen times, but they are kind and smiling in their efforts and, as it is exclusively the women doing the selling (and it sure looks like all the work in general!), it carries none of the aggressive/intimidation factor you get in Morocco.
Our first day out on the trails, we wondered around the Cat Cat village and around Sapa itself on our own. The trails are all roads or very well marked, so doing this solo is no challenge (less the steepness of the hills; like we said, just like SF!). On our second day out, we arranged for a local guide to get more of the experience of “roads less traveled” and to learn all we could about the region and its’ people. Our guide, Khanh, was a wonderful kid of 22. We arranged to go on treks with him independent of the hotel almost every other day after that; better that he get the $$ himself. Khahn and his new bride, Tuhee (pronounced twee) are from a village about 100km from here in between Sapa and Hanoi. Khahn has been a guide for about 3 years and so speaks a little bit of the locals’ languages. The ethnic minorities all learn Vietnamese in school (those who attend), but speak their own languages as well. Interestingly, the hill tribe people only immigrated to Vietnam around 200 years ago from China, Thailand and Laos. We haven’t been able to get a real straight answer on why, so who knows.
We spent our days hiking through the various valleys and seeing tons of different villages; Lau Chai (Hmong), Ta Van (Zay), Giang Tachai (Zao), Matra (Hmong), and Taphin (Hmong and Dao/Zao). The weather in this area is quite cold in the winter we’re told, with snow settling on the tops of the peaks but never sticking down in the villages. During our stay, we got a little bit of everything, rain coming in sideways, fog as thick as July in San Francisco, blazing sun with humidity to match St Louis or Savannah in July and that perfect in between when the rain has stopped, the weather cools a bit and the sun just sneaks out enough to blaze bright on the majestic green of the hills, rice fields and bamboo forests. One evening Khanh and Tuhee invited us to their home for a hot pot dinner and some local rice wine. Another great local experience. All in all, we couldn’t have asked for a better week in the home of these lovely and interesting people. So, off to the train station tonight to catch a ride back to Hanoi. We’ve one day rest in Hanoi before hitting the road again, this time by bus, for the central coastal region of Vietnam.
Cheers to all and be well!