SAPA

s6fs7fs9fs12fs15fs4fs17fs18fs34fs22s22fs17fs26fs27fs31fs33fs35fs37fs38fs40fs8fs16fs19fs23s28fs32fs36fs1fs2fs3f

We arrived at Sapa through Lao Cai on the overnight train from Hanoi. Bleary-eyed and slightly unnerved from having shared our otherwise lovely carriage with a very strange tourist, we were soon on a hair-raising bus journey through the twisting mountains into Sapa.

At almost 5000 feet above sea level, Sapa town could be incredibly beautiful, but increased tourism and industry has resulted in a somewhat haphazard construction of hotels and buildings that look strangely out of place in what’s otherwise a very rural setting. Not that it matters, as nobody comes to Sapa for the town; they come for the drama of the country scenery and beautiful simplicity of the mountain villages.

We had a quick nap in our damp, freezing hotel room, (waiting for the electric blankets to heat up was the longest 20 minutes of my life), and then set off on our first hike. From the main town, the most popular hiking trail is down to Cat Cat village. While it’s definitely become commercialized (there is a 70,000 Dong entrance fee and you’ll walk past lots of market stalls), the views of the lush, staggered paddy fields are still beautiful, and the highlight – the Cat Cat waterfalls at the bottom – are as stunning as ever. Most people end their hike at the falls, but there’s a riverside trail you can follow from here that you’ll likely have entirely to yourselves. The walk hugs the stream and ends at a smaller set of rocky waterfalls. On the way back, instead of heading back to Sapa on the right turn of the main road, me and J headed left. It’s impossible to get lost as you simply follow the tarmac, which will lead you to tiny villages with their dark wooden huts and low sloping roofs. Black pot-bellied pigs root around under floorboards and brightly- clothed kids dot in and out of houses in a haze of bluish charcoal-smoke that seems to permanently hang over the villages alongside the mist.

Like many others, we used Sapa mainly as a springboard to visit one of the more typical villages in the area. There are plenty of beautiful ones to choose from and after some research we decided on Ta Van. I can’t speak for the other villages that are probably equally as beautiful, but Ta Van was nothing short of spectacular. At the bottom of a plunging valley, it’s flanked by looming, ephemeral mountains that only reveal themselves occasionally and suddenly from behind the rolling mist.

There’s an ongoing debate when it comes to hiking in Sapa as to whether it’s best to get a guide or go it alone. If you decide you’d prefer to have a guide there’ll be no shortage of ladies from the myriad of local ethnic minorities offering to take you. Of course you can also organise a tour beforehand. We ultimately decided to hike on our own as we had a feeling the guides would likely lead us down the main drag, and we wanted to go as off-piste as possible. Of course this meant that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Ta Van is not renowned for its excellent signage, and there are no trekking maps save for the most popular routes. So we just picked one of the many paths we came across and followed it up, and up, and endlessly up.

We soon found ourselves off the concrete and on a muddy, rocky path that went past lush, scalloped rice fields, plunging valleys and towering mountains. I was convinced that at some point the path had to end or start looping back around, as we were so far away from the town and hadn’t seen a single person in hours. It was also quite late in the afternoon and we had no idea if there was a shorter way down before dark. And yet the path just kept leading ever-upwards until we found ourselves not just in the mist, but in beautifully thick, fluffy cloud – the kind you see from airplane windows.

I didn’t imagine we’d find any sign of people this high up yet we were still among the rice terraces, which meant somebody had to be tending them. Just as we were admiring the reflection of the afternoon sunlight on these paddy fields in the sky, the thick mist passed and we could make out the vague outline of a house. A beautiful, dark-wood house esconced in the fog in the middle of nowhere, or rather on top of the world. The family that lived there seemed surprised to see us, and in some sort of Vietnamglish gibberish we managed to communicate that we were looking for a way back down. They pointed, and we thanked and followed.

The next day, totally thrilled by our impromptu trek, we decided to do the exact same thing, just pick a path from the main route (we chose a path up on top of the Silver waterfall on the most popular Ta van route) and keep heading upwards. Today was even foggier. The damp, grey, mist was broken only by the occasional dash of lilac from a spring flower, or the flash of the stunningly bright outfights of the ethnic minorities.

At one point, totally lost in the fog and unable to see the path or even eachother, we had to sit down and wait for it to pass. We could hear the sound of buffalo bells and children laughing and playing somewhere in the distance. When the clouds suddenly parted we could see the whole scene..we were on top of a mountain, the children silhouetted against the rolling clouds, disappearing and reappearing as the cloud drifted along. Buffalo serenely grazed in the paddy fields, sometimes bathed in sunlight and then suddenly in the mist, and all framed by the pink, newly budding blossom trees. It was one of the most memorable travel moments of my life.

WHEN TO VISIT:

March was perfect as we got to enjoy the characteristic mist but it wasn’t so heavy that you couldn’t see the spectacular views when the clouds parted. It’s bearably chilly (which is a bonus when you’re uphill trekking) and the spring flowers and blossoms are just beginning to bloom.

HOW TO GET THERE:

From Hanoi, the options are to take the train or bus. There are no airports in Sapa.

The Train:

The train takes about 8-9 hours from Hanoi and the carriage beds are actually quite comfy so you should be able to get a pretty decent sleep before waking up to the beautiful mountain scenery. The trains often depart between 8pm – 10pm and it’s advised to book your tickets in advance. You can do that here. The final stop is Lao Cai where you’ll have to get a one-hour shuttle into Sapa. Make sure you hold onto something or take a pill if you suffer from car sickness – they take the mountain bends pretty sharp! Whether you’ve got a tour bus waiting or you’ve not yet booked anything the shuttles should be easy to find out in the square.

You can also take the train from Hue, Da Nang and Nha Trang.

The Bus:

The bus is faster at 6-7 hours and it goes straight into Sapa without stopping at Lao Cai. The buses leave at 6.30am or 10pm. You can book here.

WHERE TO STAY: While there are hotels and guesthouses in Sapa, a much more authentic experience is to stay with a local family at a homestay. The accommodation is usually basic but the experience is much more memorable and you’ll be supporting a small family business. Plus, the home-cooked food is usually great! The Backpacker’s Bible has a great guide to staying at homestays in Sapa here.

WHAT TO EAT/DRINK: Homestays usually provide free breakfast and paid meals throughout the day. Some are all-inclusive. There are also usually restaurants dotted around whatever village you choose to stay in.

BAI TU LONG BAY ON THE DRAGON LEGEND

IMG_0843_SnapseedliedhIMG_0840_SnapseedIMG_0818_SnapseedIMG_0779_SnapseedfhlbfIMG_0778_SnapseedbblbvldlsmpupolfotdfIMG_0748_SnapseedIMG_0847_SnapseedIMG_0737_SnapseedIMG_0826_SnapseedglbbathfIMG_0711_SnapseedIMG_0702_SnapseedIMG_0720_Snapseedsilh

While it’s true that our three-day, two-night cruise on the Dragon Legend was the most extravagant part of our South-east Asia trip, it’s also true that that yesterday, after hours of trying to find the cheapest places, I booked a 2 night stay in an extremely basic New York hotel for almost the exact same price. No breakfast, and about half a square foot of floor space. The experience on the Dragon legend was a little more elaborate…

Imagine admiring the jagged, looming limestone karsts you’ve seen in Thailand all from the comfort of a floating, luxury hotel room. Add to that some once-in-a-lifetime outings and a few seven-course lunches and dinners and you have yourself the Dragon Legend cruise.

While we liked the look of the ship when we were shown pictures at the agency in Hanoi, they really didn’t do any justice to how breathtaking it is in reality. All the interiors, including the cabins, are covered entirely in dark wood panelling, and embellished with 1930’s Saigon-style flourishes and luxury touches. Hand-made local art is dotted around the cabins and decks, reminding you constantly that here you are not on any typical, commercial cruise ship.

I could have spent the entire time in our cabin. While the boat dwarfs in comparison to the cruise ships you get in the Med or the Caribbean, the cabins themselves are enormous and beautiful. The huge, dark-wood beds with their fluffy, white duvets and pillows coupled with the rhythmic rocking of the water made for one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had, and waking up in the morning to precipitous karsts slowly drifting past the window was indescribable. My routine was to make the in-room coffee, put on the wonderfully cosy robes they provide, and switch to the window seat to watch the scenery some more.

Then there’s the bathroom. I’ve seen the pictures of beautiful bathtubs all over social media – stunning hotel bathtubs, outdoor bathtubs, bathtubs strewn with petals and flowers… But sinking into a warm jacuzzi tub while floating past misty, rocky drop-offs with a chilled glass of wine? That was definitely a new one for me.

THINGS TO DO:

After a welcome drink and amazing outdoor lunch, the first day’s activity is kayaking around the karsts in Bai Tu Long bay, where you can meander through and see the beautiful rocky formations up close. It was typically drizzly and moodily grey for our trip, and since it can actually get quite cold that far North it was a nice touch for the staff to greet us with hot Vietnamese tea on our return to the ship.

Back on board, you can swim in the outdoor or indoor mineral seawater pool, use the fitness room or enjoy the spa and massage services provided. Later in the evening you can either hang out and socialise on the deck or watch TV in bed. They also offer night-time squid fishing as an activity.

The next day there’s the option to start your morning with Tai Chi and hot tea and coffee on the deck (we slept in but it sounded cool). After breakfast it’s a trip to Vung Vieng fishing village and Pearl farm. A traditional Vietnamese row-boat takes you to the village, where a tiny fishing community used to live right on the water in little floating homes. There’s even a mini floating classroom where schoolkids would take their lessons. At the Pearl Farm you’ll learn the process of pearl-farming and local Vietnamese culture.

After that it’s an amazing barbecue lunch on the beach. The tables are set up just as they are in the restaurant, but on a beautiful white sand beach with the limestone cliffs as a backdrop. The food is grilled right there and then, mostly fresh fish and lots of seafood.

While they set up the tables there’s the option to follow a tour guide up the beach path to Thienh Canh Son cave. While I’m not the worlds biggest cave fan, this one was enormous and didn’t feel claustrophobic at all, in fact they set up candlelit dinners in here when the weather’s bad! Still, perhaps the best part is exiting, where you get a high-up view of the surrounding bay and the Dragon Legend ship in the distance. It was an afternoon I won’t quickly forget.

On the way back to Hanoi the next day you’ll be taken to Yen Duc agricultural village to watch a traditional puppet show on the water. I didn’t really know what to expect from it but it was actually a lot of fun.

WHAT TO EAT:

One of the highlights of the Dragon Legend cruise is the sheer quality of the food they provide. On the 3-day, 2 night you’ll be getting three lunches and two breakfasts and dinners. Lunch is usually outside depending on the weather, so of course you’ll float past the incredible views as you enjoy your meal. Menus on the table will tell you what you’re eating that day, and of course they can cater to any food requirements. Usually it’s a seven-course fare of deliciously fresh food with a focus on local seafood. Indochina Junks traditional mackerel on sizzler plate and San Diu ethnic minority grilled pork were just a couple of the amazing dishes we got to sample on our cruise.

 

THE STREETS OF HANOI

IMG_0598_SnapseedIMG_0582_SnapseedIMG_0906_SnapseedIMG_0630_SnapseedIMG_0618_SnapseedHat Man in HanoihansfIMG_0599_SnapseedIMG_0594_SnapseedIMG_0546_SnapseedIMG_0530_SnapseedIMG_0499_SnapseedIMG_0517_SnapseedIMG_0484_Snapseed

I’m not sure that there are enough adjectives in the English dictionary to describe Hanoi. Hanoi is all the adjectives – it is an an absence of negative space. It has no time for the superfluous or irrelevant – it is constant energy and never-ending chaos. Yet the chaos is not random, it serves a purpose, it’s systematic.

The traffic never stops. The meaning of Hanoi is a ‘city inside rivers’, and the rivers are its traffic. It is a continuous flow and non-existent ebb of infinite streams of motorcycles. Sometimes the stream narrows into the rivulets of the alleyways, only to pour out again into the ocean of vehicles that is the main road. In Old Hanoi especially; lights, signals and rules don’t exist. A break in the din of the horns sounds louder than the horns themselves. But just like a stream, the flow of motorbikes is reactive, weaving gracefully around whatever object is put in its way. Crossing the road in Hanoi definitely takes patience for a novice, but it never feels truly dangerous.

I fell hopelessly in love with the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Wandering down its impossibly tangled alleyways felt more revealing than visiting any national museum. The history is told by the faded, french colonial buildings that flank the streets, and the incongruous baguettes served at the ubiquitous Bahn-Mi stands. Hanoi’s even confusingly dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ – presumably these days because of its charm rather than aesthetic similarity. The culture is revealed by countless lives that are largely lived outside. Shop and general life activity spills out openly into the narrow, suffocating streets. Shop-owners, merchants, kids, business men and women chat, shop, work, cook, eat and drink out on the pavements.

Unrelenting smells range from motorcycle fumes to freshly chopped lemongrass to sewage to infamous durian to heavenly pho.

The end result of this sensory assault is (or was for me) an overwhelming sense of calm. Weaving through the interminable traffic, skipping over puddles of indescernible liquids, desperately trying to avoid burns from scalding motorcycle exhausts – here the focus is on staying alive and not getting hopelessly lost in the identical-looking, ancient streets. There is no time for overthinking or introspection. The focus is no longer yourself, but the people you’re sharing this precious little space with.

Efficiency is obligatory to cut through the chaos. Many of the streets of the old quarter are named after the products they sell. Cotton street, Leather street, pickled fish street, clam worm street, and excitingly, charcoal street. If you plan on your phone dying whilst travelling like I did, then do it in Hanoi. Rationally fearing that fixing my Iphone would put a huge dent in my backpacker budget, I went to a local store suggested by one of the unfailingly friendly locals we met. After about half an hour where we watched the phone be fixed in front of us (they had live-feed screens for ones that had to be fixed round the back) I had a fully functioning phone and a wallet only five dollars lighter. If Vietnam is a socialist country, then they’ve obviously found the magic formula.

THINGS TO DO IN HANOI

If you’re desperate for a break from the chaos, head to peaceful Ho Hoan Kiem Lake and take a stroll around the well-kept grounds. From here it’s a short walk to Cafe’ Pho Co, one of the most popular spots to try Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. Invented in 1940 when there was a milk shortage in Vietnam, the drink consists of thick black Vietnamese-style coffee topped by a creamy-soft foam of beaten egg-yolk and sugar. The hot version comes in a small bowl of warm water to keep the temperature.

Cafe Pho Co is slightly more expensive than similar cafes as it boasts a view over Ho Hoan Lake. It has something of a speak-easy feel – entrance is through a silk shop that leads to a beautiful Chinese-style courtyard complete with a resident rooster and enormously fat cat. It can be hard to find but don’t give up, the silk shop is currently called Cicada Silkli.

The biggest regret of my Asia trip was not having done this tour. There are so many street food spots and cafes that it would have been great to have someone knowledgeable scope out the best and most unique ones (although the street food is all pretty amazing). The reviews are exclusively great and I can’t bear to look at pictures as the food looks so good!

  • Fake shopping

The Old Quarter in Hanoi has hundreds of fake designer shops (especially sports gear) that actually sell some pretty well-made stuff. I’m not sure I could say it’s as good as the real thing but I’ve been wearing my ‘North Face’ jacket non-stop. You’ll see them everywhere in the Old Quarter but the shops tend to concentrate around Hang Gai.

Set in lovely picturesque grounds, this serene ‘temple’ (originally a Confucian University) is another place to get away from the crowds. Walk through ancient courtyards and landscaped gardens in this age-old place of study.

WHERE TO EAT:

I recommend doing the street food tour at the beginning of your trip so that you can go back to your favourite places. All of the street food is pretty amazing in Hanoi but here are some of the best spots we stumbled on;

For Bun Cha. Bun Cha is a Vietnamese dish of pork meatballs served with a bowl of rice noodles and loads of delicious fresh sides – crisp lettuce, plenty of fresh herbs, a variety of pickles and dipping sauces. This place was always packed and was mainly frequented by locals. So, so good.

For beef pho. Absolutely ram-packed with locals at all hours of the day. The pho is handed out assembly-line style by a lady who takes her delicious beef pho very seriously. We went here three times.

Hanoians are huge tea and coffee drinkers, and I’m convinced that it’s partly because it’s so fun to sit and drink on those tiny plastic stools while watching the bustling world go by. Cong Ca Phe is a military themed chain that happens to serve the most delicious coffee drink I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not normally a sweet tooth but the blended iced coconut with coffee is perfect after a humid day walking around the city.