Vietnam; chaos reigns!

HANOI

After a day of travelling and long waiting times (our flight got delayed) we arrived in a gloomy-looking Hanoi covered in fog. It was surprisingly easy to go from the airport to the city centre via a local bus where we got a quick glimpse of what was to come… traffic! Traffic everywhere! When walking back to our hostel, it was like we were apart of some sick game of ‘hit the pedestrian’. Mopeds were parked on the pavements, driving on the pavements and on the wrong side of the road as well as the right side; the sheer number of motorbikes was madness like we’ve never seen before. When we get to our hostel alive, it was the first dormitory on our stay. We booked two beds in an 8 person dormitory for £1.30 per night (including breakfast)… this turned out to be a room with bunk beds triple stacked in a 15-bed domitory with only curtains seperating us… following little sleep, we left the next day; we gave it a go, but the dormitory life is not for us!

Hopefully this photo captures some of the chaos in Hanoi

Our first full day in Hanoi was packed! We walked round the city where their New Year preparations were fully under away. Gorgeous flowers filled the streets in shops, restaurants and being sold off bicycles and market stands. Not to mention the orange and/or blossom trees being balanced on mopeds. These are Vietnam traditions that are very similar to the UK and our Christmas decorations, their orange and blossom trees are the equivalent to our Christmas trees, rather than fairy lights they have flowers for decoration. 2019 is the year of the pig… its like they knew how many pancakes we were eating, or how many egg coffee’s we were drinking (I know egg coffee sounds disgusting, but its basically a tiramisu in a cup-its fricken delicious!).

We witnessed the train coming through the city, and I mean THROUGH the city just inches away from the surrounding houses. We were sat down having a beer when the locals quickly got us up and shoved us in an alleyway, we thought they were being overdramatic but they weren’t! It was incredible that these people live with a train track on their doorstep, adapt and make it in to a business of selling beers and postcards to us foriegners. The next stop was the fascinating Hanoi prison that was used to hold activists by the French, and then Americans by the Vietnamese. With more walking on the second day, we finally bought face masks as the toxic mixture of pollution and dust was giving us sore throats and coughs. Surpisingly they worked and looked fabuloussssss! We went and saw the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which felt very communist and grand, then walked through markets and parks exploding with colour. We told ourselves we deserved a beer, after the stress of negotiating our way through Hanoi with the high probability of being run over at every second, so we headed for ‘Beer Street’. The Asian Football Cup was on and it just happened to be Vietnam vs China playing; the street was packed, with screens everyhwere and so many supporters dressed up in their team colours and the vietnamese flag. It was amazing to be apart of that atmosphere AND we got beer for only 33p, what a bargain!

“Beer Corner” where we had crazy cheap beer!
Breath in…for the train to pass
Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum … & Lu

As much as Hanoi is an incredible city, it’s a tough love place: the streets are mayhem and a struggle to walk around, the fumes are choking and Lu may have had a teeny weeny breakdown due to tiredness, hangriness and nearly dying trying to cross the road was the tipping point. But it was great to get that buzz from a city again… AND we got a McDonalds so the beast was tamed!

CAT BA & HA LONG BAY

Our next trip was to Cat Ba Island, which was recommended as a less touristy area to visit the famous, Ha Long Bay. A reasonably cheap and comfy bus and boat got us to our accomodation for 2 nights; a £6 guesthouse which was run by possibly the happiest family in all of Vietnam. When we arrived early afternoon, we hired a moped for the day and booked a tour of the ‘thousand islands’ for the following day.

Cat Ba Island Viewpoint

We biked around the island, visiting another stunning viewpoint with hundreds of rolling hills of green jungle, and a massive cave which Lauren bravely walked through and Josh briskley ran through (he’s not a fan of small dark places when in the depths of a mountain).

Following a tasty breakfast at our guesthouse, and some strong Vietnamese coffee, our day tour was ready to commence. We left a local pier on a wooden boat with around 10 other people. We started by cruising quietly through a colourful fishing village where 2,000 people live in floating huts, catching fish to feed families and sell to restaurants. A unique community intwined around small islands. As we ventured past island after island, we stopped for an hour and half to kayak in the clear, turqoise waters to explore caves and hidden alcoves amongst the islands.

Fishing village on the way to Ha Long Bay
Kayaking through a cave in an island

Back on the boat for lunch of fresh fish, rice, tofu and spring rolls, we continued our trip to reach Ha Long Bay. The sun was beginning to come out, which cleared some of the fog to reveal hundreds of islands in a huge open space. We stopped again near a small beach where 5 of us accepted the offer to go for a swim. With summer being a couple of months away, the water was bluddy freezing!! Within 15 minutes, we were back on the boat shivering. Lying in the sun on the top deck, Josh had a cheeky power nap to warm up before we got to “Monkey Island”. True to its name, monkeys roamed free, snatching drinks off unsuspecting tourists and being the cheeky monkeys they truly are. Lu bravely climbed to the highest peak on the island (a rocky ascent) before we relaxed with an American couple on the beach with a refreshing beer whilst being under the watchful eye of our monkey hosts! All-in-all, an amazing day out!!

Ha Long Bay
Monkey Island Viewpoint
Seems we were beer drinkers all the way through evolution

SAPA

The next stop on our tour of Vietnam would be Sapa in the north of the country, close to the border of China. Getting there included another chaotic night in Hanoi, where we went to the theatre to see a water-puppet show on the history of Vietnam. An interesting experience which was a little off-the-wall and a bit difficult to understand given it was in Vietnamese. The 8 hour journey from Hanoi to Sapa was on a coach with reclining seats which almost lay flat. Out of all our travel so far, we both agreed this was definitely the most comfy!

Taking it easy on a reclining ‘sleeper’ seat

We had booked a homestay in a remote village 10km outside of Sapa; which left us with the conundrum of how to get there since there were no buses out to the village. We grabbed some lunch and debated whether we should taxi, or risk renting a motorbike; the risk being we’d have our big travel bags and the roads were more like dirt tracks. Being stingy and recognising a saving of £2, we rented a bike. It’s fair to say, this was completely the wrong decision. The weight of us, 2 large bags and 2 rucksacks damaged the bike somewhat. Following an hour of incredibly bumpy roads, we had a flat tyre, leaking gasoline and the engine was cutting out if we went below 5km p/h (an estimate as the fuel gauge and speedometer didn’t work). We made it though, and as luck would have it, the homestay was experiencing a powercut, so there was no Wi-fi or phone reception to call the bike company.

The family at the homestay were lovely though, so we had a beer and Lu tried some “rice wine” which is vodka, not wine as the name suggests, and enjoyed a candle-lit dinner with some Germans who were also staying at the Homestay.

By morning, electricity was back, and following no success with the bike company, we headed out into the rice fields to explore the local village. Like stepping back in time, this was an amazing morning of exploration. We were accompanied by some local children from the village who became our tour guides, taking us to a waterfall and a neighbouring village. They made us crowns out of ferns, and told us about what it was like living in this area.

King & Queen of the rice fields?
Our tour guides

Once back at the homestay for lunch, the family helped us find a local mechanic who fixed the bike tyre, enabling Josh to ride back to Sapa and hand the bike back (Lu got a taxi with the luggage – lesson learnt!). Back in Sapa, we found a cheap hotel with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains and valley filled with fields of rice. Exploring the town, Sapa has the feeling of an Alpine ski town, with its french influence, cold weather and mountain scenery. We loved our time in Sapa; binging on cheap beer, incredibly cheesy pizza and strong Vietnamese coffee.

Sapa / European looking Alpin ski town
This pizza had REAL cheese 😍
View from our guesthouse window

While in Sapa, we took a monorail around the mountain to reach a cable car, which travels 6km across the valley to the highest point in Vietnam, the Fansipan Mountain (and yes, it sounds like fancy-pants!). At over 3,000 metres up, the views are breathtaking! In part due to a lack of oxygen, but mainly because we were above the clouds in a heaven-like paradise. In our 3 hours at the summit, we admired the incredible buddhist statues and had lunch in a quiet spot, overlooking a white blanket of puffy clouds. This is easily one of our most memorable days travelling so far!

Above the clouds on Fansipan mountain

TAM COC, NINH BINH

Another pleasant journey by bus via a night in Hanoi, we arrived in Tam Coc, our first steps southbound. We walked to our homestay, just round the corner from the main road of the town. Immediately we had a very warm welcome from the family, who treated us to a complimentary hot drink that tasted of golden syrup and orange squash. They sat us down to tell us what we could do with our time in Tam Coc before showing us our gorgeous little bungalow. We hired a moped and headed straight to the bird park recommended by our hosts. The scenery was incredible, the silence surrounded us as we succumbed to the noises of nature. It was blissful just taking it all in as the birds flew in their sanctuary. There were also flower parks and a thousand year old tree where the roots were entwined with rocks and boulders beneath it ensuring its survival. We then enjoyed a night of playing pool -very badly- and had a great dinner at an Indian Restaurant just to change the cuisine palate!

Bird Park in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh
Luscious green rice fields

Our homestay in Tam Coc would host us for 4 nights over the Vietnamese New Year, and as we type this blog, it feels as though we are part of a small community here. With 8 small bungalows on a river opposite a farm, the family who own this place were kind enough to let us celebrate their New Year with them. We passed around bottles of local beer, Vietnamese white wine, and traditional candy treats, made by the family, with the other guests and exchanged travel stories, speaking in broken English / Vietnamese to the family.

We have explored a lot of Tam Coc on motorbike. We visited an incredible Buddhist temple complex spread across several kilometres, climbed to a view point overlooking miles of rice fields, and took a 3 hour boat through caves and around the rocky landscape. On the bike, we have seen some new sightings of the culture: cooked goats being sold by street vendors, which are still whole and propped up with wood (disturbing), the end-to-end cycle of free roaming chicken to a ready-to-eat chicken wing, as well as children serving us beer; all part of the chore rota system in the family restaurant business.

Sunset bike ride through the rice fields and mountains
Lu the explorer

Today we head from Tam Coc to Phong Nha via a night bus, and as we begin heading further south, we can already feel the sun getting warmer; maybe we’ll stumble across a beach or two in a few days time…

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