We arrive in Hanoi, capital of the country located up north, after a short layover in Kuala Lumpur on a flight from Bali. After landing in Hanoi we are very surprised by how quiet the airport arrival is. Really different from what we experienced in Bali. A shuttle from our hotel was supposed to be waiting for us...
After several long minutes to watch out Thomas's name on the welcome signs, we finally find the person. But surprise, it's not our driver! He is one of his colleagues because our driver is late because of traffic. At least that's what we understood because the communication is quite limited! After long minutes the guy left telling us that our driver will be there, gives us our sign with our name and told us not to move!
Finally we get to find the driver and here we are on our way to Hanoi straight to the "Old Quarter".
Some fears on the road, but we arrived at the hotel in the late afternoon! After leaving the bags and taking some information at the reception, we leave in the crowded streets of the old Quarter! We are super excited to discover this city!
We arrive on the edge of Hoan Kiem lake meaning Sword Lake. It's very busy and the traffic is hectic! Scooters and mopeds share the road with street vendors, bicycles, street food trolleys as well as a few cars and minibuses, all in a joyful music of horns! As pedestrians we try to stay on the sidewalks which is impossible because sidewalks serve as parking for motorbike, store display, roster cage, dog cage, everything but not in any help for pedestrian! It's crazy! Westerners habits...
The trickiest is to cross a street. There are many traffic lights but they are not respected so we have to force the way and we do as we can! The golden rule: Do not stop! Local are use to it and will avoid you
After all these emotions, we went to Beer street for a quick cool down! Again the traffic is crazy but the street becomes pedestrian from 19h and is totally transformed! Small chairs, stools and tables invade the sidewalks and the street. The street vendors make their way among the tourists! We sip our beer and nibble on spring rolls and other local flavors before heading back to bed after this first and intense contact with Vietnam and Hanoi!
The next day, busy agenda! We visit the main points of interest of the city, such as the temple of literature, the one pilar pagoda, and of course Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and museum.
Ho Chi Minh is a central figure in Vietnamese history. He is the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He fought a lot for Vietnam's independence and his face is all over the country. At the entrance of the schools, on the bank notes of course but also in the railway stations, the post office etc. He is affectionately nicknamed "uncle ho" by Vietnamese. He died in 1969 and will not see the end of the Vietnam War. His body is embalmed and rests in the mausoleum in Hanoi. It is a place of pilgrimage where hundreds of people come to pay homage to it.
Short lunch break where we tried the country's speciality: the Pho (pronounced Fa). A soup with rice noodles, coriander and meat. Vietnamese often eat it in the morning in breakfast but we opted for lunch!
We continue our exploration of the city with a mandatory stop at Train street. It's a small narrow street in the middle of which runs a train 2 times a day. We arrive there and there are already some tourists who are sitting sipping a Vietnamese coffee or a beer on small stools.
We found a nice spot and a few minutes before the passage of the train, the stools are quickly removed, bills are given and cashed and the instructions are to stay as close as possible from the wall! The train finally arrives and it is close, really close ! It does not last long but it's worth it!
After these adventures we go back to the old quarter with our mission of the day: prepare the rest of our trip to Vietnam with the visit of Halong Bay but also the visit of Sapa, a city in the mountains where many ethnic minorities live and where the hikes among the rice fields are beautiful.
We had read on the internet that it was really easy to find an agency to organize tours and indeed there are agencies on every corner in addition to hotels that also offer excursions. Not really easy to navigate but after having discussed with several agencies we finally have a more precise idea of the trip and prices! So we are booking a 2 Nights / 3 Days cruise in Halong Bay and a 3 Nights / 2 Days trip to Sapa all for 340 $ for 2 people, this should keep us busy for a week.
We still have one day left in Hanoi before dleaving for Halong and we take the opportunity to attend a very famous water puppet show. We do not have front raw seats but we like the show, the songs and the music.
During weekend, the streets around the lake are for walking traffic only and we can see many locals enjoying a walk with their family, young people in traditional costumes taking pictures! There are also young people who listen to music, sing, dance! We were really surprised at how young the population is! Nearly 20% of the population is less than 25 years old.
While walking we were interviewed several times by young students who had a questionnaire in English. We chatted a lot and at the end of course the selfie!
It is the must see for any traveler to Vietnam. We had heard good and bad feedback but we could not miss that! Starting from Hanoi by bus to the port of Halong City where we boarded on our boat. Good surprise, the boat is rather in good condition (on the internet the company had terrible reviews and some tourists mentioned bed bugs in the cabins). After a quick inspection it seems ok! 2nd good news we are only 12 on the boat and we quickly meet with our new fellow!
We arrive in Halong Bay in the early afternoon. It is really nice! These huge karst peaks that emerge from the water. Bad surprise: the number of boats and plastic waste in the bay ... it's really polluted and it's so crowded with boats carrying hordes of tourists.
1st stop: the Surprise Cave. It could be nice if there was not 500 people queued to enter and stop every 2 seconds to take selfies! We really could not admire the cave or the surroundings as we wanted. A bit of a shame.
2nd stop: an artificial beach in the middle of the bay where we found the same people we had in the cave and even more ... No interest especially that we missed the sunset that we had to see from our boat! But fortunately we saw it from the hiking trail so it's better than nothing!
The next day we head to Lan Ham Bay. It is considered cleaner and a little less crowded than Halong Bay. The landscapes are however identical and always majestic. We were able to visit a floating pearl farm, and do some kayaking in the bay. It was relatively quiet as we were early in the morning so quite nice !
Then we headed to the Monkey Island where we have 2 hours either to go up to a view point or to relax on the beach among the monkeys. They are not shy or even aggressive! And here is the DRAMA! A monkey approaches a little too close to me and I start to panic! I get up and run away screaming. He pursues me and bites me behind the knee. Fortunately the bite is not very deep and a nice couple of travelers help cleaning the wound ... The locals guaranteed me that the monkeys are vaccinated while imported on the island and therefore the bite does not represent a risk of rabies. Who knows...whom to trust ?
The 2nd night of our stay in Halong Bay will be held at a hotel on Cat Ba Island. Nothing fancy and nothing special in town to do... The next day we take the way back to return to Hanoi. It's a real mess between the different boats! We are moved from one boat to another and finally we are separated from our early adventure companions! After taking a bus, a ferry and another bus we are back in Hanoi late in the evening!
This first step in Vietnam is relatively disappointing. We were really expecting better from Halong Bay. Not saying that it is not to see but the pollution of the waters by too many boats, as well as so many tourists have a little impact on the beautiful landscapes. We have in mind what we saw in Santorini or Croatia, where those beautiful places are suffering of mass tourism.
Back to Hanoi
We had planned to leave for Sapa the same evening on our way back from Halong Bay but because of this bite, plan changed. We decide to go to the French hospital in Hanoi to see a doctor and eventually receive a treatment against rabies. The treatment consists of receiving 5 injections on specific dates over a period of 28days. Here is the schedule: day 0, day 3, day 7, day 14 and finally day 28. The 3 first injections are important and must be done really the day mentionned ... it will therefore be necessary to adjust our initial schedule and reduce our visit to Sapa so that I can receive the second injection in Hanoi. The agency which we booked the tour was really good and made the necessary changes for free.
We reach the town of Sapa, which is located in the mountains north-west of Vietnam by night bus. After 10h drive we arrive in the village at 4h in the morning! Fortunately we are allowed to sleep a little on the bus until 6am. It is pretty cool because the end of the ride was a bit bumpy. Around six in the morning, people from the hotel come and pick us up to get a breakfast and drop our luggage
The initial program that we had was to hike 12kms on the 1st day but as the plan changed, we will only visit the Cat-Cat village and take a short walk of just 4kms down in the valley. The village is located in a very deep valley and is surrounded by rice terrace fields and corn fields inhabited by H'Mông. Traditional craftsmanship is preserved and we can see H'Mông women weaving linen, dyeing clothes that make their traditional dress. There are of course many souvenir shops for tourists. After this ride, we can not wait to take a hot shower and rest a little. The previous night on the bus is still in our minds.
When we checkin at the hotel to take the room, we are told that we do not sleep here because the hotel is full, but that we have a room in another hotel a little higher up in the village. So here we go again, a small hike of 12 minutes! Arriving at this new hotel, very bad surprise! The hotel is unclean ... the bed sheets are dirty, everything is oldish and doesn't even deserve a star. We still take the room because we do not have much choice and we are so tired of the day. When taking a shower, and discovering that there is no light in the bathroom and those locals who don't even speak a word of english hold his passport, Thomas is going crazy and we leave the place. We find a room in a hotel much better and cleaner. We need a good night of sleep because the next day we have the big hike of twelve kilometers.
Departure to 8.30 with our local female guide. Here most young women work as guides during the tourist season while their husbands take care of the children. It climbs a little at first but the scenery is beautiful. Rice terraces, hemp, corn some isolated homes before arriving in a village where we have lunch. The locals are on the alert of each group that arrives to be able to sell souvenirs, you need to leave the place with something, they try to force you to buy something, which was kind of annoying
After a visit of the village, traditional houses we continue our way and visit another village of another ethnic minority of Vietnam the Red Dao, even between few kilometers in between and within the same country, you have people talking different languages and having different habits and traditions.
After this last stage, it's time to go back to Sapa where we have to take our bus back to Hanoi.
This excursion to the mountains was pleasant, but again the high number of tourists makes the experience a little less authentic. However, the landscapes are really pretty and people are more than happy to welcome you.
Back from Sapa, a small detour by the French Hospital in Hanoi for the 2nd injection. Since we are not yet ready to take the road to the south of the country, we decide to spend 2 days in Cao Bang in the north of the country close to the Chinese border. At this point we have already done more than 20h bus in less than 1 week but after all it's really convenient and relatively comfortable.
The destination is way less touristy than Sapa or Halong there few tours, nor tourist bus to get there. We therefore reserve a private minibus service and decided to do it on our own
The must see in the area is the waterfalls of Ban Gioc which serve as a natural border with China. They are located about 80km north east of Cao Bang. To get there we found somehow the local bus on the main street of Cao Bang (just be patient, and hand talk to local to get understood). This one brings us in 2h at the entrance of the falls, all for 70000 Dong which is two to three EUR per person, very cheap for two hour bus!
Then we heard about a very impressive cave which is four kilometers away from the fall so we went there by motorcycle taxi. A refreshing sugar cane juice at the exit of the cave and a walk back to the bus stop and we left by local bus back to Cao Bang! This was a really nice day !
The next day we rented a scooter and go explore the surroundings! Many rice fields, karst peaks that are as beautiful as the landscape of Halong Bay but without the sea and the tourist! People are very kind and hyper curious, they don't see often white people! When refueling the scooter at a gas station we took a little break. The whole family came out to see us and the granny was really impressed by the size of Thomas and his feet !!! A very very good moment!
It is already time to get back to Hanoi where I must receive my 3rd anti-rabies injection and then we can head south after having greatly enjoyed this last stop in the region of Cao Bang.