‘October 27 to November 9
I was impressed by the presentation two Vietnamese students made on the Master in Communication course – a web site to promote tourism in Vietnam – which left me feeling I wanted to go there myself. The first idea was to take 3 days over the train journey from Hanoi to Saigon (as everyone except the government still calls it), to allow a leisurely stop-off at Hue, then to Phnom Penh by bus. Instead, I booked a tour in North Vietnam: Vietnamese Hilltribe Hikes, with Explore and will fly to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) before taking the bus to Cambodia.
Vietnamese Airlines served an attractive lunch with drinks (unlike my flight to Hong Kong where you had to pay for everything), and I managed to change some money at the airport, including my remaining HK$. After that, things began to go wrong. Now I know why people take taxis.
The tour began the next day, with an equally fraught after dark walk in the Old Town and a meal at the restaurant Yin Yang. The “taster menu” had 8 courses, most of them excellent individually. But 8 is too many. At least the first 4 or 5 were served one at a time, unlike in Korea and Japan. We found our way home through the Night Market, and so to bed.
On Saturday we left early to drive to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise. As we drove through towns on the way, Bac, our leader, explained that the government sold off plots of land 4 x 15 metres, which accounts for the large number of narrow houses with fine frontage and blank side walls. A huge Samsung factory is being expanded. We stopped at a “Humanity Centre” for people with physical disabilities caused by the use of dioxins during the war. Some of the women embroider beautiful complex pictures in long stitch, while the men produce a wide range of stone sculptures.
We had been “upgraded” to a four-star boat, with two banquet-style meals and two side trips, one to some fishermen’s houses, the other to a cave. Not really my scene, and not the “simple” label under which the trip had been advertised. But it was certainly much more peaceful than Hanoi, and there were some stunning views.
I have written about Sunday evening on another page. On Monday we drove to a country village, Ban Lac near Mai Chau. Our arrival coincided with the departure of hundreds of schoolchildren who had been finding out about how rice is harvested, and were most reluctant to give way to our bus. We had a short walk from the homestay Quan Hang in the afternoon, and looked at clothes in the village shops. I bought a pair of trousers with a design of elephants.
On Tuesday we had two walks, using our bus to get to the start point. This gave us a chance to see rice harvesting and building materials close up, and they were good walks along a mixture of mud and concrete tracks.
I took this photograph on the village football field, but the cow showed her displeasure by charging me.
After dinner some local young women entertained us with songs and dances from their tradition, and ended up by getting everyone into a circle dance.
On Wednesday morning we had rented bicycles and rode around the valley, very slowly for much of the way. After a plate of noodles for lunch, we drove back to Hanoi to sort out our luggage and get something to eat before leaving for the night train to Sapa. This was more comfortable than I expected, the noise and movement of the train being gently soporific. We arrived at Lao Cai 5:30 and transferred to a minibus for the drive on a mountain road to Sapa for breakfast and an orientation tour. The rest of the day was free, but most of us chose to walk up Ham Rong Mountain. In the evening, most of us opted to go to Good Morning Vietnam which was highly recommended on Trip Advisor – good food but more than I wanted.
On Thursday we drove on an even worse mountain road down to a river about 20 km away, and began the mountain trek. After a somewhat hairy short cut, we reached a house where our local guides prepared a typical Vietnamese soup of buffalo, greens and noodles. The afternoon walk was easier, with wonderful mountain views, and at 4:15 we arrived at our homestay in the modest village of Sin Chai. No tourist shops here, just a couple for the locals, and we had much more sense of being part of the family. Again, our local guides got involvd in cooking, and dinner was another banquet, with rice wine.
The family were up early, and most of us followed suit. I took the photo above at about 7:00, just round the corner. Breakfast was sensible and fun at the same time – pancakes with lime juice, honey and banana, and even (instant) coffee as an alternative to tea. The walk back was mostly downhill, and included a stop for a sensible lunch – bread rolls with a choice of pork, tuna, cheese (La Vache Qui Rit) and strips of omelette, plus cucumber, tomato and apple. The local guides had carried all this in baskets on their backs, and the family sold us drinks from their fridge.
Another bumpy ride back to Sapa. After a shower, I washed my clothes, then went out to buy some new sandals, the only ones I could find in size 41. Made in China, priced at $30, so I hope they last a few years. In the evening I went to Mass at the village church. Crowded, congregation joined in with enthusiasm, and I couldn’t understand more than the odd word. Then the special fried rice at one of the man cafés, chosen because it was crowded enough to show popularity but not so crowded that they weren’t happy to see me.
The others left at 8 on Sunday morning to visit a tribal market. I didn’t want to pay $20 for yet more driving on mountain roads and shopping, so I spent the morning catching up on the blog, then tried to find the Silver Waterfall, but only found this at the top of the road.
Returned to the hotel, whence I was picked up and taken to Lao Cai to meet the group for the train back to Hanoi. Bac took some of us out for a typical Vietnamese breakfast of chicken soup, followed by iced coffee. The highlight of the last day in Hanoi was the Temple of Literature, site of a university before Oxford and Cambridge were thought of.
On Tuesday I flew to Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City for my last night in Vietnam before catching the bus to Cambodia.
I ate this stuffed pumpkin just round the corner from the hotel.
While waiting for the bus at 6:30 I saw games of tennis in the park.