The weather changed, and changed in a big way. Gone was the nice swimming weather where you could lay on the top deck of the junk and enjoy the sun’s rays. Laying on top deck was replaced by overcoats, a hat (I don’t have much hair on my head remember) and a lot of shivering. We were all very thankful for the heated bus trip Hanoi.
Travel plans changed from Nhin Binh to Sapa based on the recommendations of the other tourists. Vinny suggested various friends and organised a home stay with guides. Who knows what lay ahead from here!
With a few hours to spare before the train trip to Lao Cai a search for some wifi was undertaken and a nice café found. Flights booked to Danang, accommodation found and was ready for the train trip. One last hurdle had to be overcome beforehand though. I left my phone charging in the tour operator’s office, so a mad dash back across Hanoi was done (sans bike helmet for me! I guess I am an old hand at this now?)
Train trip was uneventful; dark outside, noisy inside J Arriving in Lao Cai the weather was colder than the day before in Hanoi. It was after all the mountains! Bus trip up through the mountains on washed out muddy roads with 10’ visibility was … exciting, unsure if that is the right word? Arrived in Sapa, had a quick shower and breakfast before heading off on the tour with Tuan our guide. Did I mention it was raining and cold?
The hike was along the high ridge east of Sapa through local Black H’mong and Red Dzao settlements. The group was followed by local Black H’mong tribal women. They were very friendly and helpful. After the second time of me sliding over (no camera breakages thankfully!), Maya was very helpful and showed me the way through all the sketchy parts. Coincidentally that accounted for 90% of the hike. The hike for day 1 was 12km down to the Ta Van River where 4 of us stayed overnight in the homestay at Tuan’s house where he made us all feel very welcome. I had my first experience of “happy water” that is what the locals call rice wine. I read in Lonely Planet that it is impolite to refuse your host, as a result; surprise, surprise I enjoyed a lot of rice wine. Rice wine for those that do not know, is like Grappa; which is very potent. Slept reasonably well (courtesy of said rice wine), before waking up nice and early Saturday morning to a rooster somewhere in the valley.
After a hearty breakfast of banana and honey pancakes we set out with Tuan for day 2 of our tour. Thankfully it was not as long as the first day and after 8kms of hiking through some very mountainous and slippery terrain, we arrived at our bus to shuttle back to Sapa. A quick shower and a walk around Sapa village before the bus ride back to Lao Cai station for the overnight train trip back to Hanoi. Train trip back was horrendous! Cabin with an old guy that coughed up a lung every 5 minutes (and everything that must have been in them!) his daughter who was obviously not old enough to sleep with the light turned off. Sleep was intermittent at best, non-existent at worse. Arrived in Hanoi at 4:40am and obviously nothing was open. Walked around for a long time trying to stay awake, worse of all, I had minimal people in the world that I could call at that hour
Woke up nice and early Tuesday morning to pack and headed onto the bus to go to Halong Bay. Joined Heritage Cruise (www.heritage cruise.net) and began the 3 day cruise around Halong Bay. Cruise was made up of 14 Vietnamese, 3 Americans and 1 Aussie. Afternoon was spent caving, and then sea kayaking around the limestone cliffs, very beautiful. The evening was all about dinner and then Karaoke with the Vietnamese contingent, only a few English songs made it into the playlist and I can say that a stirring rendition of Kylie Minogue’s “I Just Can’t Get You Outta My Head” was performed.
6:00am and the floating bar next to the Junk decides it is time to wake up Halong Bay. Heavy dance and trance music ensures he met his objective. We all boarded the small boat, travelled the hour to Catba Island and dropped the Vietnamese group off. The rest of us had a day sea kayaking with our new guide Vinny and relaxing on the boat. Fun afternoon was had jumping off boat and swimming again. Getting back to the main boat there was a new group and more introductions. Heavy negotiations were undertaken with one of the floating shop ladies to buy some beer. With an original asking price of $3USD per Tiger, I told her she was dreaming, ended up with a buy price of $9USD for 12 Tigers. The night was a lot of fun. More seafood, including prawn heads were had for dinner (apparently they change your life?). With the 12 Tigers consumed, the bottle of Vodka was cracked out and the Karaoke was amazing. We informed the other boats around us that we took requests; surprisingly none came through. Not even a request to be quiet! That was a welcome surprise J With some new found friends, we closed the night off with a stirring rendition of U2’s Pride and then attempted some squid fishing again. I am sure that the tour operators have a good laugh every time they convince the tourists to try to fish.
A leisurely lay in, a beautiful breakfast at Wild Honey in the Mandarin Gallery, last minute shopping (who would have thought that buying sunscreen would be so complicated?) and that was it. I bade farewell to Singapore for 6 weeks and boarded the flight to Hanoi, Vietnam aboard Vietnam Airlines VN744. The flight over was uneventful, clearing customs courtesy of my APEC card was trouble free and suddenly I was working out how one was to travel the 40+kms to the last minute hotel booking that was made that morning as part of the leisurely lay in.
Finding the service desk, they offered a taxi to the airport for $30 USD, whilst on the expensive side; I did not have the heart nor the patience to negotiate the taxi spruikers outside and what that could have entailed. Paying, I was promptly picked up and taken to the Moevenpick Hotel, Hanoi. Nice, clean and suitable for the flashpacker that I obviously am
First night was very much about finding the way around, taking some directions from the front desk found a late night area that sold hawker style food, sated the appetite and promptly crashed out. Sunday in Hanoi I wanted to like every other Sunday wherever it is that I am in the world, and that means a nice brunch. A good sleep in, some great coffee and poached eggs. Whilst the choices were few and far between a decent location was found.
The day was spent walking around The Old Town Centre of Hanoi, getting lost in the small winding streets, dodging the bikes, taxis and cars and trying to get a better feel for Hanoi. After several hours walking through the streets, taking plenty of photos, drinking lots of beer and cocktails finally found the famed Vietnamese Waterpuppet Theatre, <link> booking in for a show at 9:15, what else are you going to do in downtown Hanoi on a Sunday night? Missing the sign that directed you to the English program I relied on overactive and somewhat alcohol affected imagination to enjoy the show. Leisurely walk home, which took a lot longer than it was meant to, so needed to stop for a few roadies. After reviewing the Lonely Planet on Monday morning it was clear that Hanoi was experienced the day before. Monday was spent working out where to go, how to get there and what to see in Vietnam and a few bike rides around town. Absolutely hilarious! First time on the back of the bike the poor dude must have thought he was in a wrestling ring as I was holding on that tight. After a few kms, started to relax, thought it would be a good idea to capture the experience on video, even made a phone call and commentated all the way home.