Vietnam – somewhere I’ve wanted to see for a very long time. For my 40th we planned our first adventure there, basing ourselves in the vibrant city of Hanoi and then exploring the high mountain area of Sapa and an overnight trip to the famous Halong Bay. As adventure holidays go, this was the furthest from a beach with a good book type you could get.
From arrival at the airport we took a taxi to our hotel which offered fleeting glimpses of green open spaces, rivers and busy construction sites till we entered the outskirts of Hanoi and the tall stacked building with lines of washing drying, various coloured sheets flying like kites off tiny balconies. What strikes you first is the volume of the city. A combination of the sounds coming from the hundreds of motorbikes, cyclists, street vendors and pedestrians is almost disorientating. Wherever you turn there are people busily going about their business. Chatting in doorways, preparing food sitting on tiny blue plastic stools, offering you any number of things from fresh pineapple to sunglasses.
After checking in and a quick freshen up we hit the streets. Stepping onto the pavement we decided to explore some of the nearby cafes in search of a Vietnamese coffee. A treat very different to anything we’re used to from famous chains in the UK. Made with a smooth blend of slow roasted beans and then served with an optional pouring of condensed milk – I dread to think of the calories each cup contains but it’s the most divine tasting liquid and one cup always seems to lead to another. We were not quite prepared for just how scary crossing roads is here as a pedestrian. There does not seem to be any formal system for crossing, best advice is to keep direct eye contact with oncoming traffic and move steadily across the road and by some miracle this seems to work. After day 3 this became a “normal” part of exploring the city but still felt rather alarming with each crossing.
Roughly speaking each “street” in the old town has its theme. There are the DIY streets where every manner of paint, wallpaper, cement and general supplies can be purchased. Then shoe street, handbag street, sunglasses street, children’s toys street and ladies fashion street…if it exists then it’s probably available here. Lots of the larger brands like A&F manufacture their products in Vietnam and consequently they makes their way into the endless miles of shops. We passed countless shops selling polo shirts to wedding dresses and talented tailors ready to copy any design within 24hrs ready for collection.
As fully signed up members of the foodie appreciation club we had booked a local guided food tour, which turned out to be a wise investment. The three hour tour took us around the old town and included making Vietnamese spring rolls, drinking local beer whilst sat on tiny blue stools with a Europop cover band churning out Gaga and Maroon 5 to an excited crowd, warming delicate perfumed bowls of hot Pho (soup) and more amazing coffee. A tiring but exhilarating first day in Hanoi, tomorrow we were heading into the countryside to see the temples at Li Puy.
We awoke to the noise of the city coming to life. 6am wake up call, down to breakfast and then onto a tour to see the Li Puy Temple some 30km out of Hanoi. The temple was dedicated to Vietnam’s first king who was poisoned and was erected by his wife in his honour. Upon her death a smaller temple was built so she could be reunited in the afterlife. The buildings were very interesting to explore and had lots of symbolism in their design. The traditional courtyard designs with inner courtyards and statues were set against the stunning backdrop of large black stone mountains. It felt a million miles from anywhere with just the other visitors and birds singing in the tree tops.
The afternoon was spent on a river cruise on a small steel boat paddled by a tiny Vietnamese lady by her feet! Yes to see this is just unbelievable, but this is exactly how they operate their little boats transporting tourists up and down the river and under some of these mountains in darkened caves. The scenery was breathtaking. Our boat had an additional paddle so between myself and Miko we took turns to paddle along the river and enjoy a very unique experience. These tiny flotillas of boats would cross each other and both operators would briefly exchange hellos, smile and carry on powering their boats. The whole experience really made you feel connected to a slower paced way of living, a more gentle race of people who work very hard and are so genuinely warm and welcoming despite the terrible history of suffering they have experienced. It is this gentle and peaceful nature which remained constant throughout our trip no matter where we went and will stay with us as a lasting impression.
One of the most adventurous parts of the trip was an overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa. The main station was in the middle of being renovated so we jumped over several train tracks with our backpacks to climb up onto the platform where we were departing. It was very dark but our little cabin had two sets of bunks some hot green tea was on offer and we all had then sense of adventure running keenly through us. Soon the carriages slowly pushed forward and the engine built up into the steady motion of the clickety clack of it’s large steel wheels on the track below us. Between us we probably managed 4hrs of sleep so arriving in Sapa at 5:50am we were looking and feeling a little worse for wear. We could see dense rainforest and glimpses of wooden shacks as the train approached the station.
Once we disembarked and met our guide we still had another hours slow climb up to the mountains and Sapa Village itself. As someone not great with heights as exciting as the views of the rice terraces where which we were passing through, there were some tight turns on the road where I just couldn’t quite bring myself to look out of the window for fear of feeling a bit woosey. We passed buffalo grazing, chickens running wild around the grass at the side of the road and local villagers in their traditional dress carrying large baskets. Houses appeared along the route seemingly constructed from whatever was available with small children running along in bare feet with sticks chasing the chickens or trying to race the cars, vans and minibuses making their way up the mountain.
Eventually we arrived to a large gathering of local women surrounding the minibus all in their traditional dress. They were all smiling and shouting and seemed very excited at our arrival. In our half awake state it was very strange but our guide explained that the winter season was coming and now the rice had been harvested they only have tourism to rely on to feed their families. So everyday these women would trek several kilometers to try to sell their hand made bags, bracelets, cushion covers etc to earn some money for their families. Little did we know at this point just how hard some of these trails were but we were about to experience 2 days of trekking with an overnight stay in a home stay with a local family.
We happily got out of the minibus and up a short steep set of stairs to the guide base camp where we could freshen up and grab a much needed breakfast. We loaded up on coffee, bananas, pancakes and noodles and large torn off pieces of delicious freshly baked baguettes with butter and jam. Our guide would be taking us up across the mountain trails on a route of approximately 12km with a stop for lunch half way into the trek. It is at this point I wondered how we were going to cope in the heat and what conditions were ahead of us and I had a moment of panic. But feeling buoyed from the sugar rush of breakfast and armed with our backpacks, water and hiking shoes we felt ready to strike out.
Several of the women who greeted us at the bus joined us as we walked and we asked our guide how far they would walk with us. She replied, till they reach their villages, they do this everyday and act as support crew for tourists and in return you buy some items from them at the end of the trek. Seemed like a good deal, especially as we turned the first corner and the enormity of the mountain range was fully revealed. After climbing under some shade of the forest we started trekking through the rice terraces at a challenging but steady pace. The trail took us through bamboo forests, across fast flowing rivers and climbing ever higher into the mountain. We were finding it hard but these ladies were in plastic slippers and carrying heavy baskets on their backs, some carrying babies in slings too. It felt very humbling to have this insight into their lives on the journey and how their daily lives revolve around these trails.
Mountain air is so fresh and clean and the forests are so dense that they are eerily quiet in parts. We passed goats, buffalo, chickens and lots of birds with the occasional distant sound of a van or bike – a huge contrast to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi city. Dogs and cats at farms were stretched out sunbathing on the road and in every village we came upon local villagers were busy cooking, making things, harvesting but never resting it seemed. Our lunch stop came and we were grateful to rest awhile and take off our backpacks and get into the shade. We bought a few items from the ladies who had accompanied us from Sapa and said our goodbyes and hungrily tucked into large bowls of noodles.
Our guide ushered us to our feet and we were off for the afternoon trek to our home stay. Thankfully the route would be mostly downhill as I’m not sure any of our legs were up to more steep climbs. We continued through villages and rice terraces till we reached our accommodation, tired but utterly thrilled that we’d done this trip under our own steam. The house was split into the family’s accommodation downstairs and a large u shaped open first floor with deep mattresses lined up around the room to cater for around 16 guests. Each had it’s own mosquito net and pillow with large duvet and a shared bathroom was outside to the side of the house. Basic facilities but a lot more inviting than the solid wood bunks and thin mattress we’d enjoyed the previous night onboard the train.
There were 12 of us in our tour and we had some free time to explore before dinner so we took a little dirt track down to the river and relaxed on the large flat rocks soaking in the sunshine and dipping our toes in the icy mountain river water. Some of the guys jumped into the river but were were not feeling quite that adventurous, particularly as the water was flowing very fast and you couldn’t quite make out how deep it was. Sitting taking in the view is one of those special lasting holiday memories which going on adventures is all about for us. That night we feasted on chicken, pork, rice, vegetables and spring rolls – which we were allowed to help prep. After a walkabout in the village and a few games of pool in the local bar, we returned to crash onto our beds for a much needed sleep.
I woke up pretty early, not long after sunrise. After creeping across the wooden boards I slipped downstairs and wandered outside with my journal. I have loved keeping travel notes of this trip as a lasting reminder of all the things we’ve experienced together. One by one our group woke and came downstairs for breakfast. Our host had made stacks of pancakes and fresh fruit, as well as coffee and tea. Knowing there was at least a 7-8km trek ahead we all tucked in heartily chatting about our experiences of the previous day’s trek. Day two didn’t disappoint. After another steep climb there was welcome relief in a huge bamboo forest so dense in parts I thought we would have to hack our way through. In the intense heat of the morning sun, being in the cool of these bamboos was welcome relief. It was not an easy trek as it had rained heavily the previous night and the ground was a thick sticky clay making each step a lot tougher to pull your body through. We were rewarded though by appearing from the forest into an open space with a stunning waterfall. We stopped here to rest and take on water whilst some of the group jumped out onto some flat rocks at the top of the waterfall to take in the view. We pushed on and our guide explained the cycle of planting and harvesting the rice. Each terrace is cut out of the land by hand creating the extraordinary scenery we were trekking through. A little further on our journey we stopped again for lunch – more yummy noodles and the end of the trek for us. A welcome sight was our little minibus which arrived to take us back to base. We were excited to get an aerial view of some of the route we’d trekked as we made our way back. We were already thinking about the train journey back – another overnight on the train and probably a dodgy back as a result but we would be so physically tired we would probably sleep the whole way!
The final section of our trip was visiting Halong Bay and we were lucky enough to be have an overnight stay on our boat and a chance to visit one of the many floating fishing villages and meet more local Vietnamese people. After another early start we got into our tour bus and had a 4/5 hour journey to get to the port and meet the crew of our boat. Driving is quite an experience here. If we thought that crossing the road was challenging, then driving is in another league. I cannot share with you enough the number of what we’d consider near misses we experienced even on wide roads with traffic appearing from every direction and somehow everyone getting to their various exits intact. Not something for the faint hearted. On reaching the port we had a few minutes to use the facilities before we were taken to a small boat and loaded on with bags and asked to put on our life jackets for a short 5 minute ride to the main boat and the next part of our adventure. All around us where the famous rocks of Halong Bay, straight out of National Geographic and tiny little fishing boats bobbing in the water.
Upon boarding, our captain welcomed us all onboard and we were allocated our rooms and given welcome drinks. After explaining where we would be heading we went to our rooms to unpack and freshen up before lunch -a six course meal of local Vietnamese dishes which was so beautifully presented you hardly wanted to disturb the plate. We went onto the top deck with cameras in hand to take in the views all around us. Just the rock formations and the turquoise milky green of the sea and a few other boats also on their trips. Our afternoon activity was a trip to a fishing village. We boarded the small dinghy and made our way to the village for our tour very excited. On arrival we had an overview of the fishing village and the choice of exploring by ourselves in a kayak or being paddled in a larger boat. I decided to be brave and opted for the kayak option, even though the last time I’d been in one was aged about 14yrs old on a PGL adventure holiday somewhere in the Brecon Beacons. It was the highlight of the trip – paddling around the villages and feeling the warm sea water with my fingers. After a few false starts I got to grips with the steering and followed the boats around the bay. Each floating village had tiny houses brightly painted and children were running along the boards with small dogs chasing them, some were fishing and others preparing food but always smiles were on show and waves and hellos. It was a lifetime special experience which I will treasure forever.
It’s pretty hard to put into words all the experiences we had in Vietnam and we only really scratched the surface with this trip. The culture, the people, the food and the places to see are vast and we imagine this will the first of many trips to see other areas and revisit places we’ve loved. I hope some of our travel stories will inspire you to visit.
Remember, adventure is out there!