Touring Halong Bay and Sapa

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
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Trip End Dec 2004


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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

After spending six weeks in Vietnam, we've decided this country's fervor to capitalize on tourism is like the Gold Rush in California's early days. Seems as though everywhere a tourist destination has been "discovered," Vietnamese entrepreneurs are rushing to build guesthouses on top of each other and everyone's trying to get a piece of the almighty tourist dollar or dong. While the constant construction, road work, and stream of touts can be a hassle to us tourists, it's a positive sign of economic growth in this beautiful, colorful country.

Anyway, we've been happy to partake in tourism Vietnamese style the past two weeks in the north. Hanoi has been our launching pad for two side trips to Halong Bay and Sapa -- both stunning, peaceful and unimaginably picturesque.

We did a 3-day trip to Halong Bay with Handspan Adventure Travel, one of the many tour operators located in Hanoi. Luckily, only one other couple was on our tour, and there was more crew than guests onboard as we sailed into the bay. There are more than 3,000 limestone rock islands jutting from the sea near the Gulf of Tonkin. The water in the bay is calm and a milky green color. Combined with the mist, it's a mystical and magical place.

The first day was spent sailing around the bay. We stopped at Hong Sung Sot Cave(Vietnamese for Surprising or Amazing Cave), which was indeed surprising and amazing. By far, this series of three caves was the largest we'd ever seen. In mid-afternoon, the boat stopped for us to take a quick swim. Andy jumped from the top of the boat (see action pic!) only to find the water wasn't as deep as originally assured. Luckily, the sea floor was soft and muddy, and he was more shocked by the frigid water than hitting bottom. We spent the night on the boat talking about U.S. politics and swapping Vietnam travel tales with the Irish couple Kate and Noel. Our boat crew came back a bit before midnight after enjoying a few drinks at nearby Cat Ba Island. They soon had us on the floor playing a Vietnamese drinking game that involved putting your hands behind your back and knocking a beer can over with your nose. Ironically, the small-nosed Vietnamese men and ladies could do this trick but the big-nosed white men could not.

The next day, a smaller boat took us to Handspan's base camp, which was a small, beautiful, isolated beach with a few huts and a main gathering area (hopefully you can download the video clip!). We spent the day kayaking in water so calm that it was fun and relaxing for these first-timers. Andy likes to say paddling in the water was "like butta'." The great thing about kayaking is we could venture places a boat couldn't go either because the water was too shallow or the limestone formations prevented it. We kayaked under one limestone bridge into a giant lagoon surrounded on all sides by towering limestone cliffs. Halong Bay would have been a great place to shoot a Lord of the Rings movie (and probably much cheaper than New Zealand!). We spent the night on our private beach, definitely a perk that Handspan seemed able to offer that other tours could not.

The third day was spent traveling by boat back to Halong City and then by bus to the noise and traffic of Hanoi. We immediately booked our next tour to Sapa, which would leave the next evening on the overnight train. Sapa is a former hill station nestled in a beautiful valley close to the Chinese border. It's known for its scenery, trekking, and diverse hill tribes.

We were joined on our Sapa tour by a German neurologist named Jenny. She was much more fun than her occupation might suggest. Hung was our burned-out tour guide, who seemed in his own world most of the time. On our first day, we descended into the valley and ate lunch by the river. For lunch, Hung had brought us bread already spread with jam and a can of minced pork. This was the first time either of us had eaten a "Spam and Jam" sandwich and probably the last. We didn't know then that it would be the only day the sun would make its appearance during our five days in Sapa.

Along a mountain path, a man was crouched over the bloody carcass of a large unidentifiable animal (don't worry, there's not a picture posted). We learned from our guide that the animal was the man's water buffalo. A few hours before, the water buffalo had slipped down the hill and broken its leg, thus rendering it useless for plowing in the rice paddies (its main purpose in Vietnamese life). Apparently, the man decided to cut his losses (quite literally) by salvaging the meat of the water buffalo to sell in the local market. All the entrails and other organs were in full view. Nothing is wasted in Vietnam. While a bit gruesome, the sight put things in perspective. We stress about bad traffic and finding a good parking place. This man lost a part of his livelihood on a remote mountain path and probably spent the rest of the day having to dissect a thousand- pound animal with a dull knife. Talk about putting a crimp in your day!

We then trekked to our first homestay with a Dzay hill tribe family in Ta Van. A woman, her son and two of her daughters lived in a simple, clean and sturdy wooden house. We slept on mattresses laid out on the second level, which most families use for storage. That night, the eight of us huddled around a small table covered with dishes for dinner. It wasn't long before the vat of rice wine came out, and we were all doing shots of the potent stuff, laughing and having a good ol' time.

The next day was a grueling 17 km hike up and down the hills, all covered with terraced rice paddies. At some points, we had to balance our way across narrow embankments for fear of falling into the muddy rice paddies on either side. But the scenery around us was straight out of National Geographic and definitely made up for our sore calves the next day. Our second homestay was in Ban Ho with a Tay hill tribe family. They interacted with us very little, but we enjoyed watching their little girl and her friends play on long bamboo poles. A Danish trio and their guide were staying in the house behind ours, and we could hear the pounding of their shot glasses against the table early in the evening. Our guide told us they had bought dog meat, which was being cooked up for dinner. We joined them AFTER dinner for some more rice-wine drinking. We'll always remember that night as we drank with about six Vietnamese, three great Danes and a German belting out our respective national anthems at the top of our lungs. (Surprised by how much drinking we're doing? Seems as though we can't travel through this country without partaking in rice wine as it's considered rude not to down a shot or two when offered. It does wonders for building camaraderie and is a part of Vietnamese social life. While we still can't count from 1 to 10 in Vietnamese, we now know how to say "cheers" in the Saigon and Hanoi dialects and in two hill tribe languages!)

The third day was uphill all the way to where a jeep picked us up and brought us back to Sapa. We checked into our hotel and rested the rest of the day. We spent the next day shopping and bargaining in Sapa with Black Hmong and Dao women and girls trying to sell us clothing, pillowcases, blankets, earrings and bracelets. Sapa has become quite the tourist destination, and Saturday is its main market day.

On Sunday, we did a tour with Sapa Nature Tours to Bac Ha for its weekly market. Bac Ha is 110 km from Sapa and the surrounding area is home to the Flower H'mong hill tribe. Their clothing was the most colorful we'd seen and made for some great pictures. Our tour guide took us through the market, where he pointed out the animal section where you could buy a pig, dog or water buffalo; the eating section where they made a stew of horse and buffalo meat; and the stalls that sold colorful yarns and embroidery. On the way to Lao Cai, where we would catch the night train back to Hanoi, we stopped at the Vietnam-China border for a quick photo opportunity.

We are now in Hanoi until tomorrow morning when we leave for our fourth country, Laos. Since Hanoi to us was nothing to write home about, we won't.

Our Northern Vietnam recommendations: Handspan's kayaking and boat tour in Halong Bay, Cat Cat Hotel and Restaurant in Sapa (preferably when there's no fog), Bun Cha (rice vermicelli with roasted pork and vegetables) in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and Bac Ha Sunday market with Sapa Nature Tours.

Our "Shoulda Coulda Woulda" in Vietnam: Visited after the rainy season in September, taken a basic Vietnamese course, skipped Hue, gone to Sapa on our own and booked with a local tour operator, and stayed away from the evil Prince Hotel on Hang Cot Street in Hanoi.
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