What’s Sapa-ning?

As my time in Vietnam was coming to an end, I made my way north to Sapa, a picturesque hill station high in the mountains and a remnant of the French colonial era. The area is very popular with nature and trekking enthusiasts, as it is famous for both its fine, rugged scenery and also for its rich cultural diversity. Sapa and its surrounding regions are home to a multitude of ethnic minorities, the majority of which are the Hmong (pronounced Mong). I had previously heard other travelers often raving about their experience in Sapa and their “authentic home-stay experience” with the local hill-tribe people (I say this in quotation marks because I cringe every time I hear the word “authentic”, or even worse, “off-the-beaten-path”). The first time I heard about Sapa was on my second day in Vietnam. A fellow traveler told me about the vast rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. Truthfully I wasn’t too keen, since I had just come from the Philippines, where I had done a 3 day trek through the rice terraces of Banaue (often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World), and before that did a 3 day trek up the 3,700 meter high volcano of Mount Rinjani in Indonesia. However, with the rave reviews at the back of my mind, a couple of days left to my visa and the discovery that I can cross from Sapa to Laos (and probably most importantly because I wasn’t ready to leave Vietnam), I decided to go for it. Lucky for me, on the overnight bus from Hanoi I ran into the lovely English girls that I had met a couple of weeks before in Nha Trang. As soon as we got off the bus in Sapa we were swarmed by a sea of Hmong sisters, all dressed in black with colorful embroideries and accessorized with silver jewelry and a fez-like headpiece.

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The girls and I found Mama Chu, who greeted us with bracelets and took us to get some breakfast before starting the 10km hike to her village. Even though the weather was quite cloudy, the landscapes and views were absolutely astounding.

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It started to pour as soon as we got to Mama’s, but we were finally home sweet home! We settled in while Mama and her daughters made us dinner in one pan over a small fire. After enjoying the delicious meal all together (consisting of spring rolls, fried morning glory, pork and rice), Mama showed us the different jewelry she had for sale, and gave us each another gift to thank us for staying with her.

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The next morning we started our trek back to Sapa after a breakfast of thick rice pancakes and bananas. About halfway through it started to rain very hard, so we got lifts back to town on motorbikes. The girls were heading back to Hanoi on the evening bus, so we said our goodbyes and I ventured out to find a hostel in the rain (this was just the beginning of my constant struggle with the rain in Sapa).

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I ended up at Mountain View Hostel,  a newly opened hostel in the same family of the Vietnam Backpacker Hostel. I was planning on staying for 2 nights and then getting the bus to Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s funny how plans can change so much. On the day my bus was supposed to leave, I was informed that the road to Laos was “broken” (that’s literally what I was told by the lady at the bus company). So I took some time to figure out what my options were, and somehow ended up staying in Sapa for one week. Between free beers on Sundays, happy hour with 2 for 1 beers everyday, all you can eat and drink ricewine at Mama’s for $2, and obviously the amazing staff, no wonder I got stuck in Hotel California. If you happen to be there when it’s not raining 24/7 there’s plenty to do around Sapa besides the trekking. There is a small market not far from the center and a couple of waterfalls you can motorbike or take a taxi to. You will see Hmong sisters scattered around the town selling trinkets and souvenirs all day. If you’re not used to it they might seem pushy, and when you say no thanks they’ll probably swear at you in Hmong, but they are just as charming and good-humored as they are business savvy. All in all, I had a great time in Sapa and wouldn’t change a thing! Lucky for me, the weather was beautiful on my last day and I got to explore the beautiful town and its surroundings on motorbike, enjoying views of the beautiful rice terrace laden mountains and the valley below.

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Next stop: Laos!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Traveler’s tips : There are many agencies in Hanoi that will book your Sapa home-stay experience for you, but be warned that they are charging you double or even triple and are pocketing the difference. The best thing you can do is find a Hmong sister yourself when you get off the bus, that way you know exactly where your money is going. Also VBH will book a ticket to Laos for you from Hanoi – if you want to leave directly from Sapa (shorter journey but roads are in worse condition) you can book a ticket at the store selling trekking gear with a picture of a bus on the sign, it’s right next to Mountain View Hostel (next door to the bakery).

Lovely Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

Hanoi was amazing. I just had to start with that. After yet another overnight bus from Hue, Ben and I made our way to the famous Vietnam Backpacker Hostel. After going on the free walking tour around the city, we settled down on beer street for the night, drinking $0.25 pints of fresh local beer, Bia Hoi.

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The next morning we headed out to explore and get down and cultural around Hanoi. We started at the Women’s Museum and then headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mosoleum. We ended up at the park next door, where we were able to partake in some outdoor fitness activities with some locals (a little bit of zumba, a little bit of ballroom dancing). We also discovered an amazing dish native to Hanoi called Bún nem, which was absolutely amazing (drool).

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On one of the many nights spent on Beer Street, we met an expat who told us about an alternative to the infamous Castaways Booze Cruise, as both Ben and I were hesitating dishing out $200 USD for a 3 day/2 night boat party. A couple days later we headed out to Cat Ba, an island in Ha Long Bay. We would take a boat through the bay and see the world famous towering limestone cliffs, as well as the floating villages in the bay.

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Lucky for us, the trip took all day so we really got to fully experience Ha Long Bay, both during the day and at nighttime. Unlucky for us it started to rain as soon as we got to Cat Ba, and it wouldn’t stop in the whole 5 days we spent there (we would later find out this typhoon-ish storm caused the most rainfall the area had seen in 40 years, and that about 40 people had died in the bay). So what do you do when you’re trapped on a beautiful island with beautiful beaches in the middle of a typhoon? You feel extremely grateful that you have a TV in your room with TWO movie channels in English (and no commercials!).

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On a cloudy but not so rainy day, we jumped at the opportunity to explore the island. We rented a bike and went to Fort Cannon, a small fort built by the French during their colonial rule. We also visited the Hospital Cave, a 17 room underground hospital and hideout which was in use until 1975. The cave is so vast that it was virtually indestructible, and seemed like real life James Bond underground lair. After a little chat with the guide at the entrance (who is an avid coin collector by the way – he had coins from all over the world, and I gladly gave him a Singapore dollar and some Filipino Pesos I had left over to add to his collection) he took us through the cave. We were able to see the different rooms that were built into the cave, some of them surgery rooms, some of them meeting rooms and so on. They even had a pool for exercising, as well as a dedicated area for combat training.

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After our boat back to Hanoi was cancelled twice because of the storm, we decided to take the longer and less scenic route that unfortunately avoids going through Halong Bay.

Next stop: Sapa!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Traveler’s tips : If you’re looking to party, meet people and have a fantastic time (and aren’t too tight on your budget), then do Castaways! Otherwise Cat Ba is a really great alternative, typhoon or not.
http://www.vietnambackpackerhostels.com/trips/ha-long-bay/ha-long-bay-and-castaways-island-3-days-2-nights/

I also wanted to mention someone else we met on lovely Beer Street, whose name escapes me at the moment. A photojournalist from Switzerland, this guy travelled to Saigon to document the life of the rich and famous in the “Sin City” of Vietnam, and then to the mines in the very north of the country with the aid of a translator. There he captured the portraits of miners and the conditions they work in, demonstrating the vast gap in the lifestyles and quality of life of the Vietnamese. I highly suggest taking a look at his portfolio on a computer to fully appreciate the quality of his work.
http://www.mirkories.ch

Nha Trang and motorbiking the Hai Van Pass

I took my first of many overnight buses in Vietnam from Saigon to Nha Trang, where I was looking forward to lazing on the beach and chilling out. If you’re looking for a highly touristic, seaside resort town in Vietnam, this is the place to be. But it had sun and beach, so I was happy. I also got to have a relaxing day at the Thap Ba Hot Springs and Mud baths and a fun boat trip around the islands close by.

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Next destination was to Hoi An, a city with a deep heritage of culture and trade. The Old City of Hoi An is also Unesco protected, and is beautifully pictutesque both during the day and at night. You can spend your days at the beach, or walk around the Old Town, adorned with Chinese lanterns, and enjoy some shopping and $0.25 draught beer near the Japanese Covered Bridge and Quan Cong Temple. At night, the town looks completely different as it comes alive under the city lights, with street vendors selling delicious food and various souvenirs. You can even light a lantern and drop it into the river, through the swan boats passing by.

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Unfortunately I only got to spend about two days in Hoi An, as I took the opportunity to motorbike through the Hai Van Pass from Hoi An to Hue. Even though the weather was less than ideal (spoiler alert: it rained) the journey and views were spectacular. We stopped in De Lat on the way to see the Marble Mountains, where several Buddhist temples have been built into the caves.

 

Once in Hue there wasn’t much to see, unless you’re a real history buff. We walked around the city and saw the Imperial Citadel, as well as the numerous Tombs of the Emperors along the Perfume River.

 

Next stop: Hanoi!

 

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛 💛 💛 💛
(Nha Trang is very skippable if you’re short on time, as is Hue if you wish to go straight from Hoi An to Hanoi)

 

Traveler’s tips: best hostel in Nha Trang is Tabalo, althought they’re not on Hostelworld (you can also book buses and boat tours directly through them). No night out is complete without a visit to Why Not bar. I stayed at Sunflower hostel in Hoi An, good location outside of the Old City, buy they have a great pool and shuttle buses to take you to the Old City at night. You can pretty much rent a motorbike anywhere to drive to Hue, and they ship your backpack for you ($15 in total). The road is very driveable from Hoi An to Hue,  the bus takes around 4 hours and it took us about 7 hours including the stop at the Marble Mountains.

Good morning Saigon

Oh Saigon. I wasn’t sure whether I would love it or hate it, since, in my experience, most people usually feel strongly one way or another when it comes to big cities while traveling third world countries – Bangkok, Saigon, Manila, etc. For that reason exactly I only booked one night at a hostel, so I can get a feel for the city and then decide what my next move would be. First thing I did when I arrived was walk around and eat a delicious pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and get a Vietnamese ice coffee – I was officially in love.

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I spent my six days in Saigon exploring the city, eating delicious food and taking in the vibrant Vietnamese culture. What struck me about Saigon was that, although a bustling city, it still had a warmth to it, a certain je ne sais quoi. Less crazy than Bangkok (although I loved Bangkok), less concrete jungle than Manila, Saigon just felt awesome. Even though Western capitalism started creeping its way into the city (they had a red carpet event for the opening of the first McDonald’s a couple years ago), Saigon still had an authentic feel to it. It’s a city of contrasts where commerce and culture collide – from high end hotels to cheap guesthouses, classy restaurants to delicious street food, Saigon certainly has something for everyone.

Having said that, what I think I loved most about the city was wandering through the small alleys of the city, walking past local homes, restaurants and incense lit offerings, which all seemed to have almost stood still in time. Which seems weird, given the turmoil and destruction the city and its inhabitants experienced only one generation ago. The truth is, the Vietnamese people have experienced hard times but still remain genuine and unjaded towards tourists. Saigon’s real beauty lies within its seamless blend of these two worlds that are old and new, past and present.

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One of the first sightseeing activities I got to visit were the tunnels of Cu Chi, a large network of connecting underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (called the American War by the Vietnamese). The tunnels were used not only as hiding spots during combat, but also as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon storage and living quarters. To keep enemy forces out, the Viet Cong had camouflaged trap doors on the jungle floor leading to the tunnels that rendered them almost undetectable, and the tunnels were also often rigged with explosive booby traps or bamboo stake pits. We were also able to crawl inside a part of the tunnels, which although have been made slightly larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, I was only able to crawl about 10 meters before taking the first exit out.

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In the following days I was also able to visit the War Remnants Museum, where I witnessed a disturbing display of man’s cruelty during the Vietnam/American War. The museum includes halls full of gruesome photographs, a simulated “tiger cage” prison and jars of deformed foetuses attributed to contamination by Agent Orange, as well as a full floor dedicated to telling the story of the war journalists from all over the world who documented the war and often died or disappeared during the war. I also visited the Reunification Palace, formerly South Vietnam’s presidential palace, which feels a bit like a time warp to the 60s, as it was left largely untouched from the day before Saigon fell to the North. The war ended on April 30, 1975 when tank #843 crashed through the gate, and a replica of the tank sits on the lawn outside. Although a bit kitschy, it was cool to see the different rooms full of vintage 1960s phones, radios, office equipment, etc that were supposedly left exactly as they were found when the North  took over. Although I have no pictures to share from the museum, I encourage you to read a letter written to President Obama by Agent Orange victim Tran Thi Hoan in 2009:

http://basicgoodness.com/2013/letter-to-obama-by-2nd-generation-agent-orange-victim-tr%e1%ba%a7n-th%e1%bb%8b%c2%a0hoan/

On my last day in Saigon I visited the Mekong Delta River, which looks almost like a water world, where boats, houses, restaurants and even markets float on the many rivers, canals and streams that flow through the region like arteries.

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Next stop: beach time in Nha Trang!

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛

Traveler’s tips: I stayed at a quiet hostel in the backpackers area in District 1 (Ngoc Thao Guesthouse) which was amazing, but if you’re looking for a more party hostel stay at Hideout. Most hostels will arrange tickets for you to Cu Chi, Mekong Delta River or any overnight bus to your next destination. There’s also a really excellent free walking tour every Saturday and Sunday that meets in front of the Crazy Buffalo (for more information about the tour you can check out http://www.trailstalessaigon.com/#_=_).