Strictly: Sailing to Sapa

I don’t know how, but I managed to survive the craziness of Hanoi. To be quite honest it’s a miracle I survived Vietnam at all, I was convinced those roads would kill me. But I did and I did, and with Hanoi in the bag it was time to head off to Halong Bay. The weather was not being kind to us in the north of Vietnam, so we had our fingers firmly crossed that it would be better in Halong. It wasn’t, but it also wasn’t worse, so I suppose that’s something.

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As we had some time on our hands we decided to do a three day, two night Halong Bay cruise to really experience the bay and all it has to offer. Before you get on the boat that seems like a long time but, actually, by the time you drive the four hours to and from the bay and spend god knows how long just waiting around at either end it turns out to be a pretty perfect length of time. Day one was spent on the boat, sailing out into Halong and enjoying the views. Thank god there was no rain, and in the mist the karst’s of the bay seemed to appear out of nowhere and loom over the tiny boats sailing by. I’m sure Halong would be amazing in glorious sunshine, but in the fog it had a very mythical, mysterious feel that didn’t get boring. Our boat was sort of fancy, so we got the chance to go kayaking on our first afternoon and all duly set off into the distance. Like every tourist attraction the pictures you see of Halong are lies, you’re not going to be the only boat in the bay and you’re not going to be the only people surrounded by miles of nothing. Even so, Halong is big enough that the other boats don’t encroach on your experience too much, and kayaking around karsts with every sound you make echoing around the almost deserted ocean was pretty amazing. What was even more so was that we got to witness a harrier hawk fishing practically in front of our kayak. You also have the chance to swim when you kayak in Halong Bay, but the state of the water put me off. It’s definitely not as bad as it could be, but even so the water is pretty filled with rubbish and oil from all the boats. And I didn’t really believe our guide, who was adamant that none of the rickety vessels on the bay are more than 10 years old.

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After a day of sailing around, and a night of so much food, day two meant it was onto Lan Ha Bay and across to the little island of Nam Cat. When you do three days at Halong you can choose to do two nights on the boat or one on the boat and one on the island. We went for the latter, as we didn’t see how day two spent solely on the boat would really be any different from what we’d already done. Before heading off to the island we got the chance to go to the Surprising Cave, a staple of any Halong cruise. It was a very nice cave system, but so packed with tourists and guides trying to shout over each other that the entire experience was ruined just a little. So you can imagine how nice it was to get out into the much less popular, but just as beautiful, Lan Ha Bay and see only a handful of other tourist boats. Lan Ha still features floating villages, which used to exist in Halong too until the government moved them out. I’ve seen a few floating villages on my trip but am constantly amazed by people’s ability to just live their entire lives on water, in buildings and communities that you would expect to see on the land. Spending a night on Nam Cat Island was lovely, even though the weather was still pants, and it was nice to be somewhere with slightly less people. What wasn’t so nice was watching two little local kids run around with a selection of very sharp gardening implements, and a couple of hammers,  and hoping that neither one managed to kill anyone with them.

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After a few days of sailing lazily around we headed briefly back to Hanoi to prepare for the trip up to Sapa. Before heading into the hills we did manage to fit in a trip to the cinema, to see Kong: Skull Island, which was a rubbish movie but interesting because they filmed lots of it in Vietnam, in places we had visited, including Halong Bay. I have to say, I was a little worried about the trip to Sapa for a number of reasons. We’d booked to do a three day, two night trek, the idea of which filled me with more than a little fear. We’d also been warned that Sapa would be freezing (and I was not prepared for cold weather) and that the night bus up there was more than a little dodgy. While the bus was interesting (I have never before seen bunk beds on a bus) the rest of it, thank god, was absolutely fine. Despite all the warnings, from pretty much every person I’d met who had been to Sapa, we had the nicest weather since Hoi An on day 1, and the hoodie, waterproof and bad weather gear I packed became pretty useless. Day 2 was so misty you couldn’t see any further than about 5 feet in front of you, and a little cooler, but all in all the weather was pretty perfect. And the walking, I hear you ask?! Well, I survived it, although I’ll not say it was entirely what I signed up for. When we booked the trek back in Hanoi we had asked what the terrain would be like, and received the answer “oh, it’s not mountains, a little up and down but very easy”. Well, I don’t want to say that this was an out and out lie, but it definitely wasn’t true. Thankfully I was prepared for some actual walking, so was much better off than some of the people we passed who were dressed as if they were expecting a day wandering around town (we even saw one girl without any shoes). But still, despite the assurances of the travel agent we did, in fact, spend the entire first morning basically climbing a mountain. The views were stunning but it was very much not what I had signed up for (although it would turn out to be some of the easier walking I would do).

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Our three days were to be spent walking through the rice paddies and hill villages that surround Sapa, and for two nights we stayed in homestays in the villages we passed through. On our first day we were very pleased to finally get to our homestay and surprised to learn that it was, in fact, the home of our guide Mao. We didn’t actually have Mao on our first day, but had her sister-in-law Zee guiding us, but we’d all heard some very interesting stories about Mao and were excited to meet her. After dinner the obligatory rice wine was produced, and we all carefully avoided drinking it. That was until Mao and her husband rolled in, blind drunk, and started pouring everyone shots and showing off their ability to swear in English. It was completely hilarious and totally unexpected. Even sober, Mao’s unique personality was unstoppable, and on the second morning of trekking (after we’d all sat around for 3 hours wondering what was going on, and occasionally being given food or tea but no explanation of when we would actually start walking) she scared me a few times by trying to catch pretty much any animal we came across, no matter if it was a scrawny chicken or a fully grown pig. Even with my heart in my mouth for most of the morning walking with Mao was great fun, and very needed on day 2 as the fog was so thick that we had absolutely no views and could barely even see 6 feet in front of our own faces.

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Hiking in Sapa was an amazing experience and I’m so glad that I decided to do it, as it gave a completely different impression of Vietnam from the bustling cities I’d spent most of my time in. It’s obvious that there is a lot of tourism even up in the hill villages, and it’s a little sad that many of the locals only really see you as a cash cow. For most of our trip we had local women walking with us, normally heading back to their villages from the market, and while they were friendly and more than happy to help you over some rough terrain (something I, unsurprisingly, needed a lot of help with, I was like Bambi on ice for most of the three days), the moment we reached the homestays they had a tendency to hang around trying to sell us things, never taking no for an answer, which was both annoying and sad. We also had a few instances of people wanting money before we could take a picture of their village. Despite this I loved walking through the mountains around Sapa, and seeing what life is like for many Vietnamese people outside the big cities, and it was a shock to head back to Hanoi (although I got there at 4am so that was probably where most of the shock came from). It was also a shock, and a very sad moment, to finally leave Vietnam for Bangkok and the next leg of my trip.

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Leah Out X



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