Vietnam: gems of the north (Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa)
Vietnam is increasingly becoming a popular destination for travellers each year. Its large chaotic cities are popular stop-offs for young travellers, and a great place to spend a few days.
Hanoi is a bustling city, riddled with motorcycles, bright lights, and street vendors; it can be hard to keep up with. There is much to see in and around the city and plenty of culture to absorb in the ancient architecture which is dotted throughout the vibrant city. Although everyone advises you to try the street food, be careful what you order as Vietnam is notorious for its taste for dog, and locals prefer boiled eggs with developing chicks in to dunking eggs with toast soldiers...
Amid the shops selling richly coloured, handmade clothing and ornaments you may also find propaganda art shops selling reprints of posters from various areas of Vietnam culture and the Vietnam War.
If you have a few days to spare however, itís worth going a bit further afield, as northern Vietnam has some fantastic varied landscapes; the two most popular being the protruding rock formations of Halong Bay, and the terraced farms of Sapa.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site and consists of over 3,000 islands scattered across the sea. You can choose to stay a number of nights on a trip to the bay, but two days one night is plenty of time. Make sure to visit the famous cave; with three increasingly large chambers to walk through, it is quite a sight to behold. There is also an opportunity to go kayaking which I would recommend.
If offered the choice of staying on land or boat, I would advise you stay onboard as the sea is calm and itís quite an experience waking up and walking out of your cabin to such a spectacular view. Unfortunately, the ever-increasing number of tourists means the ocean is usually scattered with other boats making it a slightly less unique experience but it is worth a trip none-the-less.
From Halong Bay, you will need to detour back through Hanoi in order to get a night train to Sapa (pictured below). These trains are very different to the sleeper trains of Thailand, in which you are bundled into bunk beds lining either side of the carriage, as most trains running this journey have four-bed carriages which seem quite luxurious in comparison. You may either book a tour or decide to freestyle on arrival (which will often get you a cheaper trekking trip), however due to lack of time on my trip, I decided to book a tour.
From the train station in Sapa it is a dodgy drive up through misty mountains; the morning I arrived you could barely see the white markings in the road six feet ahead of the minibus! The somewhat frightening experience seems even more surreal when you glance out the window to see the lush green hills and terraced farms that almost give the impression of an optical illusion.
On my trip I was unfortunately greeted by torrential downpour, and with only my canvas plimsolls I resorted to plastic bagging my shoes, so be warned - the weather is unpredictable, particularly in rainy season (May to September).
A trek is a great way to take in the scenery and if booking a tour beforehand, most travel agents will offer the opportunity of a homestay, which if you are willing to rough it, I would highly recommend. The place I stayed was very basic, a cement building with curtains separating the beds from the main living area, and an upper terrace with mattresses and mosquito nets for the guests.
The family spoke very little English, but our guide stayed over and was happy to translate. The food was delicious traditional Vietnamese cuisine, and despite the basic facilities of the homestay, the location was fantastic in the dip of a valley by a river in which you could view local children fishing, and at walking distance from local villages.
The local saleswomen are persistent, and be warned that they will walk alongside you for the duration of the trek until you buy something from them unless you make clear at the start that you are not going to make a purchase. Back in the town at Sapa, there is also a large market selling many different things, but always be prepared to barter as they will normally ask for almost twice above the selling price.
Embrace the overland travel, thatís when youíre likely to see the most unspoilt landscapes and the towns that are really representative of the countryís economy and lifestyle. Vietnam is a country with varied landscapes, and although the big cities are great to spend some time in, itís well worth a trip to some of the farther stretches of land to get an understanding of just how diverse the country is.
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