Oct, 2016: Everyone raves about Vietnam but North Vietnam is where it’s at for me; the only problem is there is so much to see. My mum, Fi, her sister and I had 7 days to fill while waiting for our tailoring in Hoi An. But, with Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa on the agenda we weren’t sure how to fit it all in while still doing it justice. Here is what we did…
With help from the travel desk at Hanoi Pho Hostel (where we stayed) we mapped out a pretty jam packed North Vietnam itinerary. We would start with one night on a wooden junk in Cat Ba Bay (instead of Halong Bay). Next we’d catch the overnight train up to Sapa for an overnight trek in the hills. Then finally we would catch the night train back to Hanoi. We organised the Cat Ba junk trip ourselves directly with the rather helpful Mr Tung from Cat Ba Ventures. Our hostel organised the entire Sapa portion of the trip from booking our train tickets, to transfers up to Sapa and then the trek itself. Usually we’re not really up for organised tours. But with time short and the agenda bulging the hostel’s recommendations seemed to make sense. And, other than screwing up our transfer to Cat Ba everything worked surprisingly smoothly.
Overnight in Cat Ba Bay / National Park:
We had originally planned to spend a few nights on Halong Bay. However, the general consensus from reviews and our hostel seemed to be that Cat Ba Bay / National Park is a more pristine and less touristy option while still packing the same unique beauty. For a more intimate experience we opted to have a small junk all to ourselves and as we pulled away from the little harbour and steamed out through the floating fishing villages I was stoked with our decision. Over the next 24 hours we steamed in and out of the plethora of little inlets and channels, went kayaking at dawn into hidden lagoons and watched a stunning sunset while drinking ice cold beers. We ate like kings as the deck hand pumped out huge, simple but super tasty seafood feasts and we swam with the phosphorescence under a moonlit sky. By lunchtime the next day when we kayaked into another tiny hidden lagoon to harvest some baby clams we felt we had been on the boat a lot longer. While I couldn’t say that Cat Ba was completely pollution free, there is a certain magic to the floating fishing villages, infinite bays and towering limestone islets that make up this special part of the world. We were sad to say goodbye but our week in North Vietnam was off to a good start!
Trains and the hill tribes of Sapa:
From Cat Ba we missioned via mini bus, ferry, another mini bus and then a cab to catch our night train to Sapa; the beautiful little mountain town in far North Vietnam. As the train pulled out of the station our initial case of tiny cabin claustrophobia gave way to exhaustion and pretty soon I passed out to the soothing ‘clickety-clack’ of the railway line north. The next morning we woke up as the train pulled into Lao Cai station and then were bundled into a mini van that wound it’s way up to Sapa where we met our guide for the next 24 hours. After a surprisingly delicious breakfast in another wise soulless hotel dining room we started walking out of town flanked by a troop of happy faced women from the local hill tribes. At first I was taken aback by the scale of development which seems to have taken over the Sapa I remembered from my first visit in 2001, but as we left the cranes and scaffolding behind, I couldn’t help but get won over by the glorious valley views and the endless cheery chatter of our adopted indigenous guides. While we knew that the women were just buttering us for a future sale and it was obvious that the path down through the valley is well worn with Gortex clad tourist feet, it really is a magic place to visit.
Our path took us down past farmers threshing rice, water buffalos bathing in mud and women snapping the woody ends of baby bamboo shoots ready for sale. The surrounding valleys and hillsides were partly obscured by a blue smokey haze but the views were still quite spectacular. We ate a hearty and delicious lunch while getting badgered by local sales women and then enjoyed an equally delicious yet more tranquil banquet dinner at a homestay in a local village. Initially I was a bit disappointed that we shared the homestay with at least six or seven other tourists but in the end the delicious communal dinner with the family and all the said gringoes, washed down with numerous shots of the local liquor was a trip highlight. In some ways I think this summed up our trip to Sapa. If you’re heading up there with only a day or two to spare and expect an intrepid trek through remote hill tribes, then you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you’re up for a relatively gentle stroll through still beautiful countryside, with a bunch of other like minded gringos and local people who are just trying to make a living, then you’ll love it. We certainly did.
Three nights eating in Hanoi:
As our airport transfer turned off the main highway from the Hanoi airport and plunged into the old french quarter I was reminded how much I loved the place. Rickshaws and bikes clogged the road while the side walk heaved with ancient looking old ladies selling everything from fresh tofu to wriggling frogs and home made pork sausage. Fishmongers chopped the heads of massive cat fish and a flower seller pushed through the traffic with her bicycle over flowing with every colour of bloom you could imagine. I couldn’t help but wind down my window and breath it all in.
There is so much to write about Hanoi but arguably my favourite thing to do is find a little cafe on the side of the road in the old quarter, pull up one of those tiny little stools and then order whatever everyone else is eating. We did this on our first night there and as I slurped away at a deliciously fragrant bowl of pork dumpling noodle soup, getting the hiccups from the punchy little chunks of chilli, I couldn’t have been happier. Our second night we had a similarly awesome experience at a corner restaurant where each table has it’s own little hot plate. We chose what we wanted from an open fridge cabinet and then greased our hot plate with chunks of pig fat before grilling our selections with fresh garlic, onions and chilli. Our final night we made our way to Quan An Ngom which was packed to the rafters with tourists and locals alike enjoying the varying plates of regional fare. While everything was delicious the delicate chunks of grilled catfish were a total stand out.
The other Hanoi standout was feasting on Bun Cha at the creatively named Bun Cha So 1, once again in the old quarter. These delicious fried pork spring rolls served with a slightly sweet dipping broth, fresh rice noodles and a huge bowl of fresh herbs was my most lasting food memory from when I first came to Hanoi in 2001. Thankfully they didn’t disappoint 15 years on.
North Vietnam travel and feasting tips:
- We flew return from Da Nang to Hanoi with VietJet for ~USD45 each with our hostel in Hanoi organising airport transfers for about USD20 each way
- In Hanoi, we stayed at Hanoi Pho Hostel (46 Nguyen Van To road) which was around USD40/night for two rooms for the four of us (double deluxe room with ensuite for mum and a triple family room with private bathrooms for Fi, her sister and I).
- Cat Ba Ventures were awesome hosts for our sailing trip around Cat Ba National Park and while more pricey than other operators we would strongly recommend them. Total cost for the trip for four us was USD600 which included transfers to and from Hanoi (including ferry to Cat Ba island), our own private junk, all meals, kayaks and guide.
- The reception team at Hanoi Pho Hostel organised our Sapa trip which cost ~USD80/person including sleeper births on the night train to and from Sapa, transfers from the train station to Sapa itself, all meals, guide and overnight accommodation in a local village homestay. We could have got this cheaper but time and convenience made this the best option.
- For some super tasty Hanoi eating:
- The best crispy pork spring rolls are at Bun Cha So No.1 (1 Hang Manh street). Pull up a little plastic stool on the side walk and feast!
- I loved the old school atmosphere and delicious coffee at Cong Caphe which is a chain of coffee shops resplendent with all manner of communist decor. There are plenty spread around the place and are worth a look.
- Hanoi Social Club (6 Ngo Hoi Vu) was a great little hidden gem for a few beers and a bizarre yet delicious egg coffee up on their terrace in the evening. Not the easiest place to find but definitely worth a look.
- For loads of different regional Vietnamese cuisines we really enjoyed Quan An Ngon (18 Phan Boi Chau). It’s potentially not the most authentic in respect to each region’s individual cuisine but I it’s a pretty delicious starting point.