In the first part of this series, we toured Ho Chi Minh trying out the local street cuisine, rode through the Mekong witnessing the life of the river people and explored Hanoi’s Old Quarter’s with its authentic local vibes. This next article will bring you through my experience in Halong Bay and Sapa!
PLANNING THE ADVENTURES
Hanoi’s Old Quarter has a multitude of tour agencies from which you can book your trips from. They vary widely in terms of quality and price. There are also many tour agencies which purposefully put similar (or even exactly the same) names as certain popular agencies. This can make things very confusing for tourists. One of these is Sinh Tourist. I decided to go with them after reading pretty good reviews online. I searched for their (real) address online and then navigated through the many roads, alleys and ‘fake’ agencies of the Old Quarter to locate it. I booked the 2D1N Halong Bay liveaboard through them and it cost me USD 80. I booked the 3D4N Sapa tour through my hostel (Central Backpackers Hostel) and it cost me USD 135 inclusive of the train ride to Sapa, hotel and a 2 night homestay (I decided to do 1 night instead when I was there).
SAILING HALONG BAY
Halong Bay is a magnificent place, it boasts an area of over 1,553 km2 and is littered with as many as 2000 islets (mostly limestine). Halong Bay, is also known as the site ‘where the dragon descended into the sea’. According to ancient lore, the many islets were created when a great dragon plunged into the sea, carving out the bay into what it is today. Now, Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most popular travel destinations in Vietnam.
From our hostel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, it took about three hours of picking up passengers and driving before we got to the pier. There were many tourists there and most if not all, of the boats were all headed to the same destination: Halong Bay. From there, we headed off the Halong bay for 2 days of exploration! The things we did there included exploring some of the limestone islets, soaking up some sun at a beach, kayaking and squid fishing by night!
Overall: While Halong Bay has become quite touristy, it is still has spectacular sights and views. I strongly encourage anyone who loves nature and landscapes to visit. I also think that 2D1N is enough and you do not need to spend an additional night there. *I believe if you spend 3D2N there you get to jump into the bay and swim somewhere where the maritime police do not patrol.
TREKKING MAJESTIC SA PA
Sa Pa is located high up among the mountains of north-west Vietnam, 1500 meters above sea level. It is a quiet town and there is a great diversity of ethnic people who live there or are found in the surrounding villages. The 5 main ethnic groups are the Hmongs, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho. The mountain ranges near Sa Pa also includes Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fan Si Pan which towers at a height of 3143 meters above sea level.
From our hostel, we headed to the train station and took the overnight train to Sa Pa. The ride was about 9 hours long and the rooms came with two bunk beds. You will end up at Lao Cai station where you will have to take (unless it’s already included in your package) a shuttle bus or minivan there.
It is an hour long journey up winding roads so do take some motion-sickness pills if needed. In Sa Pa, there are many cafes, restaurants, hotels, massage parlors, guesthouses and shops which sell hiking gear.
We started trekking after one night at the hotel and headed to our home-stay in a village among the mountains. We trekked till late in the afternoon before arriving at our home-stay. Along the way there will be local ladies trekking along side you ‘guiding’ you and helping you through some of the more difficult parts of the trek. After which they will try to sell you some trinkets so be warned that their help is not totally altruistic. Many tourists come to Sa Pa so many of the locals do try to use tourism as a form of livelihood. Even the children will come to you in hopes that you will buy some of their hand-crafted trinkets.
On the last day, we headed to Cat Ba village to visit their waterfall. It is a much shorter trek then the day before. The main attraction here is the waterfall even though you will get to see a traditional dance.
Overall: Sa Pa, like Halong Bay, has some of the most beautiful sights I have seen. If you love trekking, you might even want to try to conquer Fan Si Pan! Similar to Halong Bay, it has also become very touristy. So much so that some of the locals would go to extreme lengths such as traversing all the way with you up and downs the mountains, only to walk away when they realize you are not interested in buying anything. Of course this is a minority and does not reflect the culture as a whole, but it is something to think about.