Backpacking Vietnam Part 2: Beautiful Halong Bay and Majestic Sapa

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

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Halong Bay; Where the dragon descended into the sea

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!

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Preparing to set off for Halong Bay

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Part of travelling is making new friends wherever you go and learning more about the world!

Yolanda and I getting ready for our day in the Bay!

Yolanda and I getting ready for our day in the Bay!

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Squid fishing at night! They are attracted to the lights of our boats in the darkness

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Plenty of scenic views to catch here

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An endless view of beautiful limestone islets

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Kayaking in the bay. Wanted to jump in but was told it was punishable by the marine officers

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Into the mouth of madness! Exploring the limestone cases of Halong Bay

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It almost seems like a scene right out from a movie. Spectacular sights from up above

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: The Hoàng Liên Son range of mountains

Sa Pa: The Hoàng Liên Son range of mountains

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.

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Taking the night train to Sapa

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Morning breaks!

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.

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After an hour ride in the minivan, Sapa is in sight

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The city in the sky

Cool kidz

The locals definitely have some style

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Our guesthouse had a great view over the town

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Another beautiful morning, raring to go on our trekking adventure!

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.

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A local Hmong carrying her child while making her morning trek up to Sapa Town

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A lone farmer in his padi fields

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You’ll never walk alone; two brothers making their way home

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Went all the way up to the waterfall but I’m not one for heights. I much prefer being at the bottom

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Living life on the edge

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One of my favorite shots taken in the village

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The local village kids curiously gazing at the funny looking tourists

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Groups of tourists trekking the mountain. It can get pretty crowded at times

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Made our way to the homestay where this bundle of joy greeted us

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Exploring the river-side and getting to know some of the locals

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Dinner at the homestay with some of the other travellers

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There are some shisha places and cafes in certain villages if you’re into that sorta thing

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One of the many great mountains and hills surrounding Sa Pa

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Beautiful valleys and rivers. Remember to bring your camera!

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Getting mobbed by the local children who are selling hand-crafted trinkets

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Swimming with buffalos in the mountain river

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Evening conversations on the rooftop of our hotel

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.

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Every girl dreams of being a princess

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A tiny Vietnamese girl plowing the fields

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The beautiful waterfall at Cat Ba village.

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Too bad we couldn’t go for a swim

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Headed back to Hanoi with all my new friends!

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.

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