Northen Vietnam, Hanoi, Sapa

If you love nature and not willing to spend a lot on your holiday, Vietnam is the perfect place for you. Having been exposed to a lot of beautiful places, I still appreciate undisturbed nature of Vietnam, especially Sapa.

Before you decide to visit Vietnam, you should know that North and South Vietnam is totally different in weather, climate and food. Some of my Vietnamese friends said even language is slightly different as well as accent. As everybody knows, Southern Vietnam is much more developed than Northern Vietnam, still I decided to visit Hanoi as I don’t fancy about developed towns. However, it’s undeniable that Vietnam is one of the most progressive countries in South East Asia at the time being.

As I have been to only Hanoi, I am going to  cover only  what I know about Hanoi ( capital of Northern Vietnam ). Whole Vietnam has cold and hot season, cold season is from November to April and hot season is from May to October. The temperature difference in South is only 3 C while it can be different 12 C in North. In Hanoi there are four distinct seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. But it is able to be divided into two main seasons: the rainy season from May to September (it’s hot, heavy rain), and the dry season from October to April (it’s cold, little rainfall). The annual average temperature is 23.2oC, but in winter the average temperature is 17.2oC.
I highlighted above statement because it’s not advisable to visit Sapa when there is heavy rain. You need to jungle trek and walk at least 12 to 20 km per day up and down. So my advice is PLEASE do not visit SAPA from May to September.

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Vietnam map showing tourist attractions.

sapa map
Sapa is at Lao Cai, very far north of Vietnam

Hanoi is in northen part and Ho chi Min in south. My guide said the food and accent is totally different.

We arrived at Hanoi on 1st October/ 2014. We have booked the hotels from Agoda and found out it’s much cheaper than booking via hotel owned website. Apart from that, when you book directly with hotel, they always have hidden charges like tax, for example, although they show the price is 80 us D per night, it can become 100 us D per night with tax.

Airport transfer

There is a shuttle bus ( number 7 ) which commute from airport to the tourist hub near Hoan Kiem Lake , and it will cost you less than 1 us D. But if you take taxi, it will cost you around 15 to 18 us Dollars as it’s 45 minutes drive for 20 km. You need to know the price as my friend was charged 30 us Dollars when he got the taxi from airport. I used to think the hotel charges more for airport pick up, but it turned out wrong. Taxi driver at airport charges you more and more than that, if they find it’s difficult to reach hotel, they might charge you extra at the end of destination although they agree with lower price in the beginning.
If you intend to shop in Hanoi, the best place to stay is the hotels near Hoan Kiem Lake. For me, the lake is not particularly special , it’s muddy water and you can see illegal fishermen fishing there. But what’s special about the place is it’s the hub of the city, where you can see people playing chess, doing exercise, chatting, shopping, strolling, sightseeing and just sitting, doing nothing. It’s the gathering place of both locals and foreigners. You can have everything you want, food, post office, banks, massage parlor, hair dresser, pedicure and manicure, and gift shops.

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We stayed at the Hanoi Royal View hotel and it was a pleasant stay, it cost us only 40 us D per night, but they gave us spacious family room although we booked for two people.

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Hanoi Royal View hotel
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Hanoi Royal View hotel
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laptop is complimentary . Athough it’s old, it’s usable

What I noticed about Hanoi buildings is the architecture is really look like colonial building and gracious, but the space is narrow, there are plenty of building like 10x 60 feet which I see rarely in Malaysia. The reason is land is very expensive in Hanoi and they have to make use of the land, almost all buildings are more than double storey. I admire the hotels because although building is not spacious, they make the room very comfortable.

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building in Hanoi

For example, I stayed in another hotel which got excellent award in 2013, called Golden Land hotel. The hotel has 7th floor, but they also only have 7 rooms while they used ground floor has dining room and reception. The hotel staffs sleep on the floor while the guests go to bed, it’s pretty weird, but they are very friendly. For example, I needed to check in and print out document for my flight, they let me use their registration counter, and printer, but they didn’t charge me a cent. That was quite generous of them.

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Golden land hotel, 32 us D per night in 2014
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this hotel cost us only 32 us D per night, but it has jacuzzi

The streets of Hanoi are jammed with motor cycles which hardly abide the law. All of them are crossing roads at the same time from different directions. To make matter worse, a lot of foreigners like to hire the motorbike as it’s cheaper than taxi and they don’t know the roads quite well. Even tour guides teach the foreigners, “ do not stop and just run away when the police stop you” and I didn’t see many traffic police there. But I have to admit that the skill of motor bikes is admirable.

If you like to sightseeing without worry for crossing the roads, you can hire trishaws with around 80,000 ( 4 us D ) per hour, but you have to be specific where you want to go , otherwise, they just go round and round the same area.

Be careful of street sellers. They almost always increase price to tourists. I overheard locals scold the seller as they increase the price immediately when I ask for the price of some grapes. You just have to be careful and ask counteract question like “ it’s not 50,000, it’s only 30,000 Don right’ and they will only ask 30,000 Don. It just worked with me. Street sellers hardly know English, but they always type the price on their phone, but with sign language, you can always argue with them. My friend gave 500,000 Don to the banana seller and she only gave her back only 40,000 Don instead of 490,000 Don. She lied that she mistaken 500,000 as 50,000 which is bullshit. It doesn’t mean I don’t admire street sellers in Vietnam, I am so sure that they deserve to be paid well as they need to carry their loads on their shoulders whole day. But you just need to be careful so that you will not run into someone who might cheat.

Arts in Hanoi

Hanoi is the paradise for people who love arts. They have plenty of oil paintings and the quality of them is very good and they are amazingly cheap. Apart from art galleries, there are plenty of crafts made of bamboo, coconut, fabric, table cloth, embroideries and handbags. You have to look around first before you buy something. I have bought some small purse only with 1 US D ( 20,000 Don)and sling bag for only 2 us D ( 40.000 Don). When I went to Sapa, it’s even cheaper as they are the people who do stitching and embroidery. Their fabric are amazing, I bought very beautiful table cloth with only 10 us D ( 200,000 Don ) although the person asked me 20 us D. Rule of thumb is they might increase double or triple ( but not more than that, not like India ) and if you try to bargain with half of the price they ask, you are not wrong. But bottom line is you MUST bargain. For me, I have known the price as I surveyed the whole day and in the end, I found a shop which does not increase price much, so I did major buying there in dozens.
If you want to be amazed, please don’t miss to visit the Museum of Arts where you find plenty of modern arts, as well as wood carving, oil paintings, water color paintings. The museum is in the walking distance of Hoan Kien  Lake ( may be 15 to 20 minutes depending on your stamina)

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gallery of oil painting

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very famous painting of a girl called ” little Thuy” , mentioned in the text book, photo taken at art museum
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the sound of pestle, 1957, Gouache
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sculpture from ” Temple of Arts”
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modern arts displayed at the shop beside the street

Food at Hanoi

Hanoi has lots of food stalls and all are cheap. The diet is healthy, mostly soup and vegetables. They like pork a lot. But there are some Halal shops too. Someone wrote famous food at Hanoi and I had taken photographed. So I am going to post it here.

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yummy food made of sugar cane and meat. The waitress serve very well

The tripe to Sapa

Now, I want to tell you how to book for Sapa, so far, there are a lot of tour agents in Hanoi, so you don’t need to worry about these tours unless you want to make sure things are in order. You can always go there without booking and still can find lots of tour agencies which can offer you better price than you found in online booking ( in contrary, you must always book the hotel before you go there ).

Luckily we got useful information from our Vietnamese friend called Chung

He gave us a following link

http://goseasia.about.com/od/vietnamstopattractions/a/Hiring-A-Travel-Agency-In-Hanoi-Vietnam.htm

We went to Sapa with Vega travel tour. It is also recommended by trip adviser.

http://www.vega.travel.com/?f=North&op=8&p=9

To go to Sapa, we have to get a train from Hanoi and you have to be on train for overnight. It is arranged by our tour agency and if I am not mistaken , we have given to tour agency around 120 us D  ( I have already forgotten the details of price as I am writing this after 2 years of traveling. This remind me I should take note and write blog as soon as I travel ). The train is comfortable and you can sleep on it as there are two double beds in one carriage. You can also charge the phone in the carriage.  Believe, it’s the best to go via tour agency because we calculated on our own if we go without tour agency and it’s much more expensive. It might probably because tour agents get discount train tickets and hotels .

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the berths on the train. They are our travel partners. Obviously, they took the difficult trekking as they are young and fit

The link for railway station is here

https://vietnam-railway.com/train/touristtrainstosapa?gclid=CKL56PDfrs0CFdIXaAod0mcA3w

sleeping berths on the train

The train ride is very long and there is nothing much to do at night . We met two lovely ladies from USA who are daughter and mother. Daughter is a college student studying English literature and she wants to become an author one day. Her mother is very youthful  and told us many interesting stories about America which we truly enjoyed.

The train has toilets, they are just ok, but not so clean. You can also order food from the restaurant in the train. We have been frequently checked at certain stations by the train wardens whether we have ticket or not. SO please make sure you keep your ticket in hand.

When I arrived at Sapa, I finally realized I need to walk 12-25 KM trekking per day. I was shocked because I didn’t know it before hand. Finally, I demanded I would not be able to walk 20 km per day and if I walk with other tourists in group, they will be disappointed as I am going to be slow. I was also surprised because I booked the tour for only two of us and realized I had to go with a group who were all under 30. My concern is I didn’t want to slow them down because of my snail pace hiking.  At first, they asked us 30 us D per each extra for a tour guide . But I have already seen a lot of local guides hanging around and I told them it’s not fair if they want to take advantage on locals as one local girl asked me only 10 us D to accompany me. AT last, they gave up on squeezing money from me as I told them I am going to write bad review about them on trip adviser. haha.

We had a refreshment at the hotel in the town and head for trekking with the help of local guides while our original group went along with the tour agency guide. However, I am so thankful that I went separately because these local tour guides were very caring ( except the time they demanded you to buy things from them ). At last I realize they want to accompany us as their villages are in the mountains and they expect us to buy things from them.

start of journey, building in the town

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the view from the motel in the town
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church in Sapa

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City square for performances. The architecture of the houses are influenced by French and China. The land price is up to 1 million for 200 meter

 

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All of them followed us. My tour guide pressed her forehead with buffalo horn covered with herbs to cure herself from headache. They use a lot of herbal medicine too.
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beginning of trekking near local market. They have fresh fruits and a lot of massage parlors which are quite good there.

We decided not to go down to use the hard way that is using the earth lane. Instead we only use tarred road which is easier to walk. But at some areas, these tour guides helped us to use short cut which we had to go down and used small and difficult lanes for short distance.

The weather is favorable and it is a bit cool. So walking does not make us tired. Here, you can see lots of plantations in the mountains which is quite breathtaking.And the most fascinating thing is these rice fields have been there since 2500 years ago.

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I love the mountains in the clouds
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we are so ready to walk
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more mountains and some wild flowers

There, our local tour guide showed us one interesting thing which is plantation of ” Marijuana” which is illegal in most countries. They explained that government just allowed to use the stems which are used in weaving, but not allow to use the leaves which can be consumed as leisure. So we questioned them, how can government check they don’t use the leaves and just use the stems, they were just grinning.  Here is the photos of Marijuana plants

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the stem of the plant which used in making clothes

Sometimes, I am also amazed at the way the Vietnamese manage to do plantations at highland.

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Sometimes we passed through lakes with ducks swimming inside.

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We also passed through the plantations of fruits such as peach .The road is surrounded by bamboos and trees, and it is quite shady.

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this is not a usual trekking. This is an easy way  for a sloth like me who can’t hike difficult trekking. 

On the way, we could see very beautiful wild flowers too

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and also some plantations and interesting houses

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persimmon/ peach trees
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they grow vegetable on the roof

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After awhile, the tour guides left us and picking up some leaves from the plantation and they came back with some beautiful handy craft

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the heart made of leaves and it’s for me
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we walked on

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At one point, we needed to use short cut to make our journey faster. I was very scared of falling down as my feet were wobbly.

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Our guides were very helpful and helped me to steady my feet.

We passed through the river, bridge also.

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It was not a tough trek , but it was not easy either to walk for ten km and luckily the tour arranged for us to have a delicious meal at a restaurant near the river.

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After that the girls nagged us to buy all the fabrics from them as the village is theirs and they went quickly back to their houses and tried to sell us. It’s up to the level we could not tolerate or even felt irritated. But we really owed them a lot for walking with us, and I tried to give them free pocket money as their items were pricey. Finally we had to buy some souvenirs from them.

But around that village, the houses were displaying hand made blanket and they are so beautiful.

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I bought one of them with very reasonable price . Then the girls left us and we had to continue the journey with our tour guide Cong. He is a very jovial person and we had a good time chatting on the way.

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The above is my friend Sumie and she was wearing a bright color jacket. At one point, we were quite distant from our tour guide and not any villagers near us. We came across some buffaloes. As she was wearing the bright color, they stared intensely at us. The buffaloes have big horns. We were so scared of them and had to run up the hill and walked across the muddy paddy field which was quite slippery. I almost fell down although it was quite fun. Please don’t wear too bright color if you go to Sapa.

Then we were approaching the village we were supposed to stay and my feet started to have blisters partly because I needed to buy a new trekking shoes and as usual, they were quite tight.

So our tour guide called a bike who passed by and asked him to give me a lift to certain point. It was a thrilling experience as the bike drove through very small lanes with stairs, uneven pavement with all dogs, ducks, buffaloes, and pigs walking around. I was quite worried the bike would fall, but the boy who drove the bike managed to send me to my destination without any accident.

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I passed through this road with motor bike, lol

We stayed at a homestay at the river bank which is 14 km from Sapa. We woke up with the sounds of flowing river and the chirps of various birds. My guide said there are bears , deer and snakes in the near by forest

We slept at the house who belongs to a quiet couple with a playful son. It was all arranged by the tour company and we were happy with it as it was not a commercialized hotel nor a motel. As it was the real house belongs to a local, we could observe the life style of a typical Vietnamese. The house was situated at the fringe of the river which was flowing beautifully. The lady cooked very delicious meal composed of 4 or 5 dishes. It was very yummy especially after a long trekking and a shower. They do not have facility like hot shower or air conditioner. But it was fine and we didn’t need air con as the weather was cool. We woke up with sounds of bubbling river , rosters , hens and ducks quacking. And above all, we were so happy with our breakfast near the river.

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simple breakfast with pancakes and fruits. Look at happy face of traveler

The guide was quite tired and he was keen to sleep off his day. He told us to explore on our own and we were happy with the plan as there was a river and a waterfall near by.

 

But interesting part is there were two little girls who observed us from the bridge and later they joined us. At first, they wanted to see the key chains . My friends bought it. But after selling, they still wanted to hover around us and offered us to guide to the water fall. I think they are best friends who live near by. They ran on the bridge like little goats. The sun rays fell on their faces. It was a lovely sight.

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Aren’t they beautiful

These kids are very adorable. They guided us as if they were professional tour guide. They were so small but handed their hands to hold me when I almost fell. My friend laughed. I might have dragged them down if I fell. They were amazingly kind .  It was quite slippery to hike the mountain. At the summit, we saw a shed . We had a rest in it and took photographs for the kids. They were so happy to see their photos again and again. They squealed with delight and giggled nonstop whenever we showed them their photos. I wish I could have printed out some of their photos with us and given to them.

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Later, the children made crowns for us, using flowers and leaves from the bushes near by. They were really generous and kind.

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they made this crown for me, can you see the little monkey behind me? 🙂 kids like to climb up and down waterfall, we were worried for them

At the summit, I could see the whole view of villages. The peace permeated me. I was just contented and happy.

After we came back, we climbed down the bank and sat near the river. We dangled our feet into the icy river and observed someone fishing. We were tempted to swim, but didn’t dare as the current was strong.

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near the river bank
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the bridge across the river
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the river with strong current

We lazed on the boulder and tried to observe the whole atmosphere and nature. The leaves fell on us, we could hear the water flow through pebbles. It was heavenly. I love everything about Sapa and hope I would go back one day and meet these two little angels again.

thank you so much for reading.

 

 

 

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