Our overland trip from Muang Khua in Laos to Sapa in Vietnam goes down as our worst travel day thus far. The journey consisted of:
- A full 24 hours of traveling (from 5:30 AM until 5:30 AM the next day) on two different “buses”
- Chris and I literally jumping out of a window because our first bus (pictured below) caught on fire
- Sitting in a super crammed minibus (50 people shoved into a bus made for 24) for 12 hours while enduring the various smells and bare feet of every person onboard
- Waiting an hour on the side of the road along a steep cliff at 10 PM because a truck’s trailer came off and was blocking the road
- Stopping at a roadside restaurant filled with live caged birds at 11:30 PM for dinner…yucky!
Exhausted and completely grossed out from our overland adventure, we were finally dropped off at the center of town at 5:30 AM. We found a great guesthouse which let us check in early and used their amazing shower to cleanse ourselves from our journey.
Sapa is in northern Vietnam (roughly 38 kilometers from China) at the foothills of the Himalayas and is known for its mountain scenery, rice terraces and local villages. Our first day was spent relaxing and walking around town eating pho bo (beef noodle soup) and fresh spring rolls. The next morning, we walked down to Cat Cat village to check out the views and see the local people. About a third of the cute Vietnamese children sported Donald Duck attire (shirts but no pants). We made it to the bottom of the mountain where there was a pretty waterfall and cultural show put on by the local people. During the last song, Chris participated by dancing with the ladies. The next day, instead of signing up for an organized tour to visit some nearby villages, we talked to a young lady on the street and paid her to be our guide for the day. Her name was Soo and she was H’mong. We followed Soo for 2.5 hours through the mountainsides and rice terraces to her village of Lao Chai. The hike was breathtaking. Rice terraces lined the mountains as far as you could see. It was so pretty and unlike any other landscape we’ve seen before. We finally reached Soo’s village where we stopped at a hut to pick up some meat and veggies for our lunch. I don’t want to know how long the pork had been sitting outside in the heat on that piece of cardboard. After chopping off a few chunks with a machete and gathering the rest of our food supplies, we left in search of Soo’s house. Soo was 17 years old when she had her son. She’s now 20 years old and lives with her husband in a hut on the hillside over their village. The hut is about 10×10 feet and has just two rooms covered by a tin roof. The walls are made of bamboo and the floor is a smoothed rock. If you huffed and puffed, you could probably blow her house down. We took in our surroundings and watched as dogs, chickens, naked babies and villagers stopped by Soo’s house for a visit. We wanted an authentic village experience and we definitely got one.
Soo lit a fire on the ground in the middle of the house to boil some water. She sliced, diced, prepped and cooked us lunch while taking care of her baby and entertaining us. We were full after a tasty meal of sliced pork and chilis, potatoes, scrambled egg, rice and greens. Our first home-cooked meal since Australia was delicious and totally hit the spot! We continued our hike past her village to another village called Ta Van. Again, the rice terraces were amazing! Truly beautiful. Once we reached Ta Van, it was time to say goodbye to Soo. She was an amazing tour guide and from what we could tell from our time with her, a great wife and mother as well. She arranged for two motorbikes to drive us back to Sapa. The 15 minute motorbike ride through the rice terraces while the sun was setting was so gorgeous. The village trek was definitely the highlight of Sapa and was definitely worth the horrible travel experience we endured to get there!We spent one more night and day in Sapa before catching our overnight train to Hanoi. We talked to several other travelers who didn’t have the nicest things to say about Vietnam’s capital city, but as soon as Chris and I stepped out of the train station, we both loved Hanoi. There are nearly eight million people living in they city and 3.8 million motorbikes on the roads. The traffic is ridiculous! It is a chaotic mess and prime for people watching. We loved sitting on the street corners watching the street hawkers, bicyclists and motorscooters whiz by carrying everything imaginable. One guy we saw was carrying five kegs on his tiny motorbike. We were also super excited to be in Hanoi because that is where we planned to meet Chris’ brother, Andy, who will travel with us for the next three weeks through Vietnam! After 32+ hours of travel across 11 timezones, Andy finally arrived from Atlanta bearing gifts of reduced fat Cheezits for me. What an amazing brother-in-law! Upon his arrival, we hit the streets to introduce Andy to bia hoi (fresh draft beer) for 25 cents a glass. Even though the streets are jammed packed during the day, they were completely deserted after 11PM when we walked home. It’s another world at night.We spent the next day walking around the city getting Andy acclimated to the humid weather and drastic time change. We also took him on a food tour of the city. Hanoi street food is amazing. Everywhere you look there are street stalls and food hawkers selling something tasty. We ate pho bo, fried cheese sticks, doughnuts, fresh baguettes and drank Vietnamese coffee (which is incredibly strong). It was all so good and so cheap. The following morning, we were picked up by reps from Aclass Opera for our two night/three day cruise through Halong Bay. We arrived in Halong Bay City and were ferried over to the Aclass Opera cruise ship anchored in the bay. We were welcomed with towelettes and a cold drinks (sweet tea of all things!) as our boat set off from the harbor.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was also named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” last year. We caught our first glimpse of Halong Bay’s 2,000 limestone formations from the observation deck. Our room was a little crammed because we decided to all stay together so they squeezed a twin bed into the room along with the queen bed. The clean sheets, swanky robes and the spotless bathroom (which was equipped with a rain drop shower head and a regular shower head) made up for the lack of space. We sat down in the dining room for lunch and experienced what would be the first of many delicious meals on board. Every time we ate we were presented with a three-course meal featuring a different soup, seafood and various main dishes served all-you-can-eat family style.
Once our bellies were full, a dinghy took us to a floating village for some kayaking. It was late afternoon when the dinghy brought us to an island for a quick hike and bird’s eye view of Halong Bay – it was so pretty! This part of the bay is the calmest and most protected from the wind so all of the tourist ships dock here for the night.Once we re-boarded our Aclass Opera boat, we took our complimentary wine to the outside deck to take in the scenery. After dinner was over, we tried our luck at squid fishing but failed to catch anything.
About 95% of the people on our boat left the next morning because they only booked a one night stay. We had a whole other day to enjoy and woke up at 6AM to participate in the tai chi class on deck.With only five other people, we broke into pairs for a kayaking trip to explore some lagoons and two caves. Andy was paired with a girl from Kuala Lampur who was traveling alone. She couldn’t swim and had never kayaked before so Andy had his work cut out for him for the next 1.5 hours. Our boat took us to a private beach to snorkel and swim for a few hours. The visibility wasn’t great but it was cool to swim in Halong Bay and Andy spotted his first living starfish on the beach. The boys also spent some time jumping and doing flips off our boat into the bay. Lunch was served on the boat and it was just as good as the presentation – fried chicken, calamari, prawns, french fries, a whole baked fish, two different salads, spring rolls and fresh fruit. Mmmm…food coma!We hardly saw any other boats on this second day…it was just us and the karst limestone formations. It was so beautiful and peaceful. We relaxed on deck while our boat took us to a pearl farm and afterwards, to another island for a hike and more views of the bay.The weather in Halong Bay is almost always overcast so we were happy that our last day was pretty clear. We took the dinghy to a nearby cave which was nice but swarming with tourists. The best part was the views over the bay.Our last activity was a short cooking demonstration on how to make fried spring rolls. We spent our last few hours enjoying the scenery while the boat slowly made its way back to Halong City harbor for our transfer back to Hanoi. Our Halong Bay cruise is sure to be one of our highlights of Vietnam. It was so relaxing and truly amazing to cruise through the beautiful scenery for three days. The crew was incredibly nice (Andy is now best buddies with our day guide), the food was delicious and the accommodation was very comfortable. Most importantly, we all thought the itinerary was perfect – a great balance of activities and time to relax. We were really happy with Aclass Opera Cruise and would definitely recommend them if you are considering a trip to Halong Bay. We booked our cruise through a contact from GoAsiaTravel.com named Martin. He was very accommodating with our questions and made booking a breeze!
We had one more night and day in Hanoi and decided to start the day by visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We waited in the rain with masses (literally hundreds) of Vietnamese school children, passed through security, checked our camera (which are prohibited) and were finally funneled into the mausoleum and around the glass-enclosed body of the former leader of North Vietnam, Hoi Chi Minh. There is no coffin, just his body laying out in the open on a pillow surrounded by several Vietnamese guards. Although he has been dead since 1969, his body looks lifelike. For two months out of every year, his body is taken to Russia to have “work done.” He looks like a wax sculpture and some people think that his body has been replaced with a wax replica.
We made one more stop at the Temple of Literature for a look around before breaking for a delicious lunch of pho and spring rolls.The time finally came for us to pack up and leave Hanoi. We really loved northern Vietnam, especially the scenery in Sapa, the dizzying way of life and local food in Hanoi and the natural beauty of Halong Bay. From here, we take a night train south to Hue!
Disclosure: We received a trip discount on our Aclass Opera Cruise in exchange for sharing our experience. These thoughts and opinions are completely our own.