We flew into Hanoi and took a taxi to the hotel where we met our friends from the states! We had planned to meet up with some fellow ultimate frisbee players who had just winning Women’s College Nationals! It was a bit dicey getting to the hotel, and after literally walking in a circle 5 times, we finally found someone who knew where the hotel was.
The next day the 7 of us (big group woah) got the bus early to Ha Long Bay. We had booked a three day, two night trip on a boat through Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is on the coast of northern Vietnam and is full of karst limestone cliffs jutting out of the sea. It is probably the number one destination in Vietnam.
There were about 20 people on our boat for the first day and night of the cruise; most were nice polite humans, two were loud obnoxious high schoolers from SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. Wait, they weren’t high schoolers, it just felt like it… they were over 30. From the first moment they got on the bus in the morning they obnoxiously yelled at the bus driver saying the AC was not cold enough. It’s Hanoi, it’s fucking hot. Silly southern Californians.
Anyways, enough ranting. The bay was beautiful, but the cruise was a bit touristy. We were taken through a huge cave in one of the islands, kayaking, and a beach for 30 minutes swimming (not 31). The food on the boat was great and for the most part, all you can eat. That is… if you like what they give you.
At night we watched the beautiful sunset and snuck some rum into our cokes. By the end of dinner, the whole boat was having a great time, some more than others. The aforementioned Californians SHOCKINGLY handled their booze like high schoolers. One of them fell down the stairs going up to the sundeck, then puked. Then yelled at people for no reason.
Another highlight of the night actually came from another boat, literally. News spread around the boat quickly (only 25 people or so) that some guys had drunkenly swam over from another boat. Yup, they did. These Canadian guys told us their boat wasn’t fun and they got ripped off, so they decided to jump ship. The crew on our boat tried for about an hour to force them to leave… at one point brandishing a machete. We all did feel bad for the guys, they paid about 4 times what you should pay, and that really sucks. They were escorted off the boat in the end.
The next day our group jumped on a different boat for a ride further into Ha Long Bay to a beach with bungalows for the night. One of the more beautiful places I have ever slept.
Once we made it back from Ha Long Bay to Hanoi, we tried to figure out our next transport to Sapa (further north in Vietnam). We found out that we would have to take another dreadful night bus up to the little town in the mountains next to the Chinese border. GREAT. At this point in the trip we were a little crunched for time and didn’t want to waste any. So that night, we sadly said goodbye to our friends from the states and boarded the bus after dinner. It was a 12 hour journey officially. “Officially” doesn’t mean shit in Asia though, and after an accident and torrential downpours throughout the night on these mountain roads, we were stuck for 8 hours until everything was clear. So that’s how a 12 hour ride turns into 20. Arrived in time for dinner the next day.
Once that little nightmare was over, Sapa was WORTH IT. After 15 minutes in the mountains, it more than made up for our 20 hour journey. The temperature was down to about 18-20ºC (65-70ºF) making it the only place I didn’t sweat during the day in SE Asia. The town of Sapa overlooks an enormous river valley that has tons of tribal villages, houses, and rice terraces. I could sit the entire day and look out over that valley. Luckily, we pretty much did that for three days.
Our first full day there, we went hiking to some of the closer villages on our own. For one of the more touristy villages, they make you pay a tourist entrance fee. Funny thing is, this is Asia, and at this point we were veterans. So when the first guard at the gate realized we were walking through, he called out to us. We called back, “No, no, it’s okay. We are just walking this way.” Guard looks confused. We keep walking. Success. And that’s how you win in Asia. We spent the day saying hi to the villagers and farmers planting the rice fields, giving cookies to the kids, and taking pictures of the greenest place on earth.
The next morning we set out on our trekking homestay experience. We had gotten the number of one of the villagers, Chi, (yes, they have cell phones) from a friend at the hostel, so we just called her up and met her in the morning. She and her family led us up into the foggy mountains for an amazing hike through tea, corn, and hemp fields. We hiked about 17 km that day, stopping for lunch and a waterfall. Finally, we hiked up to Chi’s home in the afternoon. She lives in a dirt-floored home with a few rooms, and a terrace out front overlooking the entire valley! This was one of the best views of Sapa, and it was her view. We were just lucky enough to see it once. We spent the afternoon talking, watching the kids play on their water buffalos, helping out with dinner, and learning about the village.
That night Chi cooked a delicious dinner for us. Her kitchen is a recessed area in one of the rooms where they build the fire and have a rack over the recess. We had a few dishes consisting of rice, noodles, chicken, and beef. Her husband also made sure we drank plenty of the local “happy water.” When a man who is housing you and doesn’t speak english offers you a drink, you drink. As many as he gives you. At the end of the night, we climbed up into the loft where Chi has beds set up for trekkers, and slept. The happy water worked it’s magic.
The next day we set out early back to the “big city.” We were tired from our trek the day before, but the views over the valley made us forget whatever discomfort we felt. We took a less traveled route back to the hostel. We took some showers, and literally that night we took the night bus to the Laos border.
Overall, this was our favorite experience in Vietnam and left us loving the country and it’s people.
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