Vietnam – Hanoi, Halong Bay & Sapa

October 9, 2017

In October there is a big holiday here in Hong Kong called the mid-autumn festival, so Zane got a week off work and since I wasn’t starting my job here until after the holiday, we decided to go away to Vietnam for the week! 

Vietnam had never been on my radar as a top destination I wanted to travel to for some reason, but when we first arrived in Hanoi I was seriously blown away! Vietnam is SO cool! I love the fusion of Asian culture mixed with French colonial history, I was not expecting that and you can see it everywhere in the architecture.

My first impression once we got off the plane and were cabbing to our hotel in the old quarter of Hanoi was that I couldn’t believe how many motorbikes there were, and I was shocked at how many people would cram onto one bike and weave like crazy in and out of traffic. Literally entire families would fit onto one bike and just buzz about the city, it was crazy! Once we got to our hotel and started walking on the streets, my fascination of the motorbikes turned into literal fear haha – I was so scared I would get hit! General rules of driving seem like they don’t apply in Hanoi, and the bikes come up so fast and so close to you, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to stop. But they always do, and eventually you get used to walking the crowded streets with them. Our first day we took it easy and just walked around exploring the old quarter of Hanoi. We went and had egg coffee (my first time) and WOW that stuff is delicious! 

On our second day we drove to Halong Bay to board a boat we would be staying on for the next three days and two nights. The boat was beautiful! Our room was a corner room and had windows covering two walls, which made it feel like we were in a tropical snow globe! We would lie on our bed and watch Halong Bay float by all around us.

Highlights from the boat include making our own spring rolls one night; attempting a shot of Vietnam’s infamous rice wine (I could barely get mine down, so gross!); drinking champagne while watching the sunset; dancing to live music at night; hiking and exploring some islands during the day; touring an oyster farm to see how pearls are made; visiting a floating village; and just good, fun and peaceful times relaxing on the top deck of the boat while enjoying the gorgeous views all around us. My favourite part of the boat trip was definitely watching the beautiful sunsets over Halong Bay from the top deck. 

After the boat we made our way back to Hanoi and took an incredibly bumpy and noisy overnight train to Sapa. Very little sleep was had, but totally worth it to get to Sapa.

When we arrived the next morning it was cloudy and rainy (typical for Sapa), and we were a little nervous about not being able to experience the mountains and views. Lucky for us the sun started peaking out right as we got to our hotel and the views were breathtaking! Huge mountains all around us dotted with rice paddy fields. We checked ourselves in and then went to explore the town. The town reminded me a bit of a European mountain town, but with a heavy Asian flare. It was really cool!

On the second day we woke up early and watched the sun come up over the mountains and light up the valley below from our hotel balcony, it was magical! Then we were off on a motorbike tour with the people from Ethos.

I want to say a few things about Ethos because I am so happy we chose them as our tour company for the two tours we did while there. Ethos creates adventures for tourists while supporting the local minority tribal people. All the tours are done by local guides who have lived in Sapa for generations and who are still living their traditional way of life. They have such a vast knowledge of the area and are very unique in that they still really do follow their traditional way of living, which unfortunately is being threatened. The biggest threat to them is actually tourism – the problem is tourists who go to these areas and none of the money they spend goes back to the local tribal people. A big threat is actually the building of trams that go straight up to the tops of the mountains, and thus bypass any need for a local guide to take you up. Our guides were telling us that tourists can be very good for them if the tourists use the local people as guides and support companies which support them. Ethos has so may initiatives with the locals that goes beyond providing work for them – they have various health initiatives, support youth in attending school, protect young girls from sex trafficking (which is apparently a big problem in the area for the H’mong people) and much more. It really made me think about what it means to be a “responsible” and conscious tourist. You can check them out here. Ok rant over, I love Ethos! And if you ever visit Sapa, go on one or a bunch of their tours.

So back to our motorbike tour. Our guides were two women from one of the surrounding tribes. They got us all geared up and took us each on the back of a motorbike to explore the mountains of Sapa. These women were so kind! They showed us the most beautiful parts of Sapa and stopped vaiours spots along the way to either have a snack to admire a view. We really saw it all on that day trip, from the highest, coldest mountains to the most hot and humid rice fields, and some caves in between. The majority of the time was spent sight-seeing on the motorbike, but we also stopped to meet with a local family in their home and see their village, ate lunch at a local restaurant, saw some waterfalls, and explored some caves.

The caves were really cool. I had never been inside a cave that was so big before! It seriously seemed to never end. And it was DARK! All we had were our flashlights. I was a little scared of bats though because I could see so many of them whenever I would shine my flashlight up, and then Zane tried to tell me that bats don’t bite. Ya right! Haha.

After the caves we made our way back home as the sun was setting and the air was getting colder. I’ll never forget the feeling of biking through those giant mountains, and feeling so small (in the best way) in comparison. I loved being completely surrounded by all that nature and fresh air. 

The next day we did another tour with Ethos, but this time it was a hiking tour. We had a different guide this day and she was from one of the tribes who live in the mountain villages.

Before we started our hike we went to the farmers market to pick out food for lunch. We were going to eat at the home of a family that our guide knew, so we needed to bring enough food for everyone. I loved the market! It was a big, bustling outdoor farmers market with locals and farmers selling all kinds of produce and meat, some of which was still alive! Talk about fresh! Haha. 

After the farmers market we started off on our hike, which took us up through the mountain villages, passing by homes, rice paddy terraces, water buffalo, little kids playing, and the most beautiful scenery. After a couple hours of hiking we finally reached the family’s home who we would be sharing our meal with. This family had the two cutest little kids, a brother and sister, and they were so fun and entertaining to watch. It took about an hour to prepare lunch and I loved being able to watch them prepare it in their own home, over an open fire pit. We didn’t speak the same language so it was hard to communicate but it was still a wonderful experience and our guide did some translating for us. The lunch we had was AMAZING. It wasn’t anything crazy either – we had chicken and then some vegetable dishes. I’m not sure what went into it all or how it was prepared exactly, but it was the best food I had in Vietnam. It was also my first time having persimmon and I fell in love with that fruit. The family shared their rice wine with us after lunch too which was super kind, and then it was back to hiking.

It started to rain on the second part of our hike, which made it extra tricky since this was the decent. We were climbing down a gigantic, mountain-side rice paddy when the rain decided to really come down and we maybe slid in the mud half way down and hiked the rest. We were seriously covered in mud haha. It was really funny because there was really nothing we could do to prevent it so you just had to embrace falling in the mud and laugh at yourself. I still regret not getting a picture of Zane and I at the end of that hike. We were totally covered head to toe in mud. When we reached the bottom our guide took us to her house and we met her daughter and enjoyed a warm rice treat that her mother-in-law had just made before we headed back to our hotel.

After we got back to the hotel, we had time to shower and relax a bit. We had some wine and enjoyed the view, and then it was time to go. We boarded another overnight train and arrived back in Hanoi the next morning. We walked around Hanoi some more, did some shopping, and found the cutest little restaurant for lunch. It was down a narrow street in an old French colonial looking building. We sat near an open bay window overlooking the street, it was really, really pretty! It felt like we were back in time or in an old movie.

For our last night we did a really fun and delicious food tour! Our guides name was Mango and she was just a big ball of happy energy. She took us around on motorbikes to so many different restaurants and food stands. I got to try my hand at making a rice crepe, and one of my favourites was a plate of different kinds of dumplings. We were so stuffed and satisfied by the end of that tour. It was a great last night in Vietnam.

 Below are some pictures from all parts of our trip, taken mostly by Zane and edited in Lightroom by me! I’m testing out my new presets with these photos so bear with me while I get used to it 🙂