Saturday, December 25, 2010

Northern Vietnam

I'm going to break up my blog entries for Vietnam into two parts mainly because the route we are taking to explore Southeast Asia. This entry will cover what we have been up to for the first 10 days that we have spent in northern Vietnam. We didn't really have much of a plan for Southeast Asia when we landed in Vietnam but quickly determined that we didn't allow for enough time. We only allotted just under a month for Southeast Asia and didn't really include Thailand except that we planned on flying from Bangkok to India. Our current plan for Southeast Asia is that we'll spend 10 days in northern Vietnam then cross into neighboring Laos for 9 nights then back into Vietnam to spend time in the middle and southern sections of the country before going to Cambodia and Thailand. We plan on leaving Vietnam on 14th of January which is the day our visas expire.

The first 5 days that we spent Vietnam were in the capital of Hanoi. We didn't really begin the sightseeing until the third day. We spent the 1st two days resting from our 24 hours of traveling from Cape Town then we mapped out our Southeast Asia and Vietnam itineraries. We then spent time with the staff at our hotel who helped us quite a bit.

Hanoi itself is an interesting town. It is busy with mopeds and motorcycles driving around everywhere not paying that much attention to whatever driving laws that they may have on the books but at the same time it is a more laid back country than what we have visited so far in this part of world. In China it was chaotic and people often came across as pushy, rude, and you seemed more like a bother to them. In Vietnam everyone we've encountered has been very nice and we've been treated like true guests. It definitely makes you want to stay longer and participate in more activities when you realize there isn't going to be too much of a hassle factor to deal with.

Ho Chi Mihn's mausoleum

Some of the more interesting things that did was visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museums and then a water puppet show. The Ho Chi Minh complex included the mausoleum including Ho's embalmed body, his living area, and a museum. The mausoleum for me was the most interesting. We first had to get in line which wasn't long at all but had to stop at one point to check our backpacks then stop at another spot to check our cameras but we could keep our cell phones. We then had to get in two single file lines and walk into a large concrete structure that housed his body. I had one guard get on to me for wearing my sunglasses which I had to take off and another guard got on to me for having my hands behind my back which I thought was weird. You eventually walk in to a chamber with the body. He looked a little pale but otherwise ok considering that he passed away in I believe 1969. The mausoleum itself was free but the two other areas cost 15,000 VND a piece which is less than a dollar.

Next interesting thing we did was a water puppet show. The water puppets are on paddles or ropes and tell some type of story relating to Vietnamese culture. It was interesting even if I didn't know what was going on. It lasted about 45 minutes and we sat in the second row in 1st class seats which didn't cost that much. The auditorium itself was pretty full and there are multiple showings per day. Apparently, it a popular thing to do in Vietnam.

Other activities that we pursued in Hanoi were just wondering around the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the Naturally History Museum, and Hoa Lo Prison otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. The Hanoi Hilton was somewhat interesting. Unfortunately two thirds of it were torn down in the 1990's but they have turned a small portion of it into a museum. The prison had been use long before the Vietnam War but was an infamous place where US POWs including Senator John McCain were held and tortured. There was a decent amount of propaganda for some of the US exhibits that made things looked better than what it really was.

After 5 nights in Hanoi we spent 5 nights outside of Hanoi. The first activity that we did was go to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a 4 hour drive from Hanoi to the coast. There are several somewhat sharp limestone hills that stick out of the water making it a very scenic attraction. It was a little overcast and cool during our stay though. We spent one night on the boat which was pretty decent. We went to a cave and Alethea went kayaking for about 45 minutes during the first day. Later on in the evening we did some karoke that wasn't always pretty but we had a good time. The next morning we hiked up Tee Top Island to get a better view of the bay before our final activity which was a spring roll cooking demonstration. I got to roll my own roll and ate a couple afterwards.

Limestone hills of Halong Bay
Our final activity in northern Vietnam was to go to the mountain town of Sapa. To get to Sapa we had to take an overnight train from Hanoi which we took the night after we got back from Halong Bay. The train was uneventful and I slept pretty good. We arrived at 5:30 am then took a hour van ride from the train station to the town itself even though the lady in the van told us it would only be 15 minutes. We then checked into our hotel and cleaned up before going on a trek to a local village starting around 9:30 am. We hike around 3 km to a village called Cat Cat. Oddly enough you have to pass by a gate and buy a ticket to enter. The village was pretty poor and when we got to the waterfall at the village there was souvineer shops and places to eat. We were going to watch some traditional dancing but there was no electricity running at the moment so they couldn't dance in the building. Guess the old time dancers needed electricity :-). We then hiked backed in a loop to our hotel. We were back around noon and ate lunch in our hotel. The food at our hotel was very good. The staff at our hotel were nice and took good care of us. The name of the hotel was the Sapa Eden. We spent the afternoon walking around Sapa. It is a town that is pretty much dedicated to tourism and could be called a Gatlinburg type town. We walked through the local market seeing all kinds of food for sale. We also noticed that there were several shops selling North Face backpacks and jackets for the most part. There has to be a plant close by and even then I believe a lot of it was counterfeit. One funny thing we saw while roaming around town were some pigs that were being herded down one of the main streets.

getting a little help while hiking in Sapa

The next morning we checked out of our room and began the second half of the Sapa adventure. The second day of our adventure including a hike to a local village and then spending the night in what is called a village home stay. For our hike we met up with two other individuals and our guide. We hiked out of town for a couple kilometers on a paved road before getting off onto a trail that took us through the rice terrace fields, streams, and valleys. For some reason we talked our guide into taking the longer trail which was 15 kilometers but was supposed to be more scenic and less traveled. It was definitely less traveled as we saw no other westerners. It was somewhat scenic but it started to rain over half way through. The path was kind of rough at some points. We relied on the band of local women that tagged along with us to help us through some of the rough muddy parts. It wasn't always an enjoyable hike. We did tip our helpers 100,000 VND or $5 USD when we made it to the village. We ended up staying in the village of Va Tan in what amounts to a two story barn that was set up for the purpose of home stays. We met other couples that were traveling from France, Italy, England, along with our fellow hikers from Germany and Romania. We had a good time drinking tea and eating dinner before heading out the next day. In the morning we hiked along a road to a small village and small waterfall before getting lunch. After lunch we had a jeep take us back to our hotel where we spent a couple hours taking showers and washing then drying some of our gear before our night train back to Hanoi.

Alethea bundled up by the Christmas tree @ our hotel in Sapa

In all I enjoyed our time in north Vietnam. It has been a pleasant start to this part of our trip. The people have been helpful and friendly. The food has been good and just about everything we've done has been cheap. Before wrapping this part of the journey up I'l like to say thanks and speak positively of Hanoi Old Center Hotel. They were very helpful in planning and booking our Hanoi itinerary. They made everything go very smoothly. I would recommend looking them up if you are ever in Hanoi.

This wraps up the first half of Vietnam. We fly into Laos on Christmas Eve and will be there until just after New Year's before flying back into Hanoi and taking an overnight train down to the central and southern sections of Vietnam. Hope everyone has a happy holidays!

Link to photo albums:

Daily Log:

Tuesday December 14th
Flew 10 hours from Cape Town, South Africa to Kuala Lumpur. Got to fly on a 747 for the first time. Wasn't that comfortable and you feel the turbulence more in the back. Lost 6 hours with the time zone change. Only slept 20 to 30 minutes.
Was in KL for about 3 hours. Napped for a hour or so.
Flew from Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi. Flight was 3 hours 25 minutes. Slept for a hour.
Arrived in Hanoi and got a our visa. Kind of expensive at $50 but process was smooth
Met our driver after a few minutes and rode 30 minutes to hotel
Because of construction moved to another sister hotel. Hanoi Guesthouse. Nice room. Only $20 US per night includes free wi-fi and breakfast.
Took shower and nap for 2 hours.
Walked to local recommended place for dinner. Had Pho. Only cost $8 for two bowls and 2 large beers.
Came back to hotel and got online.

Wednesday December 15th
Spent day planning at hotel.
Ate dinner at local place including 2 draft beers for only $7.50
xmas shopped for family within 15 minutes online

Thursday December 16th
Woke up @ 8 am, ate breakfast, worked on trip planning until around 3 pm, ate lunch @ 24Pho, returned to hotel and worked on trip planning. Taking a long time time. Trying to map out 4 countries over a 2 month time frame. Went to dinner at nice place down the street. Little touristy and more expensive than the first few meals but not too bad. Dinner was under $12.

Friday December 17th
Woke up @ 8 am
Ate breakfast
Dropped off laundry at breakfast
Try to exchange VND for USD but two banks said no and that banks in Hanoi don't do this. Walked back to hotel and they said they would arrange for us to get $500.
Walked around old quarter including market.
Walked to lake and old temple in lake
Walked by Hanoi Opera House
Ate lunch at Museum Cafe. Bill was $265 K instead of $225, gotta be careful with Vietnam food bills, two have been off by over 20%. Food was good though.
Went to Vietnam Natural History Museum. Not bad.
Went to water puppet show. Lasted 45 minutes. Popular thing to do in Hanoi. It was ok but neat.
Back to hotel.

Saturday December 18th
Woke up @ 7 am and ate breakfast
Took taxi to Ho Chi Min complex, supposed to have been 40 K, was 75 K ($3.50)
Visited Ho Chi Min's Masoleum – this part was free, had to check backpack at one station, then camera at another station, had to enter in to two single file lines, got in trouble with guards the first time for wearing sun glasses & the second time for having hands together behind my back. Saw his embalmed body, not bad – little pale
Walked next door and saw his house on stilts, used cars
Saw HCM museum
Left complex and walked over to Temple of Knowledge after a little misdirection (lost) streets are not clearly marked on street.
Visited Temple of Knowledge for about 30 minutes.
Ate lunch at KOTO ( Bill Clinton once ate there too while President
Walked a few blocks over to Hoa Lo Prison or Hanoi Hilton as it was known by US POWs. Saw Senator McCain's flight suite that he was captured in.
Walked back to hotel
Stopped and “bought” “North Face Backpack” for $10, originally $20.
Mailed postcard to Doug of Ho Chi Min
Reviewed bookings and itinerary with front desk staff and then paid the bill. Wasn't too bad.

Sunday December 19th
Halong Bay – left @ 8:30 am
Arrived @ 12:30 pm
Boat took about 1 hour to get to final spot
Took tour of a cave
Alethea went kayaking.
Did karoke with an English family

Monday December 20th
Halong Bay cont'd
Did spring roll demonstration
Arrive in Hanoi @ 16:30
Took shower and repacked for Sapa
Took overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa – train left right on time @ 21:10

Tuesday December 21st
Arrive right on time @ 5:30 am
Told we had a 15 minute van ride to Sapa. Turned out to be exactly 1 hour. Good thing I used the bathroom before we left.
Checked into hotel and ate breakfast
9:30 – treked 3-4 km to village of Cat Cat, very poor, saw pigs, Alethea spoke to one girl who was 22 but looked 15, had 2 kids . Said couldn't have more.
Back by noon
In the afternoon we walked around Sapa. Nice touristry town
Walked through market, girls trying to sell us stuff but were nice
Saw Catholic church
Saw pigs being herded, good food at hotel
Saw numerous counterfeit North Face stores.

Wednesday December 22nd
Left @ 9:30
Took motorcycle without helmets to top of town to begin our hike. Started hike with Monica from Romania and Carl from Germany
Hike 15 km to Lao Cai. Small women helped us to step in the right places and helped us from being covered in mud. The hike was a little rough and was through a valley and rice terraces.
Tipped woman helper 100 K VND or $5 USD
Ate lunch around 2 pm
Checked in at homestay around 4 pm.
Alethea washed the bottom of my pants and shoes since they were very muddy
Drank tea . Ate dinner ~ 6 pm including some local rice wine shots/toasts
Bed ~ 9 pm

Thursday December 23rd
Breakfast @ 9 am
Hiked on road to a village and waterfall ~ 5 km
Ate lunch 12:30 pm
1:30 took Jeep 10 km on rough road back to Sapa
Went back to hotel, showered, and washed/dried clothes, and got online
Took van back to train station ~ 1 hour
Ate dinner at local restaurant by train station
Boarded train.
Train left on time

Friday December 24th
Arrived in Hanoi around 5:15 am
Couldn't find greet at first. Found greeter who waived a taxi down for us.
Came back to hotel, took nap nap for a couple hours in a room
Ate breakfast, repacked our backs, got online
Left for airport around 3:15 pm. Ride was 15 minutes early which seems to be the norm which isn't a bad thing.