After finishing the loop in Tha Kaek it was time to plan my onward journey to Vietnam. My visa for Vietnam started on 1 May and I returned from the loop on 2 May. I went straight to the bus terminal to check the busses going to Vietnam and discovered various options. There is a direct minibus to Hanoi which leaves every other day or so but it takes 17 hours. After having been on one for more than 9 hours previously, I decided that I couldn't do 17 hours one a minibus. There was also a bus going to Vinh which is in the north and not too far away from Hanoi (well not so far means probably about 10 hours). I decided to take the bus at 8pm. I went back to the bus station later that night. The tuk-tuk driver was in no hurry and went to the market first to pick up his wife and all her stock, after that he went to the petrol station and then eventually to the bus terminal. There was no need to hurry because as soon as I arrived I was told that there is no bus to Vinh tonight but
that there is one to Hue. Okay, I thought that's better than nothing and decided to take it. Whilst waiting I got hassled by an old drunk Vietnamese guy who was also waiting for the bus to Hue (lucky me!). He kept following me around which got a bit annoying and also a bit creepy as there was a power cut and we basically sat in the dark. He later puked all over himself. Great! The bus finally arrived after an 2 hour delay and I made a dash for it trying to avoid sitting next to the drunk guy. As soon as I saw the bus (no aircon, full to the rim with people, no lights inside, etc, etc...) I turned around and made another dash for the bus that was still waiting going to Vientiene (this was my option 2 - in case there is no bus to Vietnam, go to Vientiene, stay a night and take a flight). I arrived in Vientiene in the middle of the night, had to hang around in a tuk-tuk with some locals (and a rooster) at the bus station waiting for more people to arrive and finally made it to the
hostel area only to find that most of them were either full or closed. I finally found a really nice one and luckily the guy woke up and let me check in earlier than their opening time. I went straight on the internet to book myself a flight as I couldn't endure any more nightbus journeys (Vientiene to Hanoi is over 20 hours!). The only flight that was available was business class and I thought sod it, flashpacker is the new backpacker!
I eventually made it to Hanoi in style. I read up on all the possible scams and was well prepared that non of them were going to happen to me, especially after 4 months of travelling. I teamed up with 3 girls who also wanted to go to the same hostel as me. We arranged a fair enough price with the taxi driver and eventually arrived in what we thought was the Old Quarter. The taxi stopped outside a place that did not look at all like a backpackers hostel and a 'very friendly and helpful' guy opened the door with a sheet in his hand quoting all the prices from the backpacker hostel, looking all official
and asking us for our reservation. We said we didn't have one, so he told us the place is full but that they have a sister hotel further down which is better and cheaper and so on. I knew it was a scam but we thought we have a look at it. It turned out that the hotel he took us to was really lovely and I got a good deal (the price he quoted me since getting into our taxi changed 3 times but I insited on his first quote of $14 (huge room, huge shower) or I would leave. It was really worth the money but of course after doing some investigation on my map I found out that it was just outside the Old Quarter but in a nice area and the place they took us first was not the Hanoi Backpacker hostel. I didn't get too annoyed because the place was nice and worth the money, I just moved the next day. The poor girls however got dragged into booking tours etc with the guy and who knows how they turned out to be?!
I really liked Hanoi though. It's busy, especially in the evenings
with all the motorbikes but it's got plenty of choice of restaurants and hotels/hostels and loads of shops and markets. It was nice being in a city after spending a month in Laos which is quite rural and I enjoyed having a nice cocktail (without any trace of Lao Lao in it). I also finally got to buy a new camera, replacing the one I damaged during tubing.
I spent 3 days in Hanoi, walking around, visiting the Women Museum which I found really interesting and also attended a water puppet show at The Water Puppet Theatre which was nice.
After my 3 days in Hanoi I travelled to Sapa. I met up with two friends I had met in Pai and we took the night train together. The journey was okay but quite noisy and bumpy and because we had to share our compartment with a fourth person there was some changeover during the night.
We arrived in Lao Cai and already on the train you are met by touts telling you about the local bus that's waiting just outside the station. They obviously saw that we are backpackers and I had my LP out so
they quoted us VND50,000. That was VND20,000 more than the LP said but they all quoted the same. It was obvious that the bus wasn't a local bus but a tourist trap bus as there were about 25 of them all touting for tourists. We were the lucky ones though as people were asked to pay up to VND500,000 per person!
It's about 1 hour to Sapa up a very scenic route. Sapa has a cool climate and it made a lovely change from the hot and sweaty Hanoi. We checked into the Queen's Hotel and the first thing we noticed where the working fire places they had in every room. It gets pretty cold but luckily we didn't have to use them. My room was right up at the top of the hotel and I got a lot of exercise walking up and down all the stairs.
Sapa really reminded me of a skiing resort with all thre outdoor shops they have their. I got myself a nice North Face jacket. It's got a lot of nice places to eat and cafe/bakeries to chill out and just read a book.
I did a walk to the
Cat Cat village and waterfall by myself on one day, getting lost and walking through padi fields which was lovely. The sceneray there is stunning.
The next day I did a day trek to one of the local Black H'Mong villages with a local H'Mong guide (organised via my hotel). The local ladies walk around town in their traditional costumes trying to sell you stuff or treks. I enquired about whether it's safe to go on a trek with them directly (not an organised one from a tour operator) at the local tourist office and they told me no. They said if you go off with them and something happens to you no one will know. Apparently there have been thefts as well, where people stayed overnight in the villages and woke up without their personal properties. The guy at the tourist office explained that the majority of them are very honest people but with the arrival of mass tourism you always get one or two black sheeps. This only goes for treks you arrange with them directly. If you arrange a tour with an operator, they will use a local woman but you are safe! The local ladies are all very friendly and I had a lot of laughs with them but they are very persistent but as long as you stay firm but friendly you can have a good chat with them. Quite a few of them followed us on our trek. It's amazing how they walk down the steep pathes through the rice terraces, most of them with babies strapped to their backs. Unfortunately, Sapa is very touristy and the lunch at a local family turned out to be a mass tourist restaurant where, before we were even able to eat, got hassled to buy stuff. I really enjoyed the trek though and I learned a lot from our guide. I wish now I would have done a two-day trek. The day trek was a good price at $12 including lunch.
My hotel would have also arranged a tailored trip to less visited villages but it was too expensive to do by myself but if you are interested in going off the tourist track then it's worth enquiring about the tailored treks. A lot of people also hire motorbikes and explore the area themselves, I got offered to join some people but I was too scared to go on the winding and sometimes wet roads.
By recommendation from two guys I met in Laos, we took a day train back to Hanoi. It took a lot longer than the night train, going at snails pace and it wasn't the best of experiences. We booked soft seat (which is 1st class) and the travel agent warned us that it will be really dirty, etc. It was far worse than I expected, especially after having travelled on Indian trains. It was also difficult to find our seat numbers and I got chucked out of my seat twice not realising I sat on someone elses seat. That's fine but I wasn't asked to leave I was literally poked, grabbed and shoved out of it. It was quite hostile and I had to grown men shout at me from both sides. Not my best Vietnam experience I have to say!
Sap was great though and I am glad I went - I almost took it out of my itinerary. It's one of my favourited places in Vietnam!
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