Lan Ha BayView of Lan Ha Bay (pretty much the same as Ha Long Bay) from the top of Monkey Island.It feels like an injustice to write about the two highlights of Vietnam in one post; but alas, that is how things have come to pass. It does however, leave no doubt that I have saved Vietnam's best for last.
The first of Vietnam's two blockbusters involved taking a bus-boat-bus – a bit more developed than the jeep-boat-jeep that I took in Costa Rica – to Cat Ba Island, which will soon be just one bus, once a new mega-long bridge is completed that will reduce the journey from Hanoi to a mere two hours.
However, it wasn't Cat Ba Island itself that was the main attraction (even if it does have some sights of its own as well as a plethora of activities to try), but the famous archipelago of Ha Long Bay.
Most tourists take an overnight boat trip from either Hanoi or the apparently charmless Halong City, and reviews of such tours – think fighting with crowds of Chinese tourists, an overwhelming flotilla of tourist boats, bad service and bad food – made basing yourself on the much more pleasant and relaxing Cat Ba Island a much more enticing proposition.
You can also do one-day tours from here as well which would remove the Rice Terraces, Ta VanRice Terraces, Ta VanRice terraces in Ta Van, 10km from Sapa.need to spend an apparently uncomfortable night on-board a shitty schooner – experiencing it once already is enough – and result in a much lower price. To the envy of many of our fellow tour-goers, my Colombian dorm-mate Alejandro and I managed to get our tour for just US$13, a few dollars cheaper than anyone else, by going straight to the tour operator rather than through the hostel. The half-hour walk to the tour office in Cat Ba Town's rather dreary, worn, Communist resort harbourside from the hostel, was worth it!
As was the tour itself.
I had wanted to do some kayaking while on Cat Ba Island and this tour included two hours of it through a beautiful network of karsts, caves and secret lagoons, some of which were unfortunately spoiled by litter and oil. We also had a swimming stop where we jumped off the top of the boat into the water for thrills. It reminded me of doing the same in Greece's Cyclades although that boat was much higher. The water was a lovely emerald colour and was very warm although I got out of it as soon as I heard shouts of "jellyfish!" from anxious onlookers still on board the boat. I managed to get Hmong Girls, SapaHmong Girls, SapaTwo Hmong girls who were selling bracelets in the main square.out without getting stung – I've never been stung before and don't intend to ever do so – but some of my fellow tour-goers weren't so lucky, including Sara, an Italian girl who was very interesting conversation.
Not that it should matter but in today's climate of fear, I feel obligated to mention that Sara is a Muslim and wore a full body swimming suit. Unlike what many scummy papers, right-wing politicians and the ill-informed would have you believe, she was just like any other young woman, travelling the world while on a break from her university studies. She was knowledgeable and intelligent too and totally undeserving of the opprobrium that I've seen meted out to Muslims as a whole that I've seen on TV and online. The fact that I even have to mention this saddens me about the state of the world right now.
The last stop of our tour was at Monkey Island, one of many Monkey Islands that tourists are taken to in South East Asia. Indeed there are macaques on the island that cheekily grab food as well as tourists' hair but for me the island's highlight was a slightly sketchy climb to its summit View From The Homestay, Ta VanView From The Homestay, Ta VanGlorious view of the mountain range from our homestay in the rice fields.for some amazing views over Lan Ha Bay, the bay right below Ha Long Bay which is for all intents and purposes, the same bay. Seeing the compact smattering of islands stretch out as far as the eye could see was a sight to behold. The climb itself required a little athletic ability but like the climb I did in Railay, I enjoy such challenges and my light weight and agility certainly helps. I swear I must've been a monkey in my previous life.
The tour included lunch too but by far the most outstanding thing it offered was simply cruising around such a beautiful place. In many ways it reminded me of the fjords in Norway. There is literally a photo around every corner and although it is similar to Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, there is something about Ha Long Bay that gives it first prize and all of the accompanying hype.
I've not been going totally crazy in terms of alcohol since getting to Hanoi but I have been sinking two or three beers every single night and it catches up with you.
I did have one 'big night' on Cat Ba however as a game of Scum with Alejandro, Catalan couple Tito and Karst Beach & IslandKarst Beach & IslandKarst island with a sliver of sand at the bottom where we had our swimming stop (full of jellyfish!) in Ha Long Bay.Gina, and Aussie Claire, turned into a night out with crazy Dutch sisters Nienke and Jannes and their other Dutch friend Larissa. We ended up at Red Rose Bar where patrons could put on their own music; which isn't necessarily a good thing and has the potential to lead to fights. I can't believe that tall asshole thought that my song had already been played…
Red Rose Bar soon closed as did the only other bar that 'opened late' in Cat Ba Town and our night out-out finished with an anticlimax.
I was tired and a little hungover the next day which meant I was far too lazy to head to one of Cat Ba's three supposedly average beaches and its Hospital Cave, a cave that a bunker was built into by the Viet Cong that looked after the wounded and offered security and secrecy for key operational personnel. I instead spent the day monging about before heading off the next day to Vietnam's other big highlight.
I had to stop for a night in Hanoi first though, so I could meet up with my amigo italiano Peppe!
Before setting off on this mad dash around the world, Monkey Island, Lan Ha BayMonkey Island, Lan Ha BayView overlooking Monkey Island from the top of the island.I spent three months learning Spanish in Barcelona and one of a few good friends I made while there was Peppe. In the almost two years since I left for Brazil, Peppe stayed behind, got himself a couple of jobs and an MBA, and continued living the good life in Barca.
He had now decided to come and travel South East Asia for a little while and with this being Peppe's first time out of Europe, it was funny seeing his reactions to things that would be crazy to see in Europe, but very much the norm here in Asia. Things like seeing locals eating anywhere and everywhere as long as there are plastic stools and a plastic table to hand; a guy jackhammering away in a Hanoi soi with only flip-flops for footwear; and the sheer number of motorbikes.
"It is like anything is possible," says Peppe.
It is almost as if danger doesn't exist to the Vietnamese, who seem to take it worryingly lightly. My theory is that the money just isn't there to comprehensively ensure health and safety – people just need to get on with things.
After a night in Hanoi, we were then off to Sapa!
This town in the midst of a green, SapaSapaWith grand old hotels and lake, Sapa somewhat resembled a Swiss mountain town like Interlaken.spectacular valley of rice terraces is a tourism hotspot and is arguably Vietnam's second-biggest draw after Ha Long Bay. Sapa town itself is actually quite built up, which Peppe observed. An old French hill station – so Vietnam's Darjeeling – there is a nice lake and square in the middle of town which is somewhat unfortunately surrounded by plush hotels; it almost had the feel of a Swiss mountain town. It was admittedly quite pretty but the dusty streets and ramshackle buildings on the town's outskirts reminded you of the sort of life the locals really live around here. We weren't staying in town however – we were going for a more authentic experience.
Our homestay was located 10km out of Sapa in the village of Ta Van and like the village itself, it was basic; it reminded me of the kind of places I stayed at during my trek in Nepal. Our dorm was basically fifteen mattresses on the floor of a mezzanine in an old barn.
The scenery just outside also reminded me of Nepal, particularly the first part of my trek which took me through the farms which also had rice terraces – though the extent of their beauty and immaculateness Hmong Ladies, SapaHmong Ladies, SapaHmong ladies in traditional dress.doesn't come close to what I was seeing here in front of me in the very north of Vietnam.
The locals up here in the mountains are largely from Hmong tribes, which I learned about in the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre (TAEC) in Luang Prabang. The Hmong can be found all over northern Laos and Vietnam; and in Ta Van, ladies in lovely traditional dress reminiscent of what I saw in Bolivia, are similarly distributed, even in your homestay sometimes, hassling you to buy small bags and bracelets like those I saw in the TAEC. The desperation and pushiness among them however, is unfortunate. There are only so bracelets I can buy.
A couple of teenage girls even played the long game, hanging out and seeming to be genuinely interested in us – they may well have been – only to bust out their wares just as we were leaving the bridge and waterfall we were visiting.
Our first few hours in Ta Van however, were unforgettable.
The upside to travelling with an Italian in Vietnam is that they are most likely, extremely proficient with a motorbike. But seeking to rent one, it turned out to be a Peppe & His MotorcyclePeppe & His MotorcyclePeppe loves motorbikes, like many Italians. In the background are the rice terraces of Ta Van.mission. The locals here just don't seem that interested in service and being good at business – as if dealing with foreigners was a chore. We were offered an old-looking manual one, but even motorbike-obsessed Peppe couldn't get it going.
We finally managed to get a weak one for the last two hours of the day which couldn't take the both of us up steep hills. The lack of power in our motorbike was illustrated when we were passed by another motorbike that had a tied-up, fully grown pig on the back of it. That was already quite the sight but even after everything that I have seen on this journey, I still got quite the shock when the pig started wriggling, struggling to get itself free. The bloody thing was alive!
"What the fuck," exclaimed Peppe, the first of many times.
Then, as we were enjoying the view at a lookout, a crazy old Hmong lady comes out of nowhere, hysterically laughing. She then starts grabbing both of our arses, squealing with delight every time she did so. It was funny at first but after realising that this was sexual harassment at the very least, we decided to up View Of The Valley, Ta VanView Of The Valley, Ta VanLooking along the valley from near the Cau May Bridge & Waterfall.sticks.
Nevertheless, all was forgiven after viewing all the stunning scenery on offer, which was the most enjoyable aspect of our short tour, as we took many a photo stop.
The aforementioned waterfall at Cau May was OK; the legendary Cau May bamboo bridge was perhaps the most rickety bridge I've crossed as I nervously watched the river rage below it, though in all honesty I never at any stage felt as if I was going to fall through, though a decent jump or stomp would probably do it.
Trekking is big here in Sapa and Ta Van and we had the luck of having a trail start right on the doorstep of our homestay.
The surprising amount of climbing we had to do under the hot sun brought back bad memories of my hike halfway up to Everest Base Camp, but as with any climb, you are usually rewarded with sweeping views – in this case, across the green, rice terrace laden valley. Meeting up on the trail with Irish girl Eimear, we continued hiking up towards a waterfall that was supposed to be in the area. Following what we think is the right path, we end up View From The TopView From The TopView of the rice terraces from the top of the Cau May Waterfall.going up…and up…and up…and we soon doubted whether we were going in the right direction. An alternative path only got us into bush where continuing on would've required a machete. Local kids had no idea what we were saying when we tried to ask them where the waterfall was, as did a farmer that we came across. Finally, a lady we had seen at our homestay came by and with her excellent English, tells us that we had come completely the wrong way and that we had gone over an hour in the wrong direction. I didn't care too much, the climbing adventure that we went on was fun.
After finally making it down to the waterfall, we realised that for all our effort, we had come to the same waterfall that we had visited the day before. Again however, I didn't care; we had got a good workout, some amazing views and some funny interactions with locals out of it. We rested at the top of the waterfall for a while, admiring the view in front of us while Eimear and I discussed our love for football and Manchester United.
After two days out in the countryside, I Vietnamese Egg CoffeeVietnamese Egg CoffeeThe Vietnamese have traditionally mixed egg yolks with their coffee; an egg yolk is beaten with sugar and condensed milk before the coffee is filtered over it. A little strange at first but delicious once you have got used to it.was exhausted. Not so much from the hiking and the motorbike riding but because of a lack of sleep.
In Hanoi, I had had a bad sleep thanks to bedbugs (fucking again! WTF! Seriously!), before having our sleep interrupted by impolite, full-volume-talking Vietnamese on the night bus. Although we had arrived at 4am in Sapa, the bus company lets you sleep on board the bus for a couple of hours before unceremoniously getting you on your way, which is nice – unless, you have locals on board the bus talking while you're trying to sleep. If you're not gonna sleep on a sleeper bus then get off the fucking bus! This was then compounded by loud children, barking dogs, drunken backpacker conversation and thin walls at the homestay.
As it is a rural village, there is no ATM in Ta Van – meaning I really had to watch the pennies and Peppe didn't even have enough cash to pay his bill! Thankfully we found solutions.
Despite all this however, I was really happy with my stay in Ta Van; more than anywhere else, I felt that I had had an immersive experience where I got to chat to locals in Cruising ThroughCruising ThroughCruising through the waters of Ha Long Bay.a way that I hadn't really done anywhere else in Vietnam. I got to see and live like a local, much like how I felt I did when I was in Kolkata.
I spent my last couple of days in Vietnam in Sapa town itself, as I prepared to cross the border into China. To be honest, I felt a bit daunted and a bit nervous as I had a unique challenge in front of me; another overland border crossing; the long distances I had to travel in a short time; not being able to read signs and the lack of English in general (luckily I have some minimal Mandarin); higher prices on a tighter budget; having to find a way to get behind the Great Firewall Of China. In hindsight, travelling through Vietnam has been very easy.
An extra night in Sapa and a conversation with a Danish-Vietnamese guy at my hostel who had just cycled here all the way from Beijing, put me at ease however and got me excited again about travelling through one of the countries I have been most excited about getting to!
I have named this entry Good Morning, Vietnam, for obvious Cruising Through The ChannelCruising Through The ChannelJust off Cat Ba Island, the towering karsts reminded me a lot of the fjords in Norway.referential reasons, but perhaps it should be named Goodbye, Vietnam, as it is the last entry I will be writing from here.
Overall, I have really enjoyed my time here which has stretched over a month, and with a detour through Laos in the middle, it really does seem like a long time ago that I touched down in Ho Chi Minh City with all the accompanying stress that greeted me on arrival.
I have now visited the majority of South East Asian countries and I would honestly put Vietnam just ahead of Thailand as my favourite. Thailand has some amazing places to visit but with so many tourists there and so much development, it feels a bit too contrived – too clean, too easy. Thailand also shares a lot of cultural similarities with its neighbours Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos; Vietnam, with ties closer to China, felt different to the other South East Asian countries. It felt more raw, more authentic, from the craziness of its cities to its sublime natural phenomena, from its dynastic imperial history to its unique and not-insignificant variety of delicious food.
But for now, it's time to move on to China – where one last, proper adventure awaits.
Hẹn Me & Ha Long BayMe & Ha Long BaySnapped against the amazing backdrop of Ha Long Bay.sớm gặp lại,
Derek

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