Hanoi and Sapa – Part 1

Getting to Vietnam I have to be honest - I can't remember much about the journey to Vietnam. After previous night bus hell, I'd popped down to a local pharmacy in Luang Prabang and had bought (without prescription) a pack of Valium for the journey. They worked remarkably well, as I slept for a good part of the 27 hour bus ride to Hanoi. Yes, that's twenty-seven hours! I do remember the border crossing into Vietnam though - being dropped off on the Laos side of the border in what felt like freezing temperatures (though it was probably still nearly 20c) at 7am, going through emigration, and then walking the half-mile or so across to Vietnam. This definitely felt like a no-mans-land, with mud, puddles, gravel and rubble, and a chill wind to the air - I did pause for a moment to consider if going to Vietnam was really a good idea... Once in Hanoi, we (Pieter had decided to come to Hanoi too) found our hotel fairly easily, and headed out for a quick explore. Wandering in Hanoi, we explored the main market (which was sadly reminiscent of St John's market in Liverpool, though oddly cleaner and less smelly) and the streets of the Old Quarter. The 36 'Hang' streets each specialised in a particular trade in the past, and this is still evident as you walk past rows of silk shops on one street, and then turn into the next to see rows of flower shops. The narrow roads, thronged with pedestrians and weaving motos were surprisingly relaxing to walk through, as soon as you got the hang of the traffic rules - just go for it. The only exception to the rule is buses, which won't really give way to anyone, so those are best avoided. We also visited the Hanoi Hilton, Hoa Lo prison, where American POWs were detained during the Vietnam war. The displays had a very unique slant on the conditions in which US servicemen were held, describing them as luxurious - a claim that I'm certain the Americans would have strongly disagreed with. Pieter headed off to Halong Bay the following day, and I met up with Miranda again - the American girl that I'd first met in Kuala Lumpur. We spent a couple of relaxed days, mostly sitting in a cafe above the Old Quarters main traffic junction, chatting, blogging, and watching the chaotic but remarkably fluid dance of vehicles below. We sampled much of the local fresh beer - Bia Hoi - in the evenings, and in this time decided to head up north to Sapa, along with Megan, a Canadian girl that Miranda had met several times during her route northwards through Vietnam.
Scooters in Hanoi

Scooters in Hanoi

St Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi

St Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi

Minor traffic chaos in Hanoi

Minor traffic chaos in Hanoi

After arriving in Sapa, and having collected another backpacker, Nicholas, en route, we found a hostel with a four-bed room, and went exploring the town. Sapa is a nice place, built on a hillside, with an almost Alpine feel to it. There are plenty of hill-people selling handicrafts, and hawking their guide services - fortunately Megan had the number for a guide who had been recommended, so we met up with her and arranged to go to her village the next day. For the first day of the trek, we met up with our guide by the town square, and headed off with an entourage of five other Vietnamese ladies, all dressed in traditional garb, carrying wicker baskets on their backs. Our route took us through the local end of the town (i.e. no restaurants, fancy hotels, or people selling handicrafts on the street), then up a hillside for nearly an hour, before levelling out on top of a ridge. Oddly, one of the entourage offered us cannabis oil on the way up - it was pretty unexpected, and none of the others of the entourage batted an eyelid. Suffice it to say that none of us partook. Once on the ridge, we followed a gravel track for several kilometres, passing through small villages (all with the satellite dishes that seem to be a de facto addition to hill-tribe huts), rice paddies, and brief stops for fantastic views across the valley to one side. At one point, our guide headed off the track into some bamboo and started kicking at the ground and pulling things up - it wasn't until she came back up, that she explained that these bamboo shoots were going to be part of dinner (and a very bitter part at that). Soon enough, after a brief but steep descent, and balancing act on a paddy field border, we arrived at the village, and hut where we would be spending the night. The hut itself was mud-floored, with a central 'dining room', kitchen, TV room and two bedrooms. Actually, the kitchen was a 10' by 10' space with a fire pit in the floor, and the TV room was the matching space on the opposite side of the hut with a TV on a table. Beds were raised bamboo platforms, with straw-stuffed mattresses and oddly circular blankets (I suspect they were actually rugs). Very basic stuff. The food was similarly simple - watercress, bamboo shoots, and a tomato and tofu stew which was by far the tastiest thing on offer. After food though, the true purpose of the entourage became evident - they were a travelling marketplace, and we were the captive audience for their wheedling sales pitches. I'm a sucker for a bad sales pitch, and ended up buying things, though I think I managed to get a fair price in the end (reduced by 95% on the initial cost). After lunch, we were left to our own devices, and variously wrote journals, wandered the village, and chatted for a few hours. A stroll (well, mini-hike) to the nearest shop (hut with some things for sale) occupied another hour or so before dinner, which was a repeat of lunch - minus the nice bit, and with extra-bitter bamboo shoots. After dinner, we sampled some of the locally brewed rice wine - incredibly strong stuff, nothing like sake, the other rice wine I've tried. Games of cards followed, until we turned in (though not after waking up the entire village by annoying a dog during the last cigarette break of the night).
They start them young...

They start them young...

Rice wine, in a lovely carafe

Rice wine, in a lovely carafe

Rice paddy fields

Rice paddy fields

Our entourage - or travelling market

Our entourage - or travelling market

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One Response to Hanoi and Sapa – Part 1

  1. Hannah says:

    I wish I was sitting down to dinner in Hanoi, not sat at my bloody desk 🙁

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