Last year Wayne and I decided we wanted to visit Vietnam and Cambodia (we had only ever heard great things from others who had travelled there). We tossed up ideas as we wanted to see as much as we could but being in a foreign country we weren’t sure if we should travel on our own or do a tour. We decided an organised tour would be the best choice due to the language and customs barriers, the horror of driving on the roads and where to eat and stay safely.
Armed with numerous brochures and of course the internet the planning started, lists were made, ideas thrown around and in the end it was decided we would do the tour with TravelMarvel, all up travelling for 27 days and covering two countries. And what a trip it was!
I won’t bore you with the travel details to and from as this is never very exciting so will start from our arrival in Hanoi, Vietnam. Also I will share our trip in blocks so as not to over-tax you with an abundance of information and photos. And there are a lot of photos!
Our first guide Tea (yes we had numerous guides along the way) was waiting for us at the airport, taking us directly to our hotel in Hanoi (Movenpick Hotel) while chatting to us about points of interest and things we could do in our free time. The drive into town was an experience we will never forget. The traffic, the scooters, the honking but even more than that the electrical wiring hanging from every pole and building was a nightmare. We weren’t sure whether we should be worried or just fascinated by this tangle of wires hanging overhead. We were told that when something goes wrong with the power in Hanoi (and Vietnam) they never know which wire is the cause so they just add another wire and reconnect the homes/buildings which have been affected. Now that really is scary!
Arriving at our hotel we were seated, brought either cool or warm face washers, a cool or warm drink, even a small snack while we waited for our guide to check us in. We soon realised this would happen at each destination and I must say ‘That is what I call service”.
Tea advised us of ideas on how to spend our afternoon and what the plan was for dinner and the next morning for our trip to Sapa. All checked in with map in hand we braved the streets of Hanoi, crossing roads just as we were advised and we actually did it! Even got used to it!
We found our way to Hoa Lo Prison (http://hoalo.vn/), better known as the Hanoi Hilton (the name given by US Prisoner’s of War). This prison has a long and varied history from being built by the French starting in 1886 (where the name Maison Centrale came from) to its final demise and demolishment in the 1990’s to what remains now, the gatehouse, the history and so many stories to be told!
Used by the French to imprison Vietnamese prisoners and then by the North Vietnamese to imprison the American POW’s it houses a guillotine used by the French as well an American Flight Suit worn by (Senator) John McCain, photos and even a sewer which was used as an escape route in 1945. Most of the museum is dedicated to the French Colonial Period and when the Americans were prisoners.
It is very interesting and worth a visit. The price to enter was 30000VND for an adult and is open every day from 8am to 5pm.
After a long flight and an afternoon of history we returned to the hotel, had an ice cold beer (and you need that after a hot walk on the streets of Hanoi!) and a great dinner, then it was off to bed for us! Ready for an early start and a long drive to Sapa.
The drive to Sapa was yet another experience we will never forget especially once we got off the freeway and onto the mountain road. We were traveling in a four wheel drive (with the driver and our guide), all around us was continual honking, cars, trucks, buses and scooters coming and going from whichever way and every way! They tooted so the other drivers knew where they were and/or where they were coming from! Madness. We had buses overtaking us on windy roads and I am convinced there are no road rules in Vietnam. Wayne described the traffic as being like “Rafferty’s Rules”.
But the scenery was fantastic. We were driving through mountainous areas, rice paddy fields a major part of the landscape (No rice growing at this time of year) and green rolling hills. There are huts, communities, shops (everyone has a shop in front of their home) and people sitting, chatting, smoking and drinking tea everywhere.
Sapa itself is quite small and only a tiny bit cleaner than Hanoi. There is still a hustle and bustle on the streets, our hotel (BB Hotel) being right in amongst it all and a great spot for watching this world go by. The hotel is great, the staff wonderful and the breakfast was one of the best of all the hotels. Oh and the rooftop bar wasn’t too shabby either, happy hour beers costing us very little.
Our afternoon was our own so we decided to visit Fansipan, the highest peak in Indonesia reaching 3,143m. And to get to this amazing mountain we would need to ride a funicular to the cable car station and the cable car to Fansipan Station. Now this cable car (Sunworld Fansipan Legend) is a three wire cable system and at 1,410m is the highest in the world, at 6.3km it is the longest in the world and holds a record in the Guiness Book of World Records for both as well as being the most modern three wire cable car system in the world. The ride to the top takes about 15 minutes and even though there was some fog and cloud cover (which seemed to be the norm in Sapa) the views were spectacular and the fact that you were floating above it all was amazing. It is a must see.
Once at the top, even though we were somewhat fogged in, we managed to see glimpses of pagodas, temples, bells, Buddha statues and more fog. Unfortunately we didn’t get to the top (due to the weather) but what we did see was something to behold, savour and engage in. We will have to go back just to get to the top I think!
Sunworld Fansipan Legend (https://fansipanlegend.sunworld.vn/) is open Monday to Thursday and Sunday from 7.30am to 5pm and Friday to Saturday from 7am to 6pm. The cost to ride the Funicular was 50,000VND and the Cable Car was an additional 700,000VND.
It was a wonderful afternoon which saw us also wander the streets of Sapa before being taken by our guide Tea to dinner at a local Vietnamese Restaurant. It was amazing or maybe just a maze to get there and we would have never found our way home. Up this street, down that one, an alley, trundling over roads that had been dug up, waiting to fall through! It was different but the food was good (not great) and we enjoyed eating various and different Vietnamese meals, some we knew, some we didn’t. We topped off the night with a drink at the Roof Top Bar at BB Hotel, watching the craziness of the streets below as the fog drifted in and out. It was a sight!
Day 3 saw us heading to a local village just outside Sapa (Ma Tra Black Hmong Village) which would lead us to the local school. We were dropped off for a 30 minute walk through the village, huts and vegetable plots on either side of the road, rice fields, rolling hills and peace. It was so quiet. We were allowed to enter the home of a local family which was very basic, dark and smoky. So different to what we are used to but normal for this village. There was dried corn cobs hanging from the rafters and no windows but it would have been very draughty and cold in the winter.
On our walk we were followed by a few of the village womenfolk, dressed in their native clothes, very bright and colourful. Funny though as they all had mobile phones and they would ding and ring as we walked along the road. At the school we were entertained by the children singing and dancing and the little ones across the road were eating their lunches and cleaning up before heading home. For such young children they were all well behaved, helping dish up and pass along each bowl of food, (though one little boy did have a habit of sticking his finger in each bowl as it went past him) then cleaning up and putting away chairs and tables before heading home for the day.
Upon leaving the school the women who had walked with us wanted us to buy souvenirs from them and became quite curt when we didn’t buy anything. The problem being is that the items are mass produced (so not handmade or true local crafted items) and you can buy them anywhere. The same happens walking down the street and even when you head out of your hotel each day. The locals love to talk to you, ask where you are from and have a chat but you do need to be mindful and it is advised not to buy from children or give children money as they should be in school and this encourages them to skip school which is not good for them.
Back into Sapa and it was lunch then a walking tour with our guide around the Township of Sapa where Tea told us stories, pointed out places of interest and then we all went for a pot of tea at the Roof Top Bar. Wayne and I spent the afternoon walking around Sapa Lake before a quiet night and our journey back to Hanoi to catch up with the newcomers of our tour group.
And before I finish this very short portion of our journey I want to say that Vietnam, even after a few short days, is very different from home. The people are wonderful, friendly and ready for a chat, the infrastructure is horrendous, there is no such thing as OH&S (we saw a labourer breaking up a slab of concrete to get the reinforcing steel from it wearing thongs (flip flops) and men hanging off poles and buildings with no harness), and they all know where Australia is!
We learned the locals (all over Vietnam) eat anything, as one of our guides said, “Anything that moves except cars and scooters they will eat it!” and we saw raw meat (including hearts) on roadside tables and some of the beef eaten is actually buffalo and as our guide said, ‘If it’s chewy it’s Beefallo!”.
Our Vietnamese word for the first part of our journey is Xin Chao – pronounced Sin Chow and means Hello.
I shall return soon with the next portion of our journey and hope you have enjoyed it so far. Stay Tuned!