With a bit of an unusual route (Pai-Chiang Mai-Bangkok-Hanoi) I went from the north of Thailand to the north of Vietnam arriving on January 27th. Right in the middle of Tet holidays (Tết Nguyên Đán). Tet is the Vietnamese version of the lunar new year. And I came on the last day of the year of the monkey and on the next day, Tet, we are in the year of the rooster.
Arriving on, as I like to call it, old years evening is a bit of an experience in itself, apparently I booked my hostel in the most busy street in downtown Hanoi. And it was full of people. I had a minivan from the airport and in the hustle of getting off at my stop I left my zip bag with a lot of important documents and credit cards on the seat in the van. My first Hanoi moments were running behind the van with my 14 kilo backpack hoping it would stop. Eventually that all worked out.
The next day (Tet) was strange, super quiet, shops closed and almost no traffic. Quite exceptional in a town like Hanoi. Exploring the city on foot was really all I could do. The festivities are mostly reserved for Vietnamese people and will not include tourists. It is for visiting family, preparing food and a lot of traditions. People do dress up and I loved seeing the beautiful (city) clothes they wear.
The next morning I was happy to leave my cheap hostel to go on the three days Ha Long Bay cruise. I was advised by more than one person to not save money on this trip. This would be the exceptional experience and it most definitely was. There we go, I ended up on a private boat with six other people I think I could soon call friends. One fellow dutchie, Charlene, and 5 from India/Bangladesh living in Hong Kong: Ayesha, Azlan, Manish, Vineet and Prasad. We went to our rooms, were I actually had my private room with shower which was much better than anticipated and then had this amazing lunch were we learned that amongst seven people there were 5 different dietary preferences. Our cruise is in Ha Long Bay, named after an ancient legend were a mother dragon and her children descend to earth to help defend the country against invaders. The dragons use giant emeralds to create barriers and these emeralds have turned into islands over the years. Ha Long means descending dragon. We could enjoy these islands from the top deck. And again with just the seven of us there was more than enough space. The views are beautiful and our cruise is one of the few allowed to cruise through this specific part where we didn’t see any other boats. We had more activities like kayaking and swimming before we settled on a quiet spot to spend the night. The sunset would give great views and once the sun was gone we would slowly begin to see the stars high in the sky. We spend our night dancing to different types of music (some of us truly full of energy) and watching the stars.
In the morning we had pancakes, a group picture and then we had to leave our precious boat. We brought a visit to Cat Ba national park, had lunch at a lake side restaurant without lake and had to say our goodbyes as Charlene and I had this other night on a private island. We were dropped on a public bus without any details. After 15 minutes of driving I heard a Dutch couple chatting and asked where the bus was going as I had no clue. The rest of the trip was less impressive but we did get to stay on a private island with some 40 other guests, had two short hikes and at least some good chats with Charlene.
And here is an impression of the tour:
I wouldn’t be me without cramping a lot of things into a tiny schedule. We came back to Hanoi at 5:00 pm and I had a public bus to catch at 6:30 pm for my next adventure. That left me with an hour and a half to eat something, find an ATM, buy a rugzak and find the bus stop. My journey went to Ha Giang. And it was another one of those just go with it trips. I soon found myself with only Vietnamese people and had one of the most peculiar sleeping bus experiences. How often do you find yourself texting your boyfriend “Hi honey, just wanted to let you know that I’m sleeping in the back of the bus with 4 Vietnamese guys. There are panther print blankets and some very wrong lighting. But everything is okay.” Luckily enough I got the window spot so I was just body to body with one guy but it was weird. For just 8 dollars I was on this bus that would take me to Ha Giang. This city is only 280 km away from Hanoi and leaving at 8:30 pm left me wondering how we were only arriving at 5:00 am. My guide for the three day trip would be waiting for me at the bus stop. But then unfortunately we arrived at 3:30 am. Confused about what to do this early in the night I wanted to get of the bus but the driver pointed to the bed and made hand gestures that I should sleep a bit more. I did until he was prodding my leg to wake me at 4:45 am because my guide, Mr. Mingh, arrived. He took me to a hotel where I could sleep for another hour and have a shower and then we went for breakfast.
This tour would be three days driving through the Ha Giang province. Around 450 km in total. Mr. Mingh as the driver and guide. It was one of my wishes to go here because the area has raw nature, high mountains, breathtaking views, not so many tourists and a lot of culture. Still being Tet holiday means that a lot of the local Hmong people are wearing there traditional clothing which they normally only do for weddings and market days. The weather hasn’t been great, misty and cold which gave a grayish view of the land. But it has been the people that give this part of the country some color.
The mist obstructed a lot of the high mountain views on the first day but we went to visit an interesting cave, see a local linen producer in a village, trying on some traditional clothing and did a total of 150 km. We checked in at I guest house in Lung Phin village were we shared a meal with the family. It was very cold, around 12 degrees, and no heating or big mug of tea to warm me up. The houses are not closed or isolated. At 7:30 pm I go to sleep as it is just too cold to sit around. There are enough blankets, I’m not cold during the night.
(Ha Giang – Minh Tan Village – Pac Sum Pass – Quyet Tien Village – Quan Ba Pass – Heaven Gate – Twin Mountain – Lung Khuy Cave – Lung Tam Village to visit Linen Cooperative – Duong Thuong Village – Lung Ho Village – Mau Due Village – Lung Phin Village)
We start the second day with a local market, drive around 50 kilometer, trek for 10 km through local villages with a Hmong boy as guide, do a little side trip to China (when you’re this close to the border, you might as well go) and end early in the afternoon at a homestay with Dzay minority people. The rest of the day is mainly about drinking. I was again very cold and when offered a wine during our hot pot dinner I figured it would keep me warm. The drinking culture is a bit different than in the Netherlands. The wine comes in a shot glass, is made from corn and is not sipped but taken as a shot. This version was about 30% in alcohol. You drink when someone asks you to drink, you raise the glass, say tjoeksekoj (or Chúc sức khỏe), drink the wine and shake hands. Sometimes in a group and sometimes with just two persons. I guess I was interesting as I was the foreign blond girl at dinner with 6 Vietnamese guys cause I was drinking a lot. So much that I lost count and was praised for my drinking (guess it helps that I am taller than all the men). After dinner my guide went to rest and told me I could walk around the village with one of the guys. We walked for four minutes went to his house and had tea and..more wine. I started saying ‘last one, no more’ and did that at least three times. Then to the next house and then back to our homestay. We had dinner with other guests and a few more wines (cause they were new and I could not say no) and went to bed. It was not that I felt drunk in particular, yes I could feel the alcohol but had not expected to be so hangover when waking up. One good breakfast and some fresh air later and I felt almost as new.
(Visit Lung Phin Market – Sinh Lung Village – Trekking through Villages (10 km long) – Hmong King’s Palace – Lung Tao Village – Ma Le Village)
The last day would prove to be the thoughest day. We drive 250 kilometer which was a bit more is than my but could handle. But have the most breathtaking views, dizzying heights, winding mountain roads. The entire trip has been an epic experience. The views and nature are one of a kind and my pictures just captured half of it as I often just enjoyed it sitting on the back, the people and their clothing were super cool, the food was interesting as I just had what was being served. It is just the cold that I won’t be missing. I hope to go back in a different season someday.
(Ma Le Village – Dong Van Town – Ma Pi Leng Pass – Meo Vac Town – Sung Tra Village – Ta Lung Village – Dong Van Town – Sung Tra Village – Pho Bang Old Town – 9 Circle Pass – Pho Cao Village – Tham Ma Pass – Yen Minh Town – Quan Ba Pass – Ha Giang City)
An impression of this three day tour:
I slept in a hotel and took the VIP day bus back to Hanoi. The next two days would be to properly explore Hanoi. The biggest part of the holiday is over and I can now see more of real life. Hanoi is busy, there is a lot of traffic consisting mostly of scooters, horns blaring, food on every corner and eat this sitting on little children’s seats, streets full of merchants and a lot of tourist shops. The Chinese and French influences can’t be missed being occupied by both at some point in the history. There is a church which reminds one of the Norte Dame, a local dish, bahn mi, is made with a baguette and in the Ha Giang province all the boys would wear barets. I went to Hao Li prison to learn more about the history of Hanoi, did a street food tour to taste Hanoi (ever heard of egg coffee?) and enjoyed a lot of just observing the streets, nightlife and culture. Vietnam seems to be even cheaper than Thailand I sleep for as little as 3,50 dollars and this includes breakfast.