Into Northern Vietnam

Monday, June 2, 2014

Nilai to Hanoi (again)

We made it into Hanoi after a cosy stopover in a funky hotel, New Wave 2, in Nilai - a very nondescript Malaysian town 12 kms from the KL airport. The taxi driver seemed unable to find it but it proved a much easier stopover than going into KL which is an overblown city we have seen before.


The room was a green concrete box but clean and utterly silent after our late arrival after mindight and we slept for ten hours solid.


The flight into Hanoi was straightforward and the visa on arrival process worked fine for us although some people didn't have the right exact US $45 and one couple claimed to have had all their money stolen between the plane and the immigration point.


We managed to change $20 into some Viet dong and had a very elegant meal at the Black Duck Cafe - just around the corner from our room at the Hanoi Old Town Hotel The night markets were pulsating with life.


Today we have wandered around in the sweltering heat photographing the insane motorbike traffic, visiting the markets and finding a few things to tide us over on the train to Sapa tonight. We have already blogged Hanoi on our last visit, so this was just another easy day hanging out in air-conditioned comfort with sorties out to see the old town.


Hanoi is always a fascinating place people living and eating on the streets, shades of the French colonial past, both stiflingly hot and delightfully shady. Full of inexpensive and extremely obliging restaurants, as long as you avoid the scams and ripoffs that sometimes appear without warning.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cooling off in Sapa

Just got off the night train to Sapa. The journey was not too bad in the hard sleeper with heaps of Chinese and Vietnamese travelers - two to a bunk in one case. The air conditioning worked well enough to make us shivery after a stifling day in Hanoi.

Sapa is rapidly becoming overblown from rapid development as an Asian tourist destination

Hanoi was charming as usual with motorbikes everywhere but very much too hot. Vietnam is notorious for rejecting any slightly off banknotes even when they are good tender. We had hassles at the bank when they turned down a couple of our worn and torn US banknotes, but we repaired them with sellotape and discretely gave them to the hotel for payment.

We had a nightmare when we went to catch the train because just as it was about to leave and we had walked away out on the tracks and down the platform, there was no LC1 train at all just one SP3 tourist train. I ran headlong back to the station and a ticket guard came out to the train to sort it out. What had happened is they had decided to tack LC1 onto the front of SP3 and give the carriages different numbers.

Sapa overlooks a stunning valley

We were besieged by bus touts at the Lao Cai station when we emerged but managed to talk them down to a tolerable compromise by being resistant 75,000 each instead of 100,000 although the price should be 60,000. Then the driver got stopped by the cops half way to Sapa. Finally we got besieged by hotel touts and went with one who turned out to really help run a hotel Nha Nghi aka the Sapa Backpacker Hostel, Pham Xuan Huan ( and gave us a nice deal for 180,000 or US $8.50 a night with hot showers and wifi. We also had good meals at the Michell Restaurant down the end of Cao May street.

Hmong women (In China called Miao) trying to sell small crafts or walking tours

We were escorted all the way there by Hmong women wanting to sell us little bags and take us to their village for $15 each a day. They are very mischievous and tried to run off with one of our beloved luggage trolleys, one of which lost its wheel crossing the rail lines in Hanoi.

There are people wearing all manner of tribal dress here in slightly doggrel form with the odd tee-shirt underneath and western sun hats: Hmong, Dzao, Dao and so on.

Two Red Dzao, or Dao (in China Yao) women

I wandered out of town in the now hot midday sun and took some pictures of the sweeping valley Sapa overlooks and the rice terraces here and there. Tomorrow one or both of us may take a walk to some of the villages with one of the Hmong women who want us to go to theirs.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sapa Trekking with a Vengeance

Yan on the way up the mountain

Today we fell into one of those slightly out of control experiences traveling throws at you. Sapa is full of Hmong women from the surrounding villages who try to sell you small handcraft items. They are wily and persistent and have all kinds of tricks to make you feel obliged. If you won't buy right away they tie little ribbons around you wrists as a pinky promise and chastise you if you don't fulfill the promise. Anyway we struck up a relationship with Yan Ling (Mobile 01635653953) and agreed to go on a walking trek to her village this morning.

In the hills above Sapa

At 9 am the valley was full of mist so we postponed till 10. Then I met another woman who offered to do it for a third of the US $15 each, but when I went back she refused and later told me she had been told off for undercutting the others. So we took off with Yan who is a very intelligent charming 30 year old Hmong women and in a band with several others we walked in the now pretty hot morning all the way through town and then up a steep winding dirt track that got ever higher and steeper until Christine was nearly expiring.

High rice paddies looking down into the valley lowlands

After a heavy hike we emerged into a winding track up and down over the highlands with superb views off the entire surrounding area, into a fairly remotes valley and highland area and eventually back to the Sapa valley where we wound down and down past maize tea cannabis and eventually rice paddies to her village of Hao Thao.

Coming down into Hao Thao

We stopped at her sisters house and were treated to a delightful late lunch of vegetarian dishes and rice before being escorted by Yan and all her Hmong saleswomen entourage down to the road where they arranged motorbikes to bring us back the 10 kms or so to town.

Cooking in the kitchen fire

Apart from being a gruelling hot climb up and down it was a very engaging experience partly because Yan is vey talkative, speaks fluent English and can engage a very informative conversation and her family is very welcoming and friendly. Paradoxically she is completely illiterate and I had to show her very patiently the symbols for numbers and the large and small letters of the alphabet to try to set her up a new e-mail address. I'm sure it was the best way to have a meaningful cultural interaction out of the overblown tourist orbit of guided tours of the hill tribes. Christine's knees are so stiff she has to walk down the stairs sideways!

Family lunch for the weary trekkers

Into China

After our severe trekking episode in the hills the day before with Yan the Hmong woman we met who took us to her village, the last day in Sapa I took a motorbike ride in the rain down to some of the Hmong, Dzai and Dao villages to see the villages in the valley and get past Vietnamese tourist control.

Lowland rice paddies with Hmong and Dao villages

Then we took off in a minibus to the border where we managed to cross without undue difficulty, despite bad relations between Vietnam and China over clashes in the South China Sea, leading to riots in Vietnam and thousands of Chinese being evacuated and some Frenchmen in Sapa told me they had heard there were troop movements into the border area.

The Friendship Bridge from Vietnam looking across at China