Navigating Northern Vietnam

Nick and I love our new life on the road. We are having a blast getting lost, eating among cockroaches, sleeping in $6 guesthouses, drinking tea, being vulnerable, haggling, trying new things and sharing smiles with strangers. However, Vietnam has been challenging for us in 2 unique ways, we are overwhelmed by the number of tourists and exhausted by the scams. Maybe because Nick and I came from desolate Mongolia and aren’t use to seeing so many Westerners or maybe because it is clear that some of the locals have been exposed to mass quantities of tourists, it has been hard to adjust. In addition, it’s tiring when we have to avoid being taken advantage of financially numerous times throughout a day. Okay, keep this in mind, put on your tourist blinders and let’s explore the wonders of Northern Vietnam (Sapa, Bac Ha and the Ha Giang Province).

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Playing by the river in Coc Pang

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Harvesting rice in Coc Pang

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Sapa

Nick and I took the 6am “sleeper” bus from Hanoi to Sapa ($8.50 pp – 7 hours). Although, rather comfortable for anyone 5.3″ and under, we recommend taking it during the day as the view coming into Sapa is remarkable. 

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Sapa sits on top of tall karsts covered in lush green rice terraces, next to a plunging valley. The town itself is a tourist pit, built as a “trekking” base for tourists. After dropping off our bags at a guesthouse, Nick and I set out for a short hike to Cat Cat Village. The colorful traditional clothing and exquisite jewelry worn by woman from the surrounding hill tribes was unique and gorgeous. While in Sapa we splurged on delicious $4 honey lemongrass tofu at Nature’s View and enjoyed getting local at the late night bbq stands.

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I’d like to name my next dog Tofu. Thoughts?

The true beauty of this area lays in the surrounding villages. Nick and I planned only to spend 1 night, however since we were ahead of schedule we decided to do the typical homestay. Within 5 minutes of making our decision, we were approached by Mama Kurr and began trekking to her village (Black Hmong People). It took us 4 hours to hike up and over the mountains to her home. Along the way, we stopped at a waterfall and were shown marijuana and indigo dye plants. Mama Kurr had me rub some green plant leaves and water together and within minutes my hands were stained dark blue. This plant is used to dye fabrics, although in the West we use a synthetic compound most commonly used in jeans, the black Hmong still use this organic option. It’s fascinating how removed Westerns are from our natural resources (using marijuana for hemp, organic dyes, and harvesting rice).

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Indigo Dye plant

*Pause, side note: Tourism is interesting; on one hand I understand that I am part of the problem, a fortunate westerner who wants to see the unexplored. However, watching 7 year old village children approaching you like zombies rehearsing “1 for 5,000 – 2 for 10” and knowing that their parents are having them skip school to sell to tourists is heartbreaking. Sure, travel sustainable and give back to local communities, however is there anything else we can do to protect the beautiful people and places that are rapidly changing?

After hiking through through rice fields, we arrived at Mama Kurr’s house. The view from her “patio” was breath taking and we enjoyed drinking coffee and reading while taking it all in. The rice had recently been harvested (about 3 weeks prior) and the daily fog had settled in the valley. We played with her grandchildren and puppies and watched the pigs and chickens roam in the vacant terraces. The water buffalo observed us as we helped to prepare a delicious dinner over an open pit fire.

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Bac Ha

The next day we returned to Sapa and caught a bus to Lai Cai then another on to Bac Ha. Nick found a homestay on coachsurfing and we had a great time hanging out with a local family. We had dinner, attended the night market (traditional dance and song) and stopped for delicious chè trôi nuóc (rice flour balls in sweet ginger sesame seed tea) to end the evening.

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Homestay with Huy Trung and family
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Fishing for star fish at the night market
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che troi nuoc

The next morning Nick and I went to the Bac Ha market where local hill tribe people sold produce, water buffalo, puppies (meat?), handmade crafts, and buhn nem. The market was huge and by 10:00 packed with foreigners and locals alike. We headed 6 km out of town to the Lung Phin market where we were the only foreigners in site. This gave us a feel for what a local market actually looks like. Unfortunately, it was apparent that the local community was not thrilled by our presence.

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Hmong woman at the Bac Ha Sunday market

After the markets, we headed to Ha Giang where Nick and I rented a motorcycle to explore the most northern part of Vietnam (we strongly recommend renting from QT Motorbikes & Tour). We had a blast exploring the Ha Giang area as the next day we would set off for a longer loop. We were able to see uncut rice fields that blew in the wind and spotted a waterfall. We made it our mission to swim under the waterfall and after an hour or so of wandering in rice terraces we were rewarded with refreshing water.

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The next 3 days on the bike have been our favorite experience in Vietnam thus far. The first day was extremely cloudy and rainy. We drove up and over some (what we imagine) remarkable passes and Nick did a great job driving bumpy single lane mountain roads. We edged passed semi trucks, saw the aftermath of a bike accident and had to go around some nerve racking blind turns (don’t worry Mom and Dad we were safe!). However, we were rewarded by beautiful views, rice terraces and limestone mountains covered with vegetation. And greeted with hellos, waves and high fives from local kids.

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Ordering in a small village is always a show

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Tram Ton Pass

We spent the night in Dong Van where we explored the old quarter, a cluster of tradition Hmong houses converted into small shops and restaurants. The next day we biked over beautiful mountain passes and spent the night in Coc Pang. This small village (don’t blink or you’ll miss it) was our absolute favorite stop. We felt extremely removed from the tourist loop and welcomed by the community. We were able to share smiles and laughs  with locals while walking around town and were even invited to help a family harvest rice. The rice was cut, separated and cleaned while the family thought Nick and I were hilarious. This time in Coc Pang made the entire northern loop worth it. We know it is jealous to want an experience without foreigners, but it’s nice to get away from the crowds!

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Dzao woman herding water buffalo

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We headed back to Ha Giang, took a sleeper bus to Hanoi and now are off to Dong Ha and the DMZ. Stay tuned!

Chilling in Cat Ba

From Hanoi, Nick and Stacia took 3 buses and a ferry ($8 pp – 7 hours) and arrived at Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. Although beautiful, it seemed impossible to escape tourists (we can’t even imagine what it would be like during high season). We had a blast climbing, swimming in emerald water and kayaking through caves. We also spent time exploring the beaches, market and enjoying bia hoi (draft beer).

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Monkey Island
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25 cent bia hoi

Stay: As we stepped off the bus we were approached by a crowd, each person wanting us to stay at their hotel. Luckily, Nick had already found the Cat Ba Central Hotel II for $9 a night (double room) with ac and breakfast included. This guesthouse was a good change as it was quiet, comfortable, and had a great view. The owner was extremely helpful and I would recommend this place to anyone. 

Climbing: Nick and I were interested in climbing in Cat Ba, however had to rent gear as our bags are still full of our cold weather clothes and camping gear from Mongolia (we’ll swap it out for climbing gear at the end of the month). We were originally interested in deep water soloing, however the high costs and low tides deterred us. We rented climbing gear from Cat Ba Climbing and headed to Butterfly Valley. Anyone interested in climbing in Cat Ba, I would recommended supporting a local family and heading to Cat Ba Climbing. If you are interested in non-negotiable high prices and blonde Australian employees, head to Asia Outdoors. Nick and I rented a motorbike and were on our way to the climbs. The approach was beautiful and we had a blast, although the heat, snakes and humidity were unfamiliar.

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Butterfly Valley

Halong Bay: The next day we decided to go on a boat tour as our hotel offered a day of activities for $15 pp (kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, lunch and cruising around Halong Bay). This was the best price we could find, however there was no escaping the tourist loop. The limestone pillars jutting out of the emerald water, settling fog, fishing villages and hidden beaches made for a picturesque day.

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Hungry in Hanoi

After spending 45 days in snowy Mongolia, Nick and I were excited for some fresh food and warm weather. We spent 3 days exploring Hanoi and our stomachs were reset and elated. My college friend, Sarah works in Hanoi and we had a blast seeing a friendly face and staying at her quiet apartment. Thanks Sarah!!!!

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We landed at the airport and Nick quickly navigated the city bus as taxis cost about $20 to Hanoi. The bus is extremely easy, clean, and only costs $0.31 USD/ 7,000 D per ride. Once you sit down, you’ll be approached by a ticket man who will collect your money in exchange for a paper ticket.

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Hanoi is a charming city, bustling with motorbikes, a growing art scene, and ample amounts of foreign influence (French baguettes and architecture, Japanese mochi and matcha, and English speakers). The sidewalks are littered with plastic stools and woman selling noodles and sweets.

We enjoyed exploring the old quarter, West Lake and walking along the ceramic mosaic mural. From the mural you can see the Long Bien Bridge, this bridge was bombed multiple times by the U.S. and stopped when US POWs were put to work to repair the structure. The bridge symbolizes the strength of the people of Hanoi.

 

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Long Bien Bridge

The Vietnamese Women’s Museum was extremely informative and impactful, I would recommend it to any traveler. After, we visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum “Hanoi Hilton”, Temple of Literature, and Presidential Palace. Below is a collection of portraits I most appreciated from the Women’s Museum. Click on the photos to be directed to the photographer’s website. 

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Ho Chi Minh Museum

Fruit heaven: Dragon fruit, mangosteen, star apple (milk fruit), rambutan, durian, pamelo, longan, mango, pineapple, strawberries, bananas, and green oranges (lychee and jackfruit seasons have unfortunately come and gone).

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Rambutan

Best eats:

  • State Run Food Shop No. 37 is an absolute must! This restaurant recreates what it was like during the communist era (4 USD pp/ 100,000 D). After you order you are given replicated ration coupons that you pay for before being served. We enjoyed fried tofu, greens, fried rice and cabbage water soup as a finale (pallet cleanser). The fried rice was wonderful as it’s a home style dish my grandfather use to make. This rice sticks to the bottom of the pan (upturned dome) to become crispy browned rice, it is then ripped apart and dipped in a salty sauce. 

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  • Enjoy Vietnamese coffee while soaking in the view of the old quarter and lake (Hô Hoàn Kiêm) at Ca Phe Pho Co. It’s a little tricky to find, however once you walk through a passageway of a silk store you’ll see a bar (order here) then climb a few staircases up to a terrace that overlooks the city. 

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  • Xoi Yen offers a cheap and hardy breakfast of sticky rice, corn, corn meal dried onions and optional meat (1 USD pp). 

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  • Bun Cha Nem Cha Be Dac Kim – enjoy Bun Cha (pork) or Bun Nem (vegi option) combining, broth, rice noodles, and herbs ($2.67 USD/ 60,000 D).
  • Banh Mì 25, delicious French baguettes with ground pork and vegetables ($0.66 USD/ 15,000 D – vegi options available) 
  • The Unicorn’s Pho Cocktail, delicious and involves fire ($6.68 USD).
  • The Pan Pacific (the old Sofitel Plaza) – take the elevators on the left and head up to the 19th floor. Take stairs up to the rooftop bar and soak in the sunset.

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