Vietnam 🇻🇳: Exploring Sapa hills & tribes; Feliz Cumpleaños 👧🏻 🇨🇴

Our last day in Hanoi was the 28th of January. That meant Laura had only hours left to her 25th birthday. Celebrations began at German style Legend Beer restaurant in Hanoi before we picked up our stuff from the hotel and headed over to the train station.

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A night on Fansipan express 🚉

To save a little time, but also for the experience, i booked a ln 8,5h sleeper train service to Lao Cai, the main town in the province. The train, named after the highest mountain on the indochina peninsula, is one of several trains carrying tourists between Sapa and Hanoi. Reviews are mixed with concerns on noise, cleanliness etc. In our case, just noise was an issue as the train tracks and train have come of age. We also had a little trouble with an overly ambitious a/c, but otherwise quite ok.

The cabin was cosy and the ride out of Hanoi very exciting as the train literally passes right through residential and business areas. Flats and shops close up… Just like we witnessed during sightseeing earlier in the day.

Once you leave Hanoi behind you, there are some more stops on the way, but best to sleep (unless partying tourists next door have decided otherwise).

By 6am we arrived in Lao Cai and transferred for 40mins to Sapa. Very sleepy start to Laura’s special day and the windy road to Sapa was also a challenge for our stomachs 🤢. Thankfully the operator of our hiking tour later had organised a hotel room… So 🚿 and 🛏 and 😴

Sapa hills 🏞️, Sapa tribes 🧒🏽👧🏽

By 8.30 we had managed to brew up a pho ga soup and met our guide – a 21y old woman from the black hmong tribe.

She led the way out of Sapa and immediately some beautiful views of the rice terraces presented themselves. Two sisters from her village came along and immediately engaged Laura in conversation.

The whole trek was some 13km included three major villages on the way. The guide even took us to her house where she still lives with her family after studying tourism in Hanoi. Pretty dark these traditional houses that also serve for food storage (mainly for the once annual rice harvest in September and corn). However, good conversation and a little happy water (rice wine) lightened up the house 💦 😊 🏡

Tribes in the Sapa region

About 74 million, out of 90 million people living in Vietnam, are Kinh ethnic group or true Vietnamese. The rest of 16 million are ethnic minorities of Tay (about 2%), Tai  (≈1,8%), Muong (≈1,5%), Khmer Krom (≈1,5%), Hmong (≈1,2 %), Nung  (≈1,1%), Hoa (≈1%) and others.

Hill tribes in Sapa – good read

We learned a few things during the day. I guess the best story was about how the black hmong get married when man set out to kidnap their wifes. Usually this happens around the lunar new year and normally for girls aged 16y to 18y. Our guide, at 21y, already belongs to the older generation in that regards. What a contrast to London or the US where a wrong comment can cost your job or worse.

Men clearly retain a preferred status in their society. In fact, it is completely acceptable to have several women should the first one (ones) not produce a male heir 👦🏼. Should a man find himself drunk, women are expected to take care of them. Heading home alone would be rather upsetting for the husband.

Upgrade 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

We got back to Sapa early afternoon and laura was in for a surprise. I had booked a room in the new Sofitel (which opened 6w earlier) – Hotel de la Coupole. 

So shower, rest, french cafe, swimming pool… Time to spoil ourselves a little. The hotel management threw in a free upgrade and a chocolate cake birthday wish too. Truly 5 star.

Feliz cumpleaños amor. Gracias por el año pasado, por el tiempo feliz y (a veces) triste pero siempre muy especial, por los momentos formidables y malo en muchos lugares differentes, por todos. Eres una mujer increíble! Eres mi vida. Te amo. ❤😍😘

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For dinner we still opted to go elsewhere. It was low season and pretty empty… So more pho soup? Yes for laura while i enjoyed a tasty sapa soup.

For breakfast the hotel had our loyalty back… What an amazing selection. Sadly, we only had so much time as our bus towards the Laos border.

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Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: 3 days in Hanoi – goodbye ‘La Furiosa’ 🏍 😔

After 2,800km crisscrossing through Vietnam on our beloved motorbike we made it to the capital Hanoi. There were so many beautiful stops on the way… It will take some time to sink in (probably i need to read my own blogs ro recall it all). More lies ahead in the north of Vietnam and afterwards Laos.

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2,800km on 🏍 through 🇻🇳

Adios La Furiosa

We had decided to finish our motorbike trip here and sell La Furiosa 🏍 instead of taking it further to Laos. The market in Hanoi is just bigger and so we advertised it on facebook.

First up though i had to find someone who could remove a broken screw (i broke it) from the cylinder and fix my exhaust again. Right now, i had the loudest bike in town, no power and would find it hard to sell the bike like this.

It was surprisingly hard as none of the normal bike repair guys wanted the job. Eventually a found a welder who did it for USD8. Nice to have the baby back up and running.

Owing to Laura’s persistence, we soon got some interest (vs. none for my original post 🤔… Must be the fb foto). Sadly, the first prospective buyer from the US didn’t like how the bike revved. In hindsight, the clutch slipped a bit which i fixed by simply loosening the cable a tiny bit.

So we ended up selling to a local dealer losing U$220 vs. purchase. Together with the repair cost we had it still worked out cheaper than renting.

Still, for a 3-4w trip i would probably rent next time. Didn’t like the uncertainty of selling at the end. Am pretty sure that some people get really bad deals as they have to catch flights.

Bye, bye La Furiosa!

Hanging out in Hanoi

I like Hanoi, probably more than HCM even though both have crazy traffic. On our first night we headed to the night market, but there were just tourists so that you can hardly move… Dont go!

So we made it over to beer street with more locals about enjoying the extended opening hours (until 2am in w/e & no traffic). So spring rolls, pho soup and Saigon special it is!

There is a lake right in the center of hanoi with some mystery to it – the lake of the returned sword. Legend says that the sword given to the emperor to defeat the chinese ming now rests here. At night it is particularly nice to watch.

For our first full day, after a massage, we booked a walking tour with local students around old town and talked a lot about all sort of things – after all it is not easy to communicate here.

Highlight was the french style train bridge and the art street with dog roast vendors – something i saw for the first time and Laura is disgusted by being dog lover and born in the year of the dog.

Chinese Zodiacs

The Chinese zodiac is a classification scheme that assigns to each animal and its reputed attributes every 12-year cycle. The 12-year cycle is approximating to the 11.85-year orbital period of Jupiter.

I am born in the year of the goat. Depending in which part of the 12y in 60y cycle the goat is born it is classified by element – Metal (gold), wood, fire, earth, water. I am an earth goat 🐐 – so i am ‘Righteous, honest, straightforward, and will never harm my friends.‘ Well,

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Talking of Chinese zodiacs, the upcoming Tet festival or lunar new year was ever-present. Markets were loaded with all sorts of chinese decoration ahead of the big party on 3rd of February. Around that time Vietnam enjoys two weeks holiday. Sadly, we will miss it. At least we now know what the meaning of all trees is – kind of a xmas tree for lunar new year.

Having managed to sell the bike by day 3 in the morning, we had time to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum. Sadly the former is closed all Mondays while the latter monday afternoons. So just a peep from the outside.

Back in the center it was time for a little shopping, dinner and off we went to catch the night train north towards Sapa… The final big stop on our Vietnam itinerary.

Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: Halong bay – Extremely scenic, extremely touristy…

Distance this section: 220km |Total distance: 2,800km

We arrived in Halong city after riding all afternoon from Ninh Binh. The sun had already set. We checked into the hotel and headed to a local market for a hot-pot dinner amidst locals. Tasty. It was also full moon adding a bit of extra ambience.

All aboard!

So far we hadn’t booked a boat trip hoping to cut a decent last-minute deal. Well, we didn’t and barely made it on time to our cruise that we arranged last minute through whatsapp. To locate the boat amidst thousands of others and with directions in broken english turned out to be a real challenge. But… We made it!

Fingers crossed no-one steals the motorbike that we left short notice at the staff parking spot of the official ferry terminal of the Tuan Chau marina 😱

Halong Bay Basics

Halong Bay is an area of extraordinary natural beauty, situated in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh Province, close to the Chinese border. Declared world heritage in 1994.

Comprised of a multitude of karst limestone islands and islets rising from the sea, in a variety of sizes and shapes and presenting picturesque, unspoiled nature.

Total area of around 1,553 sqkm & 1,960 islands and islets, mostly limestone.

The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments.

Less than half of the islands have been named.

Decent itinerary

Titop island: Named after a Russian general that helped train the Vietnamese army and visited the island withHo Chi Minh. Super scenic, but completely overrun.

Cu Van floating village by kayak: Local fishermen life on boats in sadly dying communities. Tourism and still fishing keep them going. However, only existing habitants can stay in the floating villages. New ones aren’t allowed to protect the world heritage park. All very interesting, especially the traditional wedding song performance.

Surprising cave: No match for the caves you find in Phong Nha Ke Bank (Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: Phong Nha Ke Bang national park & Paradise cave) national park, but still quite huge!

Pearl farm: Pretty similar experience than we had in Phu Quoc (Vietnam 🇻🇳: Phu Quoc island)

Kayaking Luon Cave: Pretty scenic and good to do some activity for a change.

Fun time on the boat & Spanish practice

The time on the boat was never too much given the host of activities. In addition, there was the nightly welcome drinks, spring roll cooking class and of course lots of time eating.

Food was average, but that may have been down to me not liking seafood that much. On the other hand, we shared our table with two Spanish guys. They are crisscrossing Asia on their tour (eg Halong Bay and a night in Hanoi is their Vietnam experience) and were fun to hang out with.

Motorbike not stolen, but not working 😕

Back at the marina i checked the bike right away. It was still there, but for some reason the ignition didn’t work. I just couldn’t turn the key 🤷‍♂️. Damn!

In the marina area there are also no bike repair shops. So i pushed until i found a shop selling all sort of tools and hardware – presumably for ships. Using a screwdriver and some force helped to close the electronic cycle and start the engine… Just it kept switching off.

That way we made it out of the marina and to a shady bike shop. He replaced the ignition and off we went to Hanoi.

Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: Ninh Binh – massive temple, stunning scenery

Distance this section: 250km | Distance total: 2,580km

Our nightbus experience was fun though made for a short night as we left the bus 3.30am just outside the center and close to a petrol station to refuel (transport requires an almost empty tank). Good news was that the bike was in good shape – mirrors back into position and good to go.

Now there were two options – stay awake or find a hotel. Turns out 👧🏻 there is really only one option – find a hotel. It didn’t take too long and we dozed off into the remainder of the night.

What to see in Ninh Binh?

  • Bai Dinh Temple: What an amazing place! I didn’t research the place much beforehand and expected to see yet another pagoda. Turns out to be the largest temple complex i have seen yet. It is in fact the largest in Vietnam. The whole place is arranged on a hill and you climb endless number of stairs (all lined by stone figures) until you reach the tower at the top. Along the way are loads of other huge temples and pagodas 🏯.
  • Boat trip in Trang An: Around Ninh Binh you find some amazing Karst landscape that also featured in King Kong movies (skull island etc). Get on a boat trip to see the rocks, paddle through caves and visit some amazing temples.

BBQ & goat vietnam style 🐔🦶+🐐

Apart from Pho soup, we bumped into a place with local BBQ similar to what they do in south korea. Crucial difference are ingredients with some weird stuff on offer like chicken feet.

Apart from the BBQ, goats that graze in the limestone mountains are a local speciality. We passed though.

And off we go to Halong Bay – this time in nice and dry conditions (the sun remains shy though). 🏍 ☀

Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: Phong Nha Ke Bang national park & Paradise cave

Distance this section: 720km | Distance total: 2,330km

There was no hiding… We had to leave the thermal bath behind us in yet again rainy conditions (and with gear still wet despite best efforts… A/C just doesn’t dry stuff). ☔ Half way through, after a stop for pho soup to warm up, we discovered a shop for ponchos, gloves and Wellington’s. Great business for the shop owner. Naturally, the rain stopped as soon as we put the new gear on 🤷‍♂️🤔

Our way to Phong Nha led us past Dong Hoi where we found ourselves suddenly riding through a landscape full of sand dunes (which we would explore upon our return from Phong Nha). Impressive really.

Phong Nha Ke Bang National park

We were pretty lazy during our time there (watching a lot of Lucifer on netflix 👿). Another oil change and tightened chain to keep the 🏍 happy. Out highlight in town was the easytiger hostel. Nice outdoor space, many other travellers, live music and ok-ish pizza.

Phong Nha background

  • UNESCO world heritage site
  • One of the world’s two largest karst regions with 300 caves and grottoes dating back 400m years
  • About 130km discovered cave length in total

We didn’t opt to book a day or multiday tour to see the park though there are really good ones on offer (though not cheap with two-day tours priced north of U$300 pP). Check out oxalis for details.

Instead, we went on the circular route and visited a cave, the botanical garden and took in the amazing scenery.

Largest caves in the world

  • Son Doong Cave, Vietnam.
  • Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, U.S.A.
  • Mulu Caves, Borneo.
  • Sistema Sac Actun, Mexico.
  • New Athos Cave, Georgia.

Son Doong Cave

The botanical gardens weren’t all that spectacular bar a waterfall and some monkeys. The way to the gardens, however, was super atmospheric!

Much better and impressive was our visit to paradise cave – a huge cave system discovered in 2005. It measures 31km length, up tp 70m height and 150m width (though only a 1km section is open to public). Really worthwhile seeing without having to hike too far or stay in the woods overnight. In the park you can also explore the worlds largest cave – Son Doong, that is if you have 6 days and U$3000 spare. There is also the Phong Nha cave with its. 7km underground river. Next time 😉.

Instead of heading straight north to Ninh Binh by bike, we intended to take the overnight train from Dong Hoi. Sadly, no train that could transport 🏍 today though a very helpful lady (that spoke good 🇬🇧) got us a night bus ticket – 🏍 included! Off to Ninh Binh just as all of Vietnam was celebrating their unexpected victory over Jordan in the Asia cup to reach the quarterfinals. Go 🇻🇳!