Those who choose to travel in the north of Vietnam are more than likely planning on visting Sa Pa to see the beautiful scenery. However the question is how to visit.
Solo– If doing it on your own make sure to have your route well mapped (there aren’t signs) and stay overnight at homestays as it makes a massive difference.
From Hanoi-there are usually two transport options; overnight bus or train. I would personally recommend the bus as its quicker, cheaper and surprisingly comfortable.
Sa Pa trip-so you decide to trek but with so many options which trip do you choose?
- Make sure the guide is from one of the local tribes as they will be able to explain the diffrent cultures which helps enrich the experience.
- Make sure the travel agency works directly with locals and not intermediate companies.
- Please book a package with a homestay and not a hotel. It might not be as nice but you will get amazing local food and actually get to know the locals-plus loads and loads of rice whiskey.
One final thought-I already started to see lots of industrialisation e.g. hyrdo plant. So go in the next few years as it wont be the amazing local experience soon.
I wasn’t really sure how to judge Ha Long bay in Vietnam. On the one hand its some of the most amazing sights I have seen. On the other its touristville. Whether you explore as part of a tour or do it on your own having to book on tourist ships there is no escape.
So instead of telling you to go or not. I thought sharing some key pictures of what you will see would help with the decision.
The stunning caves
National Park on Cat Be island
What was your experience of Ha Long Bay?
In an earlier article I mentioned how crazy Hanoi is, and I still stand by this. Hanoi for me personally is like a really ugly dog; its not appreciated to start with but then it starts to grow on you.
What’s good-top tip visit Hanoi between Friday- Sunday.
Night market (between Friday to Sunday): The weekend brings a long street being closed in old town and transformed into a buzzing market with foods and local wares.
Cooking class: For me personally I get to know a culture via the food. I choose Apron Up cooking class as one of the cheapest and best reviewed. This was the best class I have done since travelling. Not only did I get a true flavour for the markets and the food, but the teacher was passionate about sharing Vietnam’s culture.
Hanoi Prison: this prison has been turned into a museum. Entry 30,000 Dong. The museum charts the French occupation, the liberation and then the treatment of American prisoners. Although i’m sure there is bias its a really interesting museum.
Vietnamese Woman Museum: Entry 30,000 Dong. This may be the most interesting of all the museums. It gives a take on Women’s lifes from different regions. It includes marriage, birth, jobs and modern life.
Essence Hanoi hotel restaurant: Don’t get me wrong the street food is amazing in Hanoi but sometimes you need to escape. This restaurant while expensive in Vietnamese standards(not western) is beautiful with attentive staff and delicious food.
Ba Be National Park is situated about 250km north of Hanoi. I came across this place while doing research that would fulfil my need for nature and peace. And this is exactly what Ba Be does, nature and peace.
So if you want to relax, listen to nature, eat good home food at a homestay, hike and explore the massive lake go to Ba Be. If however you want bars, cafes/restaurants, shopping etc Ba Be will be your hell.
Top tips for Ba Be
- Find a home stay on the actual lake, its beautiful at sunrise/set.
- Transport-getting to Ba Be can be tricky. If coming from Hanoi don’t rely on local buses. Hire a car/bike or a private transfer (Q-Bus express).
- If like me you don’t like to trek/hike with other people then download the mapsme App because it shows some trials (they don’t show up on googlemaps).
Remember Ba Be isn’t a massive tourist hotspot so the locals while lovely often don’t speak any English-its their country so don’t expect it.
Ready to get out of Hanoi and into nature I decide on the National Park of Ba Be. My research told me it was hard to get to but my hostel organised it.
So it started with a mo-ped whizzing through traffic with my backpack on his leg rest and me grabbing on for dear life. Then onto a cute little bus, where rows of four seats became 6 thanks to wooden planks. I felt like a circus attraction with a young lady staring at me fascinated by my blue eyes. But what can you do but embrace the new and laugh.
The bus ends in a tiny village in the dark at the wrong place! the bus driver organises a motorbike to my homestay. On the back of a motorcycle we whiz through dirt roads in the dark dodging pot holes and sleeping cows.
I feel this experience more than any so far has helped me realise my growth. The old me would have totally freaked out, but I am appreciating the new and when in doubt just laugh.
Also future tip nature lovers book the QBus express, a private bus that goes from Hanoi to home stays in Ba Be.
So there’s no two ways about it, for a somewhat middleclass western Asia virgin this place is fucking crazy. The question is it a good crazy?
So my first day here jet lagged I was almost in tears. In a city with 6 million mopeds and no regard for traffic lights or crossings I was sure I was going to die. I like to think that I have become a bit of an explorer the last 9 months, but I ashamed to say I found the most Western restaurant in a fancy hotel to escape. By the time I could check into my hostel I was sure I had made a major mistake….
Day 4, armed with sleep and the return of my adventurous spirit I have decided that Hanoi is now a good crazy.
Tips for changing Hanoi to a good crazy
- Ignore everything you learnt about traffic. You need to be aggressive getting across the roads without fear. Strangely since adopting this attitude no one has come near to hitting me.
- Get a local guide and ask questions. Hanoi has a strange layout and food scene. It is well worth getting a tour. If on a serious budget use couchsurfing to find a local. They want to practice their English, so a win win.
- Just point and smile at the food you want. The worst case scenario is you don’t like the food and wasted a couple of pound/dollars.
- Use the hostel/hotel reception-you may have to pay a slight premium in Vietnamese standards to book things but you gain peace of mind.