We were all so excited to be hitting our 7th country, the coastal country of Vietnam. Our first stop was the capital city of Hanoi. Kate and I were meeting Liv there as we booked separate flights due to their boys being out here. Kate and I did intend on having an early night but we were crammed in my box room with the little bed to share and it was pretty sweaty so wasn't going to be good sleeping conditions. Think we headed to bed around 1.30am. At 3.30am we had three alarms all ringing out with different annoying sirens. We dragged ourselves up, checked out and got a cab to the airport. We now had three issues that could potentially make this a very bad journey. 1; we needed to change up some money into US Dollars and Vietnam Dong. 2; we hadn't printed our e-tickets, so we were hoping you didn't need them and 3. We were trying to enter Vietnam with an invalid visa, our visa wasn't until the following day. We managed to tackle no.1 very easily, our first 'high-five' of the day. Then after an excruciatingly long AirAsia check-in que, we managed to tackle no.2 very easily as we got our boarding passes with no worries. Just number 3 and we would have a full house! We arrived in Vietnam at 8.30am *yawn*, went to passport control, I somehow ended up going first. The guy noticed our visas, had a word with his boss and they both tutted but stamped me in. Wahoo, no fine for entering without a valid visa! They obviously had to then stamp Kate's passport too. Full house, high-fives on the way to baggage claim. We found a shuttle bus that would take us into the city centre for $2, not bad value but they did pack us in like sardines. We wandered the town, with the lonely planet book stuck to my nose, following the map to Hanoi Backpackers hostel. After 40 minutes of walking, we made it! Or at least we thought we did. We went to the original HB hostel rather then the second one! Grrrr. We gave up on being cheap and hopped in a taxi. We arrived, 30,000 dong later - that sounds alot but that's only around £1. It's going to take a while to get used to this currency. The weather was alot colder to what we'd been used to, people had long sleeves and trousers on, it seemed alien to us but we definitely needed to dig out our warm gear. The hostel let us check in early and we fell asleep for about 4 hours or so, while we waited for Liv to arrive. Once we were reunited, we headed out to book our trip up to Sapa for a couple of days hiking. Sapa is a northern village, 10 hour train journey out of Hanoi. It's known for its mountain hikes and trekking around the local areas. We finally decided to book the trip for the next day with our hostel. Purely for convenience, insurance (if anything went wrong) and to help make sure we had similar age people on our trip. That night was a bit of a write off, we ended up just showering and chilling in the room. I caught up on a new episode of The Wire and fell asleep. That night was absolutely freezing, we weren't used to these cooler temperatures and so ended up sleeping with two layers on.
The next day, I woke up really early, well 8am. We hadn't made it out for dinner the day before so I was starving. The other two girls were still fast asleep so I had breakfast alone, grabbed a map from reception and went on a tourist walk around the city. It was like no where I had been before. The motorbikes were out in force, coming from every direction, all beeping their horns to make you aware where they were. There was hardly ever a break in traffic so crossing the road was near enough impossible. The idea was to just walk and they would dodge you but I just kept thinking - this is how Kelly got run over in Chiang Mai. I quickly made up a rule in my head 'they will only swerve never stop'. There were shops after shops, selling clothes, souvenirs and sweets/biscuits/drinks by the bulk (like makro's on the streets). I went to the tourist attractions pointed out on the map. The Ngoc Son temple, which is a famous place of historical and cultural interest at the heart of the city of Hanoi, its located in the middle of a lake so you have to cross over a red bridge that's decorated with Vietnamese flags. I also went to the gate to the old city and the Dong Xuan market. After I had a dog nip at my foot, have a lady put her food baskets on my shoulder, asking me to buy pineapple and have multiple men on scooters saying 'photo bike, photo bike' to me - thought it was best to head back to the hostel. I met up with the girls and we went round the same places and discovered other similar streets. We were quite hungry and started looking for places to eat. We looked and looked and looked but everywhere was either, local people sitting outside on mini chairs and tables with no menus (so quite daunting to approach!) or cafes that didn't sold food. No idea why we had such an issue because no one else seemed to mention anything to us but we gave in and ended up eating at the hostel. The food was not good, but it was edible. We pottered around the hostel, packed up our bags for the trip and waited for the taxi to the train station to go to Sapa. It was the first time we met our group of campers, we had a lovely british girl called Helen (who had been travelling for 2 years!!), another English guy called Hamet and then two Dutch girls and a German guy. We headed towards the train, it was a rickety old thing, looked similar to an old steam train. The rooms were for 4 people, Helen shared with us, the beds were bunks but they were hung off the walls rather then stacked on top of each other. The night was an interesting sleep, I was on the bottom bunk so I didn't rock around to much. I could still feel the tilting of the train, like my head was about to fall out the window. Gosh, I imagine that would be considered first class compared to what India will be like. Anyway, we slept what we could.
There was an abrupt wake up call at 5am, the train man banging on our door because we was about to arrive in Lao Cai. The tour guide met us in the car park and transferred us to Sapa. We were driving so far up in the hills that my ears popped twice on the hour drive. It was so foggy too, we couldn't see out of the windows so no idea how the driver could see. He was just constantly beeping so that other drivers knew he was there. I think he was tired too because he insisted on having this awful music on, at an unnecessary loud volume, considering it was 6am. We got off the bus in what felt like minus temperatures, fighting through the fog to find the hotel reception. They directed us to the showers available but no chance was I getting undressed when I was this cold. Us three did cuddle on a single bed with a blanket stretched over us to keep as warm as possible, while we waited for breakfast to be prepared. I happily forced down 4 mini-cups of coffee and a random dish of noodles, egg, rice, bananas and pancakes for breakfast. I figured this amount of food was acceptable to eat because I needed the warmth and to carb up for the hike ahead. Mmm, or just an excuse to be a lard. The group went on a discover to find the local market to try to purchase some warmer items of clothing. I only had one jumper and was currently freezing in it. As soon as we left the hotel, there was a group of 5/6 minority women, some with children on their backs, that started to walk next to us. We found them really interesting, dressed in their village clothes, black velvet trousers and tops with colourful detail sown in different patterns, wearing head scarfs and traditional hats. Not sure what they wanted at first; did they want money, was they going to rob us? Anyway they walked with us through the town, asking our names, where were from, how old we are etc etc. Then they helped us with the language barrier at the market, explaining different things to us. Kate, Liv and I bought matching head scarfs for fashion as well as warmth! (Mum and Aunties, it reminded me of your three hats in Nepal). I didn't end up buying another jumper, just some socks (?) and a poncho incase it rained. We regrouped at the hotel and got on our way, I remembered to pack less stuff this time as it all gets dirty in the first 10 minutes of wearing it anyway so you may as well wear the same thing. We were shown through the market by the guide and explained a little about snake and scorpion wine. Yes it looked as rank as it sounded, surprisingly no one bought any. Next was the meat market, I would have definitely chosen not to go through this bit if I knew what it was beforehand. Firstly there was slabs of meat already carved, could deal with this. Then came the full pig legs, then came the cow legs then came the full pigs being gutted and muscle being pulled off the bone. A man walked past me with a pig over his shoulder and the hoof brushed my arm. I looked the other way and their was a women sweeping the blood across my path. It was way to much, I started heaving, and within minutes was throwing up outside the market. I was then waiting for everyone to come out and was still surrounded by dead fish that was cut in half so you could see right the way through them. Then I saw a pigs head balanced on the side of a motorbike. Luckily the group came out and we left. I think I threw up another 3 times over the next half an hour walk. I didn't care what I looked like, that was vile and something no one should have to see unless they want to. We spent the next four hours or so walking through rice paddy fields, still with the minority women with us. I was the first the slip over in the sludgy clay mud. It had to be didn't it, miss clumsy injured herself again, only some scratches and a bruised bum though oh and covered my behind, bag and hands in whatever it was on the floor. I'm still telling myself there wasn't any animal dung there. I managed to rinse my hands in a rice paddy but the water was far from clean. After more walking the women made us little presents made out of fern leaves, little hearts on sticks and Kate got a little fern horse. We made it though until lunch, it was time to say goodbye to the minority women. This is when their motive became apparent, they had cleverly pulled on our heart strings along the journey so that when they tried to sell us souvenirs, we couldn't say no. Well I could because I had only got a little bit of money left and I needed that for water and food. Some of the group bought things and some of the group didn't and some got truly conned into buying loads of stuff. A well earned lunchtime rest was appreciated, plus a big bowl of rice noodles with a fried egg on top went down a treat. We then had another two hour trek until we got to the home stay hill tribe where we would spend the night. Well the trek was meant to take two hours but we ended up taking longer because we wanted to see more of the villages that we was walking through. We went past a kindergarten school and I asked if we could go in so we did and one of the class even sung us a little song. Very sweet. Our guide then took us into an old mans house and joked that the two room house with no beds was our home stay. It was really awkward because we didn't want to insult this man that was sitting on the floor next to his fire but we couldn't work out if he was kidding or not. Finally he gave in and said he was messing around, we didn't really understand the humour behind it but we moved on. Arriving at the home stay, we were welcomed by the family, and all sat around a big table overlooking the views. There was also another group there too, so we got to know each other a bit more, sharing stories and advice - the normal backpacker stuff! There were showers at the home stay so we all took our turns at freshening up before dinner. We were starving, had a starter of chips to share at around 6.30pm but then had a 90 minute wait for the actual meal. Argh, we were like hungry dogs sitting around that table. Finally the feast arrived, rice, tofu, cabbage and egg spring rolls. Yummy! Well there was duck dishes on the table too. Although earlier on, I reminded the kitchen that there was veggies in the group so the tour guide decided he would come out to show everyone the duck he had just killed for dinner. Surprised how anyone could have eaten it. Blergh. During dinner the tour guides brought over bottles of rice wine and insisted we did shots throughout the meal. One was enough but I think I ended up doing 7, they just kept on filling it up saying it would be back luck if we didn't drink it. The others had the good idea of hiding their glasses so they got away with not having anymore. We played a few cringe games with the guide but by 10pm we'd all had enough and went to bed. Although the rice wine was rank, it definitely warned me up for the cold night ahead.
I woke up at 9.30am, oppsy, slept a little longer then I needed to but luckily everyone had only been up for a short while and Kate was still asleep. We had a big pancake breakfast, thanked the family for their hospitality and got back on with the walk. I suppose my feedback would be the same as my Chiang Mai trek; they say you're going on a home stay but we didn't spend any time with the family or learn anything about their lifestyle. Kind of what you would expect to happen on a home stay. We spent the morning walking off breakfast and making our way along the trail. Fighting our way through the bamboo jungle, trying not to slip on the mud, grabbing onto bamboo trees to keep me from falling. There were new minority women that had joined us for the mornings walk. We knew their game this time so I didn't accept their help when they offered it. Once we had battled the jungle we came to an opening where there was a waterfall falling down on slate rock. It's was beautiful and so Kate and I went on a climb to take some photos. Miss injury popped up again, I managed to slip on some moss, and fell about a metre down before I could stabilise myself. Don't worry, I couldn't have fell far in the area I was in but I still managed to mess up my elbow and drag a load of dirt and slime down my legs, bum and back. We carried on walking down, over a rickety old bridge to the base of the waterfall. There was a chance to have a swim but it was far to chilly for that! Carrying on another hike up the other side of the hill, we made it to the lunch stop. Grateful to sit down, we waited for our lunch, all the while being harassed by the village children to buy their bracelets. After a bowl of noodles topped off with a fried egg, we got picked up and headed back to Sapa town. The group then decided to go on a little stroll around the town. Plus we needed to stretch our legs a bit because they were already starting to seize up. It felt like a little ski town, lots of little French looking buildings with mountains in the distance and a big lake. We headed back to the market we went to before and was all craving donuts, us girls bought one each. They were interesting things, I took a bite and immediately asked if they were vegetarian. They looked like fat and the texture tasted like it too. Kate found a hair in hers and quickly spat it out then Liv and I was soon after. Donuts are now on my vile list, no longer craving them. Just had time to fit in a shower before we got picked up for the overnight train to Hanoi. The car journey to the station was interesting to say the least. The fog was settling in on the mountains and the sky was dark, it created an eery feel to the journey. It didn't help that the roads were bearly big enough to fit two cars either side, not to mention the constant stream of motorbikes. At one point, the bus shrieked to a stop because there was a drunk man stupidly laying in the road with a girl trying to pick him up. It didn't seem to fade the driver in anyway because he quickly carried on the journey. When we got to the train station, we looked at the map and turned out we was only 2km from the Chinese boarder, no idea we was so close! This time I was on the top bunk and it was a lot more rocky, swaying from with side. A restless night sleep broken by an unneeded 4.30am banging on the room door. We then had an hour before we arrived, no idea why they woke us up so early. Easy transfer back to the hostel and a little kip in the lounge room while we waited for breakfast. The day was just a chilled one, got our washing done, had a mooch around and waited for our reunion with Christa (Canadian friend from Australia) and the lovely Ashley Ta from home, plus it was Ashes birthday so party party tonight!!
I'm glad I did another trekking trip. I preferred the views in Sapa but I preferred the learning and trekking experience in Chiang Mai. They both offered difference things, I just wish it was a little bit more authentic. I suppose the more people hear about these places the more the town feeds of the tourist opportunities. Just a shame we didn't come here 10 years ago. Would definitely give Sapa the thumbs up and a must visit!