We arrived in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, after a three hour flight from KL. We were met at the airport by our guide and taken to our hotel in the old quarter of Hanoi. We decided to use a tour company (Buffalo Tours) for Vietnam so that we could see as much as possible in the time we are here, so we will have a guide in each of the towns and city we are visiting and all our hotels and transportation is arranged for us, which will make a nice change. The North of Vietnam gets pretty cold in the winter so it was a bit of a shock when we first arrived here. It's the first time we've had to wear jackets for a while.
The two main areas in the centre of Hanoi are the French Quarter and the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter where we are staying is made up of loads of narrow streets and is like one big market with small shops selling everything you can think of. This is also where most of the bars, restaurants and hotels are, although most of them are small budget type hotels and a lot of backpacker hostels. The streets in the old quarter are absolutely buzzing all the time and the traffic is pretty chaotic with scooters everywhere. One of the first bits of advice we got from our guide was how to cross the road as there's a constant flow of traffic you could stand there all day waiting to cross. It takes a bit of getting used to but you just have to step out into the traffic and keep walking slowly and let the bikes go around you!
We only had one full day in Hanoi as we are coming back again after we've been to Ha Long Bay but we visited the Museum of Ethnology which explains about all the different ethnic groups or tribes (of which there are 54 apparently) within Vietnam and their different customs and traditions. Our guide was great in explaining a lot of this stuff to us about their culture and history. We also took a Cyclo tour around the old quarter which is like a small Rickshaw and a good fun way of seeing the city as its really easy to get lost if you don't know your way around. We had a coffee in the afternoon in a small cafe overlooking Hoan Kiem lake which is really nice. Apparently there's a 200 year old turtle that lives in the lake!
After dinner it was time to get transferred to the train station for an overnight sleeper train to Sa Pa. We didn't expect to get much sleep on the train but it actually wasn't too bad. It's four person cabins so we were sharing the cabin with a Vietnamese man and an older German woman. The bunks are pretty small and not the most comfortable but we managed to get a few hours sleep. The train takes about 9 hours to Lao Cai and then it's about a 45 minute drive up through the mountains to Sapa. We arrived at our hotel in Sapa in time for breakfast at about 07:30. We only had one night in Sapa so it was straight out after breakfast for a trek through the mountains.
Sapa is close to the Vietnam-China border and is about 1600m above see level high up in the mountains. The town is surrounded by mountains and deep valleys with huge rice terraces built into the hillside. It's right at the foot of the highest mountain in Vietnam, Fansipan (Phan Xi Pang) which is about 3,150m high. They are currently building a cable car from Sapa to the top of the mountain which will probably mean a massive increase in visitors so there's quite a few new hotels being built in the town. The view from our hotel was pretty stunning although it was really cloudy and overcast on our second day but our first day there was nice a sunny. We had a walk down into Cat Cat village which is a hillside village inhabited by the Hmong tribe. It does feel slightly staged for the benefit of the tourists but it was interesting to see and the surrounding scenery is stunning. The next day we had a walk up Ham Rong Mountain (Dragon Tooth Mountain) which is a really nice walk from the town centre through the hillside gardens. It's only about 200m above the town but the views of Sapa from the top are great, although it was overcast the day we went up! We also visited a couple of smaller villages (Ma Tra & Ta Phin) slightly further south of Sapa. This was really interesting to see how the local people live and work. They have a really simple way of life tending to the crops and the livestock but they seem to be quite content with what they have.
We are now on the night train back to Hanoi and from there we'll get a bus (about 3 1/2 hours) to Halong Bay on the north east coast where we'll be spending a couple of nights onboard a Junk Boat before returning to Hanoi again.