Vietnam doesn't only offer heavily congested streets and compact city life. It is also a wonder of natural beauty. We followed the trekked path of others before us to the immaculate Ha Long Bay which is the first common stop outside of Hanoi for most travelers.
We booked this trip directly through our hostel but if you're going to take a couple days off to sail the waters of the bay then we suggest you shop around for best prices and various options at the many travel agents in Hanoi. (See the end of this post for more details on tours.) The bay is an extremely bumpy 3 hour drive from Hanoi. It is well worth the ride, though, and getting out on the water reveals the immense beauty of the area which is covered with thousands of tropical islands. It's just incredible to be out on the calm waters and take in the seemingly infinite panoramics of island upon island in its changing greens, blues and other natural hues.
On the boat itself you can basically relax, chill or vegetate. Take your pick. We had brilliant meals, most of which were seafood (treif, but hey, when in 'nam). We had flowing drinks (not included but certainly consumed). We had karaoke (seems to be the ocean standard of all the boats). There were also included tours to caves and fishing villages. And you could swim or try your hand at squid fishing at night.
After the boat trip, we headed back to Hanoi with a couple hours to spare before boarding an overnight train to Sapa for the other beaten track tour of Hanoi visitors. This one is a hike and overnight stay in the Sapa Valley. We had no idea what to expect from this trip but managed to piece together bits of information here and there, though, looking back we were probably a little under prepared for it. (See the end of this post for more details on tours.) Again, this is a beautiful area with incredible views but we didn't find it as striking as Ha Long. We had just missed the rice harvest by a few weeks and apparently the area is even more beautiful when the rice plants are fully blooming. It was still great to be walking out in the open, through rice fields and up and down mountains. The villages were pretty interesting and we chose to be put up in a home stay/eco-village for the night. This was to get the full experience but we were quite surprised that our home stay had internet, hot water showers and flushing western toilets. The second day took us on a crazy trek through a bamboo forest. We definitely weren't prepared for this (or, in general, expecting the level of the hike at all) and felt like we'd conquered something when we made it out the forest muddied but without slipping and no scratches. Whenever walking through a village or stopping for meals, there is usually a horde of local ladies and girls trying to sell their village's products to you. Although, this borders on annoying with all of the "You buy from meeeeee"s, we managed to find some fun in it with some of the younger sellers giving good comebacks to our incessant "no thank yous" like "No thank you. yes thank you!" or to "no money" we once got "no money, no honey!".
Before catching the night train back to Hanoi, we got to wander through the main Sapa town for a few hours. It's quite a nice, quaint town and caters very well to tourists. The train back was a much more chilled ride with a lot more sleep helped along by some very, very cold Hanoi beers to celebrate our and our cabin mates successful treks.
From the calm waters and scenery of Ha Long to the most hardcore mlungu trekking we've done to date between the local villages of Sapa, these two short trips are definitely recommended.
Trek on...Brett and Darren
P.S. Ha Long Bay:
Most trips to Ha Long Bay include a 3 hour bus ride to the bay and back and are either 2 or 3 days, 1 night or 2 nights respectively. The only difference between the two is that the 3 day tour gives you most of an extra day on land at a hotel to chill and relax and, generally, the extra night at a hotel as well. We don't think it offers much more than you'd get out of the 2 day tour but if you're wanting to spend more time on a boat or in the bay then this is an option. Your other choices will be the level of luxury on the boat and these also range quite a bit. Our boat was very nice and comfortable with full en suite bathrooms in the rooms and excellent food. The general rule of thumb is to avoid the really cheap trips and try find one in the mid range. Another way of doing the bay is to stay at a hotel on the bay and do day tours on the water. We never knew at the time but Hanoi Backpackers has their famous Booze Cruise which is about USD 270 but includes all you can drink...heard some very interesting stories bout this one. Hanoi Backpackers is also a decent place to get a reasonable priced tour so include it as one of your research stops.
Here again there are many different options to chose from. We chose a 2 day 1 night home stay (sleeping in a local village) option which had 2 nights on a train - 1 there, 1 back. The train is a standard 4 sleeper compartment but clean and comfortable. The other common option is to rather spend the night at a hotel. Also common is to do 2 nights in Sapa. The number of nights is up to you: one of the couples at our home stay were doing 4 nights, each one in a different village. The degrees of difficulty of the hike are also up to you: it can be a flat easy walk for a short while, or no hike and just drive around, or, as the guys that we shared a train compartment with did, a 2 day climb up the highest peak in Sapa (they did it in 2 days but its more commonly done in 3).