The first thing I notice about you is that you’re hot. Sweltering, unforgivingly hot. And humid too. Each time we walk outdoors we’re sweating like pigs. When we’re unlucky, we’re sweating indoors too (darn restaurants with no air-conditioning!). Much like a woman’s wrath, your summer fury is no joke.
You’re ironic too. You’re a lot like Malaysia, only maybe thirty or fourty years ago – but everywhere we went, there’s WiFi. You’re divided into two quarters – old and new – and each time we get lost, we return to Hoen Kiem Lake to readjust our bearings. Scooters and taxis are always zipping by and to cross the road takes some skill, and a huge leap of faith.
Your people are warm (no pun intended) and friendly, but we are also told to be aware of cons hanging about. Next thing we knew, we fall victim to the infamous pineapple lady who made us buy two packets of pineapple for VND 100,000 (we managed to reduce it to one), whom we would soon avoid like a plague each time we’re in town. Were we upset? For 60 seconds, but after that it was something we often laughed about. Hey, a holiday is only as good as our mindset, right?
In fact, I won’t be showing you the photo of the pineapple lady here so you can have a surprise encounter with her yourself!
2. Lao Cai City & Bac Ha Market
A 9-hour sleeper train?! My inner child is leaping with joy as I’ve always wanted to go on a long train ride. But the practical, older me is somewhat afraid that it might not be as enjoyable (ie. bumpy ride, lack of amenities, unhygienic, etc.). But the moment I see our barge, a big grin spreads across my face. The beds and duvets are comfy, there’s air-conditioning, the toilet is huge (and clean) and there’s a charging port each for our gadgets! And of course, the best traveling buddies in the world made the sleeper barge for four a perfect fit. After a good night’s sleep, we arrive at Lao Cai and proceed to the Bac Ha Market, with our friendly private guide Huy.
Bac Ha Market, you look like a place from a movie set. Every Saturday, different tribes gather in the name of business. This is also where I tried horse meat (and everything else that comes with a horse) for the first time. How did it taste like? The broth is a tasty sourish concoction, horse meat is lean and has a strong aftertaste (everything tasted like horse for the rest of the day) and its innards are… well, innards. I can only thank my Chinese heritage for being bold (and silly) enough to consume them.
Lao Cai is at the border of North Vietnam and China. We are separated from Yunnan by only a river! The heat continues to seep through our skin and we are saved by the Tou Fa lady sitting under a tree. It’s the classic soya beancurd dessert with a twist for the summer! Shaved ice is added to the dessert as a temporary but effective cure to the blistering heat.
3. Sa Pa
Sa Pa, you are gorgeous. You are easily the highlight of our trip. Most probably because it’s a lot cooler in the highlands, and we are given a nice upgrade to a private terrace for only USD 10! You are a lot quieter than Hanoi, and you’re reserved with your own charm. Our rooms do not have air-conditioning nor a ceiling fan (we are given additional stand fans) but who needs them? We have nature’s air-conditioning all around!
The views along our 6-hour hike along the paddy terrace is breathtaking, albeit tiring. Once in awhile we will be flanked by children asking us to buy handicrafts from them, and sometimes when they ask in unison, it turns into a cute, yet somewhat sad song. We know the wise thing to do is just to ignore, yet my heart silently hopes that the little ones will be able to find better pastures one day.
Gaining an insight of how the villagers live have reminded us to be truly grateful for a relatively comfortable childhood. Sometimes we forget the basics of living, of happiness. Thank you, for feeding us with nature, and everything un-modern.
4. Ha Long Bay
Your name means “descending (ha) dragon (long)” and it ties closely to the legend where a dragon descended to protect the land from surrounding enemies, hence the 1,969 islands / formations abound your waters.
I have lost my phone by now, but there’s nothing like witnessing one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World before our very eyes and making us forget about everything else in the world. I don’t think my photos do you any justice, but I know that your majestic beauty will forever be embedded in my mind, and my heart. And I will never forget the night we turn off all the lights and tacky music on the top deck of the junk boat, prop ourselves onto the deck chairs underneath the blanket of billions of stars.
5. Ninh Binh
You’re the city that once was. You’re the former capital of Vietnam, and many people refer to you as “Ha Long Bay on Land”. If I could I’d refer you as “Sa Pa on Land” too, because of your vast paddy fields! Here we have the privilege to go on boat rides paddled by the locals with their feet! Then we endure a half hour bicycle ride that left bruises to our poor bums from the bumpy terrain along the countryside. But the picturesque view reminds us that the pain is all but worth it. In fact, we would happily skip the boat ride just to cycle a little longer!
6. Hanoi, Again.
And we’ve come a full circle in our holiday. We left the most tourist-y items to the last and dragged our butts to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Temple of Literature, and some last minute souvenir shopping.
Hanoi, we shall part in the most memorable way ever. We will hit the streets tasting every good food that comes our way, just so we can bring a little bit of you home in our bellies. Thank you for your kindness, warmth and hospitality. Or in your words, “kam en“.
- Get a Trustworthy Agent (I’m not paid for this)
If it’s your first time to North Vietnam, it’s important to choose a trustworthy agent to avoid being conned by the locals (yes, it can happen). Our trip wouldn’t have been so smooth if it wasn’t for Blue Dragon Tours who handled our accommodation and transportation needs. They also provided our awesome private tour guide Huy in our Sa Pa trip and gave us plenty of freedom to roam around and get lost on our own throughout our holiday. No minute-by-minute schedules and crazy tourist guides taking us around like school children. We told them what our budget was, what we wanted, what we expected, and got it.’
- Change To USD With Your Local Agent First, Then VND (Vietnam Dong) When You’re There
Because you get much better rates this way. Also, while it is more convenient to use USD when you’re in Hanoi, you have to realize that you can still get a lot of things below a dollar. For instance, you can still get ice cream for as low as 10,000 VND, which is only around half a dollar, but because you’re a tourist, they’ll most likely round it up to a dollar for you anyway. And if you come from Malaysia like me, that’s quite a bit of money. So try to spend in VND especially for smaller purchases to save that bit and avoid being overcharged like most tourists. You can easily get good exchange rates with the local agents which are aplenty in the city center.
- Limit Yourself to Awesome Travel Buddies
Going on a holiday also means getting to know the people who travel with you better. Each time I travel, I like to recruit only a handful of people whom I think can get along. Some of them start as strangers, but they always leave as friends. Open-minded, adventurous yet sensible, non-judgmental and positive-thinking are the few criteria I normally look for in a travel buddy. Don’t oblige to “bo jio” or “I thought I was your BFF/friend/relative” remarks and end up recruiting too many people in a trip, because you’ll end up having cliques among your group, and having to compromise to everyone’s whims and wants. Trust your instincts to pick the best combo, and most of the time you’ll be okay. This is very important, because at the end of the day, they are the ones who make or break with you.
- Be Well-Equipped
Before this trip, I bought one of those gimmicky not-cheap, foldable, portable water bottles from a sports shop and I think that was the best investment I’ve ever made. We refilled that baby so many times (from hotels, restaurants, you name it) it was our constant life-saver especially in the hot and humid climate. And what’s even better is the more you drink the less space it takes up in your bag.There are certain things you should also bring (but may not necessarily use) such as the correct power adapters (we were lucky to encounter the same adapters as we use back home, but in more rural areas we may not be so lucky), some Gaviscon (Natasha’s tagline was “Eat and Drink anything! I have Gaviscon!”) to put your tummy (and mind) at ease, and if you’re doing a lot of walking like we did – very comfortable footwear. Although, you can easily snag a Nike or North Face apparel / footwear for cheap when you’re there too. Don’t look down on the lack of fancy display shelves, shoe boxes and crumpy old stores – after all, who’s the manufacturer of these big brands?
- Put on Your Adventure Hat
Do anything, try everything! Many things can go wrong during a holiday in a foreign land (especially when you’re in a third world developing country like Vietnam), and trust me, it will. Like the almost unbearable summer heat in Hanoi, getting lost or how I lost my phone – but the kindness shown to me by the people, the company I had with me and the fun times we all had together made up for it. At the end of the day, it also boils down to your own attitude and mindset to make a holiday like this enjoyable.