Day 68 | Between two sleeper trains, a short visit to Sapa

Day 68 | Between two sleeper trains, a short visit to Sapa

Today was a super quick visit to Sapa, a small town famous for its landscape full of rice terraces as well as its ethnic minorities. Together with our friends Amandine and Laurent, we explored Cat Cat Village and hiked around Ham Rong Resort. We then parted ways as we took a sleeper train back to Hanoi while they stayed in Sapa for an extra day.

The four of us woke up when one of the train agents knocked on the cabin’s door, announcing that we had arrived at Lao Cai, a city close to the border between Vietnam and China and the terminus of our train. We had a good night of sleep despite the train’s movement and noise.

In front of the train in Lao Cai railway station

Before leaving the train, we had purchased transfer tickets to Sapa by shuttle from a lady selling them on the train. We knew this was not a scam and that the price was good because Mimi had researched it online before the trip. We boarded a minivan just minutes after leaving the small train station. It was full of tourists.

The road to Sapa was very winding, going through beautiful hills that make this region of North Vietnam such a popular tourism destination. On the way we saw plenty of rice paddies though the visibility was disappointingly bad due to the foggy air.

The ride lasted for a bit more than an hour. We arrived in Sapa and got dropped at Quang Truong Square, a large pedestrian place popular with local and tourists alike. As soon as we came out of the minivan, a group of six local women started selling us various items and asked us if we needed a place to stay for the night. Fortunately they were not nearly as persistent as what we had feared after reading about Sapa scams online. We declined and they did not follow us. We kept walking along the square.

Lucky Laurent

Our priority was to find a place to have breakfast. Laurent was unanimously designated as our tour guide for the day and brought us to The Hill Station cafe.

The Hill Station

After ordering food, Amandine and Laurent looked up hotels for the night as they were not coming back to Hanoi with us on that same day. For us it was convenient since it meant we would be able to drop off some of our stuff we did not need at their hotel. Not that we were carrying heavy backpacks that day, but it’s always nice to hike without excess weight on our shoulders.

The cafe was almost empty but we thought breakfast there was very good and took our time eating and planning what we wanted to see.

Breakfast at The Hill Station

We then walked in town to find the hotel they had booked. On our way there we passed by an elementary school with many kids playing in the playground. At their hotel, the receptionist gave us and them a dirty look when we said we wanted to use the room to drop some stuff. Apparently they were concerned we would all sleep in a room normally provisioned for two adults only. They said it was too early in the morning and claimed they did not have a room ready yet so we had to put our bags in a corner of the common space.

Then we went to Cat Cat village. The view from the road to get there was beautiful despite the sky still being very foggy. We stopped many times to take pictures of the incredible landscape surrounding us.

Hills surrounding Sapa

Rays of sun hitting the rice paddies terraces on a Sapa hill

Rice paddies terraces

We arrived at the entrance of Cat Cat Tourism Area.

In front of Cat Cat Tourism Area entrance

To go further we had to pay the entrance fees. We then walked all the way down to the small river that flows in the valley separating two groups of hills. The hike down was pleasant and we passed by some farm animals including little piglets that Mimi went crazy for.

Piglets in Cat Cat Tourism Area

We walked on a bridge over the small river with a view on water wheels. A manmade waterfall created a nice visual contrast between the slow and fast moving water.

View over the river flowing through Cat Cat village from the bridge

After crossing the river, we stopped at a view point looking at another waterfall – natural this one – directly feeding into the river from the opposite side we came from. The four of us took couple pictures there, starting with us.

Yolomimo in front of a small waterfall

And then following with one of Amandine and Laurent.

Yoloamlo in front of the same waterfall

I also had some fun with our DSLR’s high burst mode to capture the waterfall in action. Somehow I developed a renewed interest to animated GIFs, an ancient “Web 1.0” technology that I found more user-friendly than YouTube videos in some situations.

Waterfall from the view point

We kept walking up and got to see the water wheels from closer.

Water wheels on the river flowing through Cat Cat Village

Climbing back up was a bit of a struggle and the temperature was getting hotter. We passed by many arts and crafts stands. Cat Cat Village is home to many ethnic minorities in Vietnam and selling handmade goods locally made to tourists represents a big part of their economy.

Walking in Cat Cat Village

We crossed the river again using another bridge. It was my turn to get a picture with the ladies.

Me and the ladies

The air cleared out a little bit so it was easier to see the rice terraces.

Rice terraces

As we got back to Sapa town proper, we first stopped by the hotel Amandine and Laurent booked for the night, named Boutique Sapa Hotel. The room was ready now so we asked yoloamlo to give us a quick walkthrough of their room for the readers of yolomimo. Of course they had no choice but to accept.

After that we went for lunch at Little Sapa. We had good Vietnamese food there and ended with Vietnamese iced coffee.

Vietnamese iced coffee

After that we wanted to do a second hike to the radio tower hill that is recommended for its view points. It took us a while to find the correct path to get there. We had to pay another fee to enter the area where the radio tower is located. The fee gave us access to the entire Ham Rong Resort.

It was well worth it. We hiked uphill for a while until our path was blocked by a closed gate. There were other trails and we kept going. We passed by a small cave named Love Cave so of course we took a cheesy picture in front of it.

Love Cave

We also passed by a giant swing.

Having fun on the giant swing

Yoloamlo looking all serious all of a sudden.

Yoloamlo being all serious

Although we were not able to go to the radio tower, we found a trail leading to a pretty amazing view point over Sapa.

View of Sapa

The clouds were hiding the sun.

Clouds hiding the sun

We saw the radio tower from up there too.

Radio tower

A cool guy from Sweden who also gave us travel tips about Sapa took pictures of the four of us posing.

Yoloamlo and yolomimo

After taking pictures from the view point, we exited the park through flower gardens where tourists were renting traditional costumes of ethnic minorities to take pictures.

Flowers at Ham Rong Resort

On our way back to yoloamlo’s hotel, we saw several 7-8 year old girls carrying their little toddler-age brothers/sisters on their back and selling handmade jewelry. Not only were these kids not attending school but their parents were also forcing them to look more desperate by carrying their little siblings on their shoulders. We were appalled.

Back to the hotel we picked up our bags then Laurent and Amandine walked us back to the church where taxis and buses load up with tourists going back to Lao Cai. It was almost time to say goodbye to them, for the second time of our trip.

Street in Sapa

Laurent managed to get us two seats in a minibus that was just about to leave. Concerned about scams, we made sure to agree on the price with the driver before getting in. 40,000 VND per person we said, and he replied OK.

The guy drove recklessly, honking at motorbikes, other buses, people crossing the road and even got dangerously close to hitting a small dog. An hour later we were dropped at the Lao Cai train station. The driver tried to scam us by pretending the price was 100,000 VND. Despite our previous agreement, the price had magically increased. It was the second time a driver tried this trick on us and since we didn’t fall for it the first time in Hue, we were not going to fall for it here. We remained calm and refused to comply with his demand. He eventually played the classic “I don’t want any of your money” trick on us, which of course we had already seen before and did not work. He didn’t speak a word of English and even called a young Vietnamese guy that was at a nearby cafe to come act as a translator. That didn’t change anything for us. We just gave him 80,000 VND and left.

We had a quick dinner at Terminus Restaurant, a restaurant right in front of the train station. The food there was mediocre despite being the number one restaurant in Lao Cai on TripAdvisor. The staff was very friendly however.

We got to the train early enough to finally be able to record a video of the sleeper cabin. This was our third sleeper train in Vietnam in just five days, after the Hue to Hanoi one and the Hanoi to Lao Cai one just yesterday. The other cabins looked very similar.

A couple of Australian retirees showed up minutes before the train departed. They came from a more luxurious cabin, the AC wasn’t working and the train attendant moved them into our cabin, which otherwise would have been empty except for us. They were both divorced and remarried and were on a four week trip to Vietnam. We agreed to swap out bottom beds with them since they could not climb to the upper level. We chatted with them for some time (the guy knew a bit of French) before going to sleep.

Day 67 | A surprise in Ha Long Bay and more sights in Hanoi

Day 67 | A surprise in Ha Long Bay and more sights in Hanoi

We visited the Surprise Cave in Ha Long Bay and then our cruise returned us to Hanoi. From there we visited the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, the pleasant Temple of Literature, ate two dinners and then caught the sleeper train to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa.

It was very hard waking up at 6am today but we had to get ready for tai chi on the boat’s roof deck. We got there a few minutes late, Amandine and Laurent were already there.

Tai Chi on the Bhaya cruise

The weather was still foggy but the scenery was beautiful nonetheless.

Next morning in Ha Long Bay

After tai chi we had a quick breakfast in the restaurant with just toast & jam, milk & cereal, yogurt and some pastries.

Then it was time to go for our visit of the Surprise Cave with our guide Tung. Our guide made dirty jokes but also managed to give some interesting explanations during our tour of this massive cave with three separate chambers.

Entering the Surprise Cave

Mysterious lighted cave

The tour guide made us guess what this cave feature looks like. He finally answered it’s a cannon. He pointed to the trajectory of the cannon and in fact there was a hole in the ceiling that looked like cannon marks. Coincidence?

Like a cannon

Stalactites oh my

Fab four in the cave

Pretty lights in Surprise Cave

The cave is a popular stop for many tourist cruises and we felt rushed along its winding paths.

Cave swarmed with tourists

Another view in the cave

We left the cave and enjoyed a view of the spectacular karsts from shore.

Misty morning on the Ha Long Bay island

After our visit of the wonderful cave we came back to the boat to check out of our rooms and have brunch. Once again, Maurice and I got special vegetarian dishes prepared specifically for us. Desserts were very good too with fruits, opera cakes and mango mousse that tasted like mango lassi.

Desserts at brunch

Filling up our plates

We got back to the pier where we started less than 24 hours ago. We are going to miss Ha Long Bay.

Waving goodbye to the boat staff

We jumped in the shuttle for the four hour return trip to Hanoi. Again Laurent sat in the front while the rest of us stayed in a row. We stopped once at a souvenir shop just like on the way in yesterday.

When we arrived in Hanoi we asked the driver to drop us directly at the Hoa Lo Prison, which he did. Hoa Lo is ironically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots who were imprisoned there during the Vietnam War. We went through the prison. The prison was established by the French while they were ruling over Vietnam. It is small but has a lot of Vietnamese Communist propaganda that was funny at first but eventually became a little annoying. The museum was made up of several rooms dedicated to different periods of history. In the first building, we learned about the horrible ways Vietnamese prisoners were treated by the French guards from the early 1900s to Vietnam’s independence (a few of them eventually managed to escape the prison via a sewage entrance) whereas in the second one we were relieved to learn that the American POWs (including senator John McCain) were pampered by their Vietnamese captors. They played sports, learned about Vietnamese culture and even celebrated Christmas in Hoa Lo Prison. Obviously it’s all propaganda and after fact checking on Wikipedia we had a very different version.

Models of Vietnamese rebels imprisoned by the French at Hoa Lo

Photo of John McCain revisiting Hoa Lo

Maurice took this candid photo of Amandine, Laurent and I planning the next steps of our day in Hanoi.

Planning the next steps

We left the museum to walk to the Temple of Literature. It was supposed to only take 17 minutes of walking according to Google Maps but due to the horrible sidewalks and crazy traffic it took us much longer, about 45 minutes. On our way there, a female street vendor literally blocked Amandine against the wall with her basket of bananas. It was super unexpected but also kind of funny. The woman let Amandine go with a smile but it made us think about how on average street vendors were a lot less pushy than we had anticipated, this one being an obvious outlier. We purchased tickets and entered via the beautiful gardens.

Tiger at the gate of Temple of Literature

We all loved this temple. We explored the outside and inside of the temple. We saw a handful of couples taking engagement pictures there. There are stone turtles holding stone slabs all over the complex. The slabs contain the names of all those individuals who successfully passed the royal exams. We could see why this was a popular temple for students preparing for finals.

Turtles holding slabs

Inside the temple complex

Inside the Temple of Literature

We were able to take another one of our “walking through the columns of a temple” videos. This is the third one after Mandalay’s and Vientiane’s and as usual you should make sure to watch until the end.

At first there were a lot of people at the temple (in particular big Asian tour groups) but towards the end of our visit we were almost alone, making it easy to take very nice pictures without strangers.

Good luck for scholarly pursuits

AmLo feeling the same

Bonsai tree in front of the pond

Last ones leaving the temple

We left the temple a few minutes after the official closing time (I was actually the last person to exit the complex) and walked towards Lenin Park which was very close. At the foot of the unimpressive statue, guys were playing soccer or skateboarding. Next to them some girls were practicing dance moves of famous K pop songs. We were happy to see that between Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam has a strong youth culture.

Lenin statue

For us, having skipped lunch, it was time to head for dinner. Laurent picked Bun Bo Nam Bo as he really wanted to try bun, a Vietnamese dish that consists of vermicelli rice soup usually paired with beef. The restaurant had a good mix of locals and foreigners so we figured it would be an authentic experience without exposing ourselves to the risk of getting food poisoning.

Check out those Buns

We all liked the food but decided that it would not be enough to keep us from getting hungry later at night when we travel by sleeper train to the Sapa region. Next we hunted for a banh mi place in the same neighborhood. We found Banh Mee. We ordered one sandwich each and they were good but not as good as My Banh Mi in Saigon (which Maurice and I went to three times).

Dinner part 2 at Banh-Mee

At last we were full enough to go back to our hotel and repack. The hotel’s staff was still very nice despite us not being customers anymore. We were able to change and pack our daypacks for our trip to Sapa. We left the hotel after giving a generous tip to the staff.

We walked through town to the railway station. Once we got there, Amandine and Laurent purchased their own return ticket and we boarded the sleeper train. We loved sharing a cabin the four of us. Slumber party!

Looking into our train cabin

Through the train window

Working on yolomimo

We chatted for a while before agreeing to go to bed around 11 PM, pretty tired from a very active day. The ride was a lot bumpier than our previous sleeper train between Hue and Hanoi so it took us some time to fall asleep.

Day 66 | Luxury cruise on Ha Long Bay with AmandeLolo

Day 66 | Luxury cruise on Ha Long Bay with AmandeLolo

Today was a memorable day full of fun activities and with great company. Together with our friends Amandine and Laurent (from AmandeLolo), we started our overnight Ha Long Bay cruise with Bhaya Classic, a luxury cruise company. We kayaked and swam in the bay, participated in a fun Vietnamese cooking class and enjoyed delicious food and drinks on the boat before watching other guests catch squid at night.

The day started at 7 AM when we woke up and met yoloamlo for breakfast at the Holiday Gold Hotel.

Breakfast at Holiday Gold Hotel

We all opted for the banana and chocolate crepes. We finished quickly and checked out. Fortunately we were able to leave our main bags at the hotel and only take the stuff necessary for the Ha Long Bay overnight cruise. The hotel staff was extremely accommodating as we asked them to keep our stuff not only for the next night but also for the following two as we will be going to Sapa and back right after the cruise. Very nice of them considering that we only stayed one night at the hotel! We then waited for the shuttle to Ha Long Bay which came soon after.

The three hour ride there was very comfortable. Laurent sat next to the driver since he tends to get sick in bus rides. He made friends with a couple of retirees from Australia that were sitting in the next row behind him. Meanwhile, the two of us and Amandine chatted about various experiences we had during our trips so far. Like us, they have been traveling through Southeast Asia for a while now.

Midway through the ride, we made a stop at a large souvenir shop that was selling everything from Buddha statues to paintings and clothing. Half an hour and an ice cream later, we were back on our way to Ha Long Bay. Mimi worked on the blog while Amandine and I chatted some more.

We eventually arrived at the pier at 12:30 PM. There we were welcomed with drinks by the Bhaya staff. We waited for a few minutes before boarding Bhaya Classic IV, a beautiful cruise ship with only seventeen rooms. As we stepped on the boat, crew members welcomed us in Vietnamese while another lady threw rose petals above our heads.

Crew welcoming Bhaya Classic cruise guests

We checked in our respective rooms. The room was well equipped, beautifully decorated and certainly more spacious than we had anticipated.

Yoloamlo were lucky and got assigned to the largest room on the boat that had double windows while others had only one. Lucky them.

Shortly after checking in, all passengers were requested to come to the restaurant for a safety briefing. Then we were given the program for the day before getting lunch. We had told the cooks about being vegetarian (I supported Mimi out of solidarity) and they accommodated us remarkably well.

Waiting for lunch on the boat

Lunch was served buffet style, many of the options had meat but we instead were given vegetarian dishes prepared especially for the two of us. There was no other vegetarian among the guests.

Lunch buffet stations on the boat

We asked for two bottles of water without realizing they were not free. It turned out they were $2 each, for a small bottle of purified water, not even a large bottle of mineral water. Completely ridiculous and a total scam for sure. We refrained from ordering bottles of water for the rest of the cruise as a way to protest against these outrageous prices.

During lunch we were surrounded by the amazing islands of Ha Long Bay. It was a struggle to resist the temptation of going on the roof to take pictures. But as soon as I finished eating I went upstairs and took countless photos and videos. Mimi was not done with lunch yet but told me to go ahead and enjoy the scenery.

This was another beautiful cruise ship around us.

Another cruise ship in Ha Long Bay

The Vietnamese flag raised on the boat was waving in the strong wind. We unfortunately did not get the blue sky weather we were hoping for, though we still appreciated the beauty of Ha Long Bay and its infamous limestone karsts that made it the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site that it is.

Ha Long Bay

In the meantime Mimi – the slowest eater in the world – was still slowly finishing her desserts.

Mimi eating desserts

Another small boat passed in front of us.

Ha Long Bay

I went downstairs once again to check on Mimi who was finally done with her meal, ready to act silly. Here she parodied I’m On A Boat.

After that came the parody of Titanic’s infamous “I’m flying” scene. Since I refused to participate in this cheesy exercise, she had to fallback on Laurent who wholeheartedly accepted.

Titanic pose with the wrong guy

Finally taking a normal pose with the right guy!

Front pose with the right guy

On the boat roof there was a bar shaped like another boat. I improvised as its captain while nobody paid attention to me.

Cocktails anyone?

They were too busy telling jokes and laughing.

Having fun on the boat

While most boats we saw that day were other cruise ships for tourists, we also saw a few fishing boats, small and large.

Fishermen in Ha Long Bay

We came back to our rooms to relax a little before the activities scheduled for the afternoon. The restaurant area on our floor had already been cleaned up by the staff and was set up for a classy dinner later in the evening.

Dining room set up for dinner

The plan for the afternoon was kayaking and then swimming. For us, kayaking was already included in our package but other guests had to pay extra. The boat arrived to the kayaking spot around 2:30 PM. It was an area of Ha Long Bay where water is very still thanks to the particular disposition of the surrounding islands.

We changed to our swimsuits and got into the smaller boat that brought us to a floating platform in the water where kayaks were waiting for us. There were only three couples in our kayak group and one guide to lead the group. Safety first of course, so we all had to wear bright lifejackets.

Acting silly in our lifejackets

Laurent got extra protection by two ladies aka Laurent’s angels.

Laurent's angels

Amandine and Laurent took the first kayak.

Yoloamlo on the kayak

Kayaking in the very calm water of the ocean in this area of Ha Long Bay was a unique experience which we all loved. The water had this consistent green color even despite the gray sky. We passed through a few water caves with just a few meters of air between the water surface and the cave’s ceiling, that was beautiful and impressive.

We arrived in an area where the water was stagnant because it was completely surrounded by land. I kayaked for the two of us while Mimi took a selfie video.

We asked Amandine and Laurent to wait for us so we could hand them the camera and have them take some better pictures of us.

Yolomimo on the kayak

And of course we took pictures of them too. They seemed a lot less tired compared to us.

Not even tired

We passed by another beautiful water cave and crossed path with a huge group of kayaks coming in the other direction. These were not from our cruise ship but the area is very popular as a kayaking spot.

Kayaking under a water cave

Few minutes later we passed by yet another water cave, that one much smaller.

Another smaller water cave

I desperately tried to catch up to Amandine and Laurent who were well ahead. But with Mimi too busy taking pictures it was a lost battle.

Trying to catch up to Amandine and Laurent

Amandine and Laurent were chilling in the front, with no visible sign of exhaustion contrary to me.

Chilling like winners

They were the winning team today.

Winning team: yoloamlo

We came back to the floating platform with our arms pretty exhausted. We took our lifejackets off and then it was time for swimming. We were told we could just swim around the boat but should not go too far from it. Amandine was the bravest and the first one to jump in the super cold water, followed by me, then Laurent and finally Mimi. Laurent was arguably the best diver among us, ready for the Rio olympics. And I mean, girl look at that body!

Laurent diving in the freezing water

The water really was extremely cold so we did not stay in it for too long but long enough to take some group selfies, all of which were absolutely terrible. One of the other guests was nice enough to finally take an acceptable picture of us shivering.

Four of us in the cold water

We then saw one of the other guests jump into the water from the roof of the boat, about ten meters above the surface! The crew seemed OK with us jumping from up there and it seemed quite fun so we decided to give it a try. Laurent and I were the first ones to go. That was significantly higher than the high branch of the tree in the blue Lagoon in Vang Vieng. Amandine did it as well after a few seconds of hesitation. Mimi preferred to pass, as she really doesn’t like the feeling of free fall. Laurent wanted to go a second time but we were told it was time to go back on the boat as it needed to start moving again.

We took a quick shower and then met everyone else on the boat’s roof for a Vietnamese cooking class. It was really more of a show with demonstrations though both Laurent and Amandine were picked to participate. Laurent and another Belgian guy were tasked to roll spring rolls with their hands behind their back, without looking,

And when they were done they were asked to identify which one they rolled. Of course they both claimed the better looking one.

The spring rolls were excellent, at least the ones that Laurent did not prepare! Mimi and I got special vegetarian rolls. We also took advantage of the happy hour and ordered cocktails.

We stayed on the roof for a while, enjoying Ha Long Bay and taking more pictures in our evening attire.

Dressed up for the evening

Ha Long Bay shortly after sunset.

Ha Long Bay shortly after sunset

We also talked quite a lot with a group of four women from the same family from Texas that were sitting next to us at lunch. It was then time for dinner. This time it was a fixed menu but again Mimi and I were served with custom vegetarian options.

Vegetarian dinner for yolomimo

Dinner lasted for a while and we all had a great time talking amongst ourselves and with the Texas family.

After dinner we went to the front of the boat where people were catching squid.

Elegant Mimi and the squid catchers

A bucket already contained a good dozen squids of various colors and sizes. Some of them were already dead. Amandine and I stared at them for a while, completely fascinated.

Later the four of us went back on the roof to chill. We stayed there until about 10 PM when we decided it was time to call it a night. Most guests on the boat were already sleeping for a while by then. The fact that there was a tai chi session scheduled for 6 AM the next morning probably explained why. From our cabins, we could hear the music blasting from another boat not too far from ours. That boat also had a light show going on, a real party. We thought the crowd on that ship must be quite different from ours!

Night light show in Ha Long Bay