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 62 | Visit of the Marble Mountains and scenic train ride to Hue

Day 62 | Visit of the Marble Mountains and scenic train ride to Hue

Today we visited the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five marble mountains south of Da Nang famous for their caves and views over the valley. Then we embarked on our first local train journey going to Hue, Vietnam’s last imperial capital which we started visiting in the evening.

We started the day at 7:45 AM, not too early by Yolomimo Standard Time. We quickly packed and checked out. We had another delicious breakfast at Hoi An Ngo Homestay with vegetarian Cao Lau – the very local specialty dish – as well as fresh fruits and passion fruit juices just like yesterday. We left the hotel around 9:30 AM, in a cab that drove us to the Da Nang railway station with a stop to visit the Marble Mountains.

We took the same country road we biked on yesterday and saw the same guy on his water buffalo luring tourists to come take pictures for tips. This made us wonder: when does this guy ever harvest rice from his field… Or is that even his field!?

After a short ride we arrived at the bottom of the Marble Mountains with two options to go up: stairs for 15,000 VND per person or elevator for double the price. Heck we are still young and fit so we went with the stairs. It wasn’t as bad as it may look at first.

Stairs leading to the Marble Mountains

We climbed up and saw the first marble statues including a large Buddha carved in a single marble stone. Good level of details, it must have taken a long time to get to this result!

In front of a large Buddha marble statue

We passed by a first temple, and a cute bridge in front of a smaller pagoda that looked very nice.

Bridge and pagoda on the Marble Mountains

We kept walking up some more stairs. There were many statues on our left and right, all made of marble. And no, the Swastikas found attached to some of these statues are not the Nazi Germany’s ones.

Marble statues

We eventually arrived at the first cave that we could enter, named Van Thong Cave, and took a picture before entering it.

In front of Van Thong Cave's entrance

Inside the cave we had to climb up on marble stones directly. A little slippery and dark so it was not as easy as we anticipated. Definitely wear a good pair of sneakers with grip if you visit the Marble Mountains.

After climbing for a bit we arrived at an open area sunlit, but this was not the end of the cave, we had to keep going up through a narrow path to reach the top and were rewarded with a superb view over the valley and ocean.

View from the top of the Marble Mountains

We stayed for a bit up there, enjoying the view and the windy breeze. Then we came back down via an easier path and found another small cave with Buddhist statues. We kept walking and eventually arrived at the largest cave on the mountain. That one was very impressive, with light beams coming in from a handful of holes in the ceiling of the cave. The perfect spot for pictures and videos. There were a few small Buddhist temples inside that cave as well, though we were not sure if these are only set up for tourists or actually used by local worshippers.

It took us some time but we eventually managed to get a nice shot of both of us sitting in the stairs leading to the bottom of the cave without anyone else in the frame.

Inside the largest cave on the Marble Mountains

On the way back, we stopped by another view point to take more pictures of the surrounding landscape. We came back down using stairs as well and walked by many shops selling marble statues of all kinds and sizes. The sellers there were not too persistent except for one lady that followed us almost to our taxi before giving up. We finished the visit at 11:15 AM and our driver was waiting to get us to the Da Nang railway station.

After a short ride into Da Nang that made us cross the Han River, we got to the railway station around 11:30 AM, with a little over an hour to kill before our train. We were excited to finally experience traveling by train in Vietnam.

Da Nang railway station

The station was very small with only a couple of tracks. Inside there were a few foreigners but mostly Vietnamese people traveling for business or leisure. Mimi used the extra time we had to make progress on our next Yolomimo post (and here I am, telling this story 30 days after it happened). The train arrived on time and we just had to cross over another track before boarding it.

Train in Da Nang railway station

As we boarded the train, our first reaction was that of spoiled and entitled Westerners: what, no air conditioning?! The train was full of passengers and we were concerned that the air conditioning was just not functioning in our car. But as soon as the train departed, it started blasting cool air. Phew. A train ride in the full heat of the day would have been miserable! We alternated napping and working on the blog for the first hour until we remembered to look out of the window to enjoy the beautiful coastline of Central Vietnam. We knew in advance that this would be a scenic train ride having researched it while in New York, and were not at all disappointed. The train tracks are overlooking the South China Sea for most of the way between Da Nang and Hue. We took countless photos and videos, very happy with our first experience with travel by train in Vietnam.

Inside our car, a little Vietnamese American boy was telling the cutest stories to an American lady seating in front of him. He was speaking very loud and without realizing he was entertaining half of the car (the other half being asleep) simply by telling her about his favorite beaches in the area and how he got new snorkeling gear that his dad managed to lose in the water on the first day. Every awake person was smiling and laughing listening to his stories which did not perturb him at all, he just kept going. Everyone but Mimi. She was too busy writing more Yolomimo to pay any attention to her surroundings. For today only, here’s a sneak peek into how the magic is done.

Yolomimo behind the scenes

We enjoyed the ocean views for a little longer, including passing over some impressive cliffs.

View of the Central Vietnam coastline from the Da Nang to Hue train

Eventually, the train left the coast and went more inland where sand beaches were replaced by green rice paddies.

Rice fields near Hue

Later on, the train went through small towns for a while before arriving in Hue around 4 PM. We took a cab directly to the hotel. Gathered first impressions of the town while on the cab: it seemed very pretty and quite rich. We were dropped at our hotel, the Hue Serene Palace Hotel.

Hue Serene Palace Hotel

We were very pleased with the quality of the greetings we got there and felt at home right away. The staff there welcomed us with fruit juices and fresh fruits, a real palace!

Welcome drinks and fresh fruits at Hue Serene Palace Hotel

We checked into room 703, our first hotel room with a (working) desktop computer. Certainly will be handy for making progress on the blog!

Desktop computer in our hotel room

Of course we did not forget to take our signature hotel room discovery video.

After unpacking, we went right back out, got a city map from the front desk and asked some information regarding tours and prices. The staff members there were super helpful and very honest. They even told us it would be better for us to book our train tickets for our next leg of the trip directly at the railway station rather than go through them since they would take a fee.

We left the hotel and walked to the Pefume River which roughly separates the old part of town from the new one. We passed by the night market where a persistent boat driver tried to scam us in multiple ways – we managed to escape. The dragon boats were very colorful and almost looked too cheesy for us though I am sure the views of the city illuminated at night must be nice.

Dragon boats docked along the Perfume River

We walked past the two main bridges that link the old and new parts of town: Truong Tien Bridge first and then the Phu Xuan Bridge a bit more South. We decided not to cross either of them as it was getting dark already. We walked back on the main road alongside the river and saw many super bright neon lights advertising for the upcoming annual festival in Hue which we unfortunately missed by a few weeks.

Bright neon lights advertising for a festival in Hue

On the way back to our hotel, we looked for the Google Hotel. Yes, that’s right, someone had the worst business idea ever to name their establishment after the most popular search engine in the world. Good luck finding it on Google web search, however you can manage to locate it thanks to Google Maps! So of course I had to have my picture taken in front of it. Note that the front entrance logo has an additional G for some reason (the other signs don’t).

Google Hotel in Hue

We also passed by an old man that was shaving a Vietnamese guy in a barber shop and tried very hard to get my business. When we told him we were from America he said he was fighting with the US troops during the Vietnam war! We took a picture of his front sign as I wasn’t sure I wanted to get my haircut here without reading reviews online first, but after looking it up there was no mention of this place anywhere.

We arrived at the hotel and ordered dinner at their restaurant, the top restaurant in town on TripAdvisor. Service there was amazing, the waitresses (who all were very petite Asian girls even by Asia standards) were very nice and attentive. They constantly came to ask if we needed anything else. We ate quite a lot that night since we had skipped lunch once again. We finished dinner with crepes garnished with exotic fruits and the classic chocolate ice cream.

Appetizers, entrees and desserts at Hue Serene Palace Hotel

We went back to our room and spent a lot of time doing administrative stuff to prepare for the next few days: booked hotels, flights, researched into tour companies for Ha Long Bay, and other chores. We were very excited to soon meet up with our friends from Yoloamlo (aka AmandeLolo) again after our fun two days exploring Bangkok together!

Mimi finished the blog post she had started on the train and published it. It was great to have an extra computer provided by the hotel in the room on days like this when we have a lot of stuff to do online. We took turns taking a relaxing bath with bath salt (not provided here but we had taken some during our stay at the Park Hyatt in Saigon) before going to bed.

Day 47 | Chasing waterfalls and dolphins on Don Khon Island

Day 47 | Chasing waterfalls and dolphins on Don Khon Island

On our full day on Don Khon island, we rode bikes to see the Irrawaddy dolphins, swim in a sandy beach on the Mekong and see the famous Somphamit waterfalls.

We had breakfast at Pan’s Restaurant just across the street from where we were staying, Pan’s Guesthouse. It was pretty basic: eggs, baguettes and fresh fruit.

Breakfast at Pan's Guesthouse

We rented bikes from a shop next to our guesthouse. With a rudimentary map of the 4 km wide Don Khon island, we forged west out of the main street and then south towards the old French Port where motorboats take tourists out to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins who congregate in the Mekong between Laos and Cambodia.

Riding bikes on Don Khon

It was another 100+ degree Fahrenheit day and we biked through dried rice paddies and forests.

The old French Port is a very dominating structure in an otherwise low key, sparsely populated area. It was used to accommodate large steamer ships transporting goods up the Mekong River. Nowadays it only serves small motorboats.

Old french port

We paid a young boat driver to take us out to see the Irrawaddy dolphins.

We stayed in the middle of the particular section of the Mekong River for about 20 minutes. We saw at two separate times, a dolphin as it emerged out of the water to breathe. We heard the sounds of their blowholes expunging water. We were happy to see dolphins at all, however, each time was quite far away and we only saw their fins and half of their bodies for a couple seconds each.

We then headed back through the small islands back to Don Khon’s port.

Si Phan Don islands

We relaxed and had fruit shakes at a café above the port overlooking the river. The café had a sign noting this was the southernmost point in Laos.

Don Khon and Don Det islands used to have a railway connecting them to mainland Laos. French ships were unable to navigate up through the treacherous Somphamit waterfalls section of the river, therefore the French colonists had to build the railway to bypass the waterfalls and then reload the goods onto other ships waiting north of these islands. We took a picture in front of an old train engine left over from those colonial days.

Steam engine

Riding our bikes back north, we passed by a tiny village with a schoolhouse on stilts.

Village school on Don Khon

We then turned onto a westward road to reach a sandy beach. We walked a few steps through a rocky section and plunged into the water with our T-shirts on. Although the water was warm, it was heaven to our sweat-drenched sun-parched skin.

Sand beach on the Mekong

We relaxed in the natural fish spa as little fish started nibbling at our skin.

Mekong fish spa

We swam across the river and back again. The current was very strong and we would end up on the other side of the river several meters downriver from where we started.

Then we relaxed in a yet another restaurant with fresh coconuts. The restaurant is run by a family: the mother lured us in and prepared the coconut, her young daughter served us, the father was napping on a platform near us and their toddler son provided us with entertainment. The little boy was interested in my mosquito repellent wristband and my sunglasses case. I then showed him my cell phone and nothing else mattered of course. He took about 40 selfies in a row of just his forehead on my phone.

Selfies in Laos

Then the little boy eyed my coconut. I scooped up coconut meat and fed it to him. He chewed on the coconut happily. After a few scoops of this, he decided to pay it forward and feed coconut to the dog, who was less enthusiastic.

I had a hard time getting my phone back from this boy as I introduced him to the game Two Dots. Here he is with his sister on a hammock. Their dad is still sleeping behind them.

Kids at the restaurant

The next stop on our bike tour was Somphamit waterfalls. The falls are also located on the west side of the island, on the north. We paid for admission tickets and walked into the large park. We saw a pack of the largest turkeys I have ever seen. Some of them were quite beautiful (for turkeys).

Wild turkeys at the falls

The waterfalls were impressive. They came rushing off of rocks in all directions, converging into the wide flow at the base.

Waterfalls 1

Waterfalls 2

Waterfalls 3

Waterfalls 4

We walked along the rapids until we arrived at the Oasis Restaurant and “beach bar.” We finally got lunch and more fruit shakes! There were hardly anyone there so we occupied this entire bungalow overlooking the rapids. We vegetated here for more than an hour, too hot to move.

Oasis Restaurant at the falls

We had a long walk to the sandy beach since it is dry season and the waterline receded a lot. Here Maurice is standing at a shallow pool with the river behind.

Beach after the falls

We could not wait to jump into the water again since it was too hot for us to function on land. The current was much stronger here than at the previous beach since we were immediately downstream from the Somphamit waterfalls. Maurice demonstrates his Olympian swimming skills on the river. Michael Phelps who?

We showered off at the beach bar’s outdoor shower after swimming. Then we biked through the farms back to town.

Afternoon light on Don Khon

A herd of cows grazed on the dry grass.

Cows grazing on dry grass

On the way back to town, there was loud music emanating from the local Buddhist temple Wat Khon Tai. We walked in to explore.

Entry to Wat Khon Tai

There seemed to be a festival going on. Monks were blessing people on the left. People were eating barbecue on the right. Loud music blared from three separate areas. All were playing different songs, of course.

In front of Wat Khon Tai

We enjoyed another sunset on the Mekong.

Sunset on the Mekong

The main stretch of Don Khon does not have many restaurants. We liked Lao Long restaurant where we ate lunch and dinner yesterday and decided to go there for dinner again. Maurice got the noodle soup in a bowl so big you can wash your face in it.

Noodles in the kitchen sink