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 58 | Visiting Saigon’s Independence Palace and enjoying delicious Vietnamese food

Day 58 | Visiting Saigon’s Independence Palace and enjoying delicious Vietnamese food

For our first full day in Vietnam, we had a blast in Saigon. Together with our friend Luc visiting from Hong Kong, we walked around the city in the morning, visited the Independence Palace in the afternoon and enjoyed excellent Vietnamese food throughout the day.

We met with our friend Luc at 9:30 AM in our hotel’s lobby. Though he did not stay in our hotel, his was just across the street from ours (so close in fact that he claimed he could see our room from his window). The plan was for the three of us to grab breakfast outside but due to a last minute misunderstanding, he ended up having breakfast on his own before meeting us. We still sat down for breakfast however. We picked Trung Nguyen, a trendy coffee shop not far from our hotel. We tried Vietnamese iced coffee for the first time: delicious. Mimi and I also ordered eggs. They came smiling but were not happy.

Smiling face fried eggs at Trung Nguyen

After breakfast, we started walking in the direction of the Independence Palace which we wanted to visit after passing by a few smaller monuments that were on the way. We first passed by the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, previously called Hotel de Ville de Saigon before the city was renamed. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century in the typical French colonial style architecture.

Ho Chi Minh City Hall

Next we passed in front of the Saigon Central Post Office which is now a popular tourist attraction. We quickly checked out the inside. It looked more like a train station than a post office. A large portrait of Ho Chi Minh was hung up on the back wall.

Inside the Saigon Central Post Office

Next to the post office, we also walked by the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon which reminded us of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris though with a lot less tourists.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

We then walked through a small city park in between the cathedral and the Independence Palace. Crossing the streets in this very busy part of Saigon was quite challenging for us given the heavy traffic almost exclusively composed of motorbikes. We never saw such a high concentration of motorbikes and many of them seemed to not respect traffic rules at all! Some riders would not stop at red lights, while others saw no issue with riding on the sidewalk (they would even occasionally honk at pedestrians on their way!). So when Luc and I had an opportunity to cross the small street separating the city park we came from from the Independence Palace, we rushed through without hesitation, not realizing that Mimi was left behind. She was brave enough to stop the traffic with her hand, however.

Mimi crossing a busy street in Saigon

In front of the Independence Palace, we were told that it was closed for the lunch break and that we would have to come back after 1 PM.

Far view from the Independence Palace

No problem, we thought, let’s just explore the area some more and then have lunch! Mimi and Luc researched nice vegetarian-friendly places in the area (our friend Luc is also vegetarian). They settled on Pho 2000.

On our way there, a young man holding a carrying pole with coconuts asked us where we were going. It was really just an excuse to start talking to us however. Without warning, he then took his carrying pole and asked Mimi to hold it. Of course I immediately took the camera out to take pictures and videos of the unexpected scene. As he took it back from her and we were about to leave, he surprised her a second time by giving her a fresh coconut and a straw.

He then gave me and Luc a coconut each. And then he asked for money. 50,000 VND per coconut! Yes, he fooled us but we felt like we had to pay him now. Less than ten minutes later, we saw the real price these coconuts cost: 15,000 a piece. What a scam! It’s decided, from now on we’ll be much more alert when locals randomly start talking to us: we are not in Laos anymore.

It did not affect Luc’s goofiness however. I wonder why he chose to elbow the male flight attendant, perhaps he was annoying his (attractive) female associate so much that Luc felt he had no choice but to intervene?

Luc elbowing a male flight attendant

We walked in front of the Ben Thanh Street Food Market and went inside to check it out quickly. It was not very busy at this time of the day. One stand specialized in desserts had these weird looking and super long ice cream sticks. They looked delicious and we agreed to come back here in the evening to try them.

Ice cream sticks

On the side of the street food market, a large graffiti called onto Mimi to express her artistic creativity. Of course, a good picture is 50% the subject and 50% the person taking the photograph, in this case myself.

She believes she can fly

We made one last stop before lunch by walking through the Ben Thanh Market (not to be mistaken with the food market we walked through previously).

Inside the Ben Thanh Market during the day

We arrived at Pho 2000 at noon. Mimi is a huge fan of Pho back at home so she was the most excited to try real authentic Vietnamese pho.

In front of Pho 2000

Pho 2000 is a very well reviewed restaurant in Saigon, and therefore hugely popular pretty much at any time of the day. Even Bill Clinton came for lunch here while he was still in office (he visited on November 19th, 2000)! The restaurant proudly displays a framed picture of this very unusual guest. I wonder if he got a free meal?

Picture of president Bill Clinton eating at Pho 2000

We got lucky when we arrived as a table was just about ready. We all ordered the same dish: large bowl of vegetarian pho. The food was indeed very tasty, no bad surprise there!

After lunch, we walked back to the Independence Palace and bought tickets. The complex, which is also known as the Reunification Palace, used to be the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the war. The first things we saw inside the complex were a tank and fighter jet both used by the North Vietnamese to infiltrate this complex during the last days of the Vietnam War.

Tank inside the Independence Palace

The building itself has a few floors. We started on the first floor which has many large conference rooms.

Conference room inside the Independence Palace

We spent more time in the lower level which served as a bunker during the Vietnam War. It had many rooms featuring original equipment used by the South Vietnam army during the war. Luc showcased his best Russian accent pretending one of the rooms had a control panel for nuclear missiles that could be fired to wipe out enemy cities such as New York.

It was fun looking at such old equipment. One room had old style rotary telephones. Another one had several radios. A third one had these old looking bulky machines which we could not figure out.

Machines inside the Independence Palace's bunker

Still in the bunker, we also visited the kitchen with oversized appliances as well as a room dedicated to practicing shooting on targets. We also partially watched a propaganda movie produced by the North Vietnam regime during the war to encourage people in the South to rebel against the “puppet government controlled by the US imperialists.”

We then kept going up the floors of the building and visited the other rooms. There were all kinds of rooms to see, from bedrooms to movie theaters. Most were pretty boring and repetitive so we went through them relatively quickly. On the top floor, we were rewarded with a nice view over the large avenue leading to the palace grounds and its large fountain.

View from the top of the Independence Palace

In the back, we also saw another army helicopter that looked quite cool.

Helicopter in the Independence Palace

We were done with the Independence Palace around 3 PM. We walked back in the direction of our hotels, more or less retracing our steps in the morning. It was super hot then and we felt a bit lethargic. Luc and I decided to go get a massage while Mimi stayed at the hotel to enjoy the very nice swimming pool. After the massage, I went with Luc to pick up the laundry Mimi and I had dropped at a local store yesterday and then we came back to our respective hotels to rest for a bit.

We met again in the evening at 8 PM to go for dinner. Mimi researched banh mi places online ahead of time and found one that was not far and with very promising reviews: My Banh Mi. The three of us walked there and had no problem getting a table. In fact the restaurant was surprisingly almost empty.

Inside My Banh Mi

We ordered three vegetarian banh mi with the creamy smoky roasted black pepper sauce. When the sandwiches arrived just ten minutes, we all started foaming at the mouth (well at least I did!)

Vegetarian Banh Mi

At the risk of sounding like the stereotypical American foodie that has his/her “best meal ever” every single meal, I can honestly say that this was the best banh mi I have had in my (short) life of enjoying Vietnamese food. The baguette was perfect: crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, the pan roasted tofu had the perfect texture and chewiness, and the sauce was excellent. Five stars without hesitation. In fact it was so good that I lobbied Mimi to order another banh mi for the two of us to share, but she felt it was too much food for her and wanted to leave room for dessert.

We left My Banh Mi around 9 PM with the firm intent to dine there at least once more before departing from Saigon! Next we walked back to the Ben Thanh Street Food Market to try those weird looking ice cream sticks that we had seen in the morning. Once again we passed by the (other) Ben Thanh Market on our way.

Ben Thanh Market at night

We arrived and were relieved to find the ice cream stand still opened. Luc got a boring waffle while Mimi and I both ordered the specialty ice cream stick for 40,000 Vietnamese dongs each. Mimi got melon flavor.

Wow so big

I went for the more classic strawberry.

Hmmm delicious

Both flavors were delicious! Nothing beats a good ice cream after a long and hot day of wandering around in the city. After that we took our time to walk back to our hotel again and went to bed so we could wake up early for our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels tomorrow morning.