Note: This touch-and-go kind of trip is recommended only if you are energetic. I don’t think I can do this again because age is catching up ^^ Looking back I can’t imagine how the final itinerary came about and how I survived without speaking Vietnamese (“cam en” does not count because that’s how we try to participate in any foreign conversation, by saying thank you).
I was initially set on climbing Fansipan: At 3,143 metres, it is the highest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsula, hence its nickname “the Roof of Indochina” (Wikipedia). Around that time, a friend also talked about Ninh Binh, a scenic place where King Kong the movie was filmed. I thought I could explore them ALL: Hanoi, Sapa (where Fansipan is) and Ninh Binh but plans rarely go as planned, and if I’m still dissatisfied about this I guess this post will never get published.
The journey ended up totally different from the plan.
Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi, walking tour and catch up with a friend
I arrived in close to 11am with a backpack and called GrabCar straight to the city so I could join Hanoi free walking tour (just Google them, I recommend!). They were good with my timing so I got my 1-3 pm Ho Chi Minh Complex & Temple of Literature tour hosted by an enthusiastic student who was passionate about the local history. With free tours, you need to donate at the end, or just treat your host some food. The weather was nice, between 16-20 degrees if I remember. Once the tour ended, again I called GrabCar (Grab is something like Uber) to get to a Cafe Dinh for egg coffee near the old quarter.
I’d also acknowledge I am blessed to have a friend moved to Hanoi for work. We met that evening around 5.30 pm and walked abit to the market, not to forget stopping for local dinner before walking to a tour agency she recommended. I was urged to drop the Fansipan climb because Sapa recorded snow the same week, so I agreed to be in the Lao Chai – Ta Van – Giang Ta Chai village trek instead. So that was it and I got on a motorbike to the train station heading for LaoCai (near Sapa). It was a 10pm train and it took ~8 hours.
Agency Cost: 2 way train (USD 46) and 2D1N homestay & trekking with female guide (USD 40).
Day 2: Awake in the train, get to accommodation and start trekking (without getting briefed on what is next, just long waits)
Amazingly I did fall asleep. I woke as my alarm vibrated; really important to not miss the stop. I also remembered saying no to drinks because I learnt that they charged for tea/coffee. Out from the train, it was easy finding the driver but for cheaper trips I should have expected to be pooled with many people. It was ~1 hour sleepy ride on bumpy and swirling road, I recommend to take that motion sickness pill till Sapa. The hostel allocation looked random, someone called me to alight and there I was a minute later experiencing winter in some strange lodge that provided cold toast for breakfast. I also took whatever I needed for 2D1N homestay and left my backpack in a common room. After getting used to being confused because I did not know what was coming until it came (like how long to wait after breakfast to start trek, with who?), someone said hello then motioned for me to rent the boots because it rained the previous night. The muddy trek started with 3 people before we picked up another 2 from neighboring lodge. It started abit after 10 am and ended around 4 pm.
That day about 4pm I reached the homestay where I was the only guest, the place was really basic they practically cooked meal on the ground with wood to keep the fire burning. The guide left me for the day and since there was no way of communicating with the people, it was a lonely evening for me. On a side note, they were nice to prepare fish for dinner, something that is not common.
Hosts: (stirred pot of boiling water and vegetables) Sashimi??
Me: (sees fish) ahh, Japanese? wow, cam en (thank you)
Hosts: YEES *smiles* (demonstrated taking the fish, dipped on soy sauce with wasabi and wrapped vegetable around it. looking like the Korean way now, and then I noticed that fish container had blood on it)
Me: *smiles* I will cook it (placed the fish in the boiling water). cam en
That night they offered me a room with a wooden bed instead of the mattress at common area, it was so cold I accepted right away.
Note: Don’t underestimate the weather, I had to buy an extra pair of socks on the way. Also, along the village route many adorable-looking kids will tag along our hike (as young as 5 years old). They will offer to carry everything you have- even your jackets, hold your hands when it is slippery etc. These are all gestures to earn some cash. I applaud that, because they offered services instead of begging for $, but some kids at the lunch stops really hard-sell their bracelets/scarf/sale items. Oh when they make those cute heart-shaped token made of leave, don’t fall too hard because apparently they give that to all tourists.
Day 3: Awake in a remote village, trek to another village, catch the bus to Sapa then travel to Lao Cai to catch the 10pm train
The guide came on time and we trekked for 2 hours after breakfast. I was the only person trekking but at the lunch stop that day I met some English-speaking Vietnamese who were in Sapa for charity. It was inspiring actually that people from Hanoi would carry winter coats all the way for the villagers, biking from Sapa to the mountains. After lunch, the guide tried to stop some public buses that would take me back to Sapa but they were full so we walked along the road. With her skill she managed to get a random tourist van to accommodate me, she also agreed to come along because I looked like I was about to cry for not knowing where the hostel is in Sapa. When we stopped, she just pointed to a colorful building up the hill and said “i am off shift now, see you”. What an adventurous trip, I managed to find the way back to that hostel and had 3 more hours along the peaceful river eating nice pho. That was when my phone battery went flat (ugh remember the power bank holds power!). Bye Google maps 😦
That same evening about 5pm, I got into a van with random people repeating “Lao Cai” and like a rice pack, was shipped to the destination without words. I got off at some restaurant opposite the train station and had dinner for free because they said it is included in my train ticket to Hanoi. Sweet treat in this whirlwind of confusion.
And then something creepy happened! A guy who did not look like a train officer there wanted to check my ticket. I indicated I had one, and was suspicious when he wanted to pull it off my hands. And he said one word, “exchange” and then “train now”. I wasn’t sure why he wanted a later train, or how I understood that was what he meant, but we swapped tickets.
Day 4: Arrive in Hanoi and fly home the same morning
Because of that swapped ticket I arrived an hour earlier, in the eerie darkness of 5 am Hanoi. Maybe my brain was not functioning (because logic always tells you to stay put in safe places), I wandered out and found an eerie coffee shop nearby. There I waited an hour for the sky to brighten before walking some more. Soon after, I hailed a cab for the airport.
Overall, this trip was so crazy I did not want to remember it but thinking again, it did really give me some push to get out of that deadly comfort zone. Aside from my unaccomplished wish to get up to Fansipan, Hanoi old city is a peaceful and nice place to explore when it is busy (instagram @nitnotnuts)
Lessons learnt: Remember to stay flexible when traveling and always check the weather before you decide your destination. Happy planning 🙂