Hanoi and Sapa18/08/2011
Crossing into Vietnam was a pleasantly simple bus journey, however, as always in this part of the world the bus did drop us just on the side of the road in Hanoi and left us to work out how to get to the main tourist area and our hotel which had been recommended to us by our friends Jimmy and Casey. Getting back into South East Asia did feel like going back to the countries we had visited before, with a little bit of Thailand, India and Loas all thrown in together. Unfortunately that included finding that getting a taxi was going to be impossible again as taxi touts just quote ridiculously high prices. After a little while though we worked out where we were and how to get to where we wanted to be so walked instead. In retrospect I don't think we did find the same hotel that we were recommended but we found a nice clean room at a reasonable rate and (most exciting for me) a bath!
Our first impression of Hanoi was that it was a pleasant city. We had been told many horror stories about being dragged into shops and people hassling you and trying to rip you off at every turn. Our initial experiences where of none of this as we found nice little restaurants for Vietnamese food, in particular great spring rolls, and an opticians where we were able to get glasses for less then £20 each, and some new rucksacks for just £6. So we wondered the city by following the recommended walking tour taking us to traditional buildings and various markets and shopping districts, and a temple where Buddhist offerings had been left of cans of coke and beer (the temple had a very cute kitten too but Seth said I wasn't allowed to take it with us). It felt nice and we were happy to be spending a few days in the capital. The decision about where to go next had to be made between going trekking in Sapa or doing a boat trip to Halong Bay. In the end the weather dictated we went to Sapa first for some fresh air and exercise so after a slightly stressful start to the bus journey (waiting over an hour for the lift to the bus itself) we headed for the countryside for the first time since our trekking in China.
We had been warned by other people that in Sapa we would be followed by groups of women in traditional dress trying to sell us anything. Literally as we got off the bus at 6:30am, dazed and confused after a bad nights sleep on a cramped bus, there were the women exactly as described. On the plus side Sapa is a fairly small mountain town so finding a taxi wasn't necessary, all we needed to do was work out exactly where we were and head to the hotel, again recommended by Jimmy and Casey, while avoiding buying anything or being followed by too many people. It worked and we found the hotel and settled into our room with an amazing view of the valley, sat back and dreamed about the trekking ahead of us.
After lunch we went about the task of finding someone to take us trekking. We had read that trekking alone was not really that easy here as none of routes are clearly signed and there are no good trekking maps (probably a ploy to make sure people do use local guides). We had decided we wanted to try and avoid using agencies as they charge a huge commission and the guide who does the real work sees very little of the money. We ended up speaking to a lady in a shop who lead us to understand that she was introducing us to her brother who was a guide and could take us. We met the guide and he spoke good English so we thought this was going according to our plan and went out for dinner happy people with our 3 days of trekking for 6 hours a day all planned and agreed.
The next morning we arrived at the agreed place but the guide was changed to another family member, and alarm bells started to tinkle in the back of our minds, however our new guides English was also very good and she seemed to be agreeing to our 3 days of 6 hours trekking so off we set.
The trekking started off really well, the valley was beautiful and walking through paddy fields and along the mountain side was fantastic. All was looking great when we stopped for lunch on our first day. We then made the mistake of asking our guide about the next day and it all started to go down hill as it transpired that our guide didn't want to walk 6 hours a day, didn't actually know enough trekking routes to be able to provide anything like that, and there were monsters in one area that meant we couldn't go there... We kept at the walking but in the end we only walked until lunchtime on the second day and then we called time on the trekking and headed back to Sapa. On the positive side, the walking itself was great with beautiful scenery but there wasn't really enough to do in the area to keep us busy for 3 days, and certainly not for 6 hours day. We stayed the night in a homestay in Ban Ho which was comfortable and peaceful, and felt a million miles for the big cities of China, but when all was said and done we were glad when we were back in Sapa itself, and we have to admit that despite our efforts we did use an agency.
Our last day in Sapa we walked down to Cat Cat village and had a massage before getting on the night bus back to Hanoi. It was another terrible night bus and so we arrived tired and stiff into Hanoi where again we had to fight with over priced taxi's and locals who don't seem to be able to read maps to tell us even where they live. Eventually we found our way back to our hotel though and have now booked a tour to Halong Bay tomorrow (21st August) and then our bus tickets out of Hanoi to our next port of call in Vietnam, Hue.