Our Sapa Homestay

After our 5-hour hike we arrive at our homestay in the early afternoon.
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For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a ‘homestay’: guests pay money to a tour company who arranges and vets local families who are willing to house and feed you for a night or more. Our homestay was arranged with the same company who we booked the Ha Long Bay tour with.  Travelers like this experience because of the interaction with local people in their homes. Usually the family invites you to help get the meal ready and eats with you.

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View from the balcony beds.

The family we stayed with had built their house with homestay guests in mind. It had a second floor loft with 15 mattresses on the floor, under mosquito nets. It was simple, but comfortable. They had also recently built a modern bathroom with a shower, sink and flushing toilet. I’m quite sure that homestay guests are the majority of their income.

We got a tour of the property and then it was time to start making dinner from scratch. And when we say ‘scratch’ we mean Troy had to kill a chicken. (Luckily, I missed that part.)

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In this photo, our guide Diego is insisting that he was just giving the chicken a ‘bath’.

I helped cut veggies and stoke the fire.P1070917While we waited for the food to cook we went down to the river and watched the local boys catch small fish in vase-shaped baskets.

Dinner was lovely. The neighbor pulled out an unlabeled jug of some strong clear liquor that smelled like an instant hangover. We got invited to a party at a homestay near-by and hung out with young professionals on a work retreat from Hanoi. They taught us this fun game.

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That’s Troy in the #15 tank top. He’s got mad skillz.

 

Hike to a Sapa Homestay

We did a 4-hour turnaround in Hanoi after our Ha Long Bay experience.

It was a whirlwind but saved us a night in a hotel since we were on the overnight train to Sapa.

P1070662 Unfortunately, it was not the idyllic, restful train ride we were expecting.

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Our ancient, rattly, bumpy train to Sapa.

And too late, we heard that there is a new road from Hanoi and you can take a brand new sleeper bus with Wi-Fi for $15 each way!!!! We paid $45 each way. OOOOOh the agony! We didn’t sleep AND we paid $60 too much. We got there kind of grumpy and had to make a 6am transfer. Our mini-van was there to pick us up but we waited for an hour until the next train came in. Lesson learned. Take the bus.

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Me, hopeful that our train ride to Sapa, Vietnam is as restful as the ride from Hue to Hanoi.

We were pleasantly surprised when we finally arrived at the Hoa Phong Hotel in Sapa.

We took a shower, dropped off our stuff and got ready for our 5-hour hike to our homestay in the rice terraces.

This is how our hike started, tourists, guides and local women- lead by Troy!

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Since the ‘road’ gently sloped downhill, the 5-hour walk wasn’t that strenuous. We were joined by a group of women returning home from the early morning market in Sapa.P1070815

Just as we were starting to get hungry for lunch, we arrived at our destination.

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Yep, the upper balcony of that ramshackle building is our lunch restaurant. There is a pig pen directly below.

We hike another hour or so, through the terraced farmland to our homestay.P1070945

Read my next post to find out about our homestay!

 

Ha Long Bay: Monkey Island

Have you heard enough about Ha Long Bay already? Well then, you’d better skip this post because I’m still talking about it!  Check out this amazing floating village that we  motor through  on our way to Monkey Island.

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I loved the view of the bungalows on the beach of Monkey Island as we approached. It was a bit overcast- but it still managed to look like a tropical paradise!P1070496

While we got off the boat, lunch was already on the tables. I’m pretty sure this is Korean BBQ… even though we were in Vietnam. You would put the dried noodle and raw fish or tofu into the hot pot to cook.
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Check out our cute little bungalow!

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Since we were only on the island for 24 hours, we didn’t do too much. Just a small hike (we opted out of the treacherous hike over the hill to the beach where the monkeys attack you.) P1070539

The only other thing worth noting is that we had our own little mascot- a cute bat who was hanging in the tree outside our bungalow. It was twisting back and forth. Isn’t he darling?!? ezgif.com-cropAll too soon, it was time to head back towards Hanoi.
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On the way back, Van (our boat host) taught us how to assemble fresh spring rolls.P1070628

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One more pic before we get back to the mainland and head to Sapa!

Gorgeous views.
Gorgeous views.

Nearly-Slovak Kolache

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Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all -purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces cold cream cheese (cubed)
  • 1 cup cold unsalted butter (cubed)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg yolk (Save the whites for the egg wash.)
  • Confectioners sugar for dusting

Filling:

  • 2 cups walnuts
  • 1/4 melted butter
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup Turbinado sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Dough Instructions (to be completed 4-8 hours beforehand):

  1. To the bowl of a full-size food processor add the flour and salt. Pulse a few times to combine.
  2. Add the cutes of cream cheese and butter, pulse until coarse crumbs form. Do not over blend.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the vanilla and egg yolk. Add it to the processor
  4. Lightly dust the counter with powdered sugar, turn out the dough and gather it into a ball. Divide the ball into 4 equal portions and flatten into 1″ disks.
  5. Wrap each disc separately and refrigerate overnight.

Filling & Construction:

  1. Add walnuts to the food processor and pulse into tiny crumbs. Add them to a bowl and combine with sugar, butter, honey and vanilla. Mix until well combined.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or tin foil.
  3. Sprinkle the work surface & dough disc with powdered sugar and roll out the dough until it is 1/8 inch thick.
  4. Cut into rectangles approximately 2″x 1.5″ and form the trimmed edges into a disc & put it back into the fridge.
  5. Cut 4 slits along one long side, approximately 1/3 the depth.
  6. Take 1 teaspoon scoop of walnut filling and form it into a log and lay it along the other long side of the rectangle, opposite from the slits.
  7. Roll the dough around the filling and pinch the ends closed. Set on the cookie sheet and curve the ends to form a crescent shape. The slits will be on the outside of the curve.
  8. REFRIDGERATE on the baking sheet for 20-30 minutes.

Baking:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Add a splash of water to the egg white and whisk. Brush on the top of the cold cookies. Sprinkle with Turbinado sugar.
  3. Bake until golden-brown, about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Cool on the baking sheet for 5 min, then transfer to a wire rack.
  5. Try to save some in a Lock-N-Lock to share with others.

Ha Long Bay: Pants-less Spaniards on our Party Boat!

Ha Long Bay tour started out pretty normal… lunch on the boat while cruising the bay, then you stop for a 15 minute paddle in some decaying kayaks.After, we motored on to Hang Súng Sôt to tour the caves.

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You get to go for a swim in the ocean.

At 4pm we docked at a beach and swam while the sun was going down. If there had been less trash floating around me, it could have been idyllic. This was an issue everywhere we went. Gorgeous views as long as you could ignore the trash on the ground.

But you DON’T get to pick who is on your boat with you… luckily we won the jackpot with a pair of Dutch girls and a trio of crazy Spaniards. The evening started out with some Karaoke. Roxanne, 500 Miles, Let it Be, Mama Mia, Fernando and Troy’s pick, Sexual Healing… of course.Let the dancing commence! Their pole dancing routine was memorable… Well- at least I could remember it.Earlier in the evening, the Spaniards had managed to use a flashlight to call over a little boat- empty except for a case of beer! P1070397Later in the night, they decided it would be fun to jump off the boat. This may or may not have been related to the case of beer.

Ishmael couldn’t get back on the boat by himself but Borja kept insisting, ‘Esta bien!’ He’s fine. Looks like it.The Dutch girls help haul the Spanish boys out of the sea.They kept yelling, “Use your feet!” in Spanish- but it didn’t seem to help.Safely aboard! Whew! PS- none of them recall me taking this photo…After the chaos, I headed off to bed- only to hear the Spaniards noisily roaming the hall- they had lost their room key (because they had misplaced their pants…) and were unsuccessfully trying to get the Dutch girls to let them stay in their room. If that evening had been any more entertaining, someone would have gotten kicked off the ship.

Do This: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

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When people heard I was going to Vietnam, I got the same advice over and over, “You HAVE to go to Ha Long Bay! It is amazing!” I did a Google image search and immediately put it on our itinerary but the details were fuzzy.Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 2.40.58 PM

Here are some details to help you book a trip to Ha Long Bay.

1) Don’t book before you go. You will get the best price in a face-to-face interaction with a local ‘travel agent’ and book a trip from Hanoi for 3 days/2 nights in HaLong Bay. The first night on the boat and the second on Cat Ba(hotel) or Monkey Island(bungalow). It should cost around $160 US and include all food & transfers. Get ready to bargain!

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Our suite on DuGong cruises.

2) Buy a package tour to Sapa at the same time. The rice terraces of Sapa are another place not to be missed and we loved our homestay experience. We booked both at the same time and had a bit more wiggle room with our final price.Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 3.06.54 PM

3) We heard from other backpackers that whether you pay a bit more for a nicer boat or you go for the backpacker party boat, you will most likely get put on whatever boat has space available. We paid $150 for a 3 day trip with a stop-over in Monkey Bay!

4) Food is included, but you pay for your own drinks, so pack your bag full of liquor or you’ll be buying overpriced, warm beer like this!
P10703585) Pack LIGHT! If you can leave a bag locked at your hotel, do that. Firstly, the dock is 4-hrs from Hanoi and you will be in a totally full bus… with seats that fold down in the aisle.

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When we got picked up at our Hanoi Hotel at 8:45am the bus was mostly full – some of them had been on the bus since 7:30am. We had a few more stops and folded seats down into the aisle for our new friends. Luckily, the A/C worked. Ha Long Bay is about 4 hours outside of Hanoi, so we made a stop 2 hours into our trip. Every ‘rest stop’ that is scheduled into a tour will include a toilet (toliet paper is optional), a place to buy overpriced snacks and a craft workshop where you can watch people carve, lacquer or paint souvenirs.

And secondly… you will transfer on and off boats no less than twice a day with ALL YOUR LUGGAGE and it’s slightly dangerous.*Bonus tip: If you are interested in doing MORE than the 2 day/3 night experience you can look into staying on Cat Ba Island for a few extra nights. The ships come and go with different groups of people, staying different amounts of time, in different places. So, just ask your ‘travel agent’ to catch a boat back a few days later and linger on the lovely island and explore the Nat’l Park.Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 3.43.28 PM Whatever you decide, try to put aside your expectations and hope for some good company.  We hit the jackpot with a trio of Spaniards. That story comes next!

Do this: Take the Overnight Train from Hue to Hanoi.

10.26.2014 – My travel partner wasn’t feeling well but I could’t stay inside anymore so, off I go- wandering the streets of Hue I find the Citadel, the water puppets show and consult with one of the 139 ‘travel agencies’ in town. On the way back I spot some cute graffiti: I wonder what the ghost is cooking?Photo-20151128233744608.jpg

At the ‘travel agency’ (& after consulting seat61.com) we booked into a 4-berth, ‘soft sleeper’ on the overnight train from Hue to Hanoi for ~$40. The train left at 9:30pm.P1070169

This was our favorite train ride. We went to bed fairly early and the ride was smooth and quiet (with my earplugs in!).P1070171

We woke up, well rested at 10am and had a few hours to journal and relax before arriving in Hanoi just after noon.

P1070175The taxi drivers at the station INSISTED on overcharging us and we ended up walking away from the station until one of them followed us and gave us a price we liked $3US for a 10 min ride. We splurged and stayed at the Crystal Hotel ($19/night) and we were pleased with the location, room and included breakfast.

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We had a great time wandering the streets of Hanoi and taking in the sights.

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Mostly, we got ready to head out to Ha Long Bay the next day. We had spent 1/2 a day in Hué, price-shopping and found DuGong Cruises: $150 for 3 days in Ha Long Bay, meals and transportation from Hanoi. I can’t wait for you to read all about that trip!