After our 5-hour hike we arrive at our homestay in the early afternoon.
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.
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.)
I helped cut veggies and stoke the fire.While 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.
We checked out the river while we waited for dinner to cook.
The local boys were catching fish in vase-shaped baskets.
Look at this spread!
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.
That’s Troy in the #15 tank top. He’s got mad skillz.
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.
Unfortunately, it was not the idyllic, restful train ride we were expecting.
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.
We were pleasantly surprised when we finally arrived at the Hoa Phong Hotel in Sapa.
Our hotel in Sapa.
Lovely room 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.
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.
Just as we were starting to get hungry for lunch, we arrived at our destination.
Our guide had to shoo them away. He was quite angry that the little girls were not in school and he forbade us to buy anything from them.
We hike another hour or so, through the terraced farmland to our homestay.
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.
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!
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.
Check out our cute little bungalow!
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.)
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?!? All too soon, it was time to head back towards Hanoi.
On the way back, Van (our boat host) taught us how to assemble fresh spring rolls.
One more pic before we get back to the mainland and head to Sapa!
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.
You get to go for a swim in the ocean.
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! Later 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.
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.
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!
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.
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! 5) 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.
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. 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!
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?
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.
This was our favorite train ride. We went to bed fairly early and the ride was smooth and quiet (with my earplugs in!).
We woke up, well rested at 10am and had a few hours to journal and relax before arriving in Hanoi just after noon.
The 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.
We had a great time wandering the streets of Hanoi and taking in the sights.
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!
All settled in at Hong Thien Hotel 1 and their helpful front desk folk sell us a full-day bus tour of the Emperor’s Tombs for $9! (The price doesn’t include entrance fees to the 3 tombs which are $4 each.)
Hue was the ancient capital of Vietnam and 7 of the Nguyen emperors are buried near the city. We visited the ‘Forbidden City’, 3 tombs and Thien Mu Pagoda. Then, we ride back to Hue on a Dragon boat along the Perfume river.
First stop: The Forbidden City
I definitely could have used more than the hour we were given to explore the ‘Forbidden City’.The Citadel was off limits to anyone but the Royals.
My favorite part was the museum with enlarged photos of the lives of the emperors and their elaborate lives.
Imperial Tomb of Minh Mang
This was such a relaxing spot that I wished I had a good book, a few hours and a picnic!
Emperor Minh Mang searched for this site for 5 years and then had the grounds landscaped to add perfectly Feng Shui’d hills. From the air, the layout of the site resembles a human form with Minh Mang’s tomb in the head.
Imperial Tomb of Tu Duc: By this time of the day, I was getting hot and poor, so I skipped this one to drink fresh coconut water in a hammock. I hear this site is full of lakes and lovely stonework.
Imperial Tomb of Khai Dinh
The view from Khai Dinh was so lush, it reminded me of the Slovakian countryside.
There were a LOT of stairs to get up to see this view. This is the first set.
Khai Dinh tomb took 11 years (1920-1931) to build and is the tomb of the final emperor.
The sarcophagus of Emperor is covered with mosaics and the ceiling is painted with dragons.
There were many couples taking their engagement photos here.
Thien Mu Pagoda
The ‘Heavenly Lady Pagoda’ is a lovely tower along the Perfume River. This site also houses a national relic: the car in which the monk Thich Quang Duc rode from his temple to Saigon on June 11, 1963. He stepped out of the car in an intersection, sat down in the lotus position, and burned himself to death in protest against the regime’s violations of religious freedom.
After exploring the sites, we headed back to Hue on a Dragon boat. It was a great day!
You may remember that our Vietnam adventure started in HCMC and ended in Hanoi. As we traveled north we met heaps of travelers coming the other direction. We spent many ‘happy hours’ talking to travelers about their favorite experiences and then copying them. That was how we decided to travel overland via the Hai Van Pass (which means ‘Sea Clouds’).We had a few transportation options:
1- Hire motorbikes (which was the most popular option but the most terrifying for me.) 2- Take the train (If you are at all interested in train travel make sure to check out seat61.com)3- Hire a driver. This option won out, since we’d have to rent a car to get from Hói An to DaNang to catch the train anyways. We decided to spend a bit more and have the driver take us all the way through! PLUS, we got to stop at Marble Mountain on the way!)
The road was treacherously twisted and around any/every corner there would be some sort of obstacle… a slow/broken vehicle, a cow or a herd of goats. I don’t think I could have handled 3 hours of this on a moto.
I was SUPER glad that we had decided to drive so I could just relax and enjoy the view. (I later learned that the majority of the traffic has been routed through the tunnel built in 2005, so only motos and tanker trucks (that aren’t allowed in the tunnel) take the pass, making it relatively safe.)
Finally, we started the decent and ended up at this gorgeous vista.
Passing through the quaint village of Lang Co takes but a minute, and then you’re on a fairly flat and well maintained ‘high-way’. There have been road improvements that widened the road. There were houses that needed to be torn down to make way for ‘progress’ but the occupants were not offered enough money to relocate so many stayed in protest. And this is what happened.
They tore off the sides of the houses! We saw MANY houses like these, along this stretch of road. They had gaping holes without windows or doors and families were coming in and out of those houses… because they still live there.
Our voyage ended in Hue, where we were dropped off at the LOVELY Hong Thien Hotel 1 (NOT 2!) that we’d booked on Agoda.com for a pittance. There was a POOL and the staff was very lovely. Check out the view from our balcony!
The journey over Hai Van Pass has been made ‘famous’ by the wacky British TV show, Top Gear. You can watch them cross the pass starting at minute 3:15.
Without multiple travelers’ recommendations, we would have passed over this site as we drove from Hói An to Hue. It turned out to be Troy’s favorite spot in Southern Vietnam and we should have planned 2 hrs to see it all.
The stairs aren’t terrible going up… going down I did a lot of side-stepping to keep from rolling my ankles. At the top, you are rewarded with lots of wonderful (and varied) places to explore. First, check out this temple.
Pop over the bridge and say hello to this lovely lady.
And the view from this gate is pretty great.
Then, step into the caves! (Hi- Buddha!)
There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore.
There are older Vietnamese women selling incense for you to burn for Buddha.
After we exhausted all the nooks, we climbed up to the top! It was HOT!
The view was vast and interesting. We paid a guy $1 to take our photo and print it out right there. Money well spent.
Notes: The area is lousy with marble-carvers who try to get you to park for ‘free’ at their shop. Just ignore them and pay to park in the designated area. On our way through, I noticed that many of the statues that they were carving didn’t have faces and our driver explained that the faces would be finished when they were ordered so the facial features can be customized.
On this leg of the SE Asian adventure, Troy and I were always moving, or thinking about where to go next. Once we landed in Hòi An we looked for a good day trip and found a UNESCO site 1-hour away: My Son Sanctuary.
We booked a van tour through the hostel down the road and headed out to see some ruins. When we arrived, there was a 20 minute cultural dance performance that was fun but pretty ‘touristy’. Then our guide took us to explore the site.
Unfortunately, the Vietnamese were hiding out here during the war and only 25 of 70 structures survived the carpet bombs. There is quite a bit of walking involved and you have to stick to the paths in case of unexploded munitions.
The temples are dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Here he is, wearing a snake for a necklace. He looks pretty serene…
If I hadn’t been to Angkor Wat a few weeks before, I’m sure this site would have been a bit more enthralling. But the scale pales in comparison to Siem Reap.
Luckily, Troy is always game to keep things entertaining. Note: The structure behind him was being restored.
Speaking of entertaining: here’s a photo of me and a linga (the representation of Shiva used for worship… and suggestive tourist pictures.)
Then we got back in our van and headed down to the river to ride back to Hói An.
Oh WAIT! The boat has to make a stop for a snack & ‘Cultural Experience’! (Aka- a tourist trap.) Here I am sanding a headboard at a workshop.
Back in the boat, we enjoy the lovely cruise down the Thu Bon River to Hói An.