We left the busyness of Hanoi for a couple of days in Sapa. This mountainside retreat was originally built for the French as a cool getaway in 1922 and after some years’of neglect has in recent years undergone a revival and is now a key tourist destination in Northern Vietnam – and with good reason.
You feel as though you have arrived in a different country, so alien is the climate. It was a welcome relief to actually feel chilly and to need to wrap up warm after the heat of Hanoi and Halong Bay. The town is a pretty place and with lots of nice restaurants and cafes, as well as the legendary Sunday market, it is a great place to wander around and spend a few hours. You will have endless conversations with the women from the hill tribes, who are very striking and extremely friendly. The English of the young girls is remarkable and is almost entirely picked up from having been talking to tourists in Sapa since a very young age. You do not see the men; they stay in the hills farming. Many of these women walk 12km into Sapa and back each day in order to peddle their wares of pretty blankets, jewellery and bags.
Whilst in Sapa we stayed outside of town in a wonderful eco-lodge called The Topas. It was a fantastic place with 360-degree views and a laid back and friendly feel. The best thing was the treks they organised – where we felt we could do exactly what suited us and the guides were brilliant. We only spent one night in Sapa and so only managed one full day’s trek. We also spent an afternoon on the Ham Rong mountain, which is accessible from Sapa itself and requires no guide.
The views across the entire area are amazing and would have been even more so had it not rained for much of the time we were there. The paddy fields are cut into the hillside and sturdy ox pull the ploughs and the hills appear to roll on forever. We wished we had had a little longer to spend both in the town and in the surrounding countryside, but alas Hanoi was calling.
We arrived back in Hanoi at 5.20 am and the city was quiet and had a calmness that had’not previously’been evident in the days we had spent there. We went for a walk to the Hoan Kiem lake in the old quarter and were greeted with the Hanoian version of the early morning mega gym. The lake was teeming with people of all ages doing their morning exercises. The older generation were power walking around the lake, stopping occasionally to do some stretches by the side of the water. There were numerous 4 a side games of badminton going on and many younger people jogging around the lake. Groups of women gathered and listening to awful music on battered stereos, were taking part in classes that seemed to be a cross between tai chi, yoga and aerobics. There was even an impromptu gym on the pavement with bench presses and pull up bars for the young men to show off their 6 packs! This hive of activity continued until about 7 when it thinned out and people set off to get ready for the day. It was really nice watching this sociable way to wake up and exercise and a couple of hours of people watching happily passed us by.
We managed to fit in a visit to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison museum before leaving Hanoi. This is more sophisticated in the way that it is put together than the Ho Chi Minh museum and is worth a visit. The message is by no means impartial – the French colonialists did lots of bad things there and the American POWs were treated to a holiday camp experience whilst there!’ Nevertheless, it is partly this bias that makes it interesting!
We were now ready to leave Hanoi and all its honking horns and head down south.
‘Til next time
Harriet and Ben
(Harriet and Ben’s trip is proudly sponsored by the Nam Hai)