On the 1st October 2016 I travelled to Vietnam from Laos for 1 month on a tourist visa. I was excited to experience Ha Long Bay, the famous green lush landscapes and taste delicious Vietnamese food! I landed in Hanoi, which is the countries capital and was greeted by people! Vietnam is the 14th most populous country in the world. Trying to cross the roads was a task and when I first arrived I was escorted across a very busy intersection by a kind Vietnamese guy…the idea was to basically step into the road and just walk! The motorcycles and cars didn’t stop…they just went around you! I ended up travelling across (or down) Vietnam over a month, I feel in love with the country and would love to go back one day!
My Vietnam highlights…..
Ha Long Bay –
Sailing around these beautiful emerald limestone islands was so impressive and a highlight of my trip to Vietnam. It really did take my breath away! I booked onto a 3 night/2 day sailing trip around Ha Long Bay and paid around $120 USD for it, including the food, it was worth every penny! If you are planning a trip to Ha Long Bay my advice would be to pick and research the tour companies wisely though as there as so many to choose from.
We visited an Oyster farm while on the boat tour which was really interesting, especially to see how they grow and culture the oysters and the process of making pearls.
Sapa and the Bac Ha Markets –
My next highlight in Vietnam was visiting Sapa, a beautiful hill station town in Northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. I took the night bus here from Hanoi which took about 7 hours. The bus ended up arriving at 3am in the morning, but luckily our bus driver let us sleep inside the bus until 6am. When I woke there were lots of local Hmong tribes women waiting for us outside the bus to offer you home stays. Sapa is known for its trekking and homestays with the local minority tribes.
I decided to get a taxi and go to Sapa O’ Chau a locally run Hmong cafe and social enterprise that runs socially responsible treks and homestay in the region. I had been recommended this organisation a few times in Hanoi and when I read up about it, it looked really well run . It was started in 2007 by a local lady from the Black Hmong tribe, the largest ethnic minority tribe in Sapa. She wanted to open a business which would create more job opportunities to local people, particularly in the ethnic minority villages.
I felt this would be a good place for me to start my adventures in Sapa. I ended up joining a small group to go trekking for the day with and met our lovely guide, Thi Co Giang, a local lady from the Hmong tribe who lived in the local Lào Cai village. She took me and the group trekking for the day and I ended up staying with her, her husband and their children for 1 night. It was a great experience and the food her family cooked me that evening was amazing. This all cost me $35 USD which I thought was very reasonable and a great local experience which will stay with me forever.
I was also luckily enough to be in Sapa for the lively and colourful ‘Bac Ha Sunday Markets’. This is one of the largest minority peoples market in Northern Vietnam. I booked onto a tour and it took around 2.5 hours to drive there and was well worth the effort, we even went to the Chinese border between Vietnam and China on the way back.
This market is more of a ‘meet up’ for all the local tribes including the Red Hmong, Black Dao, Tay, Nung, La Chi, Phu La and other minority groups who come from all over Vietnam to buy and sell goods and livestock. It was one of my favourite days in Vietnam, just wandering around, seeing pigs, dogs and buffalo’s being sold and loads of beautiful clothes and colours everywhere.
Phong Nha- Kè Bàng National Park –
I couldn’t have finished my post on Vietnam without mentioning the amazing Phong Nha- Kè Bàng National Park. This is a beautiful national park and UNESCO World Heritage site about 500 km south of Hanoi. I took the day train here (with amazing scenery along the way) from Hanoi to Dong Hoi which is a town about 40 km away from Phong Nha. I then took a local bus to get to Phong Nha, all in all it took me the whole day to get here, but it was worth it.
I stayed in the fun backpackers hostel Easy Tiger which is one of the few hostels here in this small town and was really well set up. Phong Nha has become famous for its 300 caves and grotto systems, and beautiful limestone scenery. It also has the world largest cave here, Son Doong Cave and largest underground river. I sadly didn’t visit the largest cave, as it costs around $3000 USD to go here and takes around 6 days to hike into it (next time maybe!).
I did visit the Phong Nha cave, which is one of the most popular and easy to visit. It notably was used as a hospital in the days of the Vietnam/American war as well and it still holds the scars to show for it. I took a trip into here on a traditional Vietnamese Dragon boat which was super cheap and beautiful to venture inside it. I also visited the Hang Toi (Dark Cave) which is the ‘adventurous’ cave, I did a day trip here which included zip-lining into the cave and then swimming with a head torch further inside it to find a ‘mud bath’ which we could swim about in. Amazing day trip which cost about $10 USD.
A few of us also hired some guys in the town to take us around on scooters, which was a great way to explore the scenery and visit places (I was terrified of driving a scooter so a great way to get about if you don’t want to drive one yourself)! I would highly recommend a visit to Phong Nha – Kè Bàng National park to anyone who is going to Vietnam….especially before it gets too touristy.
All photographs copyright Jemma Nicholson.