In the space of a week we have explored the chaos of Hanoi’s old quarter, visited the rural town of Nihn Bihn, done the whole Halong Bay thing, been back to Hanoi to catch a bus to Sapa to trek and have ended up back in Hanoi waiting for another bus. Thank goodness for organised and determined friends.
The capital of Vietnam is a twisting mass of narrow roads, cluttered sidewalks, tiny plastic chairs, bicycle merchants, rubbish and midnight curfews.
Some cool things to do are explore the different streets in the old quarter. They are all trade or merchandise specific! Go for an early run around the Hoan Kiem Lake and take in the morning tai chi classes. Eat Pho at a impromptu side walk restaurant- remember Pho is a breakfast food, so look for the mobile restaurants in the mornings. Drink thick, sweet Vietnamese coffee. At any time of the day.
The town of Nihn Bihn is small and rural and has not yet been over-run with tourists. The 2 hour trip turned into a 3 hour one along bumpy roads with the driver making full use of his hooter. These are all things we are slowly getting used to, traveling through Vietnam!
But getting to Nihn Bihn was worth it. We spent our first afternoon there on tiny little canoes, rowed by leathery men and woman well into their old age, on the Ngo-Dong river. This is one of the most popular things to do while visiting Nihn Bihn and there were indeed other tourists around. The river winds through towering limestone karsts and apple-green rice paddies and ploughs its way through 3 main cave systems. The there-and-back-again trip takes around 2 hours.
The following morning we took a taxi out to the Bai Dinh temple complex, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. The temple complex is built up on a hill. The outer walls are lined with hundreds of stone Buddhas all sporting worn out knees from the hands of the pilgrims that flock here. Inside the temple complex you will see gigantic gold statues, a soaring pagoda, an enormous bronze bell, a pond and many pilgrims. It is a peaceful place. if you are thinking of visiting Bai Dinh you should allow at least 40 minutes to get there from Nihn Bihn and at least 90 minutes to look around.
Halong Bay was the complete opposite to where we had just come from. Full of tourists, touts and options for where we wanted to spend the night. Because we were on such a tight schedule we decided that we wouldn’t do the whole 3 days/ 2 nights out on the bay and rather just do a day trip. If I ever get the chance to go back to Halong Bay I would do the overnight tour. The Bay was beautiful and we only just scratched the surface.
Our last stop on the tour of the North was Sapa. My favourite stop! We were here to do a trek into the hills with some of the locals. Sapa is a mountain town that is home to a number of minority tribes, most of whom offer treks up into the mountains and their villages. The way that these treks are offered is comical. Women flock around arriving buses, most of which are overnight from Hanoi, and hound you until you agree to trek with them. And then they hound you all day, with smiles and giggles and ‘Remember me?’ “Buy from me!’ They are relentless but amusing.
The trek we decided to go on was with a woman form the Black H’Mong tribe. It is the biggest tribe in the area and the woman are easily identifiable by their indigo outfits and colourful head scarves. We were doing a 2 day trek which involved hiking up to the village, and by village I mean 2 houses, spending the afternoon at the village looking around, hanging out and eating and drinking with the family, sleeping on a wooden platform about the kitchen fire and hiking out of the mountains the following day. It was an amazing experience to talk to our guide, who has learnt English only from talking with tourists, and seeing how the H’Mong live in the hills in a wooden hut with a mud floor, a couple of horses, pigs and chickens and a few terraces of rice paddies. I would highly recommend the experience if you ever find yourself in Sapa.
Northern Vietnam was cold and grey and chaotic and a whirlwind.
And with that our whirlwind tour of Northern Vietnam came to an end.