We spent spring break in Northern Vietnam with our friends Nicole and Evan, who were in the middle of their first trip to Asia. Their itinerary included Vietnam, Thailand and Japan. We decided that meeting them in Vietnam would be a great last trip and the cherry on top of our time in Asia.
Without a doubt, we knew we wanted to see the terraced rice fields of Sapa. That was a must. So, with that as the priority, we met our friends in Hanoi, spent some time in the city, took the night train to Sapa, stayed in a village-homestay and ventured further north for a cruise in Ha Long Bay. The north offered more than enough thrills for our short 7 days and we left feeling like it was the right amount of time to get a taste of the region but we definitely could have spent more time in Sapa!
Here’s a glimpse into our Hanoi, Sapa and Ha Long Bay adventures. We hope that they inspire you to explore Southeast Asia sometime in your lifetime. It’s home to so many interesting cultures and truly is something special. And if you are planning your own Vietnam trip, we hope this can provide some insight for your adventure!
1. Hanoi City
Our first destination was downtown Hanoi in the famous Old Quarter at May De Ville Legend Hotel. Frequently referred to as the French Quarter, this area seems to be the culmination of the French-Asian fusion that Vietnam’s history produced. If it wasn’t for the obvious aspects of Vietnamese culture, like the iconic conical hats worn by the vendors, we would have thought we were in Europe. The buildings looked like something out of an old Parisian painting.
After our incredible cooking class experience in Thailand, we knew we had to take a class in Vietnam. We booked a class with Vietnam Awesome Travel’s Home Cooking Class and they picked us up from our hotel and took us to a nearby neighborhood located right on the Red River. Our spunky little teacher taught us a few useful Vietnamese phrases and then we were off on our way, cycling to the local market. We bought everything we needed to prepare the meal and were stopped with a big surprise… When we approached the butcher tables, the sight of dogs on the cutting board caused us to feel a bit queazy. Fortunately, we didn’t let it ruin our appetite. We still had a long night ahead of us! Thankfully, the dog was not on the menu and instead, we learned how to make the famous pho (pronounced “phuu”), fried spring rolls, fried ginger fish and of course the beloved steamed white rice. It was a feast for a king!
We spent the next day on foot, exploring the city and dodging traffic. Hanoi’s traffic was some of the craziest we have ever seen! The best part of this day was our first taste of Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. What is egg coffee? Well, it is Vietnamese coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk and raw egg yolk. At The Note Coffee, we had ours splashed with a hint of orange. It was interesting in a really delicious way.
2. Night Train to Sapa
We finished the day boarding the overnight train to Sapa. We decided to book the Chapa Express Train through traintosapa.com. They offer a free taxi to the train station, ticket assistance and escort to the right train. The train ride was more pleasant than expected, but we all found it a little difficult to get a solid snooze. The worst part of the night, and rather the entire trip, was when our friends realized their money had been stolen sometime during the night. We all learned a little lesson that morning and took safety a little more seriously the rest of the trip.
3. Sapa Trekking and Homestay
The unfortunate money mishap, however, did not ruin our adventure. We actually all agreed that the time we spent in Sapa was our favorite part of our time in Vietnam! After an hour van ride from the station into Sapa Valley, organized by our homestay Golden Rice Garden (AMAZING by the way), we were surrounded by those majestic green terraced rice fields slurping big bowls of pho.
While planning our trip, we researched countless Sapa trekking tour companies and weighing the costs and other variables, it became absolutely exhasting trying to decide who to book with. We had read a few tips on trekking without a guide, but the idea of finding our way around that terrain sounded intimidating. So, we finally decided to book a homestay that offered their own trek service. This is how we found Golden Rice Garden. After eating our pho prepared by the women at the homestay, Loi, the owner and nicest young Vietnamese man, called our guide and off we went. Our guide was a 26 year old Black Hmong woman sporting her traditional handmade clothing the kindest smile named Lee. During our 15K trek, we got to know Lee as she taught us about her tribe’s marriage customs and gender roles, family traditions, indigo dying, food preparation and so much more. She taught us that the women in the villages have been able to learn English from interaction with foreign tourists which allows them the opportunity to lead treks and homestays in addition to selling their homemade goods, since the men generally tend to the family’s property or farmland making little to no monetary income.
As more issues regarding womens rights and gender roles seem to be flooding our mainstream headlines and personal agendas in the developed countries, it was a humbling experience for us to witness the dynamic of communities that rely heavily on these hard working mothers who have never heard of the concept of maternity leave or paychecks reflecting a gender pay-gap. Here’s Lee, with three children who have been raised strapped to their mother’s back as she guides tourists through the rice fields.
After the trek was over, we returned to our homestay tired and ready for the feast awaiting us. But before she left us, Lee asked if we had plans for the next day and if we would like to see her home and meet her family. This was an offer we could not pass up. We spent the next day in Sapa Town and afterwards, met Lee at her childrens’ school. She led us up a steep hillside through her village and as we approached her home, we learned why these people don’t need elypticals! We met her husband and his parents, her 3 adorable children and their chickens and pigs as they all worked together to make us a meal with the little food that they had. Lee asked us to make the spring rolls and we were thrilled to show off the skills we had learned in our cooking class! The meal was an absolute feast and probably the best of the trip. We were all in mutual agreement that this was the best night we had spent in a very long time.
The next day was our last in Sapa and we decided to trek without a guide. Confident in the landscape, we headed off for our own adventure through the most beautiful views of the valley. We believe we were heading from Ta Van towards Lao Cha. We are so happy that we decided to venture out alone and highly reccommend it. But we don’t regret hiring a guide either because if not, we would have never met Lee!
4. Ha Long Bay
The night train took us back to Hanoi and we were off to the biggest tourist trap of them all: Ha Long Bay. Don’t misunderstand this: it was truly stunning and we had a great time on the boat. We got a great deal on Booking, the food was fabulous and our only complaint was the amount of tourists. But would we do it again? Probably not. Maybe we just aren’t really “cruise people.” But if you do choose to do it, don’t spend more that $150 per person. Apricot Cruise offered an affordable one-night stay on their boat and we were happy with their convenient free pick-up service to and from Halong Bay from Hanoi.
In the end, Vietnam was an unforgettable trip and a great second visit to Southeast Asia. As much as we loved Northern Thailand, there were parts of Northern Vietnam, like Lee and the terraces of Sapa, that stole our hearts. So, if we had to compare the two countries, we’d say that Thailand’s food was hands-down incomparable but Vietnam’s scenery blew Thailand out of the water. We hope to return again someday and possibly explore the other countries in the area.
For now, we are putting the rest of Asia on hold while we soak in Japan for our last three months here! And after our time here is over, we are excited to spend three months in the Balkans and get a much needed Euro-staycation!