Vietnam Nov 7-22, 2017
Vietnam is one of the great travel destinations. With inexpensive prices, pleasant people, a frenetic pace, a classic cuisine, ethnic cultures and many fantastic destinations, it is a year-around destination for all nationalities.
North Vietnam has one of the world’s most impressive limestone landmasses with spectacular karst formations at Halong Bay, near Ninh Binh and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, set in tropical jungle amidst towering peaks. Hue and Hoi An display historic Vietnam. Get lost, party and drink in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, one of the best capital cities to stay in the world.
Visas are easily obtained online, hotels and hostels are plentiful and transport cheap and numerous. I prefer bus travel on their unusual sleeper buses to the slower, more expensive trains that travel more at night. Renting or buying a motorcycle is a rite of passage – why not join the other 50 million Vietnamese on their bikes.
Largest City. Ho Chi Minh City
Official & national language. Vietnamese
Ethinic Groups. 85% Vietnamese, 53 minorities.
Religion. 73.2% Folk or Irreligious, 12.2% Buddhism, 8.3% Christianity. 4.8% Caodaism, 1.4% Hoahaoism, .1% others
Government. Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic
Area. Total 331,230.8 km2 (127,888.9 sq mi) (65th). Water 6.4%
Population. 2016 – 94,569,072 (14th). Density 276.03/km2 (46th)
GDP (PPP). $648.243 billion (35th). Per capita $6,925 (128)
Currency. Dong (d) (VND) 1 US$ = 22,500d (Nov 2017). ATMs plentiful but not all accept foreign cards. Usually fee charged at local bank for withdrawals.
Visas. Easily obtained by most nationalities online. Print application or visa and pay $25US cash on arrival (Canadians).
When to go? Dec-March – Expect cool weather north of Hue as the winter monsoon brings cloud, mist and drizzle. Apr. Danang fireworks festival. July-August – Great beach time on the central coast with balmy sea and air temperatures.
Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in SE Asia. Vietnam is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, Thailand across the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest, and the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore across the South China Sea to the east and southeast. Its capital city has been Hanoi since the reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1976, with Ho Chi Minh as the most populous city.
The northern part of Vietnam was part of Imperial China for over a millennium, from 111 BC to AD 939. An independent Vietnamese state was formed in 939. Successive Vietnamese Imperial Dynasties flourished as the nation expanded geographically and politically into Southeast Asia, until the Indochina Peninsula was colonized by the French in the mid-19th century.
Following a Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the Vietnamese fought French rule in the First Indochina War, eventually expelling the French in 1954. Thereafter, Vietnam was divided politically into two rival states, North Vietnam (officially the Democratic Republic of Vietnam), and South Vietnam (officially the Republic of Vietnam). Conflict between the two sides intensified in what is known as the Vietnam War, with heavy intervention by the USA on the side of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. The war ended with a North Vietnamese victory in 1975.
Vietnam was then unified under a Marxist-Leninist government but remained impoverished and politically isolated. In 1986, the government initiated a series of economic and political reforms that began Vietnam’s path towards integration into the world economy. By 2000, it had established diplomatic relations with all nations. Since 2000, Vietnam’s economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world, and, in 2011, it had the highest Global Wealth Generator Index among 11 major economies. Its successful economic reforms resulted in its joining the WTO in 2007. It is also a member of the APEC and the OIF. Vietnam remains one of the world’s four remaining one-party socialist states officially espousing communism.
When Anna’s tourist visa for Canada was refused for the third time, we decided to meet in Hanoi and spend two weeks in northern Vietnam. When I was in Vietnam in 2014, I didn’t go north of Hanoi. This trip filled in one more piece of the jig-saw puzzle.
I found a great flight – $678 CAD return from Vancouver on China Airlines and Vietnam Air. I took the ferry to Vancouver on Nov 7, met my cousin Jan for a walk around the sea wall and then we had dinner with my daughter. My flight was at 00:40, a great time to fly. It was 13 exhausting hours to Taipei, Taiwan, a 2½ hour layover and then 3 more hours to Hanoi. The flight was interesting as 90% of the passengers were older Sikh men and women (Canadians going for a holiday back home in India) – all with great turbans in every colour and long beards. Few spoke English. People often think that Indians are not Caucasian (except the Davidians in South India that are related to Australia’s Aborigines), but all these guys had very Caucasian features.
HANOI Pop 6.5 million
Easily the most atmospheric capitals in SE Asia, it combines classic French architecture evolving in harmony with its history. Motorbikes swarm the tangled web of streets in the Old Quarter, a cauldron of commerce for more almost 1000 years. Pho (noodle soup) and bia hoi (draught beer) dens hug every street. Vietnamese love to eat out amidst the throng of travellers. It is Asian streetlife at its purist and most ethereal.
Getting into town from Hanoi Airport. There are many options for the 25km drive into Hanoi from the airport. Our hotel offered a $20 taxi, but I took the public bus (#90) for 40¢ – quite a remarkable difference. These public buses run until about 22:30. Unfortunately this bus goes to a local bus station, about a 30 minutes walk SW of the center of the Old Quarter and my hotel. I love walking wherever I am staying after a long time on a flight or bus – and have had some epic walks in the process. It is one of the advantages of traveling with a backpack rather than a rolling suitcase (I can’t believe how many people actually travel this way).
A better option is Bus express 86, 30,000d and only 30 minutes to Hanoi Railway Station. It runs from 6:30 to 23:05 at night. It has 8 stops on the way – the best stop for the Old Quarter is Long Bien Bus Interchange, on the NE corner of the Quarter and a nice walk to anywhere there.
We stayed at the Hanoi Old Town Hotel in the Old Quarter for about $25/night for 2. Anna arrived exactly on time at 23:00. The first week of travel is always hell for me. I get a gastritis with nausea and a complete loss of appetite that lasts a week – a great recipe for weight loss, but H2 blockers help. To top this off, I had the worst jet lag of my life and basically slept for most of the next 2 days. I’ve been to Hanoi before and had no pressing sites to see. The Old Quarter of Hanoi comes alive at night. A huge night market appears on one of the main streets and the entire SE section is pedestrian-only – the area is packed with tourists and locals eating, drinking and people watching. Hanoi has quite dense smog.
We have heard the entire center of the coastal area of Vietnam was flooded and closed to tourism after 2 typhoons. I have seen most of south of Hanoi and my main interest was in exploring northern Vietnam. Sapa is the highlight of the north. After 3 nights in Hanoi, we took a bus to Lào Cai, 38 kms from Sapa, in the NW corner of Vietnam (240,000 or about $11). Most foreigners take the train to Lào Cai, a nine-hour journey and three times the cost. Also most trains leave at night. I prefer not traveling at night – you miss a lot of the countryside and the feel of a country. Vietnam has unusual sleeper buses that I have never seen elsewhere. The seats are completely reclining (basically 3 rows of 2 levels of 5 “seats” and 6 next to he bathroom at the back for 36 “beds”. It was very modern with a USB plug, 2 personal lights, cup holders, completely controllable air conditioning and a warm blanket. I used the fast wifi for several hours. We were the only foreigners on the bus.
The trains and public buses stop at Lào Cai and shuttle buses take you up the mountain to Sapa. Tours continue through to Sapa. Lao Cai lies at the end of the train line, 3km from the Chinese border. The town has no sights and is simply a transportation hub. With Sapa just up the mountain, there is no need to stay the night.
It is a steep winding mountain road with lots of traffic including many big trucks. This is one transportation corridor connecting Hanoi with Sapa and Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. Most of the semi-trailers trucks were carrying containers with Chinese names. 6 kms from Sapa, we were embroiled in the most amazing traffic jam – the right lane was being paved and was blocked with big trucks. As everyone was trying to move around the trucks, nobody could move in the other lane. Finally someone took control and had all of us move off the narrow highway. It took 30 minutes for all the downhill traffic to pass. It was a Sunday and most of the traffic was buses and vans carrying Vietnamese and tourist down from a weekend in the mountains.
SAPA Pop 37,000 Elevation 1650m (1200 to 1800m)
Sapa was founded as a French hill station in 1922 and is the premier tourist destination in northern Vietnam. It is 376kms from Hanoi and SW of Lo Cai.
Sapa is described as having four seasons in a day: cool spring in the morning, sunny summer at noon, cloudy autumn in the afternoon/evening and cold winter at night. It is known for its cold, foggy winters with temperatures occasionally down to 0° C at night. The dry season is approximately January to the end of June and rain showers in the mountains are frequent in the afternoon.
The main centre is south and west of the small lake near the Ta Phin stone church. Mountains climb steeply above the town on all sides. The town’s colonial villas fell into disrepair during successive wars but a building boom has corrected that. There seems to be hundreds of hotels and many more under construction. Reservations should be made on weekends in season but are probably unnecessary on weekdays. We were offered a nice room with a bathroom and balcony for $15/night above a restaurant called Café Phő Núi (the fact that it has rooms is not obvious) – address 007 Trach Són (on the left, at the beginning of the one-way street paralleling the street along the lake you entered town on, just around the corner from the end of the lake).
The local hill-tribe people fill the town with colour. Inherent in the prosperity is a big change for these ethnic groups. Many have little formal education but have a good command of several foreign languages, and are persistent traders, often incessantly urging you to buy their handicrafts. There are six ethnic minorities but most here seem to be either H’mong or Dzao, distinguished by their clothes and headwear. They are all very hospitable with a well-preserved cultural identity.
What to do?
All driving mileages and treks start from the Ta Phin stone church that sits on the edge of the large amphitheatre in the centre of Sapa. All roads take off from near here.
Besides handicrafts, you will be badgered by H’mong women to go walking to several local villages.
Mae, a H’mong woman in her ?late 40’s, spoke good English and tried to charm us soon after getting off the bus. She was actually pushing her homestay, but also led small groups trekking most days. We stayed in a hotel for 2 nights and then met Mae at 9:30 to start our homestay. But in fact, we were going on a trek and joined a family of 5 Brits and a Dutch woman. Mae’s husband took our larger packs in preparation for the home stay that night.
Trek #1: Several other H’mong women carrying baskets joined the group. We headed north along rough roads, muddy paths, forded 2 streams and passed mostly Dzao villages (tiny collections of a few homes) surrounded by their rice paddies, vegetable gardens, water buffalo, pigs and chickens. The women tagging along socialized by asking all the usual questions “Where are you from? How many children do you have? How old are you? At lunch the selling began in earnest. I don’t think I have dealt with such persistent people in my 11 years of travel. It ended only when I walked away. The Dzao women along the way nagged almost as much. They all sell woven wrist bracelets, small zippered bags and wall hangings that are machine embroidered. They are nice and cheap, but I only buy what I want.
Supposedly 8kms long, we walked for about 14 kms to a cave called Ta Phin Grotto. I didn’t bother going in – the ones who did emerged sweaty and muddy and not that impressed. We walked back a few kilometres and met a van arranged by Mae for the drive back to Sapa.
I asked Mae if we could visit some homes but these were not from the same “culture” and it would not be possible. She reassured me that we would do that in the homestay. Again, this would be an easy trek to do on your own, simply get a phone number of a taxi to pick you up, hitchhike (and expect to pay something) or walk on the road back to Sapa for a long day. Say Ta Phin Grotto for directions.
Surprisingly, the English family had not worked out a group rate and they each paid Mae $20 (total $120 for the six of them, and we still had not paid yet), a very handsome payday for a Vietnamese family – one month’s wages for about 7 hours work (May paid for lunch and the van). The second of the two main trekking routes used by the locals, we happened upon when we rented a motorcycle.
Trek #2: Walk down the road that goes south (actually SE) of town passing hundreds of restaurants, clothing stores and hotels. About 3.3kms down this road, turn right down a steeply descending narrow road (it is the first road on the right that you come to). It switchbacks steeply passing homes and terraces. The valley floor is far below. At one point, the road becomes very rough and it was all I could do to control the scooter with Anna walking. It finally descends to a wonderful suspension bridge over the river. A large concrete dam is just upstream from the bridge. I tried to go up the steep road on the other side to access the upper valley under the Fancipan cable car, but the scooter was too underpowered. We turned around and went down a very steep road below the bridge and met up with all the trekkers we had passed above as they took a short-cut and surprisingly missed one of the highlights of the walk (the bridge, river and the dam).
The road continues down the valley and eventually climbs very steeply back up to the main road, joining it 6.3kms from Sapa. Anna had to get off to get up the steep bits. Most treks walk back to Sapa or continue down the south road, and then get a taxi back to town.
The views along this walk are stupendous with all the small collections of houses and terraces curving and rising from the valley floor. But again there was no cultural experience with this trek. And it would be easy to do without a “guide”. They give virtually no cultural information anyway. From Mae I learned that there were 5 “cultures” (hill tribes) in the area and that they do not intermarry with other tribes, but little else.
The Fancipan Legend has several world records: the longest non-stop, 3-roped cable car (6294m) and the greatest elevation change of a 3-roped cable car (1410m).
Access to the bottom of the cable car is 5kms west of Sapa up a big climb from the city. We took two motorcycle taxis (80,000) up to the spectacular complex, but a single taxi would have been cheaper. Tickets are 600,000 ($27) with 100,000 more for the funicular – a short railway that takes you from the end of the cable car to the Indochina Summit at 3,143m. Without the funicular, it was a tiring 30-minute climb at this elevation (we were at sea level the day before). The walk passes a huge Buddha statue, two Tao temples, and ends at several viewing platforms with a Vietnamese flag. All is quite new and construction continues on walkways to more statues and temples under construction.
The summit had been in cloud for several days but was cloud-free the day we went up. Clouds still obscured most of the other mountains and far views were not great.
The cable car ride is spectacular. It initially crosses a wide valley completely covered in rice terraces. It then climbs precipitously up the mountain. It appears that walking would be impossible, but there is an 11-km trail. I talked to 3 young foreigners who walked up the vague trail in 5 hours – they looked totally knackered. I don’t think many do it. I have no idea where the trail starts but it would best begin down in the valley giving several hundred more feet to ascend – and it would certainly not follow under the cable car, an impossibly vertical bushwhack.
I would highly recommend this activity. The complexes at either end of the cable car are world-class. The views going up and from the top on a clear day are inspiring. The big Buddha, the statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, a big bell tower and Tao tmeples are at the summit.
Rent a Motorcycle.
Automatic transmission scooters are very easy to drive and can go almost anywhere. Over the years, I’ve rented them in Bali and Flores in Indonesia, Taiwan and many other places. In Sapa, there are many businesses that rent scooters about 500m down the south road for 220,000 ($10) for the day including gas. (We paid more for motorcycle taxis to take us up and down the 5kms to the cable car). A piece of ID (driver’s license) must be left for security. Take it for a short test drive to check the brakes (the ones on our first scooter were bad) and that it runs reasonably well. Inspect the bike carefully and take pictures of any damage.
Depending on how much time you spend drinking beer and eating during the day, it is possible to go almost everywhere around Sapa in a day.
In about 6 hours, we drove up to Silver Waterfall and the summit of the pass above (drive up the “west” road, pass the Fansipan cable car, and continue for 3kms to the waterfall and another 2kms to the pass), then back to Sapa, had lunch and then did all of Trek #2 above on the scooter. When we arrived back on the main “south” road, we turned down and drove for another 10kms down south road. Other than a dam being constructed on the river, there is not much more to see. We passed many vans carrying tourists on a 2-day circuit that drives almost to the Chinese border 70kms west of Sapa.
There are probably many other motorcycle tours. A good map and digital maps could make it all possible.
When we were first approached by Mae to stay with her family (a homestay), I was quite excited. Having authentic experiences is difficult wherever you travel. We stayed in Sapa for two nights, and after trek #1, climbed on two scooters to go the 10kms down south road to her home. We waited below the narrow path to her home while her and her husband disappeared for 20 minutes before they came back with some eggs. We walked the steep path 10 minutes up to her home. Mae has constructed a separate building for guests to sleep in – a bare cement floored room with 4 small red plastic chairs, and a side room with two beds screened off with a blanket and under mosquito nets. We sat in the chairs and waited an hour while Mae made dinner and served it on a small folding table in the bare room. Anna ate nothing and me very little. We saw our hosts for a few minutes. This was not what I was expecting.
The bed was extremely hard, had two tiny pillows and a thick comforter. I sweat under heavy bedding and woke up several times too warm. We weren’t too happy, skipped breakfast and left at 7am.
On settling our debt with Mae, she was quick to announce that the other trekkers had paid $20 each and thought that we should pay $60 including the trek, the bed and the minimally eaten dinner. I ended up giving her $50, still a significant overpayment.
Why would anyone contemplate a homestay if this was the experience? The transportation alone to and from her place was as much as our cheap, but very nice hotel room back in Sapa. Add in no interaction with our hosts, food that didn’t suit us, an uncomfortable bed, and a location with nothing to do, made the whole experience not very gratifying.My recommendation would be to agree on a price before hand (I tried but couldn’t pin her down) and try to determine what experience is available (probably impossible). In general, I believe that our experience was fairly typical. They don’t understand our desire for authenticity. Unless you want the experience we had, I would avoid the experience. There are too many problems communicating what is important to you.
Of interest, the Dutch woman on our trek had stayed with Mae the night before. She mentioned none of the above, but also stayed only one night. There is a strong trend amongst young travellers to only state positives. Reality never enters the picture.
Back to Hanoi
After five nights in Sapa, we took the 06:20 bus down to Lao Cai and the 5-hour sleeper bus to Hanoi. Arriving without a hotel, we found a beautiful room for $25/night with a balcony and ensuite (Hanoi Old Quarter Hotel above a travel agency). We had reservations at our previous hotel for 3 nights, but it was nice to spend some time in another part of the Old Quarter. It was virtually next door to a Pakistani/Indian restaurant with wonderful food. I am not a foodie but like certain cuisines. We were regulars and ate everything off the menu over about six visits.
After returning to the Hanoi Old Quarter Hotel, we rented a motorbike to experience the frenetic traffic. We drove the sidewalks and narrow roads around West Lake, the biggest lake in Hanoi, NW of the Old Quarter. We visited a Tao temple and the Buddhist monastery/temple between West Lake and True Bach Lake. It has six-sided, 13-story pagoda with white Buddhas in every niche. The lake has several other temples but most were closed. The lake is ringed by upmarket suburbs, restaurants, boutiques and luxury hotels. There’s little traffic. Bicycling the root takes about the same time as a scooter.
We spent most days walking the Old Quarter and around Hoan Keim Lake. Crossing a Vietnamese street can only be done one way. Motorcycles obey few traffic rules but rarely hit pedestrians. Simply moving directly across the traffic stream is the only way.
Electric golf carts with solar panels on the roof stream by in cavalcades. They are full of Chinese tour groups. Older Europeans seem to prefer the bicycle taxis. I think they all are intimidated by Hanoi traffic. But walking is easy and full of scents, sounds and sites.
During our three days in Hanoi, we were able to complete Anna’s Schengen visa application. Requirements for Chinese are rigorous – letters from employers, income tax statements, bank statements, complete itineraries, booked accommodation and most importantly, return flights back to China. After applying for and failing on three tourist visa applications to Canada, we have learned what is required. As this was her first Schengen application, I made every effort to make it as perfect as possible. I wrote a document checklist and an extensive cover letter describing us, our relationship, source of funds, itinerary from January 19 to March 25, and return flights from Shanghai for those dates. Booking flights and accommodation can be expensive and Schengen web sites give many tips. They encourage using www.travelvisabookings.com to make sham flight and hotel bookings – five flights and five hotels are included for $35. They simply disappear in 2 weeks, hopefully after the visa is approved. But I also made 26 days of real Airbnb bookings in Rome, Florence and Palermo and sham bookings in Venice, Bario, and Naples. A sham return flight to Shanghai was included.
The employer letter authorized only a two-week holiday. It is important to tell the truth. We said that she planned on quitting her job and traveling with me. Crucial to all this is that she have money in a bank account, a credit card, a return flight and a sponsor. For this I supplied 6 months of bank statements, net worth statements, and income tax statements, in addition to an Affadavit of Sponsorship guaranteeing financial support for Anna in Europe. Intent on applying for a UK & Ireland visa were stated. If obtained, then she would be able to continue traveling with me. It is almost an art form.
The opening statement in the Italy Schengen site states their rejection rate is only about 6%. Getting the first Schengen visa will be crucial to future Schengen applications for her. Over the two years, we will be applying three more times – the visa allows only 90 days every 6 months. Then 90+ days in non-Schengen countries – The United Kingdom & Ireland, most of eastern Europe south of Belarus and the Balkans. Turkey and the Middle East, bits of Central Asia (Georgia, Armenia, Ajebijan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Kurdistan Iraq and back through Turkey.
The application was over 60 pages long.
Update 23-11: Anna messaged Emergency from the Hangzhou Italy Schengen Office. They have never had an application like ours and announced “What a mess”. The itinerary was included in the cover letter so we separated it. The Airbnb logo didn’t show on two reservations, we had not accounted for accommodation on 2-day drives from Venice to Bari and Naples to somewhere, I had not given the invoice for my VW factory order purchase. Anna reformatted the hotel page.
Individuals don’t apply for tourist visas of 66 days duration. Chinese tend to only go on 2-week tours where all the documents are prepared by tour companies with truly booked itineraries and accommodation. They added other notes to the cover letter explaining things and they accepted the application and sent it to Shanghai with an answer in a week.
So after 2 great restful weeks in Vietnam and a great time with Anna, so important in a long-distance relationship, I departed Hanoi via Taiwan – about 13 hours flying time. It is 3 hours shorter heading east – at one point over the Aleutians, we had a 330km tail wind. Air China is a nice airline with great leg-room and entertainment. I arrived 1 hour after I left Hanoi (depart Hanoi 17:50, arrive Vancouver 18:51 on November 22).
It took me exactly one hour from the plane coming to a halt to arrive at my daughter’s house near Commercial. We went out for a late dinner (Cabrito’s at Commercial and 7th) for tapas and drinks with a cousin and friend. Then the ferry and 1½ hour bus to home on the 23rd of August. I have come to relish the 30-minute walk home.