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Report 23: Sapa and Halong Bay, Vietnam

I booked the two trips all travelers to these parts seem to take: a trek from Sapa and a cruise from Halong Bay. I had the foresight to do the trek first and then relax on the cruise.

The Sapa trip began with an overnight train from Hanoi to Lo Cai in soft sleepers—4 to a compartment. I was with an Australian couple around my age and a youngish Vietnamese woman. I talked a little bit with the Australians and sacked out by 10. We seemed to stop for lengthy periods and then lurch back into action alng the way. I later learned we were over an hour late and the stops were for landslides blocking the tracks.

During breakfast—leftover’s at an uninhabited hotel—my guide comes to explain how things will happen. After breakfast I meet up with the other 6 on the trip and we take off, first through the city’s market and then out into the paddy. We walk from 9:30 to about 5 with an hour or so lunch break. The beginning is a lot of downhill—mentally comforting, ‘though something I’ll feel the next day. We go up and down much more than I was led to expect when I was booking. The paddy is deeply carved into dramatic hills, full of water, the occasional buffalo, men and women working the rice and children scampering. We are accompanied by three Black Hmong women, one with a tiny baby on her back. They are dressed in their black embroidered tunics and black leggings. Although the morning started out a bit cool, once we are moving and the sun is making its way higher in the sky, it gets hot. The women walk this walk all the time, offering assistance to the tourists and hoping that they will buy some of their handicrafts. I was captured by a woman who was shocked to learn my age. (she asks, which is typical and important in Vietnam.) She is 30 with a 10 year old girl and a 5 year old boy, who are in school. She’s amazed I’m so old. Me too.

After lunch, we stop in some village shops and in the school. I use these ventures for cat naps, since the trekking is pretty hot and tiring and sleep on the train was missing some time and depth. At the end of the day we come to the Dzao village where we will all stay in a home. It turns out to be a large dorm on the upper floor, somewhat similar to the homestay I stayed in on my visit to Chambok commune in Cambodia.

We have a long time for freshening up and rehydrating. Then comes dinner and happy water —AKA rice wine locally made. It’s served in thimble sized glasses and very few of our group participate. It’s nice— clean and clear like Sake.

We all turn in fairly early. I wake my usual early and the Australian couple is up soon after. We’re scheduled to get going quite late—a mistake I think, given the heat and as it turns out, it puts us squarely into very heavy rain. Now our up and downhills are not only steep, they’re fiercely slippery and for me, slow going. But we get there—all of our trekking is done by lunch and a refreshing bowl of Pho rewards us. Then the bus back to Sapa with an hour or so to kill before dinner and the bus back to the Lo Cai train station for the overnight train back to Hanoi and deliverance back into the arms of the Rising Dragon, where my stuff, a shower and breakfast await me before transfer to Halong Bay. I use the break to buy a pair of walking-type shoes so that I never have to see the ones I brought again. The town is filled with “North Face” everything (or nothing.) They’re either overruns from Vietnam manufacturing or old stock or maybe complete rip offs. But I do well.

On the ride home, all of my compartment mates are Vietnamese with little-to-no English. It’s all fine, although I do have to communicate a “no smoking” message to one compartment mate (everyone smokes—the Asians, the Europeans, the South Americans. Ugh.) When we role into Hanoi, I am met by the bellboy at the Rising Dragon and return “home” to breakfast, a shower, some email and charging of gadgetry and an 8 am pickup for the Halong Bay cruise.

I’m scheduled on the boat with Ian, also staying at Rising Dragon. We met getting to the train for Lo Cai and then rode the bus to Sapa together for our separate tours. He’s a very interesting guy and it’s nice to have a buddy for the cruise. We spend most of our hanging out time together with an Australian couple.

I guess it’s imperative to keep people occupied every minute on a cruise. The activities are ok: a couple of snorkeling adventures, a couple of kayaking opportunities, a cave, a couple of beach times and a couple of climbs up a million steps up to a good view and a temple. I ditched the climbs—I’m still feeling Sapa in my legs.

Halong Bay is exquisite with impressive limestone formations (karsts) rising directly out of the sea. Sunrises are amazing for their silence (a ship is a chatty place) even if the sky colors disappoint. Morning Tai Chi is pretty minimal but after my own yoga on the deck, it’s ok. Most people—including the Australians and Ian—leave after one night. I stay for two—and get taken further out into the Bay day 2—so I meet the new folks and get to know different ones of the old. Night 2 deteriorates into Karaoke, the highlight of which is the Time Warp, accompanied by crazy man John, also from Australia. I think it must be required to do Karaoke at least one night in Asia. Check.