Excursions from Hanoi
Two do-not-miss trips from Hanoi!
Ha Long Bay - Cruise around the bay on crystal clear water, past towering limestone islands on a junk boat. Not all "junk" is junk. We booked a 2-day/1-night trip on 4-star Silver Sea ($170/person) but the trip can range from $25-$250, on true junk, in luxury, party atmosphere or serenity. Our trip included bus to and from Hanoi, a swanky cabin with soaking tub and balcony; lunch and dinner the first day and breakfast and lunch on day 2; kayaking and swimming around the islands; sunrise tai chi; visit to Surprise Cave in one of the islands ("Surprise! It's bigger than it appears from the entrance and filled with cool formations." Alas, I didn't bring my camera for an unfounded fear of it getting wet.); and when the weather cooperates (it didn't), gorgeous sunsets and sunrises. Beautiful, relaxing and peaceful trip - a nice respite from the frenetic pace of Hanoi.
Sa Pa - Sa Pa is located in the North west corner of Vietnam on the China and Laos borders. It is rugged, with rolling mountains, verdant rice terraces and stunning vistas - once, and if, the fog lifts out of the valleys - and home to several indigenous tribes, including the Hmong and Tao. We booked a 3 night/2 day tour with Good Morning Sapa, and added on an extra night and a 1 day hike with Sapa O'Chau to the top of Mt. Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam at 3143 meters.
Our first tour ($137 per person) included the overnight sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa, which if you are on the smaller side, is moderately comfortable to sleep. There are 3 rows of reclining seats, with upper and lower "bunks." The bus leaves at 10pm, arrives at 4am and then parks so everyone can sleep until 6am. Promptly at 6am, the driver kicks you off and into the streets of Sa Pa where Hmong girls dressed in their traditional black leggings, black jackets and colorful hats will greet you and offer tours and home stays. I was thankful we had booked our itinerary in advance. At 6am, I was in no frame of mind to haggle with the young ladies. We were whisked into the Sunshine Hotel, sent upstairs for breakfast and told our guide would meet us at 8am. Soa arrived right on time - a tiny, energetic, informative and smart 21 year old Hmong mother of one - with a driver. Our morning included a drive out of town for photo ops, a visit to Silver Waterfall and a visit to a local salmon and sturgeon fishery. After lunch back at the hotel, the driver dropped us off at a dirt road and we were on our way. We walked through rice paddies and stunning scenery, past lounging water buffalo, with commentary from Soa, to the village of Te Van for a night at a homestay. We met four other travelers there and had an amazing dinner spread cooked by the home owner. We also had our first taste of "happy water," aka rice wine, that seems to be a Vietnamese cure-all. The next morning, after banana pancakes and fresh fruit, Soa met us for our trek back to Sa Pa through another village. Lunch at the Sunshine Hotel wrapped up our tour and we were free to wander around Sa Pa for the afternoon.
We had a great dinner of Com Binh Dan - rice with your choice of 4 dishes piled around it - tofu in tomato sauce; stewed beef; sautéed bok choy; pork ribs; string beans; and more! - and a great nights sleep at Hmong Hotel Sapa in our balcony room overlooking the valley before our early morning wake up. We met our guide from Sa Pa O'Chau, a socially responsible trekking company founded by a young Black Hmong woman to aid her community, for our 1-day trek up Mt. Fansipan ($68/per person, including guide, entrance fee, picnic lunch and snacks, and a 30 minute leg massage post-hike). The 24km round trip trek starts at 2000M and climbs to 3143M at the top of Vietnam's highest peak. The hike can be done in 1 or 2 days, the latter including an overnight at a Camp 2 at 2800M. It was cool and grey as we set out, but we were rewarded with beautiful scenery as the landscape changed. The thick trees gave way to large bamboo and then the bamboo got smaller and smaller as we climbed. We passed water buffalo and goats. The hike is steep and challenging, especially as the air thins past 2800M. As we were struggling with our light day packs, we passed 3 women carrying heavy bags of cement up the hill for new stone steps being built on the trail. Puts everything into perspective! The wind picked up and the fog descended, so unfortunately there were no views at the top, but it was a satisfying hike. Once back in town, we were rewarded with a 1/2 hour foot and leg massage. If you're not up for the challenge, there is now a cable car that runs to the top. Bring a jacket - it gets cold in Sa Pa!
If you go: Most hotels in Hanoi will arrange all excursions, including hotel pick-up and luggage storage so you can travel with just a day-pack. We booked the Sapa O'Chau (http://www.sapaochau.org/) 1-day hike online ourselves as an add-on.