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Kat & Andrew's Worldwide Adventures

Sapa & Halong Bay, Vietnam

VIETNAM | Monday, 14 October 2013 | Views [3001]

We had a friend keeping us company as we waited for our night train to Sapa in Hanoi. She was about six years old, had an adorable face, huge smile, boundless energy, was barefoot and her clothes and hair were absolutely filthy. She was fascinated by me and spent almost an hour drawing me pictures, playing with my tablet and our bags, taking photos and being as close to me as possible. She didn't speak a word of english and was so thoroughly entertained by every little thing. I ended up giving her my bead bracelet that she was playing with and she was thrilled. It was lovely meeting her but it was also exhausting as she was non stop! Her mother was desperately trying to sell water and snacks to anyone who would take them.


We boarded our train and were disappointed to see that it was nothing like the excellent over night one we went on in Thailand. We were allocated beds on the top bunks in a 4 bed cabin. There were stowaways allowed to sleep in the hallways, most likely for a small fee that went straight into the staffs pocket. We departed the station without roommates so we closed our door. For the next half hour the stowaways banged on the door trying to get in to score a free bed! At the next stop though, a vietnamese couple with actual tickets took the bottom bunks. Throughout the 9 hour journey, we rocked violently from side to side, uncomfortably roasting when they turned off the air con, with the wheels on the tracks roaring in our ears. Somehow we managed to get a few hours sleep and arrived in Lao Cai (a border city with China) around 5am. Before the train had even stopped, we had men trying to sell their shuttle services to Sapa to us.


The shuttle took an hour and as soon as we arrived, we were surrounded by gangs of colourful hill tribe women with their head bands and crazy leggings, with baskets and babies strapped to their backs. The onslaught of questions were the same and continuous throughout our stay there. "What's your name?", "Where are you from?", "How old are you?", "Come to my village!", "Buy from me?!" etc etc They were adorable and charming, some had fantastic sense of humours, but they were relentless and exhausting. They roamed the main streets and avoiding them was near impossible. The men zipped around on motorbikes in suit jackets and mainly kept to themselves. I met one girl the same age as me who has 4 children already!


Once we had found a nice hotel and were showered, feeling human again, we rented a motorbike. No paperwork necessary and off we went! Out on the open road we circled around massive forest covered mountains, saw waterfalls, and enjoyed the lower temperatures for a change. We also ventured off the nice tar sealed road onto gravel with massive potholes down through the valley to the hill tribes villages. The road was horrendous and the ride uncomfortable but the views were spectacular. Cascading rice terraces as far as the eye could see with a bubbling river snaking through the valley and little villages occupied by colourful people. As soon as we stopped the bike, we were surrounded again!

Heavy mists often cover the mountains but at the moment everything feels like its in a smoggy haze. I don't know wether its just the normal atmosphere or wether its pollution from their slash & burn farming and burning all their rubbish. Unfortunately, the haze made it very difficult to get decent photos as the distance was all a blur. 


Sapa is growing from a small farming town to a bustling tourist destination. It is known for its hiking and the main town is full of shops selling hiking clothes and shoes, but we saw just as much on a motorbike - and it was super fun! It was nice going to our own time schedule. Hotels and restaurants are abdundant as well as countless massage places on offer. Once again I indulged and had a shoulder and neck massage. I sat on a big padded chair with the girl behind me, her legs on either side of me, and a cushion the only thing seperating our bodies! Very intimate with a stranger! We sat facing the door so people would walk past and stare and the zooming motorbikes made it far from relaxing! But it was great, just what I needed on my poor tired shoulders! Facebook didn't work for us in Sapa and I believe its because we were so close to China which has banned the website.


We spent one night in Sapa and then on the journey back to Lao Cai, we had the pleasure of a girl being car sick in the van with us.... I'm just glad it wasn't me!

This time we had no roommates on the over night train back to Hanoi but the stowaways having animated conversations in the hallway kept us awake for hours. I ended up speaking my mind to them and suprisingly they were quiet afterwards!

We arrived in Hanoi at the ridiculous hour of 4am and had 4 hours to kill before our tour bus to Halong Bay collected us. Like zombies we sat at the train station for a few hours then found a cafe to sit in for the remainder.


The drive to Halong Bay took 4 hours. Exhausted, we were sheepherded onto our boat and our itinerary was explained. No time to shower or rest!  Lunch was served, the usual boring conversation with other travellers began (Where are you from, Where are you going next, How long have you been here etc) and then we went to a floating village where we kayaked for 40 minutes. Afterwards we went to a very impressive cave, but unfortunately it was packed full with tour groups which made it hard to enjoy. Then we were taken to a manmade beach on an island where we could swim as the sun set. Then back to the boat for dinner and then finally - bed! Phew!


Halong Bay is an incredible place. 300 + limestone rock formations stick up out of the emerald coloured water all over the bay with grottos formed by waves and wind. Some are covered with trees and even have monkeys and birds inhabiting them. Because the place is so spectacular, tourism is booming. Our junkboat sleeps 24 people plus 10 crew and we were one amongst hundreds all in one area. Our boat was supposedely middle range - there were some rather beaten up looking ones and some very impressive fancy ones with grand sails. The water is polluted and floating rubbish scattered the area - it was a very sad sight to see. We had originally wanted to go with Indochina Cruises as the reviews on them were excellant and the standard quite high. They also get away from the main tourist trail so it wouldve been quieter, but unfortunately they were booked a week in advance and we werent prepared.


Many people only get a glimpse of the bay in a day trip from Hanoi, others only stay on the boat for one night. Personally I think both of those options are incredibly rushed and you don't really get a true taste for the beauty of one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The following morning our group split off in other directions, some to Cat Ba island, others back to Hanoi. Andrew and I were the only ones who had opted for 2 nights on the boat. We considered the island, and its a shame we missed it, but we are visiting many islands on this trip and wanted to make the most of being out on the water in the boat.


Our second day (which all the one night visitors missed) was the best day and totally made the trip worthwhile. Andrew and I were picked up by a smaller boat where we sat on the roof relaxing on sun loungers and drifted away from the masses. We picked up two other couples from other boats and they both turned out to be from Melbourne! We had plenty of time to soak up the sun, relax and gaze at the incredible sights. (Unfortunately it was quite smoggy in Halong Bay too though and everything 100 metres in front of us was hazy.) We went for a long leisurely kayak through 2 caves into a hidden lagoon with perfectly still water that boats couldnt access. It was so peaceful and our guide sung beautifully to us as we drifted along. One of the caves were filled with bats and one was so low that we had to lie completely flat in our kayaks to get under it! Afterwards we were taken to a pretty place where we could jump off the roof of the boat and swim around. There were 6 other boats there but it was so much better than the masses. Our awesome guide did back flips off the boat - he loved the attention and was quite a character!


We cruised past a floating village where 600 people live in 160 houses build on floating platforms. There was a school on a boat, a floating mini super market, and even a mechanic! Fisherman and their families live in this community far away from the city. Its bizarre! Their young children are left to wonder free without fear of them drowning. They even have pet dogs and cats on a leash! The poor things have nowhere to run! Unfortunately the villages are the cause of alot of the rubbish floating around as well.... We also visited a pearl farm and saw how they are cultured. I never knew how much of a lengthly process it is and how much human interaction is involved!

Back on the big boat we were joined by a completely new group of people for our second night which felt very odd!

Our last day was mainly spent in transit. On the big boat, we cruised to Cat Ba island to drop off some of the new group and pick up some of the original ones then headed back to Halong Bay City. Our van back to Hanoi was packed solid to the point of being rather uncomfortable for everyone! Then we had 5 hours to kill before our next overnight train to Hue. Back to the cafe to use their wifi and relax on the couch! The worst part of travelling - the joys of being in transit...


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