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Northern Vietnam 9 Day Trekking Loop

VIETNAM | Monday, 27 December 2010 | Views [471]

After the hectic vibe of Hanoi with the constant honking, measured steps to avoid collision with a motorbike and the lack of a clean deep breath, we welcomed our tour to the Northern hilltribes.

The tour was booked through Ethnic Travel and was culturally sensitive in promoting sustainable tourism for remote places. They were quite clear in explaining this when we booked our tour and explained how the situation that has occured in Sapa (many high rise hotels and western styled restaurants that detract from the myriad of different hilltribes that actually live and work there) has come about from a lack of planning on the behalf of the Vietnamese tourism agencies.

The trip involved a jam-packed 9 days which included the following locations and activities:

Drove through the high mountain ranges (breathtaking scenery) to get to Mai Chau. Here we trekked through forest/ jungle over a mountain and peaked at a beautiful open meadow. The descent led us to our homestay in a small village. The people were humble and had very little. Once the ricewine and Kareoke (god do they love it!!!) were busted out, all language barriers were broken and we were admittedly responsible for performing the most ridiculous version of (badly translated) Bohemian Rhapsody. The host was more liberal with the ricewine to the men which was somewhat bewildering but as a guest, I was allowed to have more than is customary for a woman...again, thank god! The ricewine served as both a lubrication of the kareoke vocal chords and a warm fuzziness that allowed more sleep than originally anticipated in the colder, northern climate. The homestay provided a small bamboo hut on stilts with moscuito nets and blankets for us to sleep. Not a bad sleep was had and we found that we loved the homestays for their authenticity and to learn how to salvage every last part of an animal for consumption. (A gruesome but interesting lesson).

From Mai Chau we made our way to the Black River with a stop over at another local village for some bike riding. The riding was hilarious as we encountered various homes hosting some of the most perculiar trance parties I have ever seen. The Vietnamese love to put a heart thumping backing to any crooning song,then they all go nuts with moves that leave nothing to the imagination- well it is one way to express themselves in a communist country! The Homestay at the Black River introduced us to fellow travelers who got into the spirit of dancing and drinking the ricewine. Unfortunately the likes of Vengaboys and Britney Spears are still considered acceptable in Northern Vietnam, so the evening took on a slightly ridiculous 'Disco' feel. The kayaking in the Black River sounded better than it actually was in reality- this was due to the late time we arrived and the limited energy we had after clutching our stomachs around every wind and turn of the Vietnamese skinny, mountain roads.

From the Black River we moved onto a hotel for the night- along the way we picked up a Dutch independent traveler named Colette. She was very appreciative of seeking the road less traveled and more importantly, as she described, the beer less tasted. More trekking along village trails, forested areas and rice paddies managed to allow us to work off some of the rice that we were consuming each day. Food markets revealed slabs of raw meat, heavily laden with flies and huge chunks of fat and rind. Pigs trout, feet, chicken feet, dog, maggots... they had it all and as you walked through the markets you tried to not show your shock at some of the images you were presented with. It made every meal a careful investigation of colour and texture... although who knows what we actually ate half the time- it tasted good so...?

After another night of Kareoke our voices were tired and we were ready to get to more remote locations. Following the Hoang Lien Son Range we eventually made our way to Sapa. Yes, we did spend a night in an overly glamourous hotel but to be honest, after the limited hot water and desperate need of a toilet where we didn't have to squat (we are slowly training the quads to sustain such activities)it was quite welcome. We explored the town and discovered that what the tour guide had been revealing was in fact quite tragic. The locals had learnt enough English to follow you, ask you the same questions- designed to lure you in, and then push the hard sell. It was okay at first but eventually you struggled to walk around without having a trail of hilltribe people following you. Firm and polite works 50% of the time. If anyone has any secrets, they are most welcome.

From Sapa we trekked down the rice paddies and through a number of villages to get to our guides family home. The trek was challenging in parts but truly awesome. Unfortunately the weather changes rapidly in Sapa and as we were trekking through the clouds at times, we managed to get drenched pretty quickly. Even with our trekking shoes and waterproof jackets, the sight of a homestay at the end of the day was an image that filled us with comfort. We luckily sustained no injuries but were quite suprised at the danger involved in parts of that days trek. The clay paths had turned to sludge and at times there was no path,just ledges and water. Crossing a waterfall can be a challenging task when the soles of your shoes do not grip to the rocks and in fact have about 5kg of wet clay wedged into the grooves...still, we did it and we had a beer at the end in celebration,(albeit very wet socks.) 

Sitting around the fire in a homestay allows you to watch the evening habits of the local people. You watch how they stoke the fire and use fast burning Bamboo as kindling. The food preperation and the boiling of water for bird-bath styled cleaning all takes place around this small area. With heavy eyelids and ashen faces we retired that night and slept solidly on our mats and blankets.

After Sapa we made our way to Ba Be Lakes (National Park). The lake itself consists of the three lakes joined together with a total span of 8km. The lakes are surrounded with limestone karsts and jungle laden mountains. A trek through the village allowed us to see how the many different hilltribes co-exist in this area and more importantly, gave us an excuse to hitchhike with a local and ride on the back of their motorbike. Apparently wet mud, potholes and dangerously blind corners make all the more fun as these locals attempt to break landspeed records. With a streaming face and a broad smile we again celebrated being in one piece with the local beer and a bowl of rice. After watching Monkey Magic with Vietnamese translations and then a good sleep at the homestay (which they call guesthouse)we spent our Christmas day on a boat. It took us to a cave which was home to over 7000 bats- it was exceptionally cool! The boat ride itself went from tranquil to horrid very quickly though as it has no real structure- just planks of woods with a small railiing on either side, so once the rain kicked in we found the temperature forced your body to curl up into a small, protective ball and shake uncontrollably.

From here we departed for Hanoi. This was explained as a 5 hour drive. After 3 hours we had barely traveled 10 km due to road closures and the inability for a 4WD minibus to climb a ridiculousy slippery mudslide. We trekked and met the minibus somewhat later (which had provided some puzzling moments for the local problem solvers of the small town), but eventually we were back on the winding, gut wrenching roads of Northern Vietnam. We arrived back to our hostel closer to 9pm on Christmas night. The hustle and bustle of Hanoi was welcome and even started to feel like home.

Lessons learnt..

1- Never trust a Vietnamese person when they estimate time or distance- double it!

2- Enjoy the ricewine- the hangover isn't that bad!

3- Always take gumboots to Sapa- even if the sun is shining.

4- Don't think you will get out of Kareoke- you will not!

5- Have something for travel sickness even if you don't get travel sick.

6- Try the coconut peanuts- they are delicious!

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