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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Hanoi to Sapa

VIETNAM | Thursday, 8 May 2008 | Views [2479]

Wed 30th Apr - Today is a public holiday commemorating the liberation of Saigon in 1975 and tommorrow is labour day, also a public holiday. As such, travel in Vietnam is affected and the volume of people travelling is increased dramatically as people go home to join families for celebrations.

Today we move on to Mai Chau to the west of Hanoi by public bus. After breakfast got a 'government' metered taxi to the Mý Dinh bus station which is quite a way out of town but now handles all of the routes to the west. Usual confusion on arrival. The departure board said one thing and the ticket clerk said another. Prices and times now changed she said and then promptly blanked us. Considering how friendly most vietnamese people are, I now believe that all of the obnoxious gits can only get jobs at bus station ticket counters. Too early to buy our tickets, so went back at the allotted time to buy our tickets, that one of them actually wrote down on a piece of paper and got totally blanked by everyone behind the counter. Ended up Getting on a bus leaving at 1:30pm. Should have cost 50,000 dong if we had got our tickets at the ticket window, which we couldn't, but whisked off straight to the bus by a guy who seemed trustworthy enough. About half an hour after it left, the collector came around for the money and wanted to charge us 100,000 dong, threatening to throw us off the bus in the middle of nowhere unless we paid. Had a bit of a disagreement with him. Unfortunately, no other english speakers on the bus apparently. Later on, one lady spoke up and said that they had been charged extra too. We gathered that their overcharge was somewhat smaller than ours though. Typical tourist rip-off!

The journey to Mai Chau goes through Hoa Binh, which we decided to give a miss. The route is stunning as it crosses a dramatic mountain range, with gorgeous valleys below. The approach to Mai Chau itself is incredible. Terraced paddy fields clinging to the hillsides and numerous thai stilt house villages nestled into the postcard-like valley.

Our destination was an area called Ban Lac Village, one of two traditional thai minority stilt-housed villages just outside of the main town. Fortunately, by this stage we had received a few offers of accomodation in the village from fellow vietnamese passengers who had miraculously realised they could speak english that was devoid of them when we needed help earlier! Decided to accept one of them from a young girl called Cham. A wonderful location in a traditional thai-style wooden stilt guesthouse at no.15 lac village. Welcomed by her mother and grandmother, who was typical of older women here with bright red mouths and black teeth, discoloured by something they chew. In this type of house, everything is communal. One big room acts as the eating, play and sleeping area. The kitchen adjoins it and when we got there preparation for the evening meal was in full flow.

A rope tied from one end of the room to the other had a massive Stick insect climbing along it. One of the sons and his wife from Hanoi had their gorgeous 2yr old daughter bouncing around. So much fun to play with. We joined them for dinner, which is done sat on the bamboo flooring around squat tables.

Dinner including rice in banana leaf, silkworms, bamboo, grasses, beef, chicken complete with head and feet and a liberal dose of rice wine.

As this is a special occasion, a traditional dancing troupe made its way around the houses to perform many dances including the Bamboo pole dance, which the audience can participate in.

After the dancing a large pottery vessel is brought in, which has about a dozen bamboo straws and contains a Sweet sticky rice wine. Within seconds it gets deluged with everyone wanting some, me included. The evening was a super time amongst the very welcoming locals. We were the only foreigners there, adding to the experience.

Thu 1st May - Today is 'Labour Day', which is celebrated here as a public holiday, so a chilled atmosphere around. The tourists that were around yesterday have all gone, along with many of the vietnamese people who were visiting their families.

The village of Ban Lac as mentioned yesterday, is nestled in a stunning valley setting, surrounded by rugged mountains...a real paradise environment. To explore, we hired bikes for the day and headed for the outback.... No tourists anywhere....fantastic!

Near to lunchtime, fancied a Bia Hoi (fresh local beer)....as if by magic, found a great little place packed with locals celebrating and was invited to join. The food flowed...complete with Thit Cho (dog meat) and lots of odd bits of meat that I didn't want to be able to identify, all washed down with free beer and copious amounts of local rice wine. Great friendly company and lots of fun. All of the guys here had their Date Of Birth tatoo'd on their arm and one had an enomous scar on his arm from the american war.

Drunk in charge of a bicycle...wobbled our way back onto the road. Further on, a few drips of rain...then the skies opened as if a massive tap had been switched on. Pedalled for cover and noticed a great wooden house nearby, so cycled down the path and under a canopy. They ran out and invited us in....more rice wine and vietnamese tea. My head is swimming by this stage! Some karaoke music on the go and passed the Bong around (a traditional smoking pipe)...not strong, even for a non-smoker, and all part of the social interaction.

After the rains stopped, cycled back to the village and exchanged the bikes for foot power. Off for a walk in the lovely sunshine to walk the paths between the paddy fields. Some awesome thatched bamboo huts set against the deep green sea of rice paddies makes for some wonderful photo opportunities, all made that more magic with the company of my lovely friend Victoria. Stopped off at the Mai Chau Lodge for a drink. A posh place with a swimming pool and expensive price tag to match. Each to their own, but considering the beauty of this area, much prefer staying in the traditional thai house than get ripped off and stop in the clinical cleanliness of this place....paid $3.50 plus 10% tax for a fruit shake that would only cost $1 with no tax in a backpacker place and taste better! Back on foot power and returned to the village for a rest before dinner. Another interesting meal laid on for us, including wild sticky rice, pumpkin flower and beans, roasted pork and chicken with squash consommé.

Fri 2nd May - Even though we could stay here longer and have enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of our hosts (manioc soaked in wine for beakfast and pancakes with honey was a real treat for beakfast this morning!), we fancy moving on north to Son La, which is about 170km north along highway 6. There isn't a bus station here, so you have to know where to hail down a bus that has come from the Hanoi direction. The place where we were staying knew where to drop us, some 10km out of Mai Chau, by a little wooden shack where a family live....No other sign at all. Fortunately, the buses to Son La pass every 15 to 30 minutes. Cost 75,000 Dong. Highway 6 passes high through the mountains and along some stunning scenery. Tea plantations are extensive here due to the cooler climate and drier ground conditions although it also gets plenty of sunshine too. Today is in the lower 80's. The soil is also very red, making for a dramatic contrast with the greenery. About half way through the journey and into another change of scene, with the presence of fruit plantations. This area is renowned for its plums, apples and peaches, although bananas, pineapples and dragon fruit are also found.

Made it to Son La at about 2pm. This place does have a bus station and, as expected, fairly quiet. Plenty of motos waiting although we decided walk instead and see what was close by. Took about 5 minutes walk and spotted a couple of guest houses. One word of warning in the guidebook is that some of the guest houses and hotels here double as brothels, so check carefully before staying! Got a good room for $9 at Nhà Nghi Xuân Mai. Quick freshen up then off to explore....

We are the only foreigners in town and draw attention from everyone as we walked. Really friendly people. Some brought their kids out to meet us as we passed or just to smile at us. There was no obvious centre to the town, so we kept walking til the town seemed to fizzle out and found somewhere that looked possible for a meal. A lovely café where, as usual, the staff went giggly when we walked in and panicked, wondering what they were going to do with us. I ended up going into the kitchen and helped them get started with the meal so I could show what we wanted. We ended up with a really nice beef meal with fresh vegetables, peanuts and pineapple and chilli, washed down with a couple of local beers, freshly roasted peanuts and some rice and sesame crackers. All for the total price of 60,000 Ðong for the two of us... a bargain.

Further exploration and stopped to play a sticks game with some kids, joined by the older daughters and mothers, who ran off to get us some fresh water. They are all so hospitable here...almost everyone we passed wanted to invite us to join them for a drink. If we had, wouldn't have been able to walk straight after the first hour.

Another of the favourites here is goat, so you see plenty of places advertising it. Later on had an excellent bowl of duck Phó soup (noodle) at a street café.

A nice place albeit overpowered by the rather busy highway 6. Not much to see here, but a good place to break the journey to places further north.

Sat 3rd May - Wanted to head north to Muong Lai today, so off to the bus station to find out the options. With the aid of the map and virtually no english around, worked out that the bus should leave at 1:30pm, so plenty of time to kill. Went and had some breakfast at a nearby café. Back later to get the tickets to find that there is no direct bus to Muong Lai at all! The name on the board is Muong La, a completely different place, and Muong Lai is actually called Lai Chau! They were all wrong, so we have to go somewhere else. The only option is Dien Bien Phu (DBP), far over to the west near to the border with Laos. So, a change of plan. Fortunately, that bus leaves at 1:30, so able to get a ticket (80,000 Ðong).

It's all in the name....Apparently, much of the old North western province of Lai Chai will go under water within a few years, so the government decided to move the provincial capitals around and re-name a few towns and cities in the process....As such the old Lai Chau is now called Muong Lai. The old town of Tam Duon has become Lai Chau, plus some other changes. What the locals call a place and what is marked on signs can be two different things. Better to be forewarned isn't it?

So, tickets in hand and on the tiny bus, chaos broke out as many people in the wrong seats, including us. Everyone off the bus as the guy in charge counted each person back on the bus and theoretically into the correct seat...nope...no way we were going where he wanted to put us, so he had to re-organise it around us. It's in the 80's again today, so hot and sticky with the bus crammed with bodies.

The route over to Dien Bien Phu could take 4 hours if the road was any good. As it turns out, the surface is dire and being re-built over the next few years. As such, the going is rough and very mountainous in parts and the prediction is more like 7 hours. Often the road disappears and you are on mud tracks or bouncing over mounds of rubble. The surface is such a mess that the bus regularly vanishes into a cloud of dust. For those sensitive to erratic driving over a lunar landscape with no barriers to protect you from going over the edge into a near vertical free-fall, this could prove to be a weight-losing experience. I thought it was awesome!

What is nice as we weave our way through one village after another, is the sight of many traditionally dressed folk going about their everyday chores. Something unexpected as you get used to only seeing traditional clothng donned for tourism purposes. The views are incredible as you pass through valleys of plums, sweetcorn, rice etc there was a fruit stop to pick up some plums for the journey. Small, firm and slightly underripe but tasty.

There was a short break in Tuan Giao bus station. Told that we would stop for 30 minutes, so went walkabout to pick up some snacks. Many black H'mong tribe women walking around, resplendent in their ornate traditional dress. Some were set up at the side of the road with their produce. Bought some bananas from one lovely old lady and had a Kem (ice-cream) from another. It is strange to see women in traditional dress on building sites mixing cement and lugging wicker bowls of gravel around. All normal sights here of course.

After about 15 minutes the driver appeared to usher us back to the bus...they have no idea of time.

Back on the bus and the road deteriorates even more than we had experienced so far. This is definitely like driving through a lunar landscape in parts. At times the traffic disappears into clouds of dust and it gets very choking. That on top of the high temperature and cramped conditions makes for an uncomfortable journey. Many sections where the bus skirts along very steep drops is like life on the edge! Victoria was a bit nervous, so I had some fingernails to extract from my arm from time to time!

Reached Dien Bien Phu at about 7pm, a total of 6hours on the road that felt like 10hours! A standard bunch of moto drivers on arrival. Had an idea to aim for a place called the Beer Factory Guest House and of course they told us that it was closed..standard ploy we thought. As it turned out, one of them suggested a hotel that sounded OK, so ended up at the Muong Than Hotel for $18 inc breakfast. Also as usual, suspected that the bus station was no longer where it was shown on my map, so had no reference point at all. You get used to having no idea where you are. Yesterday in Son La, we thought we had been dropped near to the town centre and wondered why we couldn't find any of the references in the guidebook. Turned out we were 4km out of town! Only realised that on the bus this morning as we passed the real town. I did look worthwhile of a stop. Oh well, these things happen.

The hotel was ok albeit a bit jaded. Big restaurant, thai massage centre, swimming pool (unfortunately that mucky you wouldn't want to use it). In the evening, the skies opened with an incredibly heavy downpour and thunder and lightening. The electricity failed and we were on candles for a while.

Sun 4th May - A casual start to the day after yesterday spent on the road then hired a couple of bicycles for the rest of the day to explore.

Dien Bien Phu's claim to fame was for its location of a decisive battle on 7th May 1954 when the Viet Minh (under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap), defeated the colonial french forces (under the command of General Henri Navarre). The town is a surprising place...very organised and tidy. The main Muong Than road is a dual carriageway lined with trees and fancy illuminated light columns in the centre that at night cycle trough a coloured sequence. Fairly easy to navigate but best on wheels as points of interest are spread out.

Started by heading north out of town towards the airport, which is only a kilometre or so away and a tidy small place. Onwards and into the rice paddies, which were more advanced in growth than the ones we had seen further south. There are close to harvest. Spotted an interesting red arch in the distance, so aimed for it. Turned out to be a monument within the vietnamese Keo cemetery. Thousands of unnamed graves set out amidst a lovely peaceful walled setting. The viet minh lost around 25,000 men in the war and there are a few cemeteries in the area.

Back towards town and circled around some side roads to try and find the Beer Factory referred to in the guidebook. No success, so assume that it is no more and the book is out of date, so the moto drivers yesterday were telling the truth.

It is sunday and most places were closed, so not much choice for lunch but found a nice little café that had some tasty little snacks that went well with a cold Hanoi beer... Mixed meat and spice wrapped in banana leaf and supplied with a plate of leaves and chilli dip. You unwrap the meat, wrap it in one of the leaves and then dip in the chilli.

Next on the route was the Dien Bien Phu cemetery. Similar to the one at Keo. Adjacent to the cemetery is A1 Hill, the location of the french position in the battle. The original trenches and tunnels have been recreated and there is a crater where a bomb was supposed to have landed. A monument stands to the vietnamese dead, as well as a tank.

Back to the hotel through the fruit market to get some bananas. You get to choose from over a dozen varieties. Next across an old bridge that has now been closed to four wheeled traffic. Along the way are many war remnants such as missile launchers, tanks and aircraft parts.

The rest of the day recovering as have the beginnings of a cold and a sore throat, so not on full form. Picked up some high dosage vitamin C which is always a good form of treament. The food at this hotel is excellent plus they have their own brew of apple wine that goes down well and is an even better form of medication!

Mon 5th May - Heading to Muong Lai, about 130km north. Buses run regularly with some carrying on further north. Got on the 9am bus (47,000 Ðong). A much better road than the one into DBP, with only small sections being rebuilt. A beautifull route through the mountains with much to see. The women seem to all wear the traditional dress here: black skirt with woven design plus emroidered blouse. Matching embroidered head dress and leggings. Many have colouful pompoms as part of the headware. It is a wonderful sight to see a group either sitting alongside the road or walking with their woven baskets on their backs or mothers carrying their babies in a papoose arrangement. A surprising sight is the presence of horses. Not seen horses anywhere else in Vietnam. Here they are in abundance and assume they are used for work as well as transport, although didn't see any with saddles.

Arrived at Muong Lai at noon. As usual, the bus stand, which is a small gravel area with a ticketting office, was a long way from town. Of course you don't know this and instantly mistrust the moto drivers who are waiting and tell you it's 6km and there is really only one choice of place to stay, at the Lan Anh hotel. They are actually telling the truth. Gave in and took the moto (20,000 Ðong). Plenty of room options available at Lan Anh, and ended up in a lovely thai style building with nice facilities for $20 including free internet and free bicycles as well as a nice restaurant.

Went for a walk along the Da river but had to turn back later as the sky theatened to rain, and we weren't equipped for it. The other thing of note here is the abundance of dogs. Some really go for you as you pass, so best advised to carry a stick to whack them with if they get too close. Sure enough, the sky opened into what now seems a typical torrential downpour. It was a horrendous evening with torrential rain and funny sawing/scraping noise from an insect buried somewhere in the woodwork of the building as if the building was oing to be eaten alive. Watched a movie that we had picked up in Hanoi called 'Hamburger Hill'. A traumatic story set in the Ashua Valley in the Demilatarised Zone that I recently visited in May 1969. US forces on a search-and-destroy mission near to the Laos border. In less than a week, 241 US soldiers were killed in the most horrendous of battles. The irony of it was that a month after the US withdrew from the captured area to carry out operations elsewhere, the north vietnamese army re-occupied the area!

Tue 6th May -After a late breakfast borrowed a bicycle on my own so that Victoria could get on with other stuff. The bike wasn't the best and the gears were broken....something that would cause me a problem later!

Some lovely scenery around here. Close to the hotel is a metal bridge with an old grand building next to it. This used to be a government building before they moved the provincial capital to Dien Bie Phu. Since then it got distroyed by floods and now looks like the aftermath of a bomb attack. This area is home to many tribal villages belonging to the white Hmong, Black Hmong and the Blue and White Hmong. Nowadays most here are dressed in western style, but occasionally you see someone in traditional dress. The Da river is crossed in many places by rickety suspension bridges. Great to cross on a bike as log as you keep watch for the occasional missing timbers and gaping holes.

Sat for a while watching one lady spreading out rice in its husk to dry in the sunshine. At the same time a guy, possibly her husband, was foraging for snails under rocks in the river.

Back on the road on the northern bank and stopped off at the bus stand to check on us times for tomorrow then headed out of town towards Bac Ha village. Just when I was pushing to pedal up a hill, the handle bars came out of the stalk in my hand. A bit offputting that! Had to find a brick to temporarily knock them back in. Thought it best to find somewhere to get it sorted out, so aimed back to town. Was also a little hungry, so stopped at a place advertising Phó. Managed to get a bowl of pork phó and a couple of drinks ordered, whilst the guys were helping to sort out the bike. The guy who was doing the food disappeared for a while and re-appeared carrying four eggs in his hand. Didn't think anything more other than they were for a salad. Wrong...the bowl of phó appeared complete with jars of chilli, salt etc and some lemon. Then a bowl with the four eggs which had been cooked for about 8 minutes plus a small dish of shredded ginger and coarse salt. I asked what I was to do with them and that was when I got the shock....he cracked one of them and tipped its contents into another bowl...these were duck embryos, something they are fond of here. You can see the component parts of the forming bird and at that point have to decide whether to eat or not. I decided to give it a go. Add some of the ginger and a pinch of salt then slightly mash it all together and eat. Not the most appetising of tastes I have to say. A bit dry like liver, with stringy bits that would be the birds innards. The head and beak are a bit strange to eat too. Left the other three eggs. He asked if I wanted to take them away in a bag... I declined!

Bike fixed by the magic bike fairies whilst I was having my gastronomic delicacy, so back on the road. It was scorchio and I had seen enough, so headed back to the hotel.

Watched the Will Smith movie 'I am a Legend' in the evening. A really tough part to play and he deseved an award for it.

Wed 7th May - Moving on north to Sapa this morning. Information suggested that we needed to be at the bus station for 8am and the bus that comes through from Dien Bien Phu would would come past about 8:30 but not actually enter the station, and only stop for a few minutes. We arrived at 7:40..2 minutes later the bus arrived, and it did pull into the station and was gone 5 minutes later. So the moral of this story, is nobody, even the ticket office has a clue about these buses, and always arrive well before you are supposed to. The bus was crammed with a couple of large generators, bags of rice, vegetables and the roof was sacked high. We were lucky to get on at all! Luckily I had spotted a tariff chart by the door when I got on that had the overall journey from Dien Bien Phu to Lao Cai as 125,000 dong. Much further than our journey. After about 15 minutes into the journey, the collector approached and wanted 200,000 Dong each. No chance...he got the message after I argued with him. Settled on 100,000 Dong each. They all try it on. A guy recently, nothing to do with the bus we were on, jumped on and demanded money for our luggage as extra passengers! Told him to clear off and he ran away sulking. There are so many of them about who think your sole purpose for being here is to give them your money. Many kids in the street are learning the same lesson and walk up to you with their hands held out and their only word to you is 'money'! I am growing to dislike this side of Vietnam, which is a shame.

Once on the bus we were comfortable enough as the bus bounced along the winding road. As I mentioned previously, this valley will get flooded within the next few years and there are many re-housing projects along the valley. The new houses are still stilt design, but more substantial with metal clad roofs. I do wonder what will happen to the peoples livelyhoods when their crops on the valley floor go under water. I suspect they will be forced to move towards terracing the hillsides instead?

Had to stop off at a small town to offload the workers who had crowded out the bus with their generators. They also had a motorbike and a couple of compressors on the roof that took a whole team of people to get off. The bus must have halved its weight after they got off. 

At Lau Chai the bus pulled into the bus station for a lunch break and the driver made a gesture that we would have to change bus. Had some nice beef phó and then back to the bus to wait. Not on it long and we were transferred to another one as they had changed their destination signs around. After about 20 minutes we were moved again. All done without a single word of english.

The scenery from Lai Chau through to Sapa is awesome as route 4D passes through the Fansipan mountain range, the highest in Vietnam. Terraced fields of a wide range of produce make for a stunning panorama. In parts the road was being redone so we had to wait whilst diggers manouvred gravel into gaping holes so that we could pass. Numerous hilltribe villages flank the road with so many interesting dress styles worn. This must rate as one of the best routes in Vietnam.

Arrived in Sapa at 3pm and unusually the infamous mist was clear enough to get a good view of the town. It is normal for this town to be completely shrouded in mist as the town sits at an altitude of 1650m above sea level.

We had a few hotels we wanted to check out, the first being the Cat Cat  hotel on the road going south west from the square. To get there is a really nice introduction to the town as it passes the lake, central square and market. I took an instant like to this place, which is good as we plan to spend a week here.

Stayed at the Cat Cat for $15 a night with a superb mountain view, bath and log fire in the room. There were more expensive options but this place offers good value and friendly service, as long as you don't mind some building work going on to extend it.

Out to check out the town. First stop at the Pink Floyd bar and restaurant acoss the road to sample some Sapa chemese (medicinal wine) and sapa cakes, which are like donuts served with a honey dip. The market is one of the best i've been in recently for interesting sights. Seeing the montagnard folk doing their shopping in traditional dress, babies in similar dress strapped on some women's backs, is a beautiful sight. Everyone is so friendly here, one of the friendliest places in Vietnam. One thing to be aware of though is that the women are all selling something, and latch on to you and follow you persistently. Not a hassle as they are lovely and it is a pleasure to spend time with these people...afterall, that is what you come here for.

A walk through the upper market street to check out some warm thermal clothing as the temperature has dropped up here. Treated myself to a hip flask to carry a bit of grog on those treks we plan on doing! Haggling here is great fun as the girls in the stalls and shops have a wonderful sense of humour. The mist started to pull in at about 6pm. You notice that everything in the shops feels damp, especially the clothes, as they spend a lot of time in a misty atmosphere.

Had a superb meal at a restaurant. The range and quality of food available here is superb. Better than Hanoi!

Back to the hotel armed with a bottle of Sapa red wine (which turned out to be rubbish until I soaked some dried pears from th market in it) and got some wood for the log fire in the room. Great finish to an excellent day.

Thu 8th May - Thunder and lightening plus torrential downpour during the night, so everything looks fresh this morning. The most awesome view from our room. The restaurant on the 7th floor initially looked out on a sea of white mist, but as the mist lifted, wow...what a view....awesome!

More on Sapa in the next installement.....

Bye for now


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