This year I visited Vietnam and Laos with the flatmate for a two week holiday, which was much needed, and surprisingly our first holiday together. This is a breakdown of our itinerary with a few photos, enjoy!
Hanoi, part 1
Our first day was a long one – We landed early and our hotel check-in was way off, so we decided to talk a walk around the city to try to motivate us to stay awake. You can tell we were jetlagged as it took us ages to discover St Josephs Cathedral (which happened to be rather close by to where we started) – not that I was much help, I am absolutely useless at directions. We also tried and failed to get into the Ngoc Son temple but did take a lovely walk around Hoàn Kiếm lake where we spoke to some locals who were showing off their English (Ok, practising). We decided to take a rest at one of the cafes on the lake, and made our way back to the hotel who allowed us to check in early! They obviously took pity on us. Dinner was at a typical tourist catch but there was no way we could have gone anywhere else in the state we were in- Still, it was good and our first taste of Vietnamese spring rolls. We stayed awake for as long as possible, playing Rummy (I lost almost every game), and then it was time for sweet, sweet slumber.
Day two through three were jam packed full of ticking boxes – we visited the Railway road, Hỏa Lò prison, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, the National History Museum, Temple of Literature, Ho Shi Minh Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda and Quan Thanh Temple. All by foot, on day two blinded by hunger we stumbled across a sign “Argentinian steak” which was most welcome, and found ourselves sat in a branch of Gaucho. Oops..
On the third evening, we took the “Sleeper” train to Sa Pa. Not much sleep was to be had, I would highly recommend alternative travel from Hanoi to Sa Pa if you need to rest.
Our first group activity, we were thrown straight into it and took a bus to our hotel, arriving mid morning on our fourth day. Albeit an easy walk, it was enough to satisfy our hiking tastebuds and an insight into local culture, and the locals love of tourists. I say that tongue in cheek, as the locals are very aware of tourism moolah and will latch on until you either buy something, or walk away briskly. We met one lovely lady who waited outside our hotel for hours in the hope that one of the group would come out and buy something, which was quite awkward. On our walk we went to the Nha Ong, Nha xe Lang ret Vai, Thac Cat Cat, and Cau Cat Cat.
I haven’t mentioned the weather yet, but as Sa Pa is at a higher altitude than Hanoi, it was cool, raining and low in humidity, which was a fantastic break from almost 100% humidity and 35 degrees Celsius in the city.
After quite a bit of rain overnight, Day 5 was the bigger hike. I was expecting the easy route as according to the hotel manager, the route was very muddy and not the best idea. However, our very friendly guide did not seem to agree and didn’t mention that she was to take us on the hard route…after walking up very steep and a long staircase, this overweight berry was struggling. Recovered, I started to follow the rest of the group up a mudslide. Yes, it was a mudslide. Well, that’s my interpretation. Anyway, within the first 5 minutes I had fallen on my front and waved the white flag. The guide and her helpers took pity on me and left me go on the easy route with one of the helpers. I understand why the easy route is easy, it’s basically along the road with a small incline, but it is about 30 minutes longer to walk. Not that it worked out that way, with the hard route being so muddy, the rest of the group took about an hour to meet me at the rest point. I took pride in finding WiFi on the mountain side (from a local cafe that didn’t have a very imaginative password), and we carried on to the village where we departed from the rest of the group, and continued walking onto the home stay, our first taste living outside a hotel on our trip. I won’t say I was disappointed with our housing arrangement, but I was expecting more authenticity than what really was a hostel rather than someone’s house. Still, we met the lovely Julie and Marine and spent the evening giggling over dinner.
After a nights sleep on a mattress on the floor (note, I actually slept so it wasn’t that bad, and was more comfortable than the bed on the Sleeper train), we walked from the home stay to the waterfall. There were some tough bits for me but I pushed through the pain of not being able to breathe and managed to get to the waterfall without dying. We returned to the hotel via mini bus and awaited our pick up for the return journey on the train. As someone who likes to at least know what’s going on, especially in a foreign country, I couldn’t quite relax until we were on the train as we never held tickets until the very last moment. Anxiety is difficult to manage in such situations, particularly since we were eating probably the worst tofu preparation known to man. Regardless, we were given our tickets and ushered ourselves onto the train, prepared for another night of no sleep.
However…amazingly we both slept into Day 7, halfway into our holiday.
Hanoi, part 2
Back in Hanoi, we had already done everything we wanted to do except for eating Pho. We hunted down a Pho restaurant that didn’t seem to exist, and found ourselves sitting in a restaurant named “Madam Yen”. We both ordered Pho, and were very happy with our decision. In fact, it was that good we revisited on our last day.
Back at the hotel, I received a phone call informing me that I had a new job, and so to celebrate we went to dinner at the Skyline Restaurant and both ate the vegetarian taster menu (I chose veggie for the only time as the meat had mushrooms in most dishes…). It was fantastic, the cocktails were very good and the food was indeed celebratory. We went back to the hotel to carry on the party, had a couple of beers and listened to our favourite songs, whilst chatting about the best and worst of life.
Luang Prabang – Laos
Day 8 – we flew to Laos, or at least tried to. After a two hour delay we finally got moving, which meant we sadly missed sunset. Dusk was still beautiful on the Mekong, and so relaxing. After finding our hotel (our hotel name was written in English, and our taxi driver kept laughing each time we said it). He finally understood once I found it on the map with it’s Laotian name, and we were finally taken to our destination. It was a wonderful building and our host was super sweet. We took a walk along the night market and had dinner in a restaurant on the way.
We had booked to go on a tour so day 9 started with Kayaking. Amusing to the locals, I stood much taller and wider than they, so there were seemingly impressed that I was intending to get in a kayak, let alone propel one. Despite their laughs and comments, I prevailed and with that, had forgotten to apply sunscreen to the shoulder area, a part of my body that is never revealed to the sun. We visited the Pak Ou caves and kayaked over to the Mafifa Elephant camp. Here we stopped for lunch and gave the elephants theirs – Something I’d wanted to do for a very long time. I’m not sure how well the elephants were being treated, they looked in good health but I expect the practices of keeping elephants will differ from country to country. As a tourist it was a little unnerving to look back at photos of elephants tied up. However, the temper of an animal is unknown, so at least the chains were rope and not metal.
We were then driven to the Kwang Si waterfalls which was a highlight – Although we almost missed the big waterfall as I had decided that there’s only so much water cascading down rocks one can enjoy in a day, but the flatmate said we should take a route that to me, seemed to be to a tourist trap. Of course I was wrong (never follow me anywhere) and we reached the pinnacle. And yes, it was worth it.
After our day of activity, we dined at a resturant called 525. Fantastic food, booze and host. His name was James and had emigrated to Laos a few years ago with his family. After owning a string of Bars in the NE of England, he decided to uproots and open a Laos/UK fusion. The fusion was at it’s finest balance – the food was Laotian, the booze was British. Everything was perfect, especially the Old Fashioned I was presented when I said “Surprise me”.
We booked a cruise through our Hanoi hotel which was 3 days in Halong Bay, a bit longer than what most travellers book but we wanted a slightly different experience than most – a bit of surprise and slight confusion was required (if we hadn’t had enough of that already).
We actually ended up in Bai tu long bay which is apparently less populated with us tourists (we counted 12 boats around us ruining the evening view), which opened in 2012. Most boats stay in Halong bay so I was quite grateful to see something a little less busy. Our first day was spent visiting an Oyster farm, a floating village (we decided to be taken to the village by boat rather than Kayaking), and then an evening sail to the quieter ends of town. There was a great bunch on board (some kiwi newbies joined us who were up for a party), and I finally got to perform karaoke in Asia! I still haven’t quite ticked the bucket list item off – I’d like to go to a karaoke booth in Japan), but I was still very happy to annoy the rest of the tourists on board with awful song choices. Of course, English speaking songs were limited so there was a lot of Whitney Houston songs to ruin.
The second day was when everyone else on board went home, and we got onto another boat and taken away to then kayak over to a little island (with other kayaking tourists) with a beach. We managed to sunbathe for about an hour before it was time to get back into the kayak and return to the boat, where they fed us with way too many courses and then back to the main boat. It was then our turn to be the newbies on board with what can only be described as the tour group from middle England, burning through their children inheritance. Nice enough but way too Conservative for my taste, so our evening was more subdued (thankfully, I was exhausted).
After a nice long sleep, we made our way back to Ha long and then onto a bus home. Of course we built up a nice big bar bill – 1,350000.00 dong (or so), so I darted off to a ATM to get the cash out. I say darted, I was escorted by the sailor in a taxi to make sure I damn well paid….
Hanoi, part 3
We were taken back to Hanoi and back to our lovely little hotel where it was time to rent a room again. We headed out back to Madam Pho to have one last broth of goodness before parting ways – the flatmate off to a massage and myself a chilled time in the room, relaxing before our flight home.
All in all it was a fun packed holiday, good fun and thankfully we didn’t kill each other. Huzzah!