We took two side trips from Hanoi, to two places that everyone told us are "Must Sees". "Oh you HAVE to go there!" By now, you might know how much we don't like that phrase. We were really excited about seeing both Sapa and Halong Bay, but, unfortunately, were disappointed in both of them. They were pretty, they were neat, and I'm glad we saw them both. But are the "Must See" destinations? Not to us.
Our train to Sapa the next day didn't leave until after 9pm, so we had all day to hang out in Hanoi, but nowhere safe to store our stuff after we checked out of our guesthouse at noon. No bother, though. We did as we normally do - sat at a coffee shop all day and worked. Before hitting up a familiar place, Joma (we visited Joma in Luang Prabang a few times), we made a pit stop at one last "No Reservations" haunt, Xoi Yen, for some sticky rice and braised pork. This little bowl was so basic, so simple, and SO AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS. I don't know what they put on their sticky rice (juice from the meat, maybe?) or how the made the pork so silky smooth (even the fat was nice to eat, it just melted in your mouth in a good way), but it was fantastic. For the rest of the day we researched, wrote, edited, and booked things from comfy chairs in the air conditioned coffee shop before it was time to head to the train station. Tummies full of bahn mi, we boarded our night train to the mountain town of Sapa.
Earlier in the week, we had booked our train tickets from Hanoi to Lau Cai, and then our bus ticket to and from Lau Cai to Sapa, so we were all ready to get to the mountains when we boarded our train at 9pm. Waiting for us in our cabin were two train employees eager to talk to us about an outstanding bill we apparently had. The lady carefully explained to us that we owed an additional 320,000 dong (about $15) because the people at the train station gave us the incorrect change when we booked. My Scam Alert was dinging loudly in my head, but then Jake and I both realized they were right - for a few days we'd had an extra 320,000 in our wallet and we couldn't figure out where it was from. Since we take great care to keep track of every dollar spent, we were immediately aware of the fact that we had more money that we were supposed to, but we couldn't figure out where it had come from. Perhaps someone at dinner one night gave us the wrong change? We chalked it up to Karma coming back to us and stopped analyzing it. Well, it wasn't Karma (though I think we're due some for all that we've put up with here), and we happily forked over the cash. What stood out the most about this whole exchange, though, was the great length they went to in order to get the money. And I'm sure they expected a big argument out of us, which is why a man and a woman were waiting for us to have the discussion.
This was yet another educational moment. What did we learn from this exchange? It's crucial to keep detailed account of our money while we travel. They had no proof that we had received the wrong change and, thus, didn’t pay properly before, and really could have been trying to scam us once again. But because we knew that we had extra, unaccounted-for money, we could easily set it right.
Once all that was squared away, we got settled in our surprisingly clean and comfortable cabin and met our bunkmates for the night - Nathan and Laura, a lovely English couple traveling around Southeast Asia for a few weeks. We chatted their ears off for an hour or two before we all fell asleep on the very wobbly, very jerky train. We had such a nice time chatting with these two that we met up for beers on our first night in Sapa, and got to meet up occasionally on the trails! I love making new friends!
We arrived in Lau Cai bright and early, at 5:30 am, and made our way to our mini-bus to drive us up the mountain. As we made our way through the dozens of drivers trying to get business, we learned that we had overpaid for the mini-bus - we spent 80,000 dong each at the train station when we could have spent 50,000 each on arrival. Oh well, just add it to the list.
We were among the last to pile into the packed 15 passenger van, so we sat in the front seat, good for me and my tendency to get motion sick, but not so good for the perfect visual of the terrifying driving tactics of our driver! Seriously, what is it with drivers in this country? There seems to be a race that everyone is in that makes them drive really fast and pass every vehicle the come across, even around blind turns and when cars and trucks are in the opposite lane coming straight for you. It's just terrifying. To spare myself from anxiety as our drive careened up the mountain roads, I went to sleep.
We arrived in the small town of Sapa about 45 minutes later. As we drove through the center we took it all in - people everywhere, local tribal women dressed in their tribe's traditional clothes, selling purses and knickknacks. We had read about them, about the non-stop badgering of the Tribal women who try to get you to buy something they've made, about how they follow tour groups on hikes around the area, offering their assistance to keep tourists from slipping down the hill on the muddy trail, and then expect a tip or a purchase at the end of the trek. We had seen the word "tout" used to discuss these ladies in the blogs we'd read, a word we were unfamiliar with. So we looked it up. According to Google: Tout. verb 1. attempt to sell (something), typically by pestering people in an aggressive or bold manner. 2. offer racing tips for a share of any resulting winnings. Tout. noun 1. A person soliciting custom or business, typically in an aggressive or bold manner. 2. A person who offers racing tips for a share of any resulting winnings.
Not even being in Sapa for 5 minutes we knew this word was a perfect description of these ladies. As our mini-bus approached its destination, the driver made a U-turn in the middle of the street, just in time for us to see a group of no less than 10 H'mong women running, literally running, towards the van, only stopping when they noticed us turning around and driving back towards them. Jake and I looked at each other - we were heading straight into the lion's den. When the mini-bus came to a stop, they crowded around the doors, waiting for all of us to get out of the van so they could start touting their wares. We got out of the vehicle and it started instantly, "Where you from? What's your name? How old are you?" Jake looked at the lady who was trying to start a conversation with him and simply said, "No thank you." She chuckled, knowing that we were aware of their strategies, smiled, and said to him in perfect English, "No thank you, huh? You don't want to talk to me?" "No," he stated, and we walked to the back of the van to retrieve our bags. Hurdle #1, done. We were determined to not buy anything from them (I really don't want to carry stuff I don't need in my pack for five more months), to not give in to their constant pestering, to not break down and "pay them just to go away" as we'd read that many other travelers had felt the need to do. We'd also read that, once you buy something from one lady, the others descend upon you like vultures and just bother you some more. You'd think that buying something from one in the group following you would satisfy them all. Wrong. Much to their dismay, we did not buy anything during our three days in Sapa. And they largely left us alone on our treks, except when I was about to break my neck on the slippery mud and all of a sudden their incredibly strong hands were holding me up (but their help was not out of the pure goodness of their hearts, it was a service that they wanted payment for). I think they mostly left us alone because of Jake's interaction with one lady at the outset of our hike. His conversation went like this: "Where you from?" Jake turns to her and smiles, "I'm happy to talk with you, but I want to let you know that I'm not going to buy anything." "Ok," she says, "Where you from?" "San Francisco," he says. And then she faded into the group and found someone else to talk to. They only approached me when I was not standing directly next to him.
Most people who visit the area do so as part of a tour or package - the hotel, train tickets, and hikes are all included in one price. We decided to DIY our Sapa experience. Doing it ourselves worked out well, but I might suggest just joining a tour for anyone else interested in going there. We liked the flexibility booking things ourselves gave us, but I don't know if we really saved any money in the end. Also, a tour will force you to go out into the town with your tour group and have the Sapa experience (whatever that may be for you), rather than be hesitant to go out, like we were, out of fear and annoyance of being constantly hassled.
While we didn’t use a tour company for our accommodations or transportation, we did join up with a company that Charlotte and James had used and recommended, Sapa Pathfinder, for our treks around the area. For $15 each we joined a tour group on a 12 km trek including lunch and a ride back to town. Our guide, Zung, is H'mong, and has lived in Sapa all his life. He is from a small H'mong village called Cat Cat, about 3km down the hill from Sapa town. Zung was a great guide with a fun sense of humor, and we enjoyed chatting with him over the two days that he guided us through the terraced rice paddies, down the muddy slopes, and around the rivers and waterfalls of the area. For us, Zung was another shining light in the scam-ridden, seemingingly untrustworthy country, like Lily's Travel Agency was. He was reliable, friendly, and welcoming. He did not try to get us to buy anything from the H'mong ladies following us (he actually does not like that they follow the groups, and his village does not permit them to come along on treks to Cat Cat). He just wanted to show us around the area and make sure that we had a nice time. If you're ever heading to Sapa, we recommend looking him up to arrange a trek - no need to pre-book a tour with a company, just contact him directly via Facebook.
Learning about Zung's way of life was also fascinating. We got to see his home and that of his parents, where several generations live under one roof. The bedrooms are communal, beds separated by cloth hanging from the ceiling. The kitchen is a large room with a wood burning fire in the middle that fills the house with smoke when dinner is on. He showed us the indigo dye they use to dye cloth that they've woven from hemp, and we got to play with his four adorable puppies (real puppies, just weeks old!). He mentioned that many H'mong people now live in Fresno, CA, and someday he hopes to visit (FresYes!). We met his adorable children when they got home from school and saw one unique trait that he passed down to his daughter - she has 6 fingers on her left hand. Zung had also had a 6th finger beneath his thumb, but had it cut off years ago (someone tell Inigo Montoya!). The most fascinating part of the H'mong culture that we learned, though, was how he met his wife. After Zung finished high school, his parents told him that he needed to stay home to help with the farm, and that it was time to get married and start a family. He was 19. His mother had arranged for him to meet three girls from the village she came from, and he would pick which one he liked best and marry her. He had not met any of them before. When he saw his future wife and decided she was the one, he arranged to kidnap her. Yes, kidnap! In H'mong culture, the man kidnaps the woman he wants to marry, with the help of his friends, and takes her back to his village where she must remain for 3 days. "Nothing happens while she is kidnapped, she stays with the sisters of the man, or if there are no sisters with ladies who are friends," Zung assured us. After 72 hours, the girl can decide if she likes the situation or not - if not, she goes back home, if yes, she marries the man. "What did she do when you kidnapped her?" I asked. "She cried and screamed, 'No no I don't want to go', but then she was ok and liked it." Apparently, prior to Zung kidnapping her, she had been kidnapped three other times and had refused to marry those men. Her mother had told her that she was getting old and it was time to marry, so she said yes to Zung. Not exactly a Hollywood love story. Now they have been happily married for 12 years and have a lovely family.
The treks were pretty and we're glad that we got a chance to see the beautiful rice paddies as they were turning from vibrant green to a ripe yellow, and pass by the water buffalo that till the fields. It was also really nice to escape the heat of Hanoi for a few days - it was about 70* in Sapa, versus the 100* in Hanoi. But is Sapa a "must see" like the reviews on Trip Advisor say it is? Nah. Perhaps we're just really spoiled - we've seen some gorgeous places on this trip and at home in California - but we weren't overly impressed with the area. Also, the whole experience is not "peaceful" like it's advertised thanks to the incessant pestering of the tribal women. Perhaps that's the experience people should expect. If you want to see these women and interact with them, go to Sapa. If you want to see and appreciate nature, this isn't really the place to do it. Sapa is likely to change a whole lot over the next few years, too - the government is spending $200 million to build a gondola to take tourists from Sapa to the top of Fanispan Mountain, and several huge five star hotels are being built, dramatically changing the landscape. More tourists with a lot more money will flood the area, and likely make the touting even more prevalent. Zung told us, "Twenty years ago the tribes did not need money. Now it is like a drug and the women will sell everything to get it. They will even make their children sell, and then the children do not go to school. The people here are only worried about the now, not the long term, and they don't realize they are hurting the future of their children by keeping them out of school just to sell things. They think, 'If I send them to school, what do I get? Money? They cannot help me on the farm or to sell in town, so I need to get something.' and so they don't send them to school." It's just like I was talking about with the Alms ceremony in Luang Prabang - people have been inspired to travel to Sapa, and so lots of development follows. Soon, what people originally came to see will have dramatically changed, and changed the people as well.
The time had come to leave the mountains and head back to the heat of Hanoi and start our next side trip to Halong Bay. Our overpriced mini-bus picked us up for an even more harrowing drive down the mountain - passing seven or eight buses at a time around blind curves, going head to head with a semi as it turned wide around another curve…when we came to a stop at the train station we couldn't get out of the van fast enough! Our night train back to Hanoi was, thankfully, uneventful. And thankfully, we had two more great bunkmates, Mada and Sandra from Portugal. We arrived in back in Hanoi in the morning, with just enough time to grab breakfast at Joma Café with the girls before being picked up by our next mini-bus to Halong Bay.
Halong Bay is listed as one of the "Top Things to Do" in Vietnam. It's one of the Natural Seven Wonders of the World. It's raved about on blogs and Trip Advisor. And to us, it was kind of a disappointment. There's no doubt that it's a fascinating place - the hundreds of jungle covered limestone islands are very interesting, as are the floating villages around them. But we weren't as impressed as we feel that we should have been. Again, maybe we're spoiled - and this place just didn’t quite compare to other places we've been. It didn't help that the weather all three days was so hazy you could barely make out the hundreds of islands in the distance, the water had visible oil floating on top making it not as inviting to swim, our kayak smelled like rotting, stale water, and the place itself is just a tourist factory.I do have to say, though, that the company we booked for our tour, Fantasea Cruise, was wonderful and just what we expected based on the information we received from Lily's Travel Agency. Our room was quite comfortable, the AC worked well, and the food was quite good.
Our mini-bus picked us up at 8:30 am from Lily's to start the four hour drive to the bay. Accompanying us on the drive was our tour guide for our 3 day, 2 night, trip, Binh. At first, we didn't know what to think of Binh - he was a bit gruff at first, but by the end of the trip we really enjoyed him, especially after seeing how terribly he was treated by some of the other guests on the tour, and how much crap he must put up with on a daily basis being a tour guide in one of the busiest and hottest places in Vietnam. On our drive, he told us about our packed schedule: arrive on the boat, have lunch, go kayaking ("for 1 hour and 19 minutes"), eat fruit on the boat, have free time (with a surprise happy hour that, unfortunately, didn't include beer), have dinner, followed by more free time. Day 2: breakfast at 6:55 am, trekking and exploring Surprising Cave (which was well, surprisingly big), go to Cat Ba Island, trek in the national park for 2 hours (right in the middle of the day when it was likely over 100* - it would have been nice had it not been so oppressively hot), go to hotel, eat lunch, optional free time or go to Monkey Island (we opted out, too pooped from the two treks in the blistering heat early that day and craving some quiet time), dinner, free time. Day 3: breakfast at 8am, checkout of hotel at 9, get on boat, spring roll rolling demonstration, lunch, get on the mini-bus to go back to Hanoi. Phew! Every activity was carefully timed, and had to be because over 400 boats in the area do the exact same things and they must stagger all of the groups on a schedule. This is the most touristy thing we've done on the trip so far, and we really weren't big fans of the all of the structure.
There isn't really much to say about the whole thing. Our mini-bus driver drove like everyone else in Vietnam, that is, like a maniac. At the halfway point on the drives there and back we stopped at a tourist trap of a rest stop where we could use the bathroom and buy snacks, jewelry, art, clothes (I'm sure the North Face jackets for sale were authentic…) and loads of other junk, including shoulder high stone statues. The hikes were hot (and fully paved the whole way), and the ocean was a bit too gross for me to really want to swim in, and it was warm anyway so there would be no refreshment in going in. The big cave was pretty cool, but it was kind of like the Disneyland of caves - red and green lights everywhere. Our boat was never off the beaten path, so to speak, so we didn't get to see any of the secluded places that others have raved about. James and
Charlotte had also done a trip to Halong Bay and loved it - they enjoyed swimming in crystal clear water and jumping off the boat - we didn’t have that experience. Do we think that Halong Bay is a "must see"? Definitely not. Was it relaxing? Definitely not. Are we glad we saw it? Sure. The worst part was the drive home - the AC in the van wasn't working, so it was a very long, very hot 4 hours back to Hanoi. Oh, and it was our anniversary! What a way to spend it! (Thankfully we had already decided to celebrate our anniversary with a nice dinner several days later in Hoi An, so this was not how we were really spending our celebration time.)
We spent our anniversary night in Hanoi before boarding another night train to head down south to Hoi An. After being in Sapa and Halong Bay, this city was starting to grow on me. I understood the traffic flow, I learned to (sometimes) appreciate the honking that warned other cars and pedestrians that they were entering the intersection (God forbid they stop and wait for it to clear!), I didn't even mind the heat as much. Little by little, I was starting to like it. And I mean really, just a little.
We grabbed a fantastic dinner at Bac Kim Bun Cha and devoured a giant serving of our favorite Hanoi dish, and then went out for anniversary beers at "Bia Hoi Corner" to try the famous bia hoi - fresh beer that has no preservatives and must be consumed within 24 hours after being brewed, and sold for 5000 dong a glass (about $0.22). We were now pros at crossing the maddening streets of the city, and noticed a couple running for their lives across a particularly busy one on our way to dinner. She almost bumped into Jake and quickly smiled and said "sorry!", to which I responded, "Oh we understand! You have to cross when you can!" We laughed and off they went. Little did we know that hours later we'd end up running into them again at the bar we selected in Bia Hoi Corner! We sat down next to them and started chatting, not recognizing them at first, and then realizing minutes later that we had seen each other before. Rob and Jess (yet another English couple!), both 24 years old, are on a 9 month trip and also left on March 10 (the day we left)! They'd just arrived in Hanoi that morning and were eager to explore. They've been to India, Australia, New Zealand, and are now making their way through Southeast Asia. What a treat it was to meet a couple similar to us, who were about to buy a house and get locked into jobs, etc, and decided to travel for awhile instead. We loved listening to their travel stories (and definitely got inspired to get a winnebago in New Zealand someday), and enjoyed their company over four rounds of bia hoi.
The funny part about the little bar we were in, which was really just a room with one of those aluminum garage-type doors that opened out on to the street and filled with tiny stools and tiny tables and had a keg in the corner, was the service. When we sat down, Jake and I ordered two bia hoi and were served immediately. Rob and Jess had just finished their Beer Hanoi bottles and also ordered two bia hoi. It took about 6 order attempts and 10 minutes or more to actually get them the beers, even though each time the lady said "yeah yeah" when they ordered. My theory is the lady didn't want to sell them the cheap bia hoi, and would have preferred to continue to sell them the more expensive bottles. For whatever reason, the lady was not keen on serving them. Jake and I finished our first round before they even got their glasses, so we ordered again. Sure enough, we got our second glasses before they got their first ones! This happened every time we ordered. The four of us laughed it off and decided not to look into it too much. We should have seen the scam coming.
Just when we were all feeling pretty darn good about our evening, excited that our anniversary day ended with delightful company nice beers, we were reminded that we were still in Vietnam and people still wanted to screw us over at every possible moment. When the lady handed each couple our bills, the math was wrong. She was charging us for more than we ordered. Jake and I each had four beers at 5000 dong a piece, so our bill should have been 40,000. She demanded 50,000, and pointed at a piece of paper with it written down as she muttered things in Vietnamese. I'd had enough of this BS, I was sure that we only had 4 each and had no more patience for this crap. It's our anniversary, dammit! "No, that's wrong and you know it," I told her. "We had a total of 8 beers. We owe 40,000." She glared at me, trying to intimidate me, said something in Vietnamese and pointed at her paper. "No. We are not paying 50. You are getting 40." The same thing was happening with Rob and Jess. It was infuriating. The lady was, I'm assuming, hoping we would have lost track of how many beers we'd ordered so she could get more money out of us. And the thing is, had she asked for the correct amount of 40K, we probably would have given her a 50K bill and told her to keep the change. But now, because she was dishonest and mean, she got exactly what was due. Not a penny more. And sure, it really was pennies to us (about $0.44 in total), but it's the principle of the matter. Just because we have the money doesn’t mean we should have to pay it, and it doesn’t give her permission to be dishonest.
I was starting to come around to this place. I was starting to think it wasn't so bad. I was starting to think that maybe I had overreacted to the scams we'd seen before. But this lady brought it all home for me. I'm sick and tired of being treated like this. We are not welcome here, and the so many of the locals have made it abundantly clear that, if we're going to be here, they're going to try to get as much money out of us as possible, just to screw with us. Am I glad we're here and having this eye opening experience? Definitely. Would I say that I like Vietnam? No. And I can't help but think that the way they treat us creates a vicious cycle - they're nasty, so we lose trust and treat them more coldly and less politely than we normally would, which I'm sure makes them think that we're terrible and so they treat us poorly in return. It's never ending. I can only imagine how incredibly difficult it must be for those locals who actually do care, who actually do want to genuinely help people (like Lily and Binh and Zung), to deal with tourists who are skeptical and constantly on guard against scams, who have lost faith in the people of Vietnam, and take their frustrations out on them. I hope those nice, honest people continue to smile and be kind to tourists. I hope they continue to do good, trustworthy, honest work that brings joy to travelers. And I hope we don't leave Vietnam in two weeks as cold hearted bastards who trust no one.
To be continued…On to Hoi An!
HIGHLIGHTS: the lower temperature in the mountains,
LOWLIGHTS: constant pestering to buy something, hot van back to Hanoi from Sapa, hazy weather in Halong Bay, neither place lived up to the "must see" reputations we'd read about.
# OF TIMES WE THOUGHT OUR MINIBUS WAS GOING TO CRASH INTO ON-COMING TRAFFIC: 30
BOTTOM LINE: While both Sapa and Halong Bay are interesting places to see, we were disappointed with our experiences. Based on the way everyone talks about these destinations (travelers and locals alike), we expected more awe-inspiring beauty and genuine experiences than we got.