A journey through Vietnam: part 4

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Aidan Lawes gives us the low-down on Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sa Pa – the final part of his journey around Vietnam

To get to Hanoi, we took a sleeping bus from Hué overnight. I have never seen such a mode of transport in Europe, although these buses are common all over South East Asia with a similar variant very popular in Argentina. Starting life as a large single decker coach, the seats are stripped out and replaced with small beds – the backs of which recline to about 30 degrees from the horizontal. There is a second row of these bunks above each bed on the floor. In total this coach had just over 50 beds.


Arriving in Hanoi, our group was struck by how different it felt to Saigon. Tree-lined streets wide enough for cars with shops set far enough back to create a useable pavement made Hanoi stand out from the rest of Vietnam. There is a Catholic cathedral, but that together with the street are about all of the French influence that remains. Many people I spoke to at the time and since have told me of their affection for Hanoi. It felt much smaller and saner than Saigon. The lake with the pagoda in its middle provides a beautiful focus for the city, around which are streets each dedicated to a different trade be it toys, silk and so on. The food in Hanoi is excellent with a large number of restaurants to suit any budget. Another local product is ‘fresh beer’ made in each shop, and costing only a few pence a glass. It is a light lager-like beer and the quality can vary: choose a fresh beer place with a large number of people to avoid the more dubious brews.

The Museum of Ethnography was fascinating, containing all sorts of information regarding the history of the Vietnamese, and from which areas and countries the different tribes originally came from. With so many distinct tribal groups, some of which have only been discovered in the last 50 years, the museum contains replica buildings or a number of the larger tribes, together with examples of traditional dress. In the large outdoor section are more recreations of tribal buildings, including an enormous thatched meeting hut. Not for the first time, we saw a bride and groom in full wedding dress having their photos taken around the museum. It is the tradition in Vietnam to have an album made prior to the wedding which is then given to the guests so, on a number of occasions we saw multiple couples being photographed near the same sights.


Many people use Hanoi as a hub from which to visit Halong Bay and the mountains to the west. It is a four hour drive to Halong Bay along good roads and even from the quayside you can catch a glimpse of the amazing sights which await you. The most popular cruises are the overnight ones, but there are cruises of all lengths available. By choosing a reputable cruise firm, we were guaranteed comfortable cabins and excellent food. As soon as we left port we entered the magical islands, which rose in a decidedly ghostly fashion from the South China Sea. We were unlucky to have chosen such a misty day, but then having avoided both Typhoons Ketsana and Parma we didn’t feel too disappointed. The boats get very close to the islands, allowing you to closely examine each one. There were so many islands (nearly 2000) that I ended up running around the desk photographing everything. After a while though, I relaxed and just enjoyed being in one of the most spectacular natural scenes on earth.


Having returned to Hanoi, we immediately set out west to the mountains on the overnight train. This train was even better than the Reunification Express in terms of comfort and cleanliness. On the drive from the station up through the hill to the town my ears popped, indicating (along with the significant drop in temperature) that overnight we had climbed to a much higher altitude. From the moment we started the 40 minute drive to Sa Pa, it was clear that the scenery was spectacular. Terraced hill sides, long rivers slicing deep valleys made the undulating terrain look even more impressive. Following a nutritious local breakfast of fried egg pizza, we started out on a half day long trek into the hills. Not far from Sa Pa is Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak – sadly we didn’t have time for the three day round trip to make the peak. Around Sa Pa you’ll find many indigenous tribes who crowd the town selling local handicrafts to tourists. I was surprised to see the group who had been following us around the town, follow us further as we set out for the day. They accompanied us for the whole 12km, somehow navigating very steep and slippery paths in flip flops when I was falling over in climbing shoes. As in the Mekong, we stayed with a local family in a homestay. The lady of the house was something of a local celebrity and her walls were adorned with Party certificates showing her achievements. Joining us for dinner were four friends of Thao’s who were looking forward to celebrating the birth of Thao’s son. This meant a full on feast was prepared and served with more rice wine than usual! We sat outside after dinner, watching water buffaloes wander down the road, enjoying just how different the sky looks with no light pollution.

Sa Pa was the final stop on my journey around Vietnam and I felt sad that my venture had drawn to a close. Having enjoyed meeting the people of a country so horribly wronged only a few years ago, I am looking forward to returning to Vietnam and discovering the destinations I missed out on this time.

Thanks Aidan!
Have you visited Vietnam? Let us know your thoughts below…

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