Compelling Northern Vietnam

April 3 – 21, 2016

As we wait for the sleeper bus from Phong Nha to Hanoi in the pouring rain with other travelers half our age, it hits us that we are in fact fairly old.  While we cut ourselves off from fluid intake at 7:00 p.m. knowing we have a ten-hour bus ride ahead, the “young kids” on our bus are polishing off beers and Coca-Cola’s as the bus arrives.  Sadly, even our dehydration still requires a bathroom break at 3:00 a.m. while the “young kids” are snoring in their chairs with bladders unaffected by the liquids they consumed.  We arrive before 7:00 a.m. deprived of ten hours of sleep while other travelers arise with bed head, stretch and run off to tackle a day of touring Hanoi, Vietnam.  This roaming two make it as far as a coffee shop overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi, order a drink and sit for three hours watching the locals participate in their morning lake-side workouts and Tai Chi.

Hanoi is the most northern city and it is the capitol of Vietnam (over 7.6 million).  After our experience in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) (see our post “HCMC brings out the grumpy old man”), I was dreading the visit but maintained an open mind and hoped for the best.  What a pleasant surprise.  Where HCMC felt lifeless and lacking in character, Hanoi has an old quarter with narrow streets and architecture influenced by the French, Chinese and South Asian cultures.   Hanoi has a couple of lakes (the West Lake is huge) that are beautiful to look at and walk around.  Further, the locals appeared happier and friendlier than their Southern peers.  Even though the horns continued to honk continuously, drivers used pedestrians as target practice, second hand smoke filled the air which already had poor air quality and refused to clear and show us blue sky, we still enjoyed our time in Hanoi.

Vietnam 8 Hanoi April 20-21 2016 -- 3

Vietnam 8 Hanoi April 3-8 2016 -- 288

Vietnam 8 Hanoi April 3-8 2016 -- 66

We checked out a fairly cheesy and uninspiring war museum and we went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  An ordeal to say the least.  It was 40C outside, we had to walk to the entrance gate 600 meters away from the actual mausoleum where we had arrived.  We proceeded through x-ray, then to the check-in area for our day pack (sans iPad, iPhone, camera), and then get in line with everyone else who just went through the same thing.  The line meandered until we reached the “electronics” check-in area approximately 250 meters from the actual mausoleum.  As the line moved slowly forward, we were both standing there regretting the ordeal we just went through and we were still 200 meters away from the mausoleum.  Why regret?  Ho Chi Minh’s wishes were for a simple cremation; instead, he is displayed as a pale, tiny man with a few wisps of hair confined to eternity in a glass sarcophagus. Not only that, his embalmed body is flown to Russia yearly for maintenance that requires up to two months to complete.  As Bart Simpson would say, “ay caramba”.  There we were with hoards of other tourists promoting something he never wanted.  Shame on us. The line exited the mausoleum and we had to retrace all our steps to pick up our iPad, camera and then back to the entrance gate to get our day pack. Hints of the grumpy old man began to surface and we retreated to an air conditioned coffee shop to re-group.

Starting to get an idea for how to survive Asia in extreme heat?  Have a healthy coffee shop budget!

As we toured the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a comical trend continued to emerge.  If one store on a street sold an item, the entire area around it sold the exact same item. We are not speaking chocolate bars and convenience items.  We are speaking of just an individual theme.  There were streets that sold locks, funeral wreaths, or sheet metal.  There was the fan street, the paper, plastic storage bins, woven floor matts, and weigh scales streets.  There was even the really huge, massive speaker street… and the list goes on.  You name it, if you were in the market for that item, it would take you a day just to figure out what store you wanted to patronize.

Vietnam 8 Hanoi April 3-8 2016 -- 93 OldQuarterShop

We met Johnny from Milwaukee and who we had met in Phong Nha before this stop.  A traveler’s worst nightmare, he forgot his passport in Phong Nha and we were more than happy to bring it to him so he could continue on to his next stop in the Middle East. We people-watched from a cozy chair in a coffee shop overlooking the lake (yes that coffee shop saw a lot of us), we visited historic sites, tried local food (Bun Cha, Pho, cashew chicken) and we used Hanoi as a base to explore Tam Coc, Sapa, Halong Bay and Cat Ba island.

Tam Coc, a full day-trip from Hanoi, is where we were treated to limestone karst’s dropping dramatically into rice fields.  A forty-five-minute one-way boat ride brought us through three small caves, breathtaking scenery and our boat driver introduced me to an entire new abdominal, hamstring, gluteal workout – paddling oars using only feet.  Check out this short video of their talent.

Vietnam 8 Tam Coc April 20-21 2016 -- 13

Vietnam 8 Tam Coc April 20-21 2016 -- 6

Then we took a five-and-a-half-hour bus ride to 1500 metres above sea level and spent three full days in Vietnam’s crown jewel of mountain villages, Sapa. Numerous hill-tribe ethnic minorities (Black Hmong, Red Dzao, Tay, Giay, Thai and Phu La) call the area of Sapa home.  Their outfits each represent their tribe.  They are colorful, durable, handmade and they let the tourists know that you are about to meet the pushiest sales people on planet Earth. Even so, they are loveable and who can blame them, they need to put food on their table.  As Asian tourists equipped with selfie-sticks and dressed in Gucci and Prada pranced around town next to these financially poor tribal women sitting on the street selling their merchandise, the sense that society is twisted filled the clean mountain air.

We read that it rains a lot in this mountain village, hotels are damp and clouds prevent views from being seen for days, so we treated ourselves to a “proper” hotel room.  Call it fate, we splurged for a great room and we were blessed with glorious blue sky and hot (30C) weather – but we still LOVED having our fancy, clean, room (best sleep of the trip). The town of Sapa has a face that only a mother could love but we went for the trekking in rice field terraces and it was some of the most visually rewarding hiking we have done (Inca trail #1).  Imagine entire sides of mountains terraced!  The sight is mind boggling.  These mountain people work their butt off and at the end of the day, some of them would return to their villages with nothing more than an outhouse and a clay-floored home made from boards pieced together and corrugated metal sheets for the roof.

We did two different treks.  One to Cat Cat, Y Linh Ho, Lao Chai and Ta Van.

Vietnam 9 Sapa April 9-13 2016 -- Tour1 -- 20Vietnam 9 Sapa April 9-13 2016 -- Tour1 -- 17

Vietnam 9 Sapa April 9-13 2016 -- Tour1 -- 11Vietnam 9 Sapa April 9-13 2016 -- Tour1 -- 8

And a second trek to Ta Phin.

Vietnam 9 Sapa April 9-13 2016 -- Tour2 -- 34Vietnam 9 Sapa April 9-13 2016 -- Tour2 -- 44Vietnam 9 Sapa April 9-13 2016 -- Tour2 -- 14

Vietnam 9 Sapa April 9-13 2016 -- Tour2 -- 6

We returned to Hanoi from Sapa in the evening and then we jumped on another bus first thing the following morning for the four-hour trip to Halong Bay, another UNESCO World Heritage site.  Halong Bay consists of 1600 islands uninhabited by people.  Another wallet busting, once-in-a-lifetime tour, we boarded a twenty passenger traditional junk (aka boat) for three days at sea.  Twenty-three crew members made sure the trip was special.  Food was phenomenal, best shower of the trip (fellow travelers from Scotland said the room had a fancier shower than their home), lounge chairs on the deck to view the limestone pillars that surrounded the ship and early morning Tai Chi and kayaks to burn off unwanted but crazy delicious calories we consumed.

Vietnam Halong Bay 1Vietnam 9 Halong Bay April 14-16 2016 -- 201Vietnam 9 Halong Bay April 14-16 2016 -- 164

Kayaking amongst the islands was serene.  Birds glided overhead, calm waters lapped the kayak and plastic bags, condoms, human excrement and even a bright orange tarp innocently floated by as we paddled.  The waters of Halong Bay are in trouble, we hope Vietnam will acknowledge it and do something.  The area is undeniably beautiful but on our first day stop for swimming, we did not jump in the water.  Several others on the junk made the same decision.

On our second day, we enjoyed a secondary boat trip with a couple and their three cute kids from Bangkok.  We kayaked, ate, swam and we went “authentic Vietnamese style fishing” (drop net in water forming a large round circle from boat, complete a “drive-by” while everyone bangs the heck out of bamboo sticks on the side of the boat scaring fish, shrimp and crab into the net).  Our final morning included a traditional floating fishing village and pearl farm tour.

From Halong Bay, we took a bus, a taxi, a ferry and another bus to reach Cat Ba island.  An adventure to say the least, our ferry (complete with the front ramp dragging in the water the entire one-hour trip – don’t worry moms, I had my eye on the life jackets and an exit plan to jump ship quickly if the ferry started to go down) dropped us off with only the taxi mafia to greet visitors.  I was prepared (thank you Travelfish website) but Christine had no idea what was about to unfold, nor did the young, naive Swedish travelling girls on our ferry. Long story short, after finally thinking we had a legitimate taxi to a town forty-five minutes away. A group of men showed up from no where to put our bags in the trunk. Christine and the two travelling Swedes jumped in the back seat as the taxi driver grabbed the taxi sign off the roof and threw it in the trunk.  Hairs on my back went up and I asked the girls to get out of the car.   I grabbed our bags from the trunk and said see ya later to the “taxi” driver.  The public bus arrived two and a half hours later and we made the trip to Cat Ba townsite safely and several hundred Dongs richer.  As we walked up to our homestay, a couple from Calgary, AB (just three hours from where we grew up) were sitting outside.  Her sister owns and operates Tripke Bakery in our most recent hometown of Kelowna, BC.  A small world indeed.  Cat Ba turned out to be a town of overbuilt, ugly hotels.   We had underwhelming food, the marina was riddled with garbage but we did enjoy a hike with breathtaking scenery and a cold beer by the ocean on the beautiful public beach Cat Co 2.  All in all, too much of a hassle to get there and not the best bang for the buck.  The trip back to Hanoi was everything in reverse, only we paid a bus company to get us back to Hanoi express avoiding taxi and taking a faster passenger ferry.

During our several stays in Hanoi, we were dealt a few struggles during our time.  We never saw blue sky, the air quality was terrible, the banks service charged us like crazy for withdrawing money (50,000 Dong ($2.85 CDN) per transaction capped at 2,000,000 Dong or $114.00 CDN per withdrawal) and we did not have water in our hotel for three of the six days. When we did change to a different hotel for our last two nights, the room had a box spring for a mattress.  We put a really old duvet under the fitted sheet in an effort to get cushioning between the springs and our backs.  But it was a futile effort at best.

On a morning toward the end of our Hanoi stay, we went for a walk along the West Lake. The smell of exhaust was thick in the air.  The sun ineffectively penetrated the smog that obscured the buildings across the lake.  As we stood there looking out at the thick, grey sky with scooters honking their horn and black smoke exiting their tail pipes, I shared a “WhatsApp” message with my family back in Canada.  I texted

enjoy silence today, eat something organic, marvel at a glass of water from the tap, linger on the toilet seat, feel the tiles or acrylic under your toes in the shower, cuddle in your fuzzy big shower towel, run a load of laundry just because you can and most of all – take a nice big, clean, deep breath of fresh air.

Happy Mother’s Day!!!!!

…Mark and Christine

Sample Expenses for HANOI (all in Vietnamese Dong, varies between 15,500 and 17,500 dong for 1 Canadian dollar)


  • 98,000 breakfast after night bus at 7am on 3rd floor overlooking lake.  2 iced coffee and 2 Banh Mi
  • 110,000 2 Pho and mango Lassi
  • 160,000 dinner (cashew chicken, fried noodles with veggies and tofu, 1 beer)
  • 70,000 2 bubble teas
  • 100,000 dinner on a wee stool (Mark had Bun Cha, Christine had veggie noodles)
  • 190000 dinner (2 beer, chicken veg noodles + chicken cashew on plastic stool)
  • 90,000 dinner (1 Pho, 1 veggie noodle tofu, 1 beer)
  • 38,000 Treat (piece of cake for Mark, 2 cake pops for Christine)
  • 9,000 water 1.5L


  • 16.2 USD Lucky guesthouse, free basic breakfast (no water in building 3 different times)


  • 400,000 (for 2) sleeper bus from Phong Nha to Hanoi, Vietnam (overbooked so people were sleeping on the floor)
  • 300,000 For airport taxi to Hanoi international airport from Old quarter, Hanoi


  • $35 USD x 2 for full day tour to Tam Coc
  • 7.95 USD Laundry 5 kg – ripoff, not clean at all… Had to re-hand wash everything
  • 750,000 Clinique 50 SPF

Sample Expenses for SAPA (all in Vietnamese Dong)


  • Free incredible buffet breakfast
  • Free cheese sandwich from the buffet for lunch
  • 200,000 dinner (2 veggie Vietnamese sets)
  • 250,000 dinner (2 burgers with fries in the hotel room in front of the TV watching Terminator 3)
  • 90,000 2 beers, 2 ice creams after Trek


  • $300 USD for 4 nights, free buffet breakfast and best sleep of trip


  • $35 USD for 2 people on Sapa express bus
  • 660,000 for 2 for full day Trek (and real lunch) to Cat Cat, Y Linh Ho, Lao Chai & Ta Van
  • 1,100,000 Trek to Ta Phin (including home cooked lunch with view)

Sample Expenses for CAT BA (all in Vietnamese Dong)


  • 165,000 brunch (French toast and eggs for 40,000, big veggie omelet 40,000, chai latte 35K and green tea latte 35K)
  • 140,000 dinner (shrimp noodles 40,000, seafood fried rice 70,000, 2 Saigon beer 15,000 each)
  • 175,000 lunch (2 baguette sandwiches 45,000 each, iced coffee with milk 15,000, hot chocolate 20,000, fresh lemonade 15,000 + banana cake 20K + chocolate almond white bread 15K)
  • 65,000 for 2 Tiger beers at Cat Ba Beach resort beach bar
  • 70,000 lunch/dinner pho soup
  • 10,000 1.5 L water


  • $10.25 Canadian per night


  • 520,000 bus-ferry-bus to Hanoi for 2

Getting there…

And back…

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