Wed/Thurs 20/21 Nov: Hanoi highlights

Our brilliant guide Thiep

Am: in spacious parkland, sits the Mausoleum for Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader hugely respected by many Vietnamese & viewed as the nearest most have to a god. Elderly people who fought in the war make a pilgrimage here before they get too infirm. We went around and into it, where I imagine the setup is similar to e.g. Lenin’s in Moscow, with long queues forming to enter to see his embalmed body on a central pedestal inside glass. We were watched and very strictly corralled by guards in white uniforms, who enforced its rules: e.g. no phones, no hats, no hands in pockets & certainly no smiling … In contrast, when a frail old Vietnamese couple went in, two guards very gently helped them up, around and down the steps at the other side – a striking example of their respect for their elders.

HCM ‘s house where he lived till death – simple but elegant.

Saw several children finely dressed with makeup, who readily took up poses for photos, apart from the girl in white who looked only about 10 & seemed uncomfortable at being asked to pose for person with her.

The Temple of Literature used to be the leading university, but is now used just for special occasions like graduation. Beautiful curved roofs with carved finials of dragons, clouds etc.

During afternoon, some of us tasted egg coffee, a Hanoi speciality made with raw egg yolk in coffee over tealight burner – delicious & more like a dessert.

Egg coffee

The next day, we were taken out of the city to a more rural area, but not without long, slow urban drive first.

Huge accommodation blocks for workers coming into Hanoi
Waist-high jars of soy beans being fermented into sauce
Another request from village kids for photo – who could resist this lovely bunch!
Taking a breather after 300+ steps up to (another?!) temple

Fri 22 Nov: Hanoi-Mai Chau

City to Rural
Starting loop from Hanoi for 4 nights with small bags, & main luggage stored in Hanoi. Been able to get 1kg laundry done by lady in tiny shop next to hotel – for £2.50.
As our coach tried to access extremely busy expressway out of city, we were confronted by a vehicle reversing alongside us, to allow other vehicles  to leave expressway! We & others also then had to reverse, but showed another typical example of Vietnamese coping strategies: what looked hair-raising to us Westerners  was something Vietnamese drivers just do like a weaving ballet, without any fuss.

Car on the left driving wrong way down sliproad! Yet car on right had to reverse …

First time in mountains, can see where oriental art style originated with layers of hills fading into distance. Up + over passes, + dropped down into Mai Chau, a small village on plateau of rice fields, surrounded by unusual pillar-like mountains covered by vegetation.

Although their rice crop was harvested, saw farmers burning off rice straw.

Our lodge is in beautifully peaceful setting, and everyone is finding relief here, after Hanoi’s size and noise. Population and food different, with Thai and Laos influences. We look out onto a large lake where a multitude of pink water lilies open in the morning and from late afternoon.

Our bedroom
Exotic wildlife
Sunset from our restaurant

Sat 23 Nov: Mai Chau villages

Am: lovely walk onto terraces where farmers treading rice stumps back into water paddies ready for next crop – must be v hard on feet!

Stopped for fresh sugar cane drink – farmer strips cane through sort of mangle + pours juice into glasses – looks rather like urine but tastes good!

Pressing sugar cane for the juice

Again children wanting photos, & again I’m happy to oblige.

When arrived at hotel went into large caves opposite, where guerrillas hid during wartime air strikes + stored weapons.

In the cave
View from the hotel terrace

Pm: treat of afternoon off, so tried to sketch some farmers from photos.

Local dancers entertaining at our lodge after dinner

Now which way shall I jump …?

Sun 24 Nov: to Ninh Binh

Sorry to leave Mai Chau’s peace and beauty. Variety of lovely scents indoors e.g ginger & lemongrass in reception.

Our hotel – Mai Chau Lodge

Climbed back up the pass with view down over it & our hotel at far end, & then turned SE across very green plains.

Looking back to Mai Chau valley

Some distance on HCM Trail, now widened. Was vital supply route N-S, when trucks drove at night with no lights, + local women sneaked out to bring food. Younger people now think of war as history, caused by leaders not people, but worried that Chinese taking some islands now.
Season for weddings: normally 2 families meet, then Engagement Day with traditional dress, & Wedding month or so later with western white dress. 2 days for weddings one at each family’s houses, with each family paying for their own guests. Appoint an MC, not an officiant at weddings.

Pm: taken in pairs on river rowing boats with oarsperson having a different technique …!

Look! No hands!

Arrived at Emeralda resort about 5pm, sun already low. Main areas with traditional curved roofs. Plush room, with window through to bathroom. 2 large swimming pools, the indoor one with lovely warm water, + the two of us had it all to ourselves for a while. All this reflected in prices of drinks. Although much more luxurious, a more artificial feel here, & more confusing in the dark with spread out rooms.

Huge bedroom with see through window into bathroom
Sunrise before we leave the Emeralda Hotel

Mon 25 Nov: to Halong Bay

Early start + on coach by 7.45 for 4hr drive to Halong City. Very flat & verdant again, sometimes with neat planting e.g beautiful, large Bonsai in nurseries. Crossed Red River of huge width, into largest rice-growing area in N Vietnam.
At rest stop, our 1st experience of row of ladies’ public squatting toilets, but we all chose to queue for cubicles!

Crossed Red River delta with increasingly large bridges to Hai Phong, largest port in Vietnam. Could see thousands of containers to/from round world.
Then mangroves & pearl fisheries in salt water. Stopped at large facility, preparing + selling pearl jewellery, from white, gold & black pearls, some thousands of US dollars!!

Sorting pearls

By 12 noon, ready to embark on Bhaya Classic boat, for overnight cruise round unique bay of thousands of Karst limestone pillar islands, covered in vegetation. Beautiful en suite cabins, in solid wood & balconette – very atmospheric.

Could be as quiet or involved as we wanted. Did kayaking which we enjoyed, the only disappointment being the beach afterwards, where water pollution was obvious – terrible shame in this beautiful UNESCO area.

About 12 guests got involved in preparing spring rolls as entertainment (bit like old Generation Game) – great fun with play off between Charlie + me! He won easily + got chef’s apron + hat as prize!

“And the winner is …”
Lovely meal with handmade cake

Later on, after an exotic cocktail, we could lie on deck in balmy weather & see the stars, with water lapping.

Tues 26 Nov: Return to Hanoi

Early start for the 12 of us that wanted to do Tai Chi on top deck at 6.15am, but wonderfully peaceful atmosphere – one for the memory banks.

After early morning Tai Chi

Light breakfast. Some went on tender to large cave, but we relaxed watching other boats beginning to move, including tiny fishing boats.


Then at 9.30, a large brunch, while we sailed back to land. We’d had excellent service on board, rounded off by crew lining up to clap us and wave goodbye.

3 hr journey back to Hanoi. Only 2 hrs to unpack/repack large cases, do any washing, shower, + be ready for fast walk through Hanoi rush hour traffic! 

This was to enable “world famous” water puppet show, showing some scenes from Vietnamese history. Although we couldn’t understand the words, superb puppets, live singing & traditional instruments accompanied only 8 puppeteers operating them under water.

Finally, another coach drop at a restaurant staffed by ex-street kids (bit like Jamie Oliver did) served some of the best meals we’d had.

Wed 27 Nov: Hanoi to Sapa

Yet another early start – up at 5.30am! 3 one-nighters are taking their toll – & not just on us – I felt jetlagged & exhausted after so many fast changes + long journeys, so much so that we left our passports in hotel safe, & coach had to go round a very busy city block for us to retrieve!! Fortunately everyone was very understanding, since they realised it could easily have been them.

But … today one of the longest journeys … 5 hr coach journey to Sapa, our mountain (and final) resort, at about 3,000ft.

1st view of terraces

A much bigger town than expected with some narrow twisting roads. A curious mix of tribes in local dress selling their wares, and Western hotels from luxury to hostels. After hurried arrival at hotel, a delicious lunch was served by women in local dress.

1st view of mountains from Sapa

Unexpected development: after accident between large lorry & smaller vehicle, we were stuck in minibus in logjam for some time. 2 police came running down road eventually, + apparently both drivers would have to pay for their attendance!

Our afternoon programme had to be quickly adjusted, but still had 2 treats: we had a Batik demonstration then we all tried it; drew with hot wax, later to be dipped in indigo dye from local plants – a lovely absorbing experience, even if only 20 minutes to decide what to do, learn to handle the flat painting tool and then construct a finished design. The finished items were to be delivered to our hotel. 2nd treat was a herbal footpath from herbs in farmer’s plot on terraces.

Look out for passing traffic!
Batik expert
First go at new craft!
Applying beeswax
Charlie had a go too!
Young girl in part-traditional dress
If you were a live hen, looking at those roast chicken …?
The sun’s beginning to set …
And finally – our bed for the night

Thurs 28 Nov: Red Dao & Black H’mong tribes

Sunny Sapa view from balcony

Walked from hotel through Sapa town. Many sights new to us: water buffalo alongside tennis courts, and the large market with both exotic local foods e.g piles very fresh ginger root drying in sun, local clothes & household goods.
Saw people in vibrant coloured tribal outfits: the Black H’mong wear all black with bright multi-coloured trims, and the Red Dao have red headscarves folded in different ways, though we didn’t like to intrude on their daily lives to take photos. More familiar were many outdoor shops, mainly North Face though reputedly fake.

I was finally glad I had brought boots & poles for paths, where we were soon joined & helped by women, children of the Red Dao tribal village who hoped to sell us items from their back baskets, like hand embroidered bags. We passed through an area where a group were sewing (which they do from a very early age), & then where hand-dyed indigo cloth was blowing on a line.

Red Dao woman with baby joins us
Women & girls sewing
indigo cloth drying

We began to see mist over the terraces, & by the time we got back into Sapa there had been a distinct change in weather – from superb visibility in bright sunshine to thick, cool mist.

Contrast with earlier view!

Fri 29 Nov: Sapa

The mist persisted, bringing conditions where we were grateful for our UK walking gear. A morning walk took in a tea growing area, now picked every 2 weeks by machine.
Could see how with only 1 rice crop per year, the locals would struggle to survive on the soaring slopes during the winter & how they resort to selling to tourists, even how they send their kids into the town in the evening to approach us directly with their goods.

Spring rolls lunch with carrot flowers
Refuelling Sapa style!
Found in bedroom … apparently in case of fire!

Sat 30 Nov: The long journey back

Although not flying till 20.25 from Hanoi for Bangkok, we left Sapa at 10.30 still in mist, down the twisting mountain road back down the valley. On the same narrow road we had driven up, we encountered  a rock fall blocking the road, and their simple solution. Musing on what could have happened had our coach been going up/down when the rocks fell, we gasped when one impatient bike rider dodged under the operating arm of the mechanical scoop to zoom off down!

Clearing recent rockfall

What did get to me was the combination of a faster speed going down than up, and the  high-pitched whine & pull of brakes making me queasy for the only time; I was very glad when after an hour we reached the dual carriageway at the bottom of the alley.

1pm lunch stop on motorway services saw another culture shift – various new options like goat, ‘soiled chicken’ ?! – but the chicken noodle soup delicious. Everything gets ordered downstairs in a noisy hubbub, written manually then amazingly delivered upstairs to the seating area.
By 5pm we arrived at Hanoi airport, & booked luggage all the way through to Heathrow.

By the time we got to Bangkok, & another tortuous negotiation of transfers in this airport, you could already see tiredness in many travellers late in the evening, with the long haul flight not due to leave till 00.15.

If confused already, just look up!

We finally arrived home safely – 33 hours after leaving Sapa in the north! And that’s when the jetlag really kicked in …