Vietnam is essentially a long, thin strip on land on the eastern edge of South East Asia. The long shape of the country means that the weather patterns in the north of the country are often entirely different to the south. South Vietnam is hot, sunny and reminiscent of other countries we have visited. The North is mountainous, unpredictable and far wetter.
Hanoi is the base for travels across this part of Vietnam. Whilst we did spend a few days in the city, we never were stopped here for long, preferring to escape to the countryside. Compared to Ho Chi Minh we didn’t like Hanoi all that much, it was OK but just didn’t grab us in the same way Ho Chi Minh had.
A mountain town, Sapa has become a bit of a tourist trap. People (including us) flock there to witness staggering mountains and valleys filled with the lush green of terraced rice paddies. The problem with Sapa being nestled so high in the mountains is that the weather is highly unpredictable. The chances of you getting clear, sunny weather is actually far lower than the alternative.
Sadly, for us, we were not blessed with sunshine during our stay. In fact the weather became gradually worse over time. Day one we were greeted with a dense fog that hid the mountain tops and distant ridges. Day two brought even thicker fog so that even the valleys were completely covered. Finally, on day three, we woke up to thunder storms and torrential downpours. Weather is unpredictable and out of our control, at this point we gave up our pursuit of mountain scenery and headed back to the slightly more stable Hanoi area.
We did manage to get out on the first day to explore a little. We felt slightly underwhelmed by the scenery. I’m sure that the poor weather didn’t help, also that it was the wrong season for the green fields, but it just didn’t match what we had hoped for.
Something that we have come to be quite irritated by over the past months is the way minorities sell themselves to tourism. Whether this be through ‘human zoos’ or dressing in ‘traditional’ clothes that they only wear for tourists photos. This is not real life and feels wrong on so many levels. Sapa is an area inhabited by several different hill tribes. The women (and children!) spend all day long walking the hiking paths that tourists take, trying to sell their fabrics and bracelets. They are relentless and very pushy! For me, this was a massive no and put me off Sapa quite a bit. If we travel somewhere like this we want to see authenticity not what is essentially a pantomime.
After regrouping in Hanoi and studying the weather forecast carefully Brad and I decided upon a different itinerary for our final week. It seemed there would be a few days of sunshine around the area so we jumped on a bus to Mai Châu, a short 3 hour journey from Hanoi.
Mai Châu gave us everything we had wanted in Sapa, but closer to the city, better weather and way more of an authentic vibe. The tiny town is hidden inland amongst the mountains in a small winding valley. Luckily for us, just being a little further South the farming season changes and the fields were stretched as far as you could see with the brightest green of rice crops. Here life seemed simple. Ducks roam the paddies, quacking and eating any pests and farmers greet you with genuine smiles to welcome you into their home. The best way to pass time here is to let go and settle into a slower pace of life.
We did hire the scooter twice to explore away from the villages. A short 15 minute drive down the valley leads you to Hoa Binh lake. The road that hugs the edge of this lake in the mountains provides some stunning views across the lake. There are a couple of homestays along this road, we stopped at one for a coffee and were welcomed inside. Sometimes you get the feeling that your arrival might be the most exciting thing that’s happened to them all day…
For an all day adventure we took the drive into Pu Luong National Park. If we had given ourself more time we could have driven a loop into the park one way and out the other, all the way back to the village. As it was we had to change accommodation, so we only left around midday. The most impressive stretch of road is the main ‘highway’ that leads up into the mountains. The road is an easy drive and provides some spectacular views. Despite being a highway you’ll likely be one of the only vehicles on the road. Here we finally got our scenery of mountains and green rice terraces! We passed through many villages, all of whom were super friendly and who gave us a real idea of life in the mountains, finally.
After spending a few days in this beautiful valley we were left wondering why we hadn’t just come here in the first place? A wonderful, peaceful village where the local people aren’t fed up of tourists – yet.
Bai Tu Long Bay
No doubt you have heard of Ha Long Bay. This world famous bay draws in thousands of tourists and there is a flock of tourist boats waiting to pander to their every need. Actually choosing a boat can become quite overwhelming with such a variety on offer. We knew we wanted to stay away from the backpacker party boat, perhaps something a little more upmarket but without breaking the bank. Likewise, I had heard that Ha Long Bay is crowded with boats and we wanted to experience the bay in all its glory, without the disturbance of 20+ other boats.
In the end we chose a trip to Bai Tu Lon Bay with Swan Cruises. This part of the bay sits just behind Ha Long Bay and is frequented much less by the tourist boats making it slightly more premium and quieter. The views are the same though. Striking limestone needles emerging from the water. The two bays actually get their names from dragon folklore as it looks as though a dragon is snaking in and out of the water.
The bays are protected sites but there is still a huge amount of boat traffic moving through them. Both from tourists and industrial ships carrying goods or for fishing. The water, in places, had a lot of scum and rubbish floating on top. When looking at a photo of the bay you cannot see the close up imperfections such as a plastic bottle or black oil floating in the water… that is the reality though. The boat trip was good, we were served more food than we could eat (which was very tasty) and were able to get out onto the kayaks so we could see the limestone towers more closely.
I’m glad we chose Bai Tu Long Bay over Halong Bay, but honestly I don’t think either is worth the money. The areas are not pristine and you are charged a lot of money to see them, none of this money seems to be invested into the protection of the bays, despite the future of their businesses depending on this.
That wraps up our final week in Vietnam. We had to alter our plans at the last minute to avoid the terrible weather in the mountains. This meant we had to skip the Ha Giang loop, something we had been looking forward too. But we then were able to go to Mai Châu which we’re so grateful for as the beauty in that valley is not to be missed.
Vietnam is a beautiful country with delicious food and wonderful people. We are sad to leave but excited to be back on the beaches!