Four’s a Charm – Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, & Sa Pa, Vietnam

Anthony Bourdain says that Vietnam is one of his favourite places on earth, and it only takes a few minutes in Hanoi to understand why. The Vietnamese capital is instantly likable.  Its bristling with life and energy, and after only a few short minutes wandering the Old Town we were hooked, and not intending to sound like a cheesy guidebook but accepting that we do, we were hopelessly infatuated.  Its impossible not to be.  The architecture, the food, and the sheer number of people out on the street working, shouting and selling everything you can imagine.  Its exactly what we hoped Vietnam would be like, but at the same time its something completely unlike anywhere either of us have ever been.

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The streets of the Old Town are loud and chaotic, beautiful and engaging. The complete disrespect of sidewalks is continued from other Asian countries, which makes walking both frustrating and fun
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Hanoi is filled with greenery and great public spaces.  And the locals take advantage, seemingly spending all of their free time outside.  On weekends a number of major streets in the Old Town are closed to vehicles and turned into fantastic walking areas.

We have been looking forward to arriving in Hanoi for a while, as the plan was for Doug’s sister Heather and her boyfriend Kieran join us for a little over a week.  It was wonderful to see familiar faces, and to be able to share adventures with them. That in itself has made our experiences much more special, when there are others who can reminisce with you, and add further layers to the experience.  Witnessing their sensory overload as they transitioned from the world of Saudi Arabia to the intensity and organized chaos of Hanoi was interesting. For all of the content of this blog, we traveled with Heather and Kieran.  They may even make an appearance on the blog as a “guest blogger” once they get back to Saudi Arabia.

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Many buildings in the Old Town are covered with vegetation, giving the area a remarkably natural feel.
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It would be temping to call this an alley, but it has a much action as a regular street.  Scooters, bicycles, even small cars, if you can believe it.  People selling everything you can imagine.  Doors opening into people’s living rooms, people butchering meat on the street, and best of all nearly no tourists.  This is west of the Old Town, but we don’t know the name of the neighborhood.
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We stumbled on a random tug-of-war in the street.  With our Canadian/English contingent joining this team, its no surprise we crushed the other team.
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This lake, just west of the Old Town, has the wreckage of a B-52 bomber that was shot down in 1972 by the North Vietnamese army.  It has been left as a kind of monument to the North’s victory.
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The Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the famous communist revolutionary leader.  The line to see his body, which was embalmed and set on display, was very long.

We were so looking forward to the food in Vietnam.  We’ve eaten some great food so far on this trip, but after 105 days on the move we have learned that much of the foods throughout Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and to a lesser degree Burma, are very similar.  But Vietnam has some different offerings, including the famous Banh Mi sandwiches and of course pho soup.


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“This is the way so many great meals in my life have been enjoyed: sitting in the street, eating something out of a bowl that I’m not exactly sure what it is, scooters going by.  Its so delicious…”  – Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown
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At the stall above we had Bun Oc, which is essentially a broth-based soup with rice noodles, together with a variety of vegetables and meats. ‘Bun’ means noodles, and ‘oc’ means snails, both large-more meaty in flavour- and small-more sour in flavour- varieties of snails. Squeeze in the kumquat, add in some chili paste and fish sauce to your liking, mix it all together and you get something that is impossible to describe.  There are so many flavours, and it all just works.
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$1.50 for a pork Banh Mi.  Take a crusty French style bun and fill it with bbq pork, pork pate, carrots, cucumbers, cilantro (lots of it) and of course spicy chili sauce.  It may not look like much, but after your first bite it is immediately apparent that you should have ordered two.  Its a mistake you won’t make again.
Waiting for our Banh Mi.
Pho Ga, which is Pho soup with chicken.  It doesn’t look like much, but it is packed with flavours.  Ginger, green onions, cilantro, chicken broth, black pepper.  Mix in some hot chili sauce and you’re good to go.

After a few days being immersed in Hanoi, we headed east to the touristy but beautiful Ha Long Bay.  This coastal region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, well known for its stunning karst topography which creates hundreds of individual islands towering out of the South China Sea.

Eager to head out by boat to explore Ha Long Bay.

Our time in Ha Long Bay was a rather mixed experience.  In the interest of time and cramming in as much in as possible, we opted to take a 3 day, 2 night organized tour.  The tour was to have 1 night sleeping on a boat, followed by a second night in private bungalows.  We thought we’d paid a bit of a premium to get a tour that would be a little nicer and less focused on partying.  But that wasn’t exactly what we ended up with.  As is the frustrating norm in Asia, no one seemed interested in explaining where we were going, at what time we would leave or arrive, or even what we were doing at that moment.

We also learned an annoying habit the Vietnamese people have for dealing with tourists.  When they don’t like what you are saying, for example if you are explaining that your Long Island iced tea actually tastes like gasoline, they simply pretend not to speak any English and eventually walk away.  But when it is time to pay, they speak remarkably good English.

There is an element of control lost when you take a package of someone else’s organizing, so its good to expect the unexpected.  The views, sea kayaking, and random squid fishing more than made up for any confusion. No squid were caught in the end, but Doug almost had 3 fish, if only they wouldn’t jump out of the net. It’s like they knew!

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The boat tour was not well organized, and its safe to say that the quality level of the boat wasn’t what we were told when we bought the tickets.  Once the boat anchored for the night, this very same top deck turned into a dance floor, filled with drunken 18-20 year olds enjoying the free “vodka” (water? served from random water bottles) and keg beer which they couldn’t figure out how to tap.  But that view is just incredible.

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All the frustrations in mind, its hard to argue with the amazing views. 

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The view over La Han bay at sunset. Our guide told us it was ‘a nice hike’- it is actually a test of rock-climbing skills, not suited for our flip-flops.
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We saw a horseshoe crab in a fish tank at a restaurant.  People eat these things?  Who knew.  Horseshoe crabs are one of the oldest species on the planet.  Very cool to see up close and personal.

We left Ha Long Bay with mixed emotions, trying to focus on the amazing scenery and to forget the challenges of our “organized” tour. In keeping with our relentless pace, we returned to Hanoi at 6pm and boarded an overnight train for Sa Pa at 9pm.  Sa Pa (or Sapa, one word) is a mountain town located northwest of Hanoi, very close to the Chinese border.  At an elevation of 1500m, Sa Pa is populated by hill tribe peoples who still maintain a traditional and largely agrarian way of life.

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Our 4- bed cabin on the overnight train. Surprisingly, the bunks just barely fit someone who is just over 6 foot tall.
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One of the main streets in Sa Pa.  Its a great little town, even though it doesn’t offer much to see.  But you don’t really come here for the town. You come here for the incredible mountains and valleys in the surrounding area.
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Catholic churches are quite common in Vietnam, probably thanks to the many years of occupation by the French.  This one in the centre of Sa Pa gives the town square a very South American feel to it.

We went to Sa Pa to take a 2-day trek, which would include an overnight homestay in a small village.  After our experience with the organized tour of Ha Long Bay, its safe to say that our expectations for this organized trek were pretty low.  Sometimes its nice to be wrong!  The trek was incredible, and we had a fantastic guide.

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Eager faces, at the start of the trek.  Our trekking group had 10 people in total.
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The view from Sa Pa. We wondered if it is ever sunny here.  The clouds just seem more natural than blue sky.
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The first day’s trek was about 12km long, working our way down in altitude from Sa Pa and into a valley filled with rice terraces as far as the eye can see.
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The local hill tribe villagers dress in beautiful colours that are something you’d maybe expect to see in the Andes, rather than Southeast Asia.  The babies get these fantastic hats, and are carried around in special backpacks.
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Thousands of terraces, each with water flowing through them and then into the next one down, and so on until reaching the river in the valley floor.
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The valley floor, with one of the hill tribe villages in the distance.
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Growing rice is hard work.  Despite this photo, most of the people we saw working the fields were men.  The women seemed to all be involved in the trekking industry, guiding tourists and selling them various handicrafts.

The Sa Pa trek was a highlight of Vietnam so far, and one of the best things we have done on our entire trip.  We are so glad we got to share it with Heather and Kieran.

It was hard to say goodbye to Heather and Kieran, as we had gotten used to having them as traveling partners.  We are so happy they were able to come and join us, as they got a little preview of South East Asia before moving to this part of the world next year.

To finish off this post, a few random pictures which didn’t quite fit into the narrative anywhere else.

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We hadn’t realized that our boots might be hard to use.
“Hey, where did you get your hair cut?”   “Oh you know, dat hair salon”.
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Harry Potter themed restaurant in Hanoi.  The Butter Beer didn’t have any beer in it, much to our disappointment. It was actually a Coke float, with whip cream instead of ice cream.  But it did have wands, swords, and a sorting hat.  Kieran asked the hat to be sorted into Slytherin.
Its a little hard to see, but this is our view of game 3 of the Oilers vs. Sharks.  We sat in a local coffee shop and watched the game.  The Oilers had just scored in the 3rd period, and went on to win the game, hence the thumbs up.

Our 1st week in Vietnam has been a whirlwind, full of striking scenery, delicious food and the hectic but intriguing feel of being in Asia that is difficult to put into words. We have especially loved travelling with more than just us, it really does enhance the dynamic of what we see and do…if anyone wants to join us, we plan to land in Sri Lanka around the end of July! We’d love for you to join us any time, but we are specifically listing Sri Lanka for a few reasons.  Its relatively cheap to fly from Canada, July is far ahead enough you can get a ticket still, and everyone we’ve met who has been there has absolutely loved it. Apparently its like India without the hassles.

  • Doug and Emily / April 18, 2017 / Hanoi, Vietnam @ Cong Caphe / 1:42 pm

2 thoughts on “Four’s a Charm – Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, & Sa Pa, Vietnam

  1. Sounds like you guys are having a fantastic time and lovely to see photos of your visitors – keep having fun guys xxx


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