After doing the circular tour of the South of Vietnam, I crossed over to Cambodia on a boat via the Mekong Delta and then it was time to head back to see the rest of Vietnam.
I flew into Da Nang airport from Siem Reap. I spent 2 nights at Hachi Hostel and walked around and across the various, creative and colourful bridges in town, down to the sea.
This was the main reason why I wanted to visit central Vietnam and oh did it live up to the expectations!
After SaPa (more details later) I think this is my favourite place in Vietnam. The colourful lanters of Hoi An are the touristic cliche of the place, but walking through the old quarters of Hoi An at night with various dimly lit lanterns all around, sure is a pleasant sight.
My favourite day in Hoi An however was the day I took a cooking lesson in Tra Que Village. (I'm so gutted I forgot his name, but I hope to manage to add that later.) For the same price of a cooking lesson in the centre, the chef himself picked us up. Then we rode into the fields to see a herb garden, we rode a buffalo and crossed the water and we went to the market to buy what we needed. Then when we reached his house by the river, we went for a ride on the local fishing boats - those I love to call the giant bowls and started cooking.
We made a mango salad, learnt how to make spring rolls and also a decorative rose made out of tomato skin. A great day indeed!
As with Na Thrang in my South of Vietnam article, I wouldn't bother visiting Hue. Again, it could be that I was tired of travelling and that my lack of affinity with the city like places, and my preference to nature, I left quickly, so I might not have given it a chance. Apparently there's a nice palace, but I didn't go.
Having said this, the train ride from Da Nang to Hue is as spectacular as they say - sitting in a train perching on a cliff over scenic beaches, is definitely worth the ride.
From Hue I opted for a direct flight into Hanoi - I had researched a bit about buses and even though I had previously taken long distance buses, these seemed to be a little more on the dangerous side from the reviews. I didn't try myself, so I can't really tell you, but that's why I took the flight.
Once in Hanoi, I walked through it's narrow, shop cluttered streets down to the lake and found a place which sold good, cheap ice cream beside it. A great relief from the incredible heat of the city. The bikes here are a little over crowding too, but nothing like the chaos of Ho Chi Minh.
The people of Hanoi, felt more Vietnamese to me - no mini skirt, high heeled girls that seem to be living in the Southeast Asian version of New York. In their defense, I had just been in India and Nepal for 5 months - were girls are very reserved and cover their legs and their shoulders at all times. So I might have been biased.
More about the South of Vietnam here
By far, my favourite place in Vietnam.
After a 5 hour bus ride from Hanoi, I got off the bus and was greeted by a group of various women in their local clothes, offering home stays and treks. I was not in the mood to start negotiating, so I just started walking up, across the village towards the valley.
One of these women, walked with me, even though I told her I had already booked my first night. At first I thought she was a little persistent, then I realized - she was just walking me to the hostel I had booked. Her name was Sumi, and she turned into a friend.
After very kindly showing me the way to my hostel, she also taught me how to ask for vegetarian food and how to tell the women, who kept trying to sell stuff, how to kindly say that I wasn't interested.
When my friend from Malta joined me, Sumi organized for us 2 wonderful trekking days - one to her village and another on the other side of Sa Pa.
See, Sa Pa borders with China, and people like Sumi, pertaining to the traditional tribes, still live in villages and maintain the same customs of their ancestors. They don't even consider themselves as Vietnamese. As Elizabeth Gilbert, very well described them - "To understand the unlikelihood of the Hmong's (Sumi's tribe) continued existence on this planet you have to imagine what it would be like if, for instance, if the Mohawk were still living in upstate New York exactly as they had for centuries, dressing in traditional clothing, speaking their own language, and absolutely refusing to assimilate."
The walk up the mountains towards the village was a bit challenging, but the walk down was surely pleasant among the green landscape and the waterfalls. What's more we were lucky to be there during the rice harvest - so the fields were beautifully green and yellow!
We had a couple of interesting conversations with Sumi, about village life, children, pregnancy and birth and marriage. They're a little deep to delve in, but hopefully one day I'll get to write about them.
In any way - if you do go to Sapa, look out for her face, or ask other Hmong women for Sumi. She is as genuine and as knowledged as it comes - a great, interesting woman.
In between trek days with Sumi, my friend and I decided to take it easy and go to Fansipan Legend by cable car. It has broken 2 Guinness Records for being the longest and highest ascending cable car in the world, so I wouldn't suggest it to anyone who suffers from vertigo - what's more, at the very end of the ride, the car went right into the clouds and we couldn't enjoy the view from up there.
Then, this elderly woman motioned me towards her, pointed at a door, signalled steps and wrote 600 on her hand. I looked at my friend horrified - did she mean we had to go up that many steps to the top?! Good thing this was supposed to be our rest day in between treks! Well, all in all, we made it - in between stops on benches to gasp for oxygen and heavy feet, we made it.
The last spot on my bucket list for Vietnam was Halong Bay. We took the overnight bus from Sa Pa, which had to arrive to destination at about 5 in the morning and we thought we'd get breakfast and head to one of the islands immediately.
It didn't quite work that way - at about 2am, I realized our sleeper bus was reaching a lit town and slowing down - we had arrived 3 hours early and with no booking whatsoever! I asked the group of Spanish people who were with us on the bus if they had a hotel reservation. They did, so we stopped with them and asked the receptionist if they had space. We ended up in the dorm with travellers who weren't quite into our kind of travelling - I don't mean to sound like a snob here, I went through Vietnam in dorms, and apart from this one, they were all clean and the people sharing the dorm were very respectful of others sleeping - but this room reeked of alcohol, but oh well, at least we had a place to sleep in for a few hours.
In the early morning we headed immediately to an island near by Cat Ba Island.
Cat Ba Island
From the images of Halong Bay, I thought there were just 2 big rocks that everyone took a picture of, but it turned out, as we sailed into Cat Ba, that there were many such rocks, magnificent in their size and colour.
In the next days, we fought through the heat and walked up to Cannon Fort for the sunset, we went to the Hospital Cave, which was a good experience, after having visited the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh, in the South of Vietnam, to understand how the Vietcong worked during the conflict.
Something random happened to us while there, near the hospital cave, there's a natural reserve we wanted to visit, but due to rain (and we were visiting bang in the centre of the rainy season) they did not allow entrance. Don't ask me how a natural reserve park can be afraid of rain, but so it works.
On our last day, we took a tour over to Monkey Island. We sailed around, we kayaked, we had lunch on the boat and then spent some time on the island with the cheeky monkeys - quite touristy for a low-budget backpacker like me, but hey, it was the end of my trip and sometimes you gotta go for it.
And that's the end of my recount of how I toured around Vietnam. Please feel free to share comments below of how you did it!