Trekking In Northern Vietnam
Compared to the first half of the voyage, the second half is flying by. Rather than the longer crossings between ports, like the 12 days in between South Africa and India, or the eight(ish) days between Spain and Ghana, we now have only had four of five days in between each country. From India to Myanmar and from Myanmar to Vietnam. And later from Vietnam to China and then China to Japan, which is only two days in between! This means that our time on the ship goes by like nothing, and then our time in five or so days in country go by as quick as always. That means that ten days feels more like just a few days. As I write this, we are just leaving Ho Chi Minh City and are heading to China, which means that we only have two countries remaining on this voyage (China and Japan)!
This was our second time in Vietnam, the last being in 2014 when we traveled for about three weeks from the north in Hanoi to the south in Ho Chi Minh City. I was offered to be the Trip Liaison on the field program to Sa Pa, Vietnam, located all the way to the north and near the border with China. I was especially excited about this field program because Sa Pa was one place that we didn’t make it to in 2014 because it is so far north.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City
Arriving to Ho Chi Minh City by ship was especially unique because of the journey we made up the river. At 7AM, the pilot got on board, at the same time that we could start to see mountains along the coast of southern Vietnam. We worked pararalel to the land for 20-30 minutes; meanwhile, we saw views into these towns. A large statue of Christ on top of a mountain overlooking the sea (very similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and a large monument of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. It seemed that this part of Vietnam, along the coast, was a large Christian community.
We finally found the mouth of the Song Soai river and then began working our way upstream. This part reminded me a bit of taking a boat along the Mississippi River in summer – greenery lined the bends of the majestic river with little development along it. Rather than barges, many cargo and tanker ships were coming up and down the river.
My field program to Sa Pa was the first group to leave the ship so that we could make our 3:30PM flight. Because of this, I was packing frantically as we got closer in order to be ready to go (should’ve done it the night before!). However, I was able to take in some of the views as the ship passed highrise apartments, fishing boats, oil tanks on the coast, and passed under a large bridge. Before we even knew it, we had arrived and started unloading.
Our Field Program involved quite a bit of travel, but it was an adventure. We took a bus to the airport (45 minutes), a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi (2 hours), had dinner in Hanoi, took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (8 hours), took a bus from Lao Cai to Sa Pa (1.5 hours), had breakfast and freshened up at a hotel, and then a bus from Sa Pa to an Eco Lodge in the mountains (1.5 hours), where we started our trekking.
Trekking in Sa Pa
The hotel in Sa Pa was called the Tubehotel, a trendy and unique hotel with a type of “tube” rooms. The rooms were individual rooms in the shape of cylinders on their sides. They had two small beds and a bathroom, very simple. The peaceful and relaxing environment is what really made it the perfect place. We overlooked the town of Sa Pa and the surrounding mountains of northern Vietnam. We would’ve stayed there all day if it was in the itinerary. Our breakfast there was pho (pronounced “fah”, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup) and Vietnamese coffee. I love the coffee in Vietnam; it’s strong and served with condensed milk, giving it a unique flavor. Just like in 2014, I indulged in the coffee.
After the hour and a half bus ride further, with a few stops at observation points, we started trekking. Immediately, it was incredibly beautiful. Dramatic mountains filled the sky in the distance. Terraces are carved into the green hillsides to form rice paddies, a way to catch rainwater rushing down from the mountains to let the rice crops soak it all up. A few streams and waterfalls could be seen in the distance. We could almost always see water buffalo in the distance, as they grazed in the rice paddies to find whatever leftovers they could after the harvest in September. Lucky for us, the 60 degrees and rain that was expected actually turned out to be low 80s and sunny for two full days of hiking.
We walked through several small villages made up of various ethnic groups. In Vietnam, there are 54 different ethnic groups, including the Viet (the majority ethnic group). We walked through villages of the Red Dzao people (known for the red head scarves worn by the women), Tay people, and Black Hmong people (Hmong people known for their black clothes). These villages have lived close by each other for years upon years. Some do allow marriages between ethnic groups and villages while others do not. They have kept their local languages, and Vietnamese is taught in schools as a second language. And the architecture of the houses is different in each culture.
The trekking was difficult but not too strenuous. We started up high on a mountain, so most of the first half of the day was flat or descending. We were prepared so much for the cold that some didn’t pack lighter clothes, so some were overheating. As part of the tour, we had our Tour Director (Thoi), a Local Guide (Niem), and three porters carrying food and water. The porters were champions, carrying bottles of water and food for almost 20 people, up and down these mountains. Along the way, we also stopped at a few lookout points to see the valley, the farms below, and the surrounding mountains.
On Day 1, we trekked from about 10AM to 1:30PM, had lunch from 1:30PM-2:30PM, and then trekked after that until about 4:30PM when we arrived at our homestay. Our homestay was in a Red Dzao village. The house was what they called a stilted house, a house with two levels. All 15 of us slept in the upper floor, an open floor where they had small mattresses laid out with sleeping bags and pillows, each underneath an individual mosquito net. The lower floor had two parts, the first is a common area where we ate dinner and the second a kitchen and living area of the host family. The host family certainly knew what we liked – they cooked a snack for us soon after arriving, and nit happened to be seasoned fries with ketchup. The village was very small with only a few stores and one primary school; I’d guess maybe 300 people lived there. Dinner was a feast, with white rice and five different dishes ranging from pork to chicken and beef, all with various vegetables. Also, fried spring rolls!
Most of our group was exhausted and went to bed immediately after dinner around 7:30PM. I’m pretty sure this was the earliest some had ever gone to bed. I was one of the last ones to bed around 9PM, a funny change compared to the ship life where most students stay up regularly until after midnight.
Visiting the Red Dzao School & More Trekking
At 5:50AM, the village loudspeaker started blaring with announcements in the Red Dzao language. I’m unsure if it was news, community events, or what it was, but it was a nice wake up call for most of us (others slept through it without a problem). Already awake, I went for a walk around the village but really didn’t find much except a small store to buy some small snacks. We were pleasantly surprised for breakfast. With tables set up outside on the concrete, we sipped on tea and coffee until they brought out something we certainly were not expecting, crepes! With bananas, honey, and sugar, we prepared for the day by eating as many crepes as possible. It was quite absurd how many the 15 of us ate. When it’s something we can’t get on the ship, it’s a luxury.
After breakfast, we packed up our bags and headed across the street to the primary school, the only school in the town. Each one of Semester at Sea’s Field Programs usually have some sort of community visit, either to an NGO or to a school. We had brought donations with us to give to this school from Semester at Sea; this included plenty of pens and pencils, notebooks, jump ropes, feminine products, soccer balls, and more. As small as it is to us, it can be a big difference in some communities.
When we arrived, the children brought out small plastic stools and organized into several perfect lines and took their seats. At first, the head of the school spoke, and then various students performed by singing and dancing. The performances were adorable, especially when one girl, probably 6 years old, would stop and look to her mother in the back. They seemed nervous, as would I, and their classmates seemed to enjoy it, as well.
After the performance, we had free time to try to get to know the kids, a bit of a challenge with the language barrier. Immediately, we threw the soccer balls to the ground and many of the kids started playing right away. A few of the kids taught me how to play a game they play with marbles. It’s essentially like bocce ball but will small marbles, and they flick the marbles. It’s funny how quickly kids go from being scared and shy to playing as if we knew them for years. Once they start, they don’t want to stop.
We spent about an hour at the school in total. After finishing up, we began our descent down through the rice paddies and to the valley. The hike was similar to the first day with stunning vistas of the green mountains, rice terraces, and water buffalo. This time, it was a bit more technical as we walked along a small concrete irrigation stream, which was about 10 inches wide. Walking from about 9:30AM until about 12:30PM, we finished up our hike at a house in a small village, where the guides and porters made lunch with the local family. Lunch was banh mi, sandwiches with baguettes as the bread and a smorgasbord of toppings. We had cheese, tomatoes, spam, salmon salad, omelet, and more. This large hunk of bread was exactly what we needed after some trekking.
The bus drove us an hour and a half back to Sa Pa, where we had about an hour of free time for shopping, exploring, whatever. Sa Pa is the hub for tourists coming to this region, so it was full of visitors (both Vietnamese and foreign), souvenir shops, cheap clothing stores, massage parlors, and restaurants. I went to a café which was recommended from the guide, and I ordered the Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk (of course). They brought it out in a fancy little mug that was hanging over a lit candle, a way to keep the coffee warm. I sat looking out at the main square enjoying this delicious drink and resting my legs.
Then began our journey back to Hanoi. We had time to clean up again at the Tubhotel, the unique hotel with the hotel rooms that seem like tiny homes. We then had a two-hour bus ride to Lao Cai, where we had dinner very near the train station. To understand how much some students miss the comforts of home, we had a large dinner in which all of us were pretty full; however, the option of burgers and fries and pizzas was too much, so many ordered these to go and ate them on the train just a few hours later.
We took the same overnight train back to Hanoi from Lao Cai, and then a bus transferred us to a nice hotel in Hanoi to freshen up and rest. We arrived around 5:30AM and needed to be ready to go at 8:30AM, and that included time to eat breakfast at the buffet in the hotel. When everyone else went up to nap for a few hours, I decided that I only had a limited amount of time in Hanoi, so I should make the most of it. I showered and then went on my way to walk around Hanoi as the city awakened.
I located where the hotel was in relation to the part of the city I already knew, and I realized it was only a 15 minute walk to get to the Turtle Lake, a place and area in which Chika and I had spent so much time when we visited in 2014. When we first visited, I really enjoyed being in Hanoi. I went back and read the blog from over three years ago, and I raved about it. When the city was waking up, I quickly remembered why. The mix of architecture, where every building is different from the one on its left and its right, which French influenced styles. The buzz of the motorbikes cruising through the intersections. The vendors set up along the street with selling anything from fruits and vegetables to pho. I arrived to Hoàn Kiếm Lake and quickly remembered the place. Even at 6:15AM, the park around the lake was filled with people exercising. Stretches, dance classes, badminton. It was a lively park for that early in the morning!
The buffet breakfast at the hotel was perfect, a mix of Vietnamese, Western, and other. Sushi, buttery garlic bread, fried rice, bacon, croissants, and black coffee. It was exactly what I needed!
Our guide gave us a tour of the city throughout the rest of the morning. We went to the Ethnography Museum, a museum highlighting the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. We then went to the Hoa Lo Prisoner, also known sarcastically as the Hanoi Hilton; this is where John McCain and many other American pilots were imprisoned after being shot down. And we ended with a quick walking tour of the Old Quarter, where the street names are literally what businesses used to line these streets. There is a Chicken Street, a Blacksmith Street, a Chinese Herbs Street, etc. While these streets aren’t any longer exclusive to these industries, many of these businesses are still here.
Another fantastic lunch at a fancier hotel, a normal occurrence on SAS trips, and then we headed to the airport. Our four days were action packed with a good mix of hiking and city exploration. Sa Pa was even more beautiful than I expected, and visiting Hanoi again made me remember exactly why I liked it so much. Before we knew it, we were back home at the ship in Ho Chi Minh City, when we had just one day to explore before departing from Vietnam