While in Bangkok we were told by a fellow traveller that the Ha Noi Backpackers Hostel was the single best hostel he had ever stayed at (he had been backpacking for 5 months at this point) so we figured it was worth ditching our previously booked reservations at another hostel to check out what all the hype was about. One very important thing he failed to mention: there are actually two hostels with that name in Ha Noi, the original and a new one. Guess which one we had the pleasure of staying at?
Despite this slight misstep, I really enjoyed our first couple days in the capital of Vietnam. We made some first-rate friends at our second-rate hostel and enjoyed many a 5,000 dong (about 25 cents) beer that first night in Ha Noi. This was followed by a less than stellar morning, but we pulled ourselves together and made it to the Temple of Literature that afternoon. I would describe this as a better version of Confucious’ Temple that we saw in Beijing: some beautiful gardens, information about Confucious and his teachings, and a temple for worship. Neat stuff for sure.
And now for another story about eating odd things! This one is a little more aggressive than the dessert scorpions, so be forewarned. In addition to telling us about the ‘best hostel ever’, our friend from Bangkok also told us about a little place called Snake Village, and this time we were very happy for his advice. After a 15 minute drive out of the city we arrived at what looked like an outdoor restaurant, complete with bridges over water and a snake hutch. Said hutch was promptly opened and we were handed a meter long snake to play and pose with. Content with our photos, we were then asked if we would like to have a traditional snake feast, and for obvious reasons agreed. Seated comfortably around one of the tables nearby, we took a couple more pictures while two gentlemen came over with a very sharp looking knife. Though we weren’t exactly sure what was about to happen, we knew it wasn’t going to be good for our new reptilian friend. Sure enough, Derek was beckoned over, handed the knife and instructed to slit open the snake while the guys held it from each end. With great gusto he did just this and more; leaning down, ripping out the heart and eating it! Care for a delightfully squeamish fact? He says he could still feel it beating as he was chewing. Yum! What followed was actually delicious, though. A six course meal consisting of snake meatballs, snake spring rolls, fried snake skin, baked snake, breadcrumbs with snake rib bones, and fried rice. Feeling thoroughly cultured, we headed back to Ha Noi to catch our night train to Sapa.
My first time travelling on a train went without a hitch (only one cockroach!) and we arrived in the small mountain town around 8 that morning. One quick breakfast and planning session later and we were all ready to head to Fansipan for a two day hike. Starting at 2,000 m, the game plan for the trek was hike to 2,200 m for lunch and then continue on to 2,800 m where we would stop and camp overnight. The next morning we’d head up to the peak at 3,143 m (tallest in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos!) before heading back down. Now, 800 m of vertical in a day may not seem that difficult, but I can assure you that this was most definitely not the case. After a strong start, a great lunch and some amazing views we started up the tricky bit. Of the two hours it took us to hike from the lunch point to our camp, I swear I spent a good hour scrambling up giant boulders that were pretty darn close 90 degrees. The best part about this was while I was huffing and puffing (but never stopping! One step at a time became my official mantra), our guide and porter trekked along with ease, all the while carrying huge loads and wearing flip flops! A running joke over the two days was for us to ask our guide Sal if he was tired, because every single time he would laugh and answer with a resounding no.
After three and a half hours (but what felt like a lifetime) we finally made it to our camp, two tin shelters that we would hopefully be able to sleep in. Our porter had carried us up sleeping bags (that didn’t zip up), and there were ‘matts’, but even with these it was a very long, cold and uncomfortable night. And we saw a rat in the hut. One of the few times I’ve been stoked to get up at 6am, only because this meant that the night was over. We were moving up the mountain before 7 and made it to the peak an hour and a half later. The view from the top made every painful vertical step and every uncomfortable minute from the night before totally worth it. Managed to take some incredible pictures, but like so many things I’ve experienced on this trip so far, nothing compares to seeing it for yourself. Knowing all that it took to get there was a pretty awesome feeling as well.
Making it down was relatively painless, only a slight slip or two to speak of, though my legs and especially my knees were killing me mere hours after our descent. Hadn’t had that much of a work out in quite some time, and I sure felt it. That night was one of the best sleeps I feel I’ve ever had, and certainly a nice change from our previous nights conditions. The next morning I woke up early yet again to check out the local Bac Ha Market and a lovely, relaxing day followed. I only got ripped off once, quickly realizing that everything for sale was worth much less than the quoted price. Walked away with a neon scarf, two silver bangles and a sick necklace. Another night train and we were back in Ha Noi, though not for long.
A mere hour after arriving back, we grabbed our packs and jumped on a three hour bus headed to Halong Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world. We had signed up for a three day, two night cruise, with one night on our boat and one at a resort on Monkey Island. Couldn’t have been happier with our choice. We started with lunch on the boat and got aquatinted with our new roommates (boatmates?) before heading to one of the volcanic islands to see some caves. Pretty cool, but would have been more so if there weren’t a bunch of brightly coloured lights littering it. Kayaking was the next item on the docket and was a very relaxing way of seeing some of the bay. There were a couple of fruit vendors surrounding the kayaking dock and I got introduced to a variety of exotic fruit courtesy of one of my boatmates. Custard apples, mangosteen and rambutan- odd names, odd looks, but utterly delicious. Lounged into the evening and after dinner participated in a pretty epic karaoke battle. Simon and I were the only ones to get 100%; we did an emotional cover of what else, but Oasis’ Wonderwall.
The next day we cruised to another island and did a small hike to one of the incredible volcanic peaks. I was of the mindset that after Fansipan, anything else would be child’s play, but with the heat and humidity by the water this hike was not easy. Amazing views from the top and before we knew it we were headed down to another boat. Choppy waters made for an interesting ride, but we managed to make it to Monkey Island without any real problems. This was where the real fun started. We checked into our bungalows and then made another slight trek to go see some of the monkeys that gave the island it’s name. Rather entertaining seeing the younger ones jump around while the older (and much fatter) ones just sat there. After monkeys came an epic game of beach volleyball with three awesome people from our tour. I forgot how much I missed playing triples in the sand! We played until the sun started to set and then finished off with a swim in the ocean to cool off- truly awesome. After a great buffet dinner we settled down to play some games, and were introduced to the strategy game Mafia by three Aussies. We all got the hang of it pretty quick and played for a couple of hilarious hours. The people we met on this trip were awesome, a mix from Australia, the UK, Switzerland, and of course Canada. As a wrap up and goodbye we ended up playing Mafia for a bit in the morning and then for the whole bus ride home, or 7 hours total. I told you they were great people!
A couple more uneventful nights in Ha Noi (at the NEW Backpackers Hostel this time), and we were on our way to the next stop: Ninh Binh.