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You are planning a trip to Vietnam and are having difficulties deciding where to go and what to do, what you cannot miss and what to skip. From the feedbacks of our customers, Tailormade Vietnam Holidays would like to recommend some activities considered by travellers as must-do's when you are in Vietnam....

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Sapa and Halong in the mist


We have spent the last few days in Halong Bay, in the NE corner of Vietnam, followed by Sapa in the northern highlands just minutes away from the Chinese border. Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage Protected Area. Local legend tells of a giant dragon that came down from the mainland and into the water, and as he went the land at the edges sank and his flailing tail left behind the 1,969 islands now in the bay which jut out of the water.We began our 3.5 hour journey at 8 am in an overcrowded minibus to Halong City to catch what was known as our "Junk" boat. We sat beside the loveliest Vietnamese man, aged 20 and having saved up, was taking his mom and little sister to Cat Ba Island overnight as they were visiting from down south. He told me how a Vietnamese person had to save to even go out to a restaurant, so this was quite an event for the three of them. He also told us how he'd never been anywhere outside Hanoi, and how one day he would like to go overseas to work and maybe travel. He was such a hopeful and ambitious person, we gave him as much information as we could on where we'd lived and been should he realize his dream.

We arrived at the docks to utter chaos and got pawned off from one person to another to another to take us to our boat. Eventually, we arrived at the "Imperial Junk". The boat was fantastic and romantic, and with a limit of only 20 people on the boat we got our little overnight room and headed to the top deck to catch the views. However, getting out of the harbour was another matter... bumper boats at the amusement park, as Scott called it. These large boats block each other in, and they literally smash the crap out of each other to push out into open water. Madness! And they don't sink, there must be something special in that wood use for the hulls! We bumped and zigzagged and pushed our way out as the most amazing women on little row boats chased the larger ones, like ours, to sell them goods. These women were incredible maneuvering their little row boats while standing and straddling their boat and the large junks while making a sale. ANYTHING, including the doing the splits, to make a sale. Such marvelous and strong women, we were blown away by their stamina.

Our trip out to, and in amongst Halong Bay was more than we had imagined. Cliff faces punch out of the water all around you creating a labyrinth of jutted rock islands pocked with caves and the occasional sandy beach. Enormous hawks circle overhead repeatedly looking for fish which they then swoop to the water for and attempt to catch in their giant claws. The waters are calm and smooth, and the haziness made the islands further away look like they were behind increasing layers of veils. 

After visiting some sprawling cliffside caves on foot we arrived at our docking point to go kayaking amongst the islands and into caves, something I desperately wanted to do! Scott, myself and two guys from Spain headed to the kayaks to be given oversized lifejackets that didn't close and kayak paddles held together with duct tape. Go the duct tape! It fixes ANY problem, just ask Red Green (the Canadians understand this reference). I searched through the pile of jackets for any that resembled something that actually floated to be told by a guide, "It's ok, fine, fine, fine, you fall in the water you just scream". No, no, no! We can swim, swim, swim but could still drown, drown, drown! He wasn't kidding though, so off we went, giant lifejackets and all. We kayaked for just under two hours and enjoyed every minute. We went through caves that led into coves that could be cut off during high tide. Scott and I found ourselves talking about where we would camp out for the night if a king tide were to suddenly swoop in! We saw a little sandy spot with a skinny, leafless tree, and decided that would be the hypothetical spot. Alas, no such thing happened of course, and we kayaked back out. Having done that we were up for a bigger, or should I say, smaller challenge. We found the smallest cave passage we could and sardined ourselves through the small hole with success! We had to suck in our breath and hold our paddles lengthwise, but how funny was it! High fives all around. Back to our Imperial Junk we went to watch the golden sunset and have some dinner.

Our plan had been to retire to our cozy boat room early, do a little reading, have a shower when all of a sudden the walls began to shake and rumble and we heard screaming: karaoke had begun at full volume. Out of our room we went to listen to the badly sung drunken ballads ranging from Lionel Ritchie to Abba. Other neighbouring boats became jealous and suddenly 4 Australians rowed over from their junk boat to join our obnoxious karaoke party! It was such a fun night, not the early night we had planned, but really funny nonetheless. A guy on our boat, just a little bit outgoing and named Daniel became our MC for the night and kept coming out with ripper jokes, such as "So let's talk about what we did today... I went swimming in some faeces..." (we all die with laughter), "don't tell me you didn't see the faeces too!" You see, despite its world heritage status, the people of Halong Bay, as is the case with most of Vietnam, throw everything outside, or in this case overboard. EVERYTHING. Earlier, while kayaking we had passed by numerous floating plastic bags and pulled them out of the water and shoved them in the kayak. As yet, there just seems to be no education or awareness about protecting and keeping clean wild places, or even the urban spaces they live in.

After breakfast the next morning we sailed back to the mainland again, fortunate enough to see Halong in a different light of day and in slightly clearer conditions. We spent our 3 hour ride back to Hanoi cramped with the 2 Spanish guys at the very back of the minibus where they drew us a map and plan of action on how to tackle Spain when we get there, and we wrote for them what they should do in Australia, as that is their January destination. They also taught me how to swear in Spanish as I explained to them I had the innocent vocabulary of an 8 year old. I feel so much more grown up now!

That night, on the sleeper train, and in a compartment we shared with a snoring German man, we moved onto our next port of call, Sapa. Sapa was originally a hill station for the French and is now a beautiful little mountaintop town where many hill tribe villagers, primarily women such as the H'mong, Dzai and Red Dzao trek daily to sell their goods, mainly blankets and bags which they ornately hand- embroider. The hill tribe people are beautiful in every way, from their colourful traditional dress which they continue to wear daily, to their kind, warm smiles. They are also incredibly demanding: but with a giggle and a smile. Our path was regularly blocked by one woman or another opening her handmade blankets in front of us with the question/statement "You buy from me!?" Their voices slightly lilt up at the end to imply a question, but their assertiveness implies a demand. They also say it perfectly in French, same inflection: "Achetez de moi!?" We met with a young lady named Shol, aged 17 (I am inventing the spelling, this is how it sounded) who hooked her arm around mine and followed us through the town, chattering away about her ten brothers and sisters and how many did I have? Did I have babies? How old are my mom and dad? Remember that these women learn English from tourists, so their ability to speak it so efficiently is from hearing it alone. They are SO intelligent. Obviously Shol managed to sell me a bracelet I do NOT need, but after our thirty minute chat and walk through the town I had to give her the sale. She smiled warmly, laughed and grabbed both our hands and kissed them to say goodbye. Beautiful girl.

Our 13 km day trek from Sapa was a colossal highlight of this trip. We met our 19 year old H'mong guide Chan (pronounced more like Jane) and set off on our trip, followed by two additional H'mong women who were trying to sell us their bags and bracelets. The scenery was outstanding, and as we wound down away from Sapa we were able to take in a view of the entire town. The first half of our trek was simple and downhill through valleys and hills infinitely terraced with rice fields. The fog rolled in and out throughout our trek, and every turn around each corner revealed a new vista. We chatted to Chan about everything from the environment around us (apparently it's incredibly green around July) to their education (children go to school from the age of 8 to 16, only primary is free, and high school has to be paid for) to being a H'mong female. Most of her friends, as is standard, have children by the time they are 16. In the past generations 10 children was not uncommon, but things are changing and 4 is now more the norm. Generally speaking, a girl is now allowed to choose her husband, family approved of course, but if she does not marry by the age of 21 is considered and old woman! I asked 19 year old Chan if she was married with children, and she replied "Nah, I don't want to get married, I have things I want to do, I don't care what they think". Now there is a tough young woman! In her intimate village of 800 that must be a slight stigma to overcome... but no matter, she will do what she will do. Good for her! And her English was impeccable, again, learnt only from listening to tourists. She is brilliant! And does 13 km treks everyday! Can you tell we were impressed by her?!

The second half of our trek was a true trek indeed. We mucked our way through steep hills and rivers and mud and boulders, still followed by the other 2 women, who at half our size (literally) and wearing their traditional skirts with little sandals or no shoes at all, would offer us their tiny hand to help us get through tricky spots. We saw women doing the trek back to their village with their babies strapped on their back, as if they were taking a Sunday morning stroll along a paved path. They never set a foot wrong, and they were phenomenally strong. The 2 women also bequeathed us with handmade presents they made along the way from the vegetation along the path. We were given horse figures woven out of grass, head wreaths made out of ferns and flowers which they placed on our heads... as we overheard one woman doing the trek, we became human wall hangings. In total we saw two villages along the way, Lao Chai, which was Chan's village where Black H'mong people live, and Ta Van with a large population of 3000 where the Dzay people live. Villagers all speak Vietnamese, but when in their villages they speak their own dialect which generally only they can understand. We did make a purchase at the Dzay village and the gorgeous old lady that sold us the item and a little girl (her granddaughter?) agreed to have a photo taken with us. They really like Canadians as there is a Canadian man that lives in Hanoi but has developed a close relationship with the hill tribe villagers and comes every couple of weeks to visit them. He has even spent their new year with them dressed in their traditional dress, which as Chan described looked ridiculous, but they liked it and found it hilarious nonetheless

Individually, and the following day, we also walked to Cat Cat another H'mong village where we were greeted by a stunning waterfall and a lady selling rice inside bamboo which she heated over a coal pit, absolutely delicious and a great snack after our second mini trek.

Since we were such trampers in Sapa we rewarded ourselves daily by going to Baguette et Chocolat, a community project restaurant that hires and trains disadvantaged Vietnamese youth in the hospitality industry. The hot chocolate (that I spiked with rum): OHMYGAWD! Delicious. The pain au chocolat: WOWWWW! The waffle with banana and chocolate: WOO HOO! Definitely a worthy and deserved treat to go there.

Overall the contrast of the calmness of Halong Bay and the activity and life of Sapa perfectly rounded out our first week in Vietnam, and both were unforgettable experiences.

Canaussie rating
Halong Bay overnight cruise: 5, so glad we didn't do the run of the mill day trip but stayed overnight
Sapa trekking: 5
Rice in bamboo: 5, very yummy too when dipped in crushed peanuts provided
Baguette et Chocolat: 5!
Kayaking in Halong Bay: 5
So many 5's this time....



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