Saturday, January 1, 2011

Halong Bay & Sapa excursions from Hanoi

After five nights in Hanoi, we decided to further explore northern Vietnam. We booked two excursions through the Hanoi Old Centre Hotel. The first, an overnight trip to Halong Bay, was operated by Halong Phoenix Cruiser. There are countless companies offering various package trips and it’s a daunting task to choose the “best” one. Our hotel, based on their connections with particular travel agencies, only offered itineraries on five different ships. They showed us fancy promotional books published by the tour companies so we could look at pictures of the boats and see what was included in the package price. Of course, I also looked online to read reviews of other companies & boats, but as there are so many and there isn’t one specific website that covers every boat, it quickly becomes overwhelming.

We eventually settled on the Halong Phoenix for $99 per person. That price included round-trip transfers from our Hanoi hotel, one bottle of water during the approximately 4 hour, 165km one way mini-bus ride from Hanoi to Halong City, tender to & from the ship, overnight accommodation on board the Halong Phoenix 1 in a private ensuite room, 2 lunches/1 dinner/1 breakfast, tour of Sung Sot cave, kayaking, trip to Ti Top Island, short cooking class on board the ship, complimentary glass of wine before dinner, welcome juice on arrival, and hot tea at breakfast. All other beverages cost extra and ranged from $1.50 for a small bottle of water to $4 for cocktails.

The minibus picked us up on time at 8am but we spent another hour driving around Hanoi to pick up people from other hotels. Then it was a fairly straight but slow drive along a two-lane road through small villages and agricultural land. Interestingly, the guide that accompanied us on the bus ride to Halong Bay chose to introduce himself by saying he was single and giving us details of his 3 failed relationships! There is only one scheduled pit stop at around the halfway point of the drive and it’s at a designated center where handicapped people make silk thread “paintings” & pottery and there is a massive souvenir shop, small cafĂ© and toilets. For some reason we were dropped behind the shop and our guide only vaguely pointed in the direction of the toilets so we all used the very basic (squat, no toilet paper, no soap) version and then later realized there were much cleaner Western toilets near the front of the store!
We finally reached Halong Bay after noon and then stood around at the port for about 30 minutes waiting for instructions from our guide. We were eventually divided into several groups (day trippers, 2 day/1 night, 3 day/2 night, etc.) and herded down to the docks to board our respective tenders to the ships anchored in the bay. After drinking our welcome juice, we were given our room keys so we could drop off our bags before eating lunch as the ship motored out to the bay. After about 2 hours of cruising, we dropped anchor and soon boarded a tender to Sung Sot cave. We walked around inside the massive cave for about 45 minutes, then took the tender a short distance to where the kayaks were stored. Only 8 people wanted to kayak and Greg wasn’t one of the them, so I convinced our guide to let me take a single and he went with another guest. We paddled around fishing boats and a few of the karst features of the bay for about 45 minutes before returning to the dock and the waiting tender back to the ship. We had been told there would be a “party” on the upper deck before dinner but that never materialized and instead we were served our complimentary glass of wine in the dining room. Dinner was served at 7pm; afterward many of the guests retired to their rooms. It was still fairly early and a few people had indicated they wanted to sing karaoke. Unfortunately the sound system didn’t work very well and the songs were listed only by title, not by artist. Eventually, after a few songs sung in Vietnamese by the young bar staff, Greg & I started things off with “Take This Job and Shove It” (keep in mind we had each only had one glass of wine and one bottle of beer)! Soon enough, the other guests were searching for their favorite songs, and we sang along for a couple of hours until the staff told us it was quiet time around 11pm.

The next morning, breakfast was served at 7:30 and then we took a tender to Ti Top island for an optional swim at the beach or a short but strenuous hike to the top of the island. We opted for the hike and found it funny that western music (Hotel California was played repeatedly) was piped all the way up the walking path. Then we returned to the boat to check out of our room and participate in a short cooking class on how to prepare Vietnamese spring rolls. The guests were only allowed to assemble the rolls (ie, wrap the rice paper around the filling), but we also got to eat the finished result as well as the extras that the chef had already prepared. Lunch was served at 11:00 as the ship started motoring back to port. From there it was the same as the previous day: stand around 15+ minutes waiting for instructions, then board the minibus for the ride back to Hanoi.

All in all we enjoyed the trip and would recommend it to anyone looking for a relaxing way to spend a couple of days outside the city. I wouldn’t bother with only a day trip due to the long drive each way. As I expected based on the online reviews I had read, there are many boats of varying levels of luxury. After seeing the outside of our sister ship, Halong Phoenix 2, I was happy we had specified the Halong Phoenix 1 which appeared to be a much better design as well as a nicer ship overall. However, despite our boat being fairly new, the furniture was well worn and the sails were faded & torn (and they were never raised anyway). Be sure to tell your travel agent if you want to party, prefer a more mature crowd, etc. as we heard other boats playing loud music in the early evening hours and saw younger guests jumping off the top deck.
There was a seeming lack of organization both at port and on the ship; our guides (we had a total of 4 different guides in 2 days) did not know the timing of meals & activities and the times differed from what was on the itinerary. It was also confusing because guests on the same boat were on different itineraries (end of 3 day/2 night, beginning of 3/2, only 2/1, etc.) so we were often divided into smaller groups for various activities. The guests on our boat were a diverse mix of nations: U.S., Canada, Australia, Taiwan, U.K., France, Germany & Iceland; which made conversations at meal times very interesting. Most meals were served family style, with assigned seating and a table of six people sharing all the dishes. The food was very good and cooked fresh with lots of seafood & vegetables, some beef and chicken, and fresh fruit for dessert. An alternative to paying the higher drink prices on board was to purchase supplies from the local people who came up to the ship on rowboats selling just about anything: drinks, snacks, batteries, cigarettes, socks, fruit. Prices are negotiable; we got 2 large beers for 30000VND. One final note about Halong Bay; the travel agents should suggest a minimal packing list depending on your itinerary (e.g. you will get wet if you kayak so you need suitable shoes, spare clothes, etc. and a swimsuit if you want to swim at Ti Top beach) and also should advise guests to store the excess luggage at their hotel in Hanoi as there isn’t extra room on the minibus or in the ship’s cabins.

Our other side trip from Hanoi was to Sapa, 380km to the northwest. Again we booked the excursion through our hotel. The prices they quoted us for a 3 day/4 night trip ranged from $99-139 per person. This included 2 overnight trains, 1 night in a Sapa hotel, 1 night village homestay, all transfers, 1 short trek to Cat Cat village with a guide, a longer 2-day trek to multiple villages with a guide and 3 breakfasts/3 lunches/2 dinners. As I understood it, the price difference was primarily for the class of sleeper on the train. We opted to pay the package price of $139 per person to include a first class sleeper; however when they called to make the reservation, the best first class train cars were not available so we were booked in a standard first class “Green Train“. They initially were going to put us in the Sapa Summit hotel, but online reviews were not very good so I asked them to suggest some alternatives for the same price. We ended up staying in the Sapa Eden hotel which was a decent choice (TripAdvisor review of Sapa Eden hotel).

Although we didn’t know it at the time, the tour company that organized our entire trip was Sapa Pathfinder Travel. While our Hanoi hotel staff arranged the transfers to & from Hanoi train station, everything else was arranged by the travel agency. Our train was at Hanoi station one hour prior to departure so were able to board early and settle into our 4-berth sleeper instead of sitting in a smoky waiting room. Our sleeper car was not as nice as the ones we took in China, but we did see better cabins in the other cars. Still, it was more than fine for the 8+ hour ride to Lao Cai. The train left exactly on time at 9:10PM and arrived at 5:30AM. What we weren’t as prepared for was the 1 hour ride on a windy mountain road from Lao Cai to Sapa in a cramped minivan.
Our original itinerary had us doing the long trek and village homestay the first night but upon arrival at our hotel we were informed they were switching the days so we could rest more on the first/arrival day and just do the shorter trek to & from Cat Cat village, then do the longer trek & homestay on the 2nd & 3rd days. This actually worked out fine and, in retrospect, think it might be better to organize your trip this way.

We left our bags at reception and went upstairs for breakfast; by the time we finished eating they gave us our room key. As our trek was scheduled for 9AM, we had about an hour to freshen up before meeting our guide in the lobby. The hike to Cat Cat was a total of 6km round trip with a gradual descent into the village and a corresponding ascent via a different route back to Sapa. While in Cat Cat, I met a 22-year-old Hmong woman named Sa, who was trying to sell souvenirs but I persuaded her to talk to me for awhile after all the buying & selling was done.
Traditionally, Vietnamese Hmong people meet their mates at the “love market” which occurs every Saturday night. The boys dance & play an instrument and the girls observe. With no words spoken, the boys & girls eventually pair off. Once the selection is made, the girl accompanies the boy to his family’s home where she remains for three days, to meet his relatives and see how his family lives. Still, there is no verbal communication or physical interaction between the pair. After the visit, if the boy’s family approves of the girl they will go to meet with her family and agree on a wedding date. Then, for the next few months or even a full year, the preparations are made for the wedding (gathering food for the feast, making special clothes, etc.). During this time, the boy & girl do not meet.

Sa met her husband at the love market when she was 16 and was married the same year. She now has two boys, ages 2 and 4. The boys stay at home with her mother while she sells souvenirs. Her husband works at the market in Sapa. I asked Sa if she would have any more children and she said no. Later I asked our guide about this and she said the number of children, while people are encouraged by the government to only have two, is decided by the husband. Despite this, many Hmong families have more than five children, partially to support their agricultural lifestyle.
Later that afternoon, Greg & I explored the town of Sapa. It was just a short 5 minute walk from our hotel to the market where we saw lots of fresh fish, meat & produce for sale, including a recently slaughtered water buffalo. Shops selling trekking gear were everywhere -- all the name brands were represented (North Face & Columbia in particular). The quality seemed to be very good and I wasn’t 100% sure if the products were knock-offs or authentic. We wandered around town for about an hour and then picked a place to have a drink. Most restaurants were offering multi-course menus for an average of $5 per person but dinner was included in our package, so we chose a cozy restaurant with a fireplace to try the local Lao Cai beer.

Our second trek started the following day at 9:30AM. Our 24-year-old guide, Anh, picked us up at our hotel on a moped. Yes, Greg & I with our daypacks and Anh all piled on a tiny moped!!! Luckily for all of us we only had to drive about 5 minutes into town to meet up with our trekking companions, Monica (from Bucharest, Romania) and Karl (from Munster, Germany).

One thing about Sapa: the villagers come into town every day to sell their goods and the women come into town to accompany trekkers to the villages. Thus, no matter where or how far you are walking, you will never be alone! At first we were surrounded by no less than 10 girls & women asking us to buy things from them so they could “go home“. Yes, they would actually say that to try to get you to buy something out of sympathy! Gradually the crowd thinned out and only three women stayed with us all the way to Lao Cai.

About 1 or 2 km outside of Sapa, Anh asked us if we wanted to take the short route to Ta Van, the location of our homestay, or the longer, more scenic route via Y Linh Ho . He said the difference in time would be at least a couple of hours. Of course, our adventurous quartet opted for the scenic route! We turned off the main road and started descending amongst the rice terraces. We quickly discovered the going would not be easy as the trails were very uneven dirt & rock. After a few hours, we stopped for a break alongside the river. It soon started drizzling and the trek got even harder as everything turned to mud. After a steep ascent and another descent we finally reached Lao Cai where we stopped for lunch. Only the next day did Anh tell me that many tourists had been injured on this trail (sprains or broken bones). If it hadn’t been for the Hmong woman who held my hand for most of the 15km, I might have been one of them. Luckily, we all survived unscathed but with very muddy shoes & pant legs and sweat-soaked clothes. I also haven’t mentioned that the temperature was only around 10C!
From our lunch spot it was just a few more kilometers on a dirt road to Ta Van and our homestay. We soon discovered that “homestay” is a relative term here as the dwelling we stayed in, although built similarly to a traditional home with an enclosed wood-fire kitchen (read: smoke smell on everything) and communal area on the bottom floor and open sleeping area on the top floor, had electricity and a Western toilet. We spent most of our time sitting around waiting for dinner or breakfast to be prepared and didn’t really learn anything about the local culture. However we did enjoy chatting with the other guests: a couple from Paris, France, and a couple from Lavarone, Trento, Italy.
The following day we all trekked a relatively short 4km, mostly on paved road, to Giang Ta Chai and a waterfall. Again it was overcast and damp so we had to walk cautiously on the dirt trails. After lunch we all parted ways, and Greg & I rode in an old army jeep back to the Sapa Eden hotel. Thankfully, they gave us a room so we could take a shower prior to leaving for the train station at 5PM.

All in all, I really enjoyed the side trip to Sapa despite the disagreeable weather. It was well worth $139 even though we probably could have done it cheaper on our own as we saw rooms available in Sapa for $3/dorm or $8+/private. But sometimes the reduction in hassle factor is worth the minimal additional cost! My only wish is that we would have more opportunity to learn about and interact with the people we encountered at the various villages (Hmong, Dzay, Red Zao, etc.).

Here are my photos for both excursions:
Halong Bay & Sapa photos


  1. Very very useful post for people like me planning a trip to Hanoi/Halong/Sapa. Thanks a ton !

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