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 café 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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