Part 1: Hanoi
The second stop after our adventure on the Transsiberian Railway was Hanoi, Vietnam. Even before we had reached our hotel, we realized that we had now truly arrived in South East Asia: Squeezed into a minibus with several other passengers and a ton of luggage, we watched the mass of honking motorbikes zooming by, often loaded with up to five passengers, the children standing right behind the handlebar. When we finally arrived at our hotel, the Golden Orchid Hotel, we could experience the Vietnamese hospitality for the first time. We were already awaited by a member of the hotel’s staff, who carried our luggage to our room. I was surprised by the great service and friendly staff, as we really hadn’t paid much for the room. We also made use of the delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, smoothies and omelet already included as well as the very convenient laundry service.
Although we only had one day in Hanoi, I think we made the best of it and pretty much saw everything we wanted to see. We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and the old city center, looked at the Temple of Literature, and enjoyed some fresh mango smoothies, orange juice and delicious Vietnamese coffee (extremely strong coffee on sweetened condensed milk) for lunch. In the afternoon, we took some time and visited the Ethnic Travel office to book some tours for the remaining time we had in Vietnam. Finally, we had a really good typical Vietnamese dinner of bánh xèo (Vietnamese pancakes) at a place called Zon close to our hotel.
Part 2: Halong Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay
Early the next morning, we were picked up by Ethnic Travel’s minibus, which took us all the way to Halong Bay. Here, we boarded a boat together with two families (one from the Netherlands, one from France) and started our cruise around the bay. The first day was filled with kayaking, enjoying the sun on the deck and taking lots of pictures of the breathtaking scenery. The night on the boat, however, was extremely short: As proper Germans, we of course had to support our team in the finale of the soccer world championship – and unfortunately, the game started at two o’clock in the morning in our time zone. Of course, the game went into overtime, which meant we didn’t get a lot of sleep that night.
Still, we were able to get up at seven the next morning, and went kayaking again right after breakfast. Back on the mainland, we got into yet another minibus and were driven to Bai Tu Long Bay, where we arrived just in time for lunch. The junk we boarded took us to the island of Quan Lan, where we would spend the night at a local family’s house. After a very enjoyable evening with hand-made spring rolls and some local moonshine, we got up early the next morning to take a stroll around the local market. Afterwards, our bags were loaded onto a tuk-tuk and we biked to the north of the island, where we were picked up by the junk again. Back on the mainland, the minibus took us all the way back to Hanoi.
Part 3: Sapa
The few hours we spent in Hanoi in between our arrival by minibus and the departure of the night train to Sapa were confusing, as the Ethnic Travel staff who were supposed to be responsible for our transferring from one tour to the other safely, didn’t speak a word of English. But eventually, we made it on the train, where we shared a cabin with a nice couple from Belgium. Unfortunately, we didn’t get much sleep that night – the AC was extremely cold, and we were woken up by loud Vietnamese music at around half past four in the morning. And when we got off the train at around five with so many other backpackers, there was no one there to pick us up. We had no idea where to go, so we waited for what felt like ages, until the Ethnic Travel guys finally showed up. At the hostel, where we had our breakfast, the confusion continued. A few minutes before we were supposed to leave together with our local guide, we were told to pack day packs as we would not be able to take our large backpacks. We had been told the same on the previous tours, but had then been able to take our entire luggage anyway. So, unprepared as we were, I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a smaller backpack from a family we were travelling with.
When we finally started hiking, I soon got aware of another problem: I wasn’t wearing the right shoes for the extremely muddy paths we were hiking on. Renting hiking boots would have been possible and I had asked the guide if I should, but she said I’d be okay with the shoes I had, so I thought this was a bit unfortunate. Still, the hikes we did during the next few days were amazing and the tour definitely was one of my highlights of our trip: We hiked along rice paddies, past water buffalos and up and down muddy slopes. We were all slipping, me most of all, but we were accompanied by a whole group of local women, who helped wherever they could. Still, in two cases I gave up and caught a ride on the back of a motorbike for a part of the way.
But even though I didn’t participate in the entire hike, the tour was amazing. We stayed at great homestays with really nice families and I really enjoyed being able to meet the local people and see how they live. The fact the local women who accompanied us for most parts of the way kept trying to sell their handicrafts (bracelets, bags, etc.) to us was annoying, but then this is how many of them make their money. All in all, I loved this trip – the landscape was amazing, the food was simple but delicious, and the people were extremely friendly. Just like Mongolia, Vietnam is another country I definitely want to visit again.