Falling in love with Sapa

So after the traumas of Ha Long to Hanoi traffic and missed night buses, and the incredible helpfulness of the Flipside Hostel staff, I was on a bus to Sapa. Being that my time was limited I booked two days of trekking and a homestay through the hostel, so as to save time on organising activities once I arrived. This meant that life was pretty easy for a couple of days as I travelled with just a small day pack and let the guides do all the thinking.

My first surprise was my trekking guide, a tiny little H’Mong lady who was waiting for me in the bus station in Sapa. In the hill tribe villages women run the households, control the finances and are also more educated than the men, speaking more English, so are generally the main guides as well. I hadn’t put that together in my mind before arriving, but was delighted to hear that I would be spending the afternoon with her and her friends walking back to their village, along with a group of 9 other trekkers.

The weather stayed reasonable for me and I was relieved not to have rain (mostly because my lack of coordination combined with mud would certainly lead to some slips). We walked from Sapa town for several kilometres out to the villages in the valley. There are no words to describe the scenery in Sapa as it really is beyond anything else you can imagine, with huge mountains, rice terraces, local hilltribe villages, buffalo, pigs, ducks, chickens and more. I was blown away and meandered happily through the fields snapping photos and just soaking it in.

We arrived at the homestay around 6pm after 4hours of walking and settled into a huge local feast. I was surprised by how many guests there were but enjoyed chatting with the other travellers over a shot of rice whiskey before an early bed time.

Day 2 was a longer hike of around 12km and for this one we were accompanied by guides from the Zao tribe. Less than 30 minutes in Zo, our lead guide, offered us an easy or a hard route and we unanimously opted for the difficult walk, heading up the mountain for more incredible views. Accomplishing this with minimal trouble was a sweet reminder that “you are stronger than you think” and to always give things a go, no regrets! We finished up at a waterfall before heading for some steamy bowls of Pho and back to town.

Sapa stole my heart completely with its scenery and culture and I am so delighted that I ended my time in Vietnam with this incredible experience. With aching legs I boarded the bus back to Hanoi and felt pure happiness that I had gotten such a great experience, challenged myself and proven my capabilities in another environment.

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Hanoi and Ha Long Bay: Making my own dreams come true

I have wanted to visit Ha Long Bay for as long as I have known that Ha Long Bay exists (which is probably more than 5 years but less than 10, if you want to be somewhat specific). So when I arrived in Hanoi I was set on making this happen ASAP. With the typhoons still rumbling on I checked the forecast and elected to head straight to the bay the next day as it seemed the most promising on that front.

By this stage in my trip, my time left in Vietnam was limited and I wanted to maximise on the few days I had, so opted to visit the bay in just 1 day, freeing up the rest of my time to head north to Sapa. This meant leaving the hostel around 8am and returning around 9pm, there was a night bus to Sapa at 9:30, so this all worked well for me (like I said, I was really cramming to maximise my time).

The drive from Hanoi to the bay is around 4h which is hindered somewhat by the amount of time spent picking everyone up and then the 30minute rest stop en route. We eventually arrived around 1pm and even the bus ride couldn’t put a damper on the undeniable beauty that is the bay. We tucked into a generous lunch on our ‘junk boat’ and set out for a closer look.

The bay itself is nothing short of stunning and you could probably spend days just cruising around staring at the scenery. We took some kayaks out into some of the smaller caves to explore a little bit closer which was great fun and also disembarked at one of the islands to go inside some of the bigger caves. It was an amazing experience and something I had wanted to do for so long that I had very high expectations, and they were certainly fulfilled.

The journey back did not go quite so smoothly however, as we got stuck in a huge traffic jam and didn’t arrive in Hanoi until almost 10pm…yes you guessed it, I missed my bus to Sapa!! After a wonderful day I was so disappointed that I might miss out on the other Northern Vietnam adventure I was craving. Fortunately for me, I had organised everything through my hostel, Flipside, who were incredible. They got me a beer and set about rearranging my plans, then gave me a free bed for the night and told me to be ready to leave at 6:30am – I was going to make it to Sapa after all!!

It was a long day but definitely a worthwhile one, my advice to others visiting the bay would be to stay one or two nights as the day trip was really brutal, that said, if you’re short of time you don’t want to miss it!

Hue and the night train to Hanoi

After my exhilarating journey to Hue I set about planning my route to Hanoi. I decided to spend just one day in the city and then take the night train straight to Hanoi so that I could spend my final few days in Vietnam enjoying all of the treats that the North has to offer. Hue itself was an average stop, it has none of Hoi An’s charm however I did enjoy a couple of hours strolling around the old Imperial Citadel.

The highlight of stopping in Hue (after the Hai Van Pass) was in fact, my subsequent night train to Hanoi. The bus is a far cheaper alternative for this trip, but leaves only at 4:30 or 5pm and I had a job interview (via skype) at 5, so needed to seek some other options. Trains in Vietnam have several classes and I opted to book the 9:30pm to Hanoi with a soft sleeper. This essentially meant I got a small bed on the train.

By 9:30pm came around I was already getting tired and was ready to get settled. The soft sleeper berths have four beds to a cabin and you pay slightly more for a bottom bunk, which I did. The cabin locks and there are basic toilets in the carriage. Essentially you have all that you need for the night apart from a bottle of water and perhaps some snacks.

I shared my cabin with an older Vietnamese lady who spoke zero words of English, which was a nice match for my zero words of Vietnamese. I settled in to sleep quickly but woke up a few hours later to find her sitting up on her bed, she signalled at me with her hands pointing urgently at the door. It seemed that she could not open it, and needed to get out of the cabin, so I sat for a few minutes and figured out how to release the latch then let her out. Several hours later the same thing repeated despite my trying to explain to her how to do it herself in case I was sleeping.

In the morning when I woke up she had bought me a breakfast of sticky rice to say thank you for helping her through the night and we attempted to communicate a little while longer. I was so touched by her gesture as really it was no trouble to help her and of course, anyone would do that, you wouldn’t just leave the person stuck! At her stop I helped her out of the cabin with her luggage and she headed off into the distance.

This journey and the small connection became such a significant part of my trip and for that I am so pleased I did not take the bus. The train was not only more comfortable and interesting but also a great chance to mix with the locals and experience something different.

Hoi An to Hue via the Hai Van Pass

I was faced with three options when deciding how to get from Hoi An to Hue; I could take a 3h bus through the tunnel (boring), I could take a bus to Danang and a train along the mountainside (better), or I could go via motorcycle over the Hai Van Pass. The Hai Van Pass is a mountain road that connects blissful Hoi An with Hue. Previously it was the main link between the two cities, however a tunnel has now been constructed through the mountain to speed up the journey. Naturally, I chose option three.

It seemed that everyone in Hoi An wanted to tell me I had made the wrong choice, it was raining in Hue, I would get drenched on the bike, I should stay in Hoi An longer… Blah, blah, blah. I like to think that most of them were really just wishing that they had done the motorbike rather than spending three hours on a bus…

Anyway, I set off with my trusty driver Roy and by some form of a miracle Typhoon Sakira had gone north towards China (sorry China) and I got a glorious day for the ride. The journey took me to a few sights along the way including the marble mountains in Danang and some smaller villages and beaches. The highlight though was the pass, a beautiful winding road across the mountains with views of the ocean dropping dramatically to the side. The road was made famous by Top Gear a few years back and is quite a tourist draw but I didn’t envy the hoards disembarking from their coaches, there really is no better way to enjoy this journey than on a bike with uncut views at 360 degrees.

So that’s how you make what could be a dull travelling day into one of the highlights of your trip. It’s very easy to arrange and you can drive yourself and drop the bike off in your destination town, or hire a driver (naturally this costs a bit more but I enjoyed having my hands free to take photos (just kidding Mum, I held on firmly the whole way) and not having to worry at all about where I was going, traffic, my driving capabilities etc.).

 

Finding happiness in Hoi An

I arrived in Hoi An from Dalat – one overnight bus and one local bus later, around 9am. It was Monday morning and the sun was shining. My cold was retreating and the hostel let me check in early for a shower and a lie down before I faced the day. It was time to get my game face on and get back into the swing of it, Vietnam was going to pass by way too quickly!

Strolling around I instantly felt happier, the small streets so beautiful with their colourful architecture and lanterns dangling from store fronts. After breakfast and a second coffee I was thinking about a relaxing afternoon on the beach when I ran into Francesca, a girl I had met breifly in Canggu, Bali. We got together with her friend Sylvie who was travelling with her through Vietnam, and headed over by bicycle to An Bang beach.

The weather wasn’t perfect and the waves were high but it was food for my soul to spend the afternoon relaxing on a lounger with good company and a view of the ocean.

Spurred on by my newfound enthusiasm I arranged a cooking class for the next day, on recommendation of everyone I knew who had been to Hoi An and insisted that it was the thing to do. I was picked up at 9:30 and headed to the market to grab some ingredients before meeting up with the other ‘cookers’ at a boat for a ride up the river. We then hopped from the boat to small ‘coconut boats’ which are circular bowls that you sit in, in the water, and paddle along. We took these through the palm forest to the cooking school and arrived with faces full of smiles from the fun of the ride.

The course was excellent and the food delicious – spicy papaya salad, bahn xeo pancakes, fresh spring rolls and pork in a ginger marinade. After eating we went back to town and I spent the afternoon strolling between cafes and shops and enjoying the spirit of the small town.

I would have been happy to stay in Hoi An for weeks but adventure called and I knew that the faster I moved the more potential my trip had for activities in the north, with that, I was on my way to Hue…by motorbike!

Dalat: Getting sick on tour

I arrived in Dalat, a town in the central highlands of Vietnam, around 9pm after an 8h bus ride from Ho Chi Minh. The bus was comfortable, with sleeper seats despite it’s day time departure and passed faster than expected. The distance might not look far on the map but the journey is long and winding into the mountains so takes time!

On arrival I was starting to feel myself coming on with a cold and decided to get some sleep and hope for a brighter tomorrow. It was cooler in the mountains and with only a cold shower available, I was happy to curl up in my bunk for the night.

Saturday came and the truth was out – I was sick, on tour. It sounds dramatic but when you are travelling you don’t want to miss a single day and I was devastated to feel so low. I headed out for breakfast and located a friendly pharmacist who hooked me up with some cold meds. I tried to keep going, walking around town and down to the lake, but I just wanted my bed, and had to retreat.

Determined not to miss out on Dalat I booked a tour for the next day to pick me up at 8:30am, I would be well enough, if not, I would suck it up, and that is just what I did. I enjoyed seeing the coutryside and the Pongour Waterfalls, but in honesty, I just didn’t feel enthusiastic enough. That night I boarded the bus to Danang (set for Hoi An) and slept for most of the 14h ride.

I am sure Dalat is a great place but when you are low, you’re just low and the cold and rain combined with it didn’t help. It was best to move on and find some enthusiasm elsewhere!

Southern Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh and all it’s Motorbikes

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh city after what should have been a short flight from Jakarta via Singapore. Instead, my hostel in Jakarta had advised it would take 1h30 to get to the airport, so I had left obscenely early, arriving 4.5h before my flight and thus extending the journey beyond belief (it actually took 30mins but it was 5:30am)!

I hadn’t done much research on the city and felt like I was winning the game as I hopped into a metered taxi outside the airport and set off for the hostel with my friendly driver – this was refreshingly easy! Hahahaha…yes I was completely naive and my lack of research had me walking directly into a common HCM scam… The taxi’s metre was running at triple speed and I pulled up at the hostel with a price reading over VND500,000 (almost £20), when I knew the journey should be less than 200,000. I confronted the driver who still wore his nicer than nice front and offered me a discount to 450,000 – I had lost at his game and I kicked myself for being so gullible so early – I thought I was a seasoned traveller?!

I checked into the hostel and took some time to get my bearings, reading a couple of blogs about the common scam and understanding that I wasn’t the first, and wouldn’t be the last. Somewhat pacified, it was time to move on and get stuck into the Vietnamese chapter of my adventure. I strolled around and found somewhere to grab some spring rolls and a Bia Saigon, relaxing and letting the hassles of the day wash away.

HCM city is big and somewhat crazy, a step up from anywhere else I have been in SE Asia, I began to understand what they mean about the motorbikes that ride 8 fold across two lanes and down the pavements if they need to. Crossing the street is an art form in Vietnam and one I was going to have to perfect pronto. Back at the hostel I made arrangements to travel on a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels the next day.

Located a couple of hours drive outside of the city, it seems that the organised tours are indeed the best and cheapest way to get there unless you’re with a few friends who want to share a cab (beware of the scammers!!). The tour was very regimented and not to my taste but the experience was great all the same. It was so interesting to see how the war had impacted these people and how they had banded together for their country. I went into the tunnels but only through one 20 metre stretch – that was enough and I was dripping with sweat from the confines of it even in such a short space – kudos to those who went the full 140m, and even more so to the villagers who lived down there during the war.

Back in the city I enjoyed walking around, checking out the architecture, dodging motorbikes and sampling amazing street food. The Bahn Mi – Vietnamese Baguette was something I had heard about and I became instantly hooked – who knew a sandwich could taste so good. My Mum’s still convinced the greying meat is some kind of rat or dog and has a good laugh at my expense about the mystery meat I eat considering a few weeks ago in Indonesia I declared myself veggie. That only lasted until I reached Java and was unable to communicate it, so, hello Chicken noodles!

I decided to head out of the city the next day, more intrigued by the smaller offerings further north and unsure how long I could really last without getting annihilated by a scooter. I booked a ticked on Phoung Trang (Futa) bus to Dalat and spent the morning leading up to it at the war museum. Not big into museums I was sceptical but learned a lot – albeit very much from the Vietnamese perspective.

With that, I was out, 36h in HCM, done.

Cianjur: A peaceful end to the chapter

After Yogyakarta I made the journey to Cianjur, an area around 3h drive from Jakarta. I had heard about the Cianjur Adventure Homestay from another traveller whom I met in Bali and had long since decided to spend my final days in Indonesia at the programme. It was one of my better decisions as I found myself in a tranquil corner of Java, largely untouched by tourism and free of the hassles I had battled with elsewhere.

The homestay programme is really the only hotspot for tourists to the area, and featuring in the Lonely Planet, it is not unpopular by any stretch. I arrived to find around 12 other residents at the house which is large and has been extended to accommodate it’s increasing popularity. This does not take away from the experience however but simply adds to the fun, sharing the adventures with others. It also acts as a great place for travellers to connect, particularly those heading East from Jakarta.

The accommodations are basic but comfortable and the host, Yudi, excels in his role, working tirelessly to ensure that everyone has all that they need. You pay a base fee per day and receive 3 hot meals, a room to yourself and access to a range of activities run by guides who live on-site. The staff are also available to help with onward travel arrangements and all go over and above to ensure that your trip is as easy as can be. It’s a great place to unwind and let the team take the lead.

The offered tours of the local area are unique and diverse, with something for everyone at reasonable, all-inclusive rates. I opted for the most popular ‘rural village hike’ on day one, taking me to visit a small Sudanese community in the mountains. Along the way we passed some of the most beautiful rice paddy and volcano views of my trip and it was great to be in an area that was still fascinated by their visitors rather than exhausted with them.

For my second day I went out to the floating village on the lake, equally un-touristed other than by those staying at the homestay. The boat ride around was an interesting insight and we then sat at one of the houses, fish nibbling our toes as we dipped our feet into the pools out front and ate mie goreng prepared by our captain’s wife.

Cianjur was as back to basics and un-travelled as anywhere I went in Indonesia and offered the perfect ending to this chapter of my adventure. I was able to really see inside the community and understand that in other areas although they have become hungry for more from the tourists, it is really just that competition is steep and they have to fight to make a living. Here that was still a long way into the future and I dearly hope that it stays that way for years to come.

Yogyakarta: Back in the city

After 2 days of sunrise volcano hikes and basic rural homestays, it was nice to get into the city and find a hot shower. I arrived into Yogyakarta in the evening, exhausted from the journey and got an early night. My main aim for this destination was to see the famous Borobodur temple at sunrise, but I needed a full night of sleep so decided that could wait.

The next morning I headed to Prambanan, the city’s other famous temple complex and took a walk around. After the friendliness of Bali I was surprised that in parts of Java some people are far less helpful, and when I got off the bus at Prambanan and asked for directions I was met with forceful shouts of ‘Motorbike’, ‘Very far’. Determined, I walked away from the drivers who were really just trying to make a living, feeling frustrated that this is what the place had become.

A little further down the street I met another person who pointed me in the right direction and ten minutes later I arrived. The temple itself was a nice distraction from the city and not too crowded. I took my time to walk around and take it in before heading back into town.

The next morning I headed to Borobodur for the sunrise. There are two ways to visit the temple, with a normal pass during official opening hours, or for sunrise through the Manohara hotel. You pay a premium but the crowds (albeit still large) are slightly smaller, and the atmosphere in the temple as dawn comes is really unique. Although it was a little cloudy and not the most beautiful sunrise of my trip it was still great to be there and explore.

The rest of the day was a bit like my Prambanan experience, trying to navigate the city with little help and finding the Sultan’s palace to be closed for two days holiday, the water palace to be more of a derelict building, and the streets to be busy and chaotic. I retreated to the hostel, satisfied that I had seen what I came for but ready for the next stop. Apparently cities really aren’t my thing!

Sunrise at Mount Bromo: Putting check marks on the Indonesian Bucket List

From Banyuwangi and my trek to the Ijen crater I made my way to Probolinggo to see the sunrise at Mount Bromo. I had read plenty of bad things about hassles and scams in the city and was keen to  make a speedy exit to Cemoro Lawang, the village closest to the sunrise viewing point. Catching a bus was actually easy enough, although the bemo from the train station did insist on dropping passengers at a tour agency rather than the bus stop, my advice to others making the journey would be to stay put until the bus station. For us it worked out well as we were able to catch a minibus from the tour agent for only IDR10,000 more than the public bus, and could get moving quickly. I had heard that you can wait a long time in the bus station so I was happy with this.

Cemoro Lawang was cold, that was the main thing I thought when I arrived and had to walk around seeking accommodation. In honesty, the options are limited and I would recommend booking in advance to save yourself the trouble, but we managed to bargain a good rate at the Cemara Indah guesthouse near the road that lead to the viewpoint, so that would do, it was only for one short night anyways! The guesthouse actually has an incredible view of Bromo and the sand-sea so I do recommend it, although the economy rooms are nothing to write home about.

After dinner and an early bed time it was all too soon 3:30am and time to make a move. The walk up to see the sunrise was short and not challenging. Hoards of tour groups passed by in jeeps avoiding the climb but we opted to walk. I had hear that all the tours go to the highest viewpoint and it was better to stop at one of the lower ones. My legs, still aching from Ijen, were pleased with this, and it was certainly far nicer to watch with just 20 people than the hundreds that must have been higher up.

The sunrise was spectacular and everything I had heard it to be, making the journey to Cemoro Lawang instantly worth it and putting a huge check mark on the Indonesia bucket list for me. Bromo itself was closed, as it was showing signs of erupting. I found this out just after I arrived in Probolinggo and did have a moment of wondering whether I should really be travelling towards and erupting volcano. The smoke it produced did however make it more atmospheric but meant that there was no options to explore closer to the crater today.

That being the case, after a large Indonesian breakfast of Nasi and Mie Goreng, we made a speedy exit back to Probolinggo, backpacks precariously balanced on the roof of the small minivan, and to the train station in time to catch the train to Yogyakarta.

The ride was a long 8 hours but we were on our way to the next stop and my journey across Java was making quick progress. It was a fast-paced start to this part of the journey and I appreciated the time to do nothing on the journey and catch up on two nights of missed sleep!