1 of 1000: The Mountain Landscape of Sapa

Sapa view
Rice terraces in Sapa

This post is one that I am genuinely excited about. Sapa is one of the regions not many people have ever heard of, yet with its fantastic rice terraces and the variety of different minority hill tribes, this was a very beautiful place to go to. As with most places not everything is golden around here, but this doesn’t stop me from telling you about this breathtaking place.

Sapa is a mountain city (1700m above sea level) in the north of Vietnam and back when the French controlled the region they wanted to turn this to a vacation destination within Asia because of its European climate. They failed miserably, mostly because of the lack of infrastructure and understandably so.

Getting To Sapa – Already An Adventure

Luxury cabin in the night train Vietnam
Luxury cabin in the night train

We bought our ticket to Sapa at the tours desk in our hotel and opted for the 3 nights/2 days package that is supposed to include some easy hiking through the mountains.

To get to Sapa, we took the night train again with a 4 berth soft sleeper cabin. To our surprise, the cabin looked much nicer than the previous one. There was complimentary water bottles and even a TV (that didn’t work, though).  I saw that the famous Orient Express had also wagons attached to the train and I really wanted to see what it would have been like to stay in the Orient Express. As it turned out, the Orient Express had the exact same cabins except there was “Orient Express” written on the pillows.

Because we we didn’t sleep well the night before because of the rats, we quickly were pretty tired, but the Australian couple in our cabin – I would guess they were in their 50’s) – was so nice and interesting that we kept on talking for at least 2 hours before we finally decided to get some sleep.

The train only brought us to Lao Cai, which is only a few minutes from the Chinese border and from there we got picked up in a small bus to Sapa. All of this happened at 6 am, so we could see the sun rising over the mountains as we slowly made our way up the mountains. It is only 30 km to Sapa, but it took us over an hour to get there. I can’t imagine how people got there without cars.

We checked in the hotel, ate breakfast and started our first tour.

Why are they following us?

Tay tribe in Sapa
Women of the Tay tribe

Besides the great rise terraces, Sapa is known for the 5 different minorities that have survived there. All minorities live from growing rice in these mountains and they managed to keep most of their culture alive, even though they adapted to the new tourism that came in the last 20 years.

It wasn’t to hard to spot the minorities. Their distinct outfits made it rather easy. Their names and clothes even help you to distinguish the different minorities, e.g. the Black H’Mong women wrap their long black hair around their head with a dark blue turban and the Red Dao women wear a red triangle shaped turban.

When our group of 7 people – the Vietnamese guide, a french couple, a polish women, an American and us – started our hike, this group of 6 women from the Tay minority kept walking with us. They weren’t trying to sell anything and didn’t speak to us at first. We actually didn’t understand why on earth they walked when we walked and stopped when we stopped. It was a bit freaky.

Hiking in Sapa

Our guide explained me that we would visit the Tay village today and they will follow us all the way there (8km) and then try to sell us some Tay crafts. It turned out to be quite pleasant and their English was even better than some of the receptionists’ we had encountered in Vietnam. They even made some little tiny animals out of grass and gave them to us as a gift.

Soni and I already felt sorry for them because we knew we wouldn’t buy anything from them. We weren’t going to take the souvenirs with us only to carry them around for the entire year. So we tried to avoid the ladies as much as possible, but that didn’t always work out. And the combination of the the view and the women in traditional clothes really made it a nice hike.

Marketing works, even for hill tribes in Sapa

View over the rice terraces in Sapa
View over the rice terraces

When we arrived at the Tay village we had some lunch and the women tried to sell us their hand made scarfs, hats and other stuff. We really appreciated the company of the women, but we told them we can’t take anything with us. We decided to give the women who talked to Soni and me most of the time 50.000 Dong, which is approximately 2€, as a thank you for the nice time we had. She was so grateful that she gave us two wristbands as a gift.

The other people in our group all bought something, even if it was something small. For the women of the tribes even 1 or 2€ is a lot of money, so they were very happy about it. The Tay women stayed in their village and the Red Dao women already waited at the Tay village for us to go to their village.

But somehow they didn’t understand the concept of being nice to us so we might buy something later. They much rather started to tell us things like “This morning one friend, now you have other friend”, implying that since we bought from the others, we should buy from them, too. They didn’t even bother to ask more than where we’re from and what our names were. And since we didn’t actually buy anything, the Red Dao didn’t even bother to talk to us. The Tay women actually tried to have a conversation with us. Not so much the Red Dao.

Tour guide in Sapa
Our tour guide

When we got to the bus to take us back to Sapa, they started to offer us all kind of things and nobody wanted to buy anything. They started to get mad at us and telling us that we have to buy something, because we bought from the others, too. We left without anyone buying anything.

On the second day, on our way to the Black H’Mong village, a Black H’Mong woman didn’t understand the whole idea of getting people to like you so they buy your stuff. She plainly asked us if we would buy something from her if she walks with us. After she had to repeat the question about 5 times until we understood her, we said that we wouldn’t buy anything and she starting running – literally – to the next group of tourists without even saying another word.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tay tribe made the most money out of tourism. The best lesson in relationship marketing!

How on earth can they live here?

Water buffalo in Sapa
A very friendly water buffalo

The rice terrace are fascinating. Around Sapa, wherever you look, there is mountains with rice terraces around you. Even on the steepest mountains. They can’t use modern machinery so they rely on water buffaloes to plow the tiny fields. Those water buffaloes are supposed to be very, very friendly animals, but seeing one up close still made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

On our hike on the next day we visited a waterfall and some other villages. On our way we passed old, tiny women carrying large rice bags in the basket on their back. As we later found out, each bag contains 50kg rice. I am sure, some of those women didn’t even weigh 50kg!

50 kg rice bag
50 kg rice: enough for 2 months for a Vietnamese

I picked up one of the rice bags to get a feel for the weight and was instantly impressed by the strength of those people. We were tired just walking up and down those valleys and they do it with 50kg of rice strapped to their back!

It is understandable that they try to milk the tourism thing for as much as it is worth, because it is so much easier to walk along with some strangers and sell them something than working hard to grow rice. They do still grow the rice, but some women are working with the tourists exclusively. I guess if your English is good, you are excused from the rice fields. That’s what I call incentive to learn English.

You are not my friend!

On our second day, we stopped at a waterfall for 30 minutes and suddenly the french couple asked us if we knew where the Polish women is. We hadn’t seen her for more than half an hour. When we asked the tour guide he just smiled and said she probably was waiting somewhere ahead of us.

Waterfall in Sapa
One of the waterfalls

The trail was a loop trail so after another hour or so we came back to a house where we have been a few hours ago and we found the Polish lady again. It turned out that she was a few meters in front of us and didn’t realize that we made a left turn. The guide didn’t bother to check on her so she was walking up and down the hill trying to find us. She was angry, truly angry.

The guide tried to calm her down and started his sentence with the Asian “You know, my friend…”. She interrupted him right there and yelled at him that he is definitely not her friend and after a few more angry sentences she walked off and hired some other guy to drive her back to Sapa.

I keep wondering what would have happened if that would have happened on the first day when the hike wasn’t on a loop trail. And I doubt that there is much cell phone coverage in those valleys.

So it Sapa one of the places?

Yes, definitely! The views of the rice terraces in the mountains alone is worth the somewhat stressful trip to this northern region of Vietnam. In combination with the water buffaloes, the minority tribes, the amazing bamboo and the waterfalls, this might even be one of the most beautiful places to visit in Vietnam.

1 of 1000: We’ve Seen It All – In Hanoi

Hanoi Vietnam
Roundabout in Hanoi

You might have noticed that I start all reviews of the 1000 places with “1 of 1000” in the title. This time, I am actually writing about 3 of the 1000 in one single post:

  1. Hanoi’s Old Quarter,
  2. The French Quarter of Hanoi and
  3. The Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant

Since all of them are in Hanoi, we thought it would be fitting to put them all in one post. If you want to learn about crazy Vietnamese traditions, a fantastic morning experience and our horrifying animal encounter, then you should keep on reading. Continue reading 1 of 1000: We’ve Seen It All – In Hanoi

1 of 1000: Hoi An – The Old Harbor City

Night Bus in Vietnam
The night bus in Vietnam

After a rough night in a Vietnamese sleeping bus, we got to see Hoi An, a historic harbor town which has been preserved it flair from the 16th and 17th century and allowed us a glimpse into the past.

We will try our best to let you experience the beauty of Hoi An with this blog post and the pictures. 

Hopefully you get a good enough taste of Hoi An that makes you want to go there, too.

The Overnight Bus to Hoi An

Before I tell you about Hoi An, I don’t want to keep our journey from you. To save money we again opted for the local bus, this time we took the overnight bus. Just the bus ride is already an experience of its own. Not exactly the most pleasant one, but it is an experience we won’t forget. The buses have three rows of chairs which can be pushed back to an almost lying position. There are two seats stacked over each other so you might had to climb a bit to get in our seats.

The seats felt perfectly comfortable, for someone not bigger than 1.80 m. In this case my 1.85 m didn’t do me any good. Even with my height I still managed to get a better sleep than Soni who was more often waken up by the noisy Vietnamese passengers or the bus driver honking every time we passed a car, motorbike or truck.

The Vietnamese don’t really understand the term “nighttime peace”. It doesn’t matter if it is 2 am and everybody is sleeping. If you want to listen to music with your smartphone – without speakers – or if you want to talk loudly on the phone at 3 am then it seems to be acceptable to do so, because nobody complained.

At 5 am we finally got to Danang, from where we agreed to a fare of 300,000 Dong for the taxi to Hoi An. When we got there, the driver wanted 500,000 claiming that we agreed to pay 500,000. The 3 of us (we shared the taxi with a Swiss backpacker who we met on the bus) insisted that he showed us 300,000. We gave him 100,000 more and let the hotel receptionist fight the rest of the battle for us.

Delightful Hoi An

Receding flood in Hoi An
Cleaning up after the flood in Hoi An

Apart from getting to Hoi An, almost everything else was really nice. When we got to Hoi An, we were told that the yearly flood had just receded just a day earlier and that the water level at the reception was 1 meter – we were lucky because we didn’t even now that there was a flood. When we walked near the old harbor the water was still running over the streets and workers were cleaning up the parts where the water already receded.

We learned that the water level was almost two meters in some places and only a day later everything was cleaned up and the only thing reminding of the flood was the wet house walls.

Hoi An used to be an important harbor city at the South China Sea for the Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indians in the 16th and 17th century. The historical development of the city led to Hoi An being forgotten as a harbor as the nearby city of Danang was used by the French as the new harbor in the region. The result is a town that hasn’t changed its architecture in more than 200 years.

Touristic Hoi An

Rikschas in Hoi
"You need Rikscha? One hour!"

Now Hoi An is protected and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which of course brings lots of tourism to the city. There is a restaurant, shirt shop or some other kind of touristic store in almost every house in Hoi An. Some people say that it has become too touristic to be enjoyable.

We disagree. Even though the overflowing tourism and the vendors (“You want boat ride”, “Buy my t-shirt”, “Rikscha, one hour”) can be annoying , the presence of tourism – and the money coming with it – protects Hoi An from being torn down to create space for another 4 star resort.

We visted two family houses which are part of the tourist attractions around Hoi An, where they offered us some  tea and gave us a quick tour through the house. I was really impressed how they coped with the yearly flood. They just build 2-story houses and whenever the flood comes, they just take all their furniture upstairs and wait for the water to flow into the ocean. They even showed us the marks of the flood level from the previous years. Sometimes the flood was up to 2m.

The other attractions in Hoi An are lots of temples and community houses built in a combination of different styles. Actually the whole city is a combination of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture which is a remainder of past times when Hoi An was one of Asia’s most important harbors.

Our encounter with Hoi An’s wild life

Chinese Temple Hoi An
Chinese temple in Hoi An

Unfortunately we got a first hand experience of the wild life around here when we got back to the hotel room and could here some strange noise on the ceiling. It didn’t take us long to discover that there were lots of rats running around on the wooden ceiling above us.

The receptionist was surprised and said they are most likely there because of the flood. Well, that didn’t help us at all. And we paid 20€/night, which is quite expensive in Vietnam. Since we couldn’t change it, we put in ear plugs so we wouldn’t hear the rats squeaking all night long. Sadly, that shouldn’t be our last encounter with rats in Vietnam. But more on that in another post.

Is Hoi An really one of the places?

Even with all the touristic shops that have moved to the city it is still a very lovely city that gives a good impression of what an old harbor town in South East Asia looked like in the 16th and 17th century. The tourism helps to preserve the historic buildings so that is something that we will have to live with.

Overall, thumbs up for Hoi An.

More pictures

1 of 1000: Dalat – The Paris of Vietnam

Lake in Dalat
View of the lake in Dalat, Vietnam

Our journey to visit the 1000 Places To See Before You Die took us from Saigon to Dalat – the honeymoon capital of Vietnam and sometimes even called the Vietnamese Paris. As a couple we tried to find out if Dalat truly deserves the title as the most romantic city in Vietnam and if it deserves to be one of the 1000 places.

On our way to Dalat

The cheapest option to get to Dalat from Saigon is the local intercity bus. Dalat is only about 300 km north of Saigon, but the bus takes 7 hours because of the Vietnamese have different understanding of the term “highway”. We booked two tickets and hoped for the best. Continue reading 1 of 1000: Dalat – The Paris of Vietnam

1 of 1000: Pho Hoa (Saigon)

Pho Ga in Saigon
Soni eating Pho Ga at Pho24

The second of the 1000 Places To See Before You Die in Saigon is actually not a place, but food. Even though the title is a specific restaurant, the Pho Hoa in Saigon, it is more about the food itself: Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, which has been named #28 of the 50 most delicious dishes in the world.

We decided to walk to the Pho Hoa restaurant, because it was only 2 km away from our hotel and only a bit further from the Reunification Palace, where we wanted to go anyways. As it turns out, walking 2 km in a city crammed with motorbikes is quite a challenge.

Just imagine our disappointment when we finally got there and found out that it was closed for the day because of renovations. Tired and hungry we decided to treat ourselves to some fried chicken from Colonel Sanders. Yes, we went to a KFC in Vietnam. Some might argue that backpackers should only eat local food to get the “real” Vietnamese experience. But after a few weeks in a foreign country, it feels nice to get some comfort food that you are used to.

The Pho Hoa didn’t look like such a great restaurant that it was worth going back there the next day, so we decided to get some Pho at another place on the next day.

Finally tasting some Pho

The name is quite unusual and its right pronunciation (click to listen) is more difficult than you would imagine. Pho is one of the most favorite dishes in Vietnam and you can buy it at almost every street corner. We opted to eat in at a place called Pho24, a restaurant chain that mainly serves one dish: Pho.

Pho is rice noodles, a special broth that takes hours to make and a choice of chicken (Pho Ga) or beef (Pho Bo). In addition it is served with onions, basil, chili peppers, bean sprouts and lime wedges on a separate dish so you can add whatever you want.

Soni opted for Pho Ga and I took the Pho Bo. After having some very mediocre Vietnamese food in the previous days, Pho was a real delight. Simple, yet tasty and the warm broth felt surprisingly soothing.

Is Pho Hoa really one of the places?

Tank at Reunification Palace
Tank at Reunification Palace

We didn’t get to eat at Pho Hoa, but since it wasn’t really about the restaurant, but more about the food, we fell that we got the experience we were hoping for. Even though it tasted quite good, I wouldn’t say that people really must try this once in their life.

As stated in the previous post, we will combine the Pho Hoa, the Rex Bar and Ben Thanh Market into one place to see and just call it Saigon. Because you really should see Saigon once in your life.

The history that happened here and in all of Vietnam is truly one of the darkest spots in human history. As a German, I have learned so much about the cruelty in our own past that I have totally blocked out all the other cruel things that have happened in other parts of the world in very recent history. So coming here and learning about all the things that have happened here is something everyone should do once in his life. Maybe then we can stop those bad things the next time they are happening.

And while you are in Saigon, you can enjoy the better things of Vietnam and walk through the Ben Thanh market, later eat some soothing Pho and in the evening you can have a drink at the Rex Bar and relax from the stressful streets of Saigon.

The Reunification Palace

Reunification Palace Saigon
The Reunification Palace in Saigon

On our way back from Pho Hoa we went to see the Reunification Palace, which is well worth a visit. It is not so much the park surrounding the palace nor the building itself that was amazing. Much more interesting was the history of the place and the museum in the palace. Especially the exhibit in the basement is as fascinating as it is shocking.

The exhibit shows photographs of the Vietnam War with all its cruelty. I guess those shocking pictures would have never been shown in a Western museum, because it was the West who was also responsible for the horror that happened and the pictures are just very atrocious.

I am well aware that the Vietnamese only show the bad things that the South and the western countries did and of course see no fault in their own actions. But seeing the cruelty in pictures made me research about the Vietnam War and I am completely shocked that I was unaware what cruelty has been supported and even directly inflicted by western countries in this war.

So on a visit to Saigon, the Reunification Palace is a must.