After our visit to the caves we boarded our first night train since China where we ended up with a hard sleeper. Beds in Southeast Asia are much harder than back home so we are definitely used to harder sleeping conditions but this train had an additional present of cockroaches, everywhere! As you can imagine we were exhausted by the time we arrived in Hanoi. Slowing down for a couple days in Hanoi was our solution and a much needed one. To our surprise our hotel had a channel called True Sports and it played 3 NFL games! It was great to have a comfort from home and spend a day napping and watching football.
Hanoi has a very different feel from HCMC, as it is a much older city with small, crowded streets. Each street sells something different and the sidewalks are packed with motorbikes and act as extended storefronts. Indochina Queen II, our hotel, was on the hardware street and feel like Home Depot spread out on a city block. We found cheap, delicious street food, went for a couple runs around the lake and took an hour cyclo-ride with a very enthusiastic driver to visit Ho Chi Min’s Mausoleum, a cathedral and the Flag Tower.
Hanoi is also the central point for trips to Ha Long Bay, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and to the mountainous region of Sapa. After some contemplation we booked the 3-day/2-night trip to Ha Long Bay and for an extra day on the island of Cat Ba on our own. We hate tours so we were kicking ourselves for not following some local advice to do it all on our own but nonetheless had a great time. Ha Long Bay is beautiful but is unfortunately overrun with too many boats and tours each day.
Our boat slowly cruised us through the world-famous bay with a stop at an unimpressive cave. Since we just came from the largest caves in the world, all other caves now seem inferior. After jumping on some kayaks, we paddled around some of the floating villages. Truly hard to imagine the lifestyle of these people as one floating village houses 700 people! For sunset we climbed to a pagoda on one of the islands in the bay for some amazing pics. The evening ended with squid fishing off the back of the boat after dinner and then retreating to our cabin on the boat for slumber.
The second day of the tour we visited a floating pearl farm, docked for a swim by jumping of the boat, which Zane instigated again! By mid-day on Cat Ba Island, we took a leisurely bike ride to a village that does organic farming and then to Cat Ba City. The city has a port with filled with fishing boats and 3 beaches tucked in individual coves connected by meandering scenic walk. Impressed by the number of locals working out the next morning we did our no-nonsense workout on the beach with a swim. Beach 3 is where we camped out for the day and got sun-soaked and well read.
We arrived back from Ha Long Bay at 5pm and caught our night train at 10pm to Sapa. This time we got a softer sleeper, which was the nicest night train we have ever experienced. It had clean sheets, wood walls, complimentary waters and flowers in the cabin! The train arrived in Lao Cai and we hopped an hour minibus ride up the winding mountain roads to Sapa.
Andrew, the Aussie owner of the Four Seasons Homestay, met us in town with a motorbike for us. The roads were a bit rough with our luggage in tow but all was well until we hit a steep gravel portion of the road and unfortunately went down. Bruised, cut and shaken up we made it to the homestay in To Van Village about 15km from Sapa. The village is stationed in middle of jungle surrounded by rice paddies and farms. Taking a run through rice paddies, water buffalo, pigs and village children was unreal. At one point on our run we had to balance on the ledge of the rice paddies and with one wrong move would have ended up in the swamp!
There are multiple tribes that live in this area and the local tribal women try to sell you items all day long. Luckily, we were able to avoid these packs of women by staying in the countryside instead of the tourist town. Having the freedom of our own scooter allowed us to see some amazing sights, visit some waterfalls, and try to find a hot springs with some new friends. On our last day in Sapa the cloud ceiling dropped and we were in a dense fog all day, which made our trip back to the train station in Lao Cai eventful, but other that a little car sickness everything went smoothly.