Trips from Hanoi: Halong Bay and Sapa
Most visitors plan this as an overnight or two-night excursion from Hanoi. Many travel companies can arrange this trip for you. I recommend going with a company that keeps the group size under 10.
The typical trip is a morning departure from your hotel in Hanoi, a three- to four-hour bus ride to the bay, and then a cruise across the bay to Cat Ba Island, which has a number of mid-range hotels. Your trip will probably include all meals.
Tip: There is usually a lower-cost option to stay on your boat. The accommodations are cramped but the food is better than on the island.
The outbound trip usually includes a stop at one or more craft shops. If you get to stop at the large complex run by the agency to provide jobs for the disabled, that’s the place to spend your money.
The first or second day of your trip includes a cruise around the bay, with several stops to see floating villages and karst caves. You can extend the trip and spend a few days sea-kayaking to other caves – a very interesting experience.
Expect to pay about $10-15 per day for your trip, accommodations and food.
You can also go by train to the harbor area and hire a boat or take the ferry or hydrofoil to Cat Ba Island, but the trips arranged out of Hanoi are really quite good.
Sapa & the Mountains (then off to China)
It is possible to fly to Sapa, but I find the night train (soft sleeper, of course) to be a pleasant trip. The train ride is eight or nine hours to the town of Lao Cai (right at the Chinese border) and then a 90-minute bus ride up a steep road to Sapa.
Travel companies in Hanoi will arrange three- and four-day trekking excursions to Sapa for $50-100 per person. The cost varies depending on the level of accommodation in Sapa and the size of your group. I went with a friend in 2004 and we paid $80 each for a group of two, and stayed in a new hotel (Bamboo Sapa) with all meals included, guide included, two days of trekking, the night train each way, and two nights in the hotel.
The town of Sapa is interesting. There are Colonial remnants such as restored villas and a church, as well as some adequate restaurants with patios and views of the hills.
Sapa is a trekking heaven. You can go it alone if you wish – the paths are well marked and not too strenuous. With a guide you get to go into tribal homes, see sights you might otherwise miss, and learn the local history of the various ethnic groups. You can also stay overnight at various villages, and this requires a guide.
Take a trip to one of the surrounding villages. That’s what most of the treks do, visiting Cat Cat, Sin Chai, Ta Van, Lao Chai, Su Pan and other nearby villages.
Go to Bac Ha, a town about 40 km/24 miles northeast of Sapa. Make sure you visit on Sunday when the people from several hill tribes come to the market in all their tribal costumes.
The highest point in Vietnam is Fan Si PanMountain (10,000 feet or 3,000 meters). It can be trekked in a single day if you’re in good shape, or you can overnight in the warmer seasons. Don’t even think about going without a guide, though. Mountain weather is treacherous and can change so fast. You can go from sunny and warm to snowing in less than an hour, and then all paths disappear. If you want to climb the mountain, the guide selection is better in Sapa and you can check out the gear before you sign on.
If you want to explore the many ethnic villages on your own, consider renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You can self-drive, but you may want to hire a driver. Figure $30-$50 per day for the vehicle, and another $20-$25 for the driver. If you’re a heavy-duty mountain biker and brought your own gear you might try biking, but you’ll have a hard time finding a guide or accommodations.
This is the bustling trading village and border town that marks the end of the Reunification Express. From here you can cross to China if you have a visa. You can continue on to Kunming by train (twice a week) or walk or take a taxi to the border and cross on foot. On the Chinese side you can get more frequent trains or a bus and continue onward.
Keep in mind the border is open only from to ; China is one hour ahead of Vietnam, so you actually need to cross earlier – by – or you’ll be stuck overnight in Lao Cai.
If you do have to spend the night here, check out the many guesthouses and hotels on the road running from the train station to the border (Nguyen Hué). The prices are high because of all the Chinese who come on two- and three-day trips.Weekends fill up fast. The restaurants around the train station offer decent, cheap food.
The Red River Estuary & Delta
If you are not going to get the Mekong Delta this is the next best thing. There are no particular sights – rather one goes for the experience. Life is slow and you are in the heart of the second breadbasket, prime rice-growing country.
The most popular trip here is along the river, in boats rowed almost exclusively by women, to the Perfume Pagoda (actually a cave). The trek up is slippery and steep, so be prepared.
It’s easy to arrange this day trip from Hanoi. The cost should be about $8-$10, including lunch and all other costs, plus the boat trip.
The tribal people who row the boats will become quite insistent on a large “tip” at the end of the trip. This is not the norm in Vietnam, but be prepared for a nasty confrontation with the boys and men at the end of your trip if you don’t hand over a few dollars.
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