Visiting Vietnam with a backpack

23rd Jul 2013
Photo of Visiting Vietnam with a backpack 1/8 by Yanting Chan
Shopping in Vietnam
Photo of Visiting Vietnam with a backpack 2/8 by Yanting Chan
Ha Long
Photo of Visiting Vietnam with a backpack 3/8 by Yanting Chan
Cat Cat Village
Photo of Visiting Vietnam with a backpack 4/8 by Yanting Chan
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Photo of Visiting Vietnam with a backpack 5/8 by Yanting Chan
Thác Tình Yêu
Photo of Visiting Vietnam with a backpack 6/8 by Yanting Chan
Photo of Visiting Vietnam with a backpack 7/8 by Yanting Chan
Thác Tình Yêu
Photo of Visiting Vietnam with a backpack 8/8 by Yanting Chan
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

There's something exotic about visiting Southeast Asian countries that the rest of the world cannot fulfill - the medley of cultures, the (almost) untainted countryside and the myraid of Asian cuisine bursting in your mouth. Before I went down to London, my family and I headed to Hanoi, Vietnam for an eye-opening backpacking trip.

From Hanoi, we took an overnight sleeper train down to Sa Pa, frontier town and capital of Sa Pa District in the Lao Cai province in northwest Vietnam. (Don't be fooled by the word capital) Albeit being a mere couple of hours away from Singapore, it felt like we transited into a different era the very moment we landed.

Popped by the famous Thang Long Water puppet show located at 57B Dinh Tien Hoang, an enchanting puppet show showcasing historical legends and tales from the past. Many traditional old Vietnamese speak French, and I see french scattered all around. Marionnettes sur eau du Vietnam can be translated to mean 'Water puppetry of Vietnam'. It's a fascinating cultural experience if you want to get to know more about traditional Vietnam.

Photo of Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hanoi, Vietnam by Yanting Chan

We finally arrived in Sa pa. The overnight train ride on the sleeper berth was worth it, and so was the early morning dash out of the train wondering if we were at the correct stop. We rented a van to drive us down to our accommodations, which took a tad less than an hour's drive. (Note: A lot of taxi drivers perch themselves at the train station so do your own math before agreeing on a cab price). Washed up in the holding area, and had a simple breakfast (although all I could barely manage was orange juice and some plain bread) whilst waiting for our rooms to be ready. As the sun rose to reveal the rolling hills peeking behind the clouds, we were simply enlightened by the majestic view at the window.

One of the trekking highlights in Sa pa would be Cat Cat village (pronounced as 'ca-aht ca-aht village'), a village formed in the mid-19th century and houses the Mong ethnic tribe. This is only 2km away from the central town, but requires some intensive walking. You can easily pick up a map from any hostel reception, or you could hire a local guide - the latter is advisable as there are no proper pathways and the fog makes the visibility very bad.

Along the way, you can catch the French exisiting hydro-electric power station next to the Cat Cat waterfall. The ethnic tribe takes pride in their traditional handicrafts such as cotton tree planting, weaving and bracelets, which have been preserved through generations. They also had a show performed for visiting tourists (unfortunately yes, they have succumbed to tourism as well) which features a unique cultural tradition specific to their people called the keo vo (wife pulling) festival.

Photo of Cat Cat Village, San Sả Hồ, Sa Pa, Lao Cai, Vietnam by Yanting Chan

Trekking down 6km South east from Sa Pa central town leads you to Lao Chai village, a picturesque route of paddle fields and minority houses. We passed by oxen transporting goods, wild pigs roaming around and elementary school children playing in a local school - so it was quite an eye-opener. We had lunch near the Black H'mong house before continuing the trek to Tavan village of Dzay minority people. The skies also became gloomier as the day passed, that being said the picture below was taken by my iPhone and was not edited!

It was also on the route where an elderly tribeswoman started following my family in getting us to buy some pottery craft. She doesn't speak a word of English and only mumbled in Vietnamese dialect, but boy was she persistent while we walked on and on. She had a hunchback and a frail frown on her face, which made it extremely hard to reject her advances. This really sheds light onto these tribes trying to make a living by delving into tourism - some argue that they shouldn't be trying so hard to appease tourists in putting up a front and intruding into our authentic experience but shouldn't we as tourist vice versa think about our intrusion into their comfort bubble as well?

Photo of Lao Chải, Lao Cai, Vietnam by Yanting Chan

The last part of my Vietnam backpacking travelog, saw us trekking further into the countryside of Sa Pa before heading back to Hanoi for the last leg of the trip. Located in the commune of San Kingfisher lake, 4km southwest from the town center, making our way to Thác Tình Yêu (or known as love waterfall) was one of our highlights of our trip.

The next morning, we took a 3.5 hour drive to Ha long city from Hanoi city centre, and the Ha long bay boat trip took about 5 hours journey round trip. We cruised through the emerald waters between the limestone outcrops and long sea corridors, and stopped by the Thien Cung Grotto cave in the island of Dau Go.

Some snippets from my travel journal for the first day: "First day of Vietnam. Our taxi from the airport took us speedily to the Central district, we're tailgating the vehicle in front of us (ditto for the truck behind us) and lane markings don't mean anything here. My mum looks at me with concern and we begin to voice our concerns amongst ourselves in Mandarin before telling the driver to slow down. He doesn't care and proceeds to talk loudly on his phone in Vietnamese. Welcome to Vietnam." "Survived a three hour flight, but almost got knocked over whilst mastering the Art of crossing Hanoi traffic. It is indeed an Art mastered only by the locals, for the traffic here is horrendous. Getting close to being knocked over 20 times a day spells a good day for any tourist. Traffic lights are non-existant, but while some are erected along the junction, no one bats an eyelid!" We settled in a quaint cafe for lunch by the busy road.

Shopping is more of a cultural activity than actual retail therapy here. Being on a backpack limit for our necessities, the goods sold were interesting to see, but not exactly my cuppa tea. For the fashion label buyers, there are many branded outlet stores in the Central district to cater to your palette as many have factories based here. That being said, I still bought a lifetime supply of black hair ties and a fleece coat for winter.

Rushing down to the Hanoi train station was a blur. Securing the train tickets was a challenge, as we didn't know which train company offered the best deal but we got ours from a budget travel counter who helpfully broke down the pros and cons. To make matters worse, the heavy Vietnam rain and the crowd of the locals were making rushing more unbearable. While free ponchos were being given out, it was not so much of a saving grace as the rain was heavy.

So there we were, hobbling through the rain with our backpacks and dim lights across train tracks (bright streets would be appreciated!) to find our train and our carriages. The trains here all have fancy names, not numbers so it was pretty hard to find. We found Pumpkin on the Livitrans express and quickly boarded. Wet and tired, we were comforted to see our sleeper train beds equipped with seemingly warm blankets. A train crew comes by and gets us hot green tea - such a treat after all that fuss in the rain. The lights in the cabins are quite dim, and the cabin space itself is very narrow. We change out of our wet attire, and I regret wearing my canvas shoes which are soaked down to its core. There are no shower cubicles, so we dry ourselves using towels and wash up with the icy water running on the tap. My sister and I take the upper bunks, and we pretend it's a mini adventure climbing up and down

I've read many a time that Sa pa is where heaven meets earth, and indeed Sa pa lies in the heart of the uniqueness of Vietnam - such bliss to have woken up to such a view throughout my stay. Pictures certainly don't do it justice ♥ Exploring the Northwestern part of Vietnam was quite a drastic change from all the cities I've been to, the mix of tribal life and enveloping mountains were a refreshing breath of air.

Trekking in the cool climate was also a huge welcome, the tropical heat in Singapore just makes it too unbearable to trek on for hours!Being typical equator-beings, winter in Vietnam can be quite cold. Especially with Sa pa being in the North and higher in altitudes at cloud level, the temperatures tend to be slightly slower. For that, I was thankful that I had bought a fleece coat from Hanoi - so do remember to read up before you pack!

Mid-December is the trademark monsoon season for South-east Asian countries, hence many routes were reduced to nothing but muddy tracks eroded by the rainwater. We saw many warning signs, presumably telling us in Vietnamese to back off (not very tourist friendly). It's not only slippery and muddy, most routes are very narrow and if you do not hold on properly, you're just standing at the side of the cliff. The vehicles

Photo of thị trấn Sa Pa, Lao Cai, Vietnam by Yanting Chan

It was a long track, and the visibility was getting worse because of the abundance of water vapour in the air. This in turn made the paths extremely slippery, even though we were geared in our sport shoes. Some paths were clearly strewn with stones which were supposed to allow our soles to have a better grip, but the rain effectively had us walking with zero friction. Needless to say, tripping and falling down the slopes were so common - sometimes even falling down in the midst of helping another person up! Good hiking shoes are so important, lesson learnt.

Unfortunately for me, I learnt it the hard way. While crossing the Thác Tình Yêu stream (translated as: stream of love), I missed my footing whilst hopping from rock to rock and fell in. If you look at the next picture closely, there were yellow and black sea snakes in there, thank goodness I was completely oblivious if not I would have struggled more. Because it was winter in Vietnam (the trip was done in December), the stream was freezing cold and made me drenched from head to toe - even my coat was soaking wet so I was pretty much wet and cold for the rest of the journey. My sister, being my sister, just stood at the other end and laughed. And of course, I became the bane of my mum's jokes from then on too.The Thác Tình Yêu (cascade of love) waterfall is a long tedious trek away, but it was definitely worth the deal for it was really breathtaking! My iPhone doesn't do it justice to capture it in its entirety, but it does bring out the essence of its natural rustic charm. I imagine that in summer time, the locals would like to enjoy a refreshing dip in the waters and

Photo of Love Waterfall, Sơn Bình, Lai Chau, Vietnam by Yanting Chan

It's quite overwhelming at first because of the well preserved statues and reliefs, as well as the natural formations of stalactites and stalagmites formed millions of years ago. This is the largest grotto in Ha long bay and also the most beautiful one, covering 3000 square meters of amazement and 25m above sea level. There are panes showing legends of how each stalactite is formed, so it was like an Art museum. The boat ride itself was very relaxing, and the top deck was open for us to chill on deck chairs and enjoy the sea breeze.The rest of the city was rather dull because of the poor visibility which rendered the famous Hanoi lake almost impossible to appreciate. The city buzz and traffic made the contrast between country and city life really apparent though, whilst the countryside was peaceful and calm, the city offered snapshots of locals entwined in their personal stories - the cyclo driver, the gold trader or that hawker peddling around makeshift stores with beads of sweat dripping down under her nón lá (leaf hat). There's never a dull moment in the city. Just standing at the corner of a random street offers you a wealth of insight, albeit not being the most pretty sight but observe and you'll get Vietnam unedited.

Photo of Thien Cung Grotto, Bãi Cháy, Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam by Yanting Chan

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