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Sunday 24 March - Arrival in Hanoi

A delayed flight from London meant that I only had a couple of hours before we had to board the overnight train to Lao Cai. We left at 9:45 and the train rocked, rolled, stopped (suddenly) and started its way north west towards the Chinese border.

Monday 25 March - Sapa

Arrived at 7am in Lao Cai and caught a minibus to Sapa. It was an hour up though winding mountain roads. From our hotel we hired scooters and rode up to the Silver Waterfall before continuing 2km further up to a national park. Here we walked along the valley and along a forested river bank to the Golden Stream Love Waterfall. On the way back we climbed up to a small bell tower which offered great views of the surrounding hills. Later that afternoon I rode to Ta Phin village. On route I passed through terraced fields for the first time. It was an arresting sight. Water buffalo grazed on the terraces and children played in the fields down below. A lone girl was standing by the side of the road, and stared at my blankly as I took photos. There was no reaction, except when she was distracted by someone somewhere behind me. At the end of the walk they hurriedly brought me a basket of their handicrafts. There was nothing in particular that appealed, but I felt I should get something for their time. At the entrance to the village a traditionally dressed Red Dao woman in traditional dress, accompanied by a 74 year old lady, asked if they could show me around. It was a pleasantly quiet walk and they talked to me briefly about the life of the people that live here. She showed me to her house where I sat for a while. The husband must be used to tourists entering his home. He sat with his back to me, busily working on something. It was a dimly lit wooden structure with a second level that was used to storing corn and rice.

Tuesday 26 March - Sapa

We rode our bikes to Lao Cha, a short distance outside the town. As soon as we parked we were mobbed by a group of Hmong women. They accompanied us down the path to the village of Lao Chai, in the hope that we would buy their handicrafts. We walked trough terraced fields and continued to Ta Van before ascending up the valley side and along the road back to our bikes. I was told about a place 12km further down where we would have panoramic views of the valley, but we never found it. Still, it's always nice riding around Sapa and we were always looking around at the spectacular scenery. There were pigs grazing, workers and their water buffalo ploughing the terraces, rows of workers with picks, and children playing. I had to look twice when I saw a man on a bike with a fridge tied on the back. The biggest difference with Africa was that people here, especially the children paid less attention to tourists. They would either look curiously at you or ignore you altogether. Very rarely would they even smile.

Wednesday 27 March - Train to Hanoi

A 9:15 departure from Lao Cai. Our first class carriage was full of affluent Vietnamese and a scattering of tourists. It wasn't long before a card game started at the tables in the centre of the carriage. This was accompanied by cigarette smoke, drinking and lots of shouting. Vendors would pass by selling a range of snacks including boiled eggs, unripe mango slices, roasted chestnuts, langans and 'banh day', a pork pate sandwiched by thick and sticky rice cakes, served between two palm leaves to keep your hands clean. The locals very generous, those sitting around me offered me some of everything they had. I'd heard the views from this journey were not interesting but the scenery almost along the entire route comprised of lush green rice paddies with farm working busily working either by hand or using water buffalo. You could image the scene would have been not that different a hundred years ago. We arrived in Hanoi eleven hours later.

Thursday 28 March - Ninh Binh

Our guide met us at the hotel. We'd arranged a two day tour in the Ninh Binh area. It was a three hour drive and on the way we were told about the tombs that appear incongruously like islands in the middle of the rice field. The owners of the land would bury their relatives there to prevent it being taken from them. The dead would be dug up after three years, then the remains would be exhumed and the skeleton would be stripped of any remaining flesh before placing them in the tombs that can be seen. This would ensure that the spirit would pass to heaven, and would normally be done by the children of the dead. We arrived around 11, and visited the turtle and primate rescue centre in the afternoon. There were colourful red shanked duoc langurs and black gibbons and other primates native to Vietnam. The scheme was in partnership with Leipzig Zoo and of its representatives talked to us about the work there. Later we went on the walk in Cuc Phuong national park. It was a 1.5 hour walk through gorgeous rainforest to the thousand year old tree. We followed this with a walk through the botanical garden. Strangely, we were given the keys to the gate. It was very serene, and it was nice to have the place to ourselves. Our accommodation was at Mac Lake. As night fell the sound of frogs intensified and on the walk back from dinner the lights from fireflies appeared in the darkness of the bushes.

Friday 29 March - Ninh Binh

We drove to Tam Coc and were dropped off at the foot of Hang Mua pagoda which sat at the top of one of many karst outcrops that make this region so popular. Around the trailhead was a pretty pool with a stone bridge and trees with overhanging branches. A few sculptures were dotted around, almost hidden amongst the vegetation. Most people come to Ninh Binh to do a boat ride along the rice paddies and towering rocky outcrops of Tam Coc. We'd heard it gets very busy and the boat people can be aggressive when trying to sell you souvenirs and snacks, but it wasn't so bad. 'For the lady', one said to me. 'Rows for 6km'. I was impressed how the boats are rowed with the feet rather than the hands. After lunch we drove back to Hanoi. On the way our guide told us that much of the land used for rice farming on the outskirts of Hanoi is earmarked for industry, as rice production is not very profitable. That would be a shame because that's one of the things that makes the landscape of this part of Vietnam so picturesque.

Saturday 30 March - Halong Bay

The drive to Halong Bay took longer than planned because of heavy traffic. On the way we stopped at a huge souvenir store where girls were working on embroidery art. Also popular here are marble sculptures. Outside, workers were noisily working on pieces more than ten feet high. The price tag for the larger pieces were several thousands of dollars. We arrived around midday and we were met by our very jovial guide, Tony, and he proudly announcing that he was told he looked liked Bruce Lee. Our junk was very comfortable, with rooms and facilities better than most hotels we'd stayed at. There were five of us plus two couples, so it was just the right number. And the food was excellent. The bay was stunning. Literally thousands of islands were scattered around the bay and they appeared to extend forever into the distance. We stopped at a beach were we went swimming, kayaking and visited a cave. Here, the anchored junks lowered their masts. It was only for show, and they did look very evocative from high up at the entrance to the cave. That night we witnessed an impressive electrical storm from our bedroom window.

Sunday 31 March - Halong Bay

In the morning we visited Vung Vieng floating village. The inhabitants used to live a nomadic lifestyle around the bay but in 1984 they settled at spot that provides shelter from the winds. I suspect this was part of a deal with the tour operators. Pearl harvesting one of their sources of income and we saw a woman working at extracting one from an oyster. Coincidentally, she extracted one just as we were watching. We headed back to the mainland and on the drive back to Hanoi we stopped to watch a water puppet show.

Monday 1 April - Hanoi

My last day was to be a relaxing one. We had a lazy morning and enjoyed a coffee at a cafe in the old quarter, watching people from our outside table, and then we walked to Hoa Lo prison. Here, Vietnamese were imprisoned for opposing the French rule and later it was used to detain US POWs from the Vietnam war. It was interesting watching the videos that showed how well the US prisoners were treated, in stark contrast to the harsh treatment of Vietnamese prisoners in the past. We lunched at a German restaurant (honestly) and walked slowly back to the hotel.


* Terraces at Sapa
* Views from the train to Hanoi
* Halong Bay

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