Traveler: Breonne Eberhart
When: January 2018
Northern Vietnam is home to over 23 million people. It is rich in history, culture, war remnants, and especially food. If you came to Vietnam to excite your inner foodie and immerse yourself in the culture like I did, you will not be disappointed. From the bustling capital of Hanoi to staying with hill tribes in the Himalayan mountains. Northern Vietnam has something for everyone.
If you only have a few days to explore you will need to narrow down what you’re going to do and unfortunately may have to cut out some sites that you will hopefully come back and see in the future. I did some research and definitely wanted to spend time eating my way through Hanoi, and I also wanted to do some hiking and be able to live with local people. So I decided on three days in Sapa and two days in Hanoi. I was trying to fit Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh on this itinerary but the travel time was too long plus it is more enjoyable in the summer months when you can get in the water.
I flew to Hanoi from Cambodia costing approximately $150 USD and arrived at No Bai airport which is about a 40 minute car ride to the city. I recommend using Uber or Grab when in Vietnam. Taxis are much more expensive. The plan was to go to Sapa that night so I took an Uber to the train station which is 45 minutes away and cost around $30 USD. The train station is very confusing! We booked our tickets online and used the Sapaly Express train which takes 8.5 hours to arrive in Sapa. Once you get to the train station there are two buildings. Apparently one is to obtain tickets and the other is to wait until your track is called. Well we ended up at the track station with no tickets. I spoke to numerous people and felt like I got absolutely nowhere until magically a guy came and gave me my ticket and ushered us onto the train to a private berth. I have no idea who he was or where he came from but I was very grateful he showed up since the train was leaving in 10 minutes. The train was old but comfortable. If you have two people and want extra room I would recommend buying the whole four person sleeper bed berth. It’s a bit more expensive but I promise it is worth it. It gets pretty cramped especially with your luggage. The staff comes around before you drift off to sleep with goodies such as beer, wine, and hot ramen noodles for purchase. Ramen and a beer before a bumpy 8 hour ride was perfect!
The train leaves at 10pm and arrives at a very early 5am in Lao Cai. Once you arrive in Lao Cai you will be “greeted” by many eager people that want to take you to Sapa. I found that the minibus is the best value at $3.00 per person and takes about an hour. This minibus ride is anything but relaxing. If you are sitting by the window you will be on the edge of your seat and if you are afraid of heights I would probably say either don’t look down or take a nap for an hour. The mountains of Sapa are incredible! But in order to get there you need to drive through the winding cliffs which is an arduous journey.
Arriving in Sapa you should have some idea where you are going to stay. I found a Homestay with the Hmong tribe. Sue was the woman who I had been communicating with for months prior to arriving. Her home was deep in the mountains in a little town called Ta Van which didn’t even have an address. There is no Uber in Sapa but there are a few taxi drivers. The taxi driver didn’t really feel comfortable driving there since the roads aren’t paved most of the way but Sue was able to persuade him. Once you get into Ta Van you are on your own. No taxis, no bus, no transport besides your legs. This is where you test your hiking skills!
Leaving Sapa is done pretty much the same way you got there. Minibus picks you up and takes you to Lao Cai and you can either opt for the train or bus. I took the bus which ranges in price from $12-$20 and takes about 5 hours and is very comfortable. They make a few stops along the way and drop you off directly at your hotel in Hanoi. After spending two more days in Hanoi my flight departed from Noi Bai back to Hawaii.
My first night was spent on the Sapaly Express which I was very pleased with. I mean you are on a train and it is slightly bumpy but I personally love overnight trains. I feel it is a great way to maximize time. You might not get the best night’s sleep but when you wake up you are there!
Ta Van Hmong Village
In Sapa, I found a homestay in a little village called Ta Van. I was really wanting to stay with a hill tribe and be able to live amongst them for a few days to see their culture and way of life. I did some research and found Sue’s place on Airbnb, called Ta Van Hmong village. Sue is part of the Hmong tribe and lives with her immediate and extended family in the hills of Ta Van which is about 30 minutes outside of Sapa. The total cost for two nights was $90 USD and that includes breakfast and dinner with her family. The bungalow was especially nice, had hot water but no heat. Most of the homes were very simple in Ta Van so if you can’t go with the flow and appreciate their way of life this isn’t the place for you considering you are in a very remote and underdeveloped area.
If you are going to Sapa I would recommend going in the spring or summer. It was freezing. I knew it would be chilly but coming from Hawaii I’m not used to the cold so needless to say I had many layers on. It was misty and rainy but even then the views were incredible! All you can see for miles are very steep, carved out platforms carpeting the Hoang Lien Mountains. It looks like something out of a storybook and I’ve never seen such vast beauty anywhere else in the world.
Sapa Victoria Hotel
Located in the heart of Sapa town this is one of the only hotels that has heat in the winter. I really needed to defrost after being in the hills with no heat for two days so decided this was the place to do it. Rooms were nice, service was good, they included breakfast but most importantly it was warm!
O Gallery Premier Hotel and Spa
This boutique hotel located in the old quarter of Hanoi was great. It is in the center of all the action and walking distance to museums, night markets, and restaurants. It was slightly expensive at $150/night but it was in a great location and very quiet for being in the middle of old quarter.
Trekking in Sapa
Trekking with ethnic minority hill tribes in Sapa is one of the highlights of coming to this region. There are 54 ethnic tribes but the two main tribes that populate this rugged but beautiful area are the Hmong and Red Dao. I saw some men but primarily women at the markets and trekking through the mountains. You will see them hauling wicker baskets on their back filled with anything from huge orange trees to babies down the steep mountains. These women are incredible! They trek up to 18 miles a day for food, water, and trading purposes. It definitely put my hiking skills to shame!
If you do go trekking please use a local woman to guide you around the villages and not a tour company. This has become their livelihood and if anyone knows the best spots it is for sure these women. There is no need to book this in advance, as soon as they see a foreigner they will ask you if you want to go trekking and give you a price. It all depends on how long you go for but it is typically between $20-$50 USD for an entire day of experiencing stunning views and meeting new people, which I think is worth its weight in gold.
The Hill Tribes of Sapa
Like I mentioned there are over 54 ethnic minority groups that populate this area. The people of Sapa are very hearty. It was cold when I went and they were in their native attire which consists of a colorfully clad scarf, skirt, and rain boots. The kids would run around with no shoes or socks and were just loving life in 29 degree weather.
If you have time it is so fascinating to go to their different villages and see what their special trade is, how they live, and their unique personalities. I met quite a few charming women at the markets while walking around because they are always trying to sell you something. And while I did buy a lot of their handmade purses and scarves it gets to be a bit much after being there a few days. They will follow you until you politely say no and walk away. They will always ask you where you are from, where you are staying, and say take a look at what I made so you can buy it. Just be firm when saying no and they eventually move on.
If you stay with a local family they are wonderful at explaining their culture, family dynamics, and what their trade is. Sue was a busy woman but made sure she spent time with her guests. She made clothes by using the indigo dying technique which she said was passed down to her from her mother. She also included us in her family meals which was very welcoming and not to mention absolutely delicious food.
Sapa is the highest region in Vietnam and boasts the tallest mountain at 10,312 feet called Fansipan. They have a gondola ride that goes to the top of the mountain for $25 dollars which I didn’t take because it was extremely cloudy. If it is a nice day I think it would definitely have been worth checking out.
Night Markets in Hanoi
If you are staying in Hanoi this night market runs through the old quarter every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. You can seriously find anything here. From clothes, to food, and most importantly Bia Hoi (draft beer).
Hoa Loa Prison
This prison was used during the war to house Vietnamese inmates and American POWs, with the most famous being John McCain. It has an eerie feeling and goes into detail about the living conditions of the prisoners at that time. In each room there are pictures and old remnants of the prison such as an ominous French guillotine.
The only reason I am mentioning Jaspas at Hanoi tower is because if you find yourself in Vietnam during the Super Bowl and you want to watch it then this is the only place I found that airs it live. They have an all you can buffet and bottomless drinks during the entire game for $20 USD. It was a great deal, met some fellow Americans, and of course watched my team finally win the Super Bowl! GO EAGLES!
What to Eat
Umm how do I even narrow this section down! I can’t even begin to tell you how delicious the food is EVERYWHERE in Vietnam. But I am just going to focus on the dishes of the north.
Bun Cha– This was by far my favorite thing that I ate in Northern Vietnam. It is a dish that consists of grilled pork, cold noodles, broth, and herbs. Put it all together by using the scissors provided on the table to cut the noodles, add the pork, broth, and garnish with herbs and see if you can eat just one bowl. It isn’t possible! I found a great place thanks to Anthony Bourdain. It is called Bun Cha Huong Lien and is a short walk from the old quarter.
Pho- I mean you can’t come to Vietnam and not eat Pho. There are so many places that serve this seriously delicious dish but my recommendation is find a Vietnamese lady brewing some up on her street side kitchen that does not have a name. That is where you find the best Pho.
Ca phe Trung– If you want egg coffee Giang cafe is where you want try this for the first time. It was founded in 1946 by Mr. Giang and includes chicken egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter, and cheese. This recipe came about when milk was scarce in Vietnam so Mr. Giang used egg yolks to replace it and invented a pretty damn good cup of coffee.
Street Food- Eat all the street food you can!! Nothing is bad except the little donut holes that the Vietnamese ladies try to sell you out of a basket. They are pretty horrible.
Buon Cuon– Hanoi is a foodies paradise! Every street food you can imagine tucked away in tiny alleys with a child size stool on the sidewalk. That is my happy place. So please do yourself a favor and eat all the Buon Cuon you can find. This dish consists of a thin steamed rice flour pancake with many different fillings. My favorite was the minced pork and mushrooms but there are different flavors. If you can find one on the street I would eat there but I did try Bahn Cuon Gia Truyen which is a phenomenal restaurant.
Bia Hoi- Draft beer at local bars for around 15 cents. I don’t think I need to say anything else about that lol.
The Hill Station in Sapa– I tried the buffalo jerky, Hmong pork confit, and ash baked trout. I would recommend this restaurant but beware of the local wine called Bac Ha. It is no joke and will surely warm your belly and only one shot makes you a little fuzzy.
Local Markets in Sapa- I found there is no shortage of fresh produce and a variety of different meats at the local markets. Thang Co is a delicacy among the Hmong people. It is a type of soup made from horse meat, horse bone, and viscera. I know most people don’t agree with eating horse but it is part of their culture and is said to be pretty amazing. Sapa can get very cold so hot pot is also popular among the locals during the winter months. Try the purple bamboo sticky rice, its soo good!
Sapa Barbecue- You will see many stalls while walking down the street with rows of different skewered meats, vegetables, and bamboo wrapped rice. You just point to what you want and they grill it right up for you. Everything was very tasty.
- If taking the train to Sapa do some research on where to obtain the paper train ticket before getting there because it gets quite confusing
- Download the Grab app. It is similar to Uber but I found it to be a slightly cheaper
- Don’t be afraid to try the street food because you think you might get sick. I had no issues and literally ate anything and everything.
- Always have the Vietnamese Dong on hand, many places will not accept credit cards or other currency
- Get your fill of Vietnamese coffee (with condensed milk) because it is just that good
- Bargaining for items that you buy is expected. The locals triple the price so it is up to you to haggle with them. It is not comfortable and I don’t like doing it but as long as you are asking for a reasonable price they will typically meet you in the middle.
- Hanoi’s traffic is 80% motorbikes and crossing the street can feel a bit daunting. Just keep walking at a steady pace and they will go around you but never stop or hesitate in the middle of the road.
- Learn some Vietnamese words, I noticed people spoke more English in southern Vietnam than in the North.
- It gets chilly in the winter months so a winter coat, gloves, and hat is absolutely necessary in Sapa. Even Hanoi can be a little cold at night too.
- Be respectful with photography. Many of the locals find it rude if you are just snapping pictures of them. So be polite and ask first.
- Enjoy! Vietnam has so much to see that it is impossible to do it all in one trip. But I plan on coming back time and time again to explore this amazing country.