Tag Archives: Travel

Travel Guide: Sapa

When my sister told me she was coming to visit, I knew I wanted to take her to Vietnam, but I also wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. We spent a day and a half in Hanoi before taking a very lovely night train northwest to Sapa to spend two days trekking with local Hmong guides. I first learned about the Sapa trek from someone I met on an airplane on the way to Hoi An a couple years ago and was excited to finally make it there!

We booked this part of our trip with the friendly, helpful, ever knowledgable people at Lily’s Travel Agency. They were very responsive via email and WhatsApp, which made the planning very easy on my end. Lily’s Travel works with Mao, a Black Hmong woman who leads Sapa treks, to provide a “backroads” trekking experience and an authentic look at the lives of the Hmong people.

Our train left Hanoi at 10pm and we arrived at Lao Cai station at 6am. It was very cozy and truly delightful to curl up with a book and listen to the sounds of the train. I’ve always found the whistle of a train to be simultaneously romantic, mysterious, and exciting.

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From there, we took an hour-long bus ride to Sapa where we met the spunky, warm Mao. Everyone we met in Sapa seemed to know her! Mao introduced us to several other local guides and to her sister-in-law, our guide for the next two days. Mao took a particular liking to my sister’s pink curly hair – but then again, who doesn’t?

Our trek started from the town of Sapa at about 8:30am to give us time to swap the glasses for contact lenses and have some eggs and coffee. It was sunny but cold and I was glad for my winter coat and gloves . . . and skiing sweatshirt . . . and thermal leggings. (My sister, on the other hand, had come from the very cold upstate New York and maintained that it was in fact rather balmy.)

I really love meeting fellow travelers and trekking in Sapa provided a great opportunity to do that. Our group included a Malaysian man, several Singaporeans, a French woman, and two German girls. Along the way, we met other travelers from the US, Canada, and Israel. I really enjoy knowing that people from all over the world were on the same trail on the same chilly but sunny day, happy to be where they were and excited for what they would see.

I also really loved that we were all guided on our journey by a group of Hmong women who were wonderfully knowledgeable, liked to talk and make jokes, and made for excellent company.

The trek took us through rice paddies that are dormant in the winter because of the weather. Winter in northern Vietnam is too cold and dry for rice to grow but I’ve been to rice plantations in Malaysia and can imagine what it looks like in the summer. For that reason, though, I loved seeing the landscape at a different time of year. It was beautiful just as it was.

We also saw our fair share of animals! Pigs, water buffalo, and dogs were all in abundance.

By the time we arrived at the homestay, also coordinated by Mao, we were exhausted and very glad to huddle up around a charcoal fire in a large stone bowl on the floor. Our crew for the night was a really lovely group – the German and French women we’d been with all day and an American living in Thailand who we’d met over lunch. One of the girls was brave enough to test the hot water in the bathroom located just outside the house. Thanks to her, we all took a hot shower! The hardest part was figuring out where to keep our clothes so they wouldn’t get wet. Except for my sister, we wore jackets, hats, and scarves indoors because any spot away from the fire was as cold as being outside. I slept in my jacket, too, but I think I was the only one.

It was really relaxing to sit and talk and get to better know the people we’d hiked with all day. Because of that, I’m glad we stayed in the more traditional of Mao’s two houses. Our homestay had a ladder to reach the unlit second floor loft, which housed cozy mattresses and quilts under mosquito nets. There were curtains on the main floor separating one room from the other, single lightbulbs to illuminate the kitchen and main sitting area, and a combination lock to secure the sheet metal door at night. Our guide told me that her home with her husband’s family is very similar to the house where we slept. We visited the newer homestay the next morning and while it was made of brighter wood, better lit, and had private bedrooms with doors and a staircase to the second floor, I feel that we had a far more authentic experience  than we would have otherwise. At any rate, it was an adventure and that’s why I travel.

And speaking of adventures, the second day of our trek was my first day of mountain trekking in mud and rain! The rice fields looked completely different and the mist all around us made for an experience quite unlike the sunshine of the previous day.

It was still pouring when we finally returned to the town of Sapa where we had arranged to spend a night in a proper hotel rather than taking the 9:30pm train back to Hanoi the same day. Since the downpour continued and we were cold, wet, and muddy, I am very glad we made this decision. I would not have enjoyed sitting on a train for eight hours under those conditions, let alone trying to sleep on one.

There isn’t much to do in Sapa, but we enjoyed a calm day of wandering. It was much warmer in town than in the mountains, which also very welcome.

That night, we were back on the train to Hanoi, already missing the mountains and the “trek life”, as my sister termed it.

I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Sapa since my first trip to Vietnam and I’m really glad that my sister and I could experience a new place together. After a couple days in Hanoi, we were off again, this time to one of my favorite destinations – Chiang Mai! Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Hanoi x2

Two and some years ago, I explored Hanoi with my dad when he came to visit. We spent a few days there before going to Hoi An to relax from the hustle and bustle that characterizes Vietnam’s capital city. This time around, I was travelling with my sister and we spent a total of three nights in Hanoi, bookending a trip north to Sapa (as a respite from Hanoi’s hustle and bustle). I really enjoyed being back in the city and showing my sister some places that I remembered. The weather was completely different this time around and far more enjoyable now, during Hanoi’s winter, than it was in the summer. We were able to do so much more walking because the air was (relatively) fresh and cool.

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve and found the city even busier than usual. Crossing the street is an activity of its own in Vietnam and the closed streets, parading Christmas celebrants complete with costumes (my sister likened it to Halloween), and jazzy Christmas concert (we actually heard a rendition of “happy birthday, Jesus”) made it more challenging than usual.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral

One of the things I really love about Hanoi is that the Old Quarter and French Quarter, though adjacent to each other and both quite small, feel like completely different cities. We spent time every day in the Old Quarter, which I think is the more fascinating:

Needing quiet, however, I wandered the French Quarter by myself the morning of our last day in Hanoi:

There’s an excellent café culture of Hanoi and coffee was a highlight of every day. Vietnamese coffee is served in tiny cups and I rather enjoyed visiting two cafés in quick succession.

Though we spent most of our time just wandering, my sister had told me that she really wanted to visit temples on her trip to Asia and Hanoi did not disappoint. There are Buddhist temples everywhere and it’s perfectly acceptable to stop in. We entered several instead of just passing by, especially at the beginning of our trip when it was all new:

Hanoi also has some very famous temples that I was more than happy to visit again. The first of these was Ngoc Son Temple, located on Hoan Kiem Lake, the center of Hanoi:

To get there, you need to cross Huc Bridge, which is cool because it’s red. I did take a photo during the day but this one was better:

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Turtle Tower is another Hanoi landmark, also located on Hoan Kiem Lake, but is inaccessible:

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My favorite temple in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius 1,000 years ago. I love it because in addition to being really beautiful, it is dedicated to learning (my favorite thing!). It contains massive carved turtles listing the names of students who passed state exams. Unfortunately, I was dissatisfied with all of my turtle pictures, but the Temple of Literature is still really pretty:

We also visited the Hanoi Citadel, which was new to me. The citadel is really more of a palace; it was the residence of Vietnamese royalty until the nineteenth century. It was lovely to walk through the grounds and see several small museum exhibits of artifacts found during various excavations. There was also an exhibit on the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call America’s War, as I learned when I visited Ho Chi Minh City) that was interesting because it portrays a different war than the one I studied in school.

Although I don’t have any pictures to prove it, we also went to a water puppet show, which was the other new activity for me! Water puppetry originated in the wet rice fields in Vietnam and now is performed on stage by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. They control the puppets on very long poles while standing waist-deep in water. The shows depict scenes of traditional Vietnamese life and are accompanied by singers and an orchestra playing traditional instruments. We didn’t understand the words but we understood the ideas and enjoyed it very much.

Again, no pictures to prove it, but we ate very well. There was far more vegetarian street food available in Hanoi this time than I remember from last time (or maybe I’ve gotten better at looking) and all of it was delicious! The only disappointment was not being able to find vegetarian pho, which seems to be everywhere but Vietnam.

From Hanoi, we took a sleeper train northwest to Sapa, which is up in the mountains and very close to the border with China. More on that soon!

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Suddenly Solo

My sister and I said goodbye today after a visit lasting almost three weeks. We explored Singapore, northern Vietnam, and northern Thailand before returning to Singapore for the weekend. (Blog posts in progress!) She left mere hours ago and I miss her.

Whenever I leave my family after any length of time at home, I experience a sense of restlessness, an inability to focus, loneliness, and a hint of anxiety. I recognize those emotions in that order every time. I felt the same way as soon as I hugged my sister goodbye. And I laughed inwardly because I hadn’t expected that at all.

We don’t talk much when we’re apart and we have a history of becoming very easily frustrated with each other. We’re stubborn in different ways, readers of usually different works from different schools of thought, and very different in our habits and preferences. But we’re both independent, open-minded, and flexible. We often have similar goals but very different approaches to achieving them.

So while we traveled, explored, and experienced three different places, I felt like I was doing the same with our relationship. I learned a lot about my sister, about who she is and who she is to me. I learned about myself, too, which is what happens whenever I begin to really see other people. We had some conversations that have made me think and question and others that have added new layers to already complicated ideas.

She’s always been my sister, but we made the choice a long time ago to be friends. The nature of all friendships and relationships change over time and ours is no exception.

For these reasons and more, I miss her already.