Home Stay – Sapa Valley Style

Staying in someone else’s home is always a bit daunting. You don’t know whether the floor creeks so loud, that the householders wake up, and you’re always afraid you just may not find the light switch once you find the bathroom. But think of doing that in a completely different country; like Vietnam and, in the famous Sapa Valley.

After the long muddy walk down into the base of the valley, in the rainy season, you meet your hosts and chat a little. In our case, the hosts didn’t know any English and we, of course didn’t know any Vietnamese.  Fortunately, our guide was Vietnamese and was able to translate for us in our conversation with the members of the family.

The host’s elderly mother was using a grinding wheel to crush homegrown rice to make spring rolls for the evening meal. The little daughter was amused as I took video of her and her pets and then showed the moving pictures from the camera.

Take a moment to think of all the luxuries we have in a western world and mull over the idea of enjoying a home stay experience in Vietnam yourself for your next holiday. Then come in to see Lyn and get more information on how to get to this little village in the amazing Sapa Valley.


111006 Hue Motor Bike Tour

At the end of our group tour in 2011, 90% of the folk voted the 5 hour Motor Bike Tour in Hue as their most exciting experience of the trip. There were various stops along the way but one of the interesting stops was when we visited a lady who was making a traditional hat. She had been affected by the agent orange sprayed during, what the Vietnamese call, the American War. Parts of her limbs and digits were missing or not working properly, but this did not prevent her taking up this ancient art. You’ll have to do the tour to see her.

Here’s just a 2 minute taste of the motor bike tour.

111011 Tam Coc River Cruise

Tam Coc River is south of Hanoi in the Ninh Binh region of Vietnam and has been Heritage Listed. Take a look at this video and enjoy the method of rowing a boat; hard work for the amateur indeed. But the scenery is different to what one would expect in Asia with glass smooth, clear water.

October 16, 2011 Sunday Bac Ha

Today as we look out over the Sa Pa Valley the mist is very dense and we can only see white.  Yesterday, when the weather was fine, our Hotel is ‘hanging’ off the side of a cliff and we can see most of the valley we have walked around in the last two days.  We have breakfast, which is not the best we have had on this great tour of Vietnam, and are picked up at 8:00am for the long 100km drive to Bac Ha.  I say ‘long’ because it takes over 3 hours.  There is a short 10km section of divided road but the rest is steady going although the road surface is smooth most of the way.

Bac Ha market is the largest market in the area, situated in the small town of Bac Ha.  Each Sunday morning, it is literally a riot of color as many different ethnic groups such as Flower Hmong, Phu La, Black Dao, Tay, Nung minorities, gather to buy and sell.  We spend 2 hours exploring the interesting market, where ‘anything’ is available.  From textile wear to handcrafts, food, raw meat (guts and pig head included).  The non-vegetarians amongst us become instant vegetarians for lunch.  There is a ‘live’ market too.  Chickens, ducks, dogs, cock fighters, geese, and water buffalo.  Lyn and I buy ‘nothing’ although we are pressured many times, “Buy from me?”  The quality of the handcrafts is good and durable but our suitcases are full and heavy.  We see a guy having a haircut and his nostril hair cut was included.

We find a place to have lunch at a ‘tourist’ restaurant.  The vegetarian set menu is the request – yes, there is omelet included, again.  If eggs are aphrodisiac, then we will need to put out the ‘Please Do Not Disturb’ sign on our return home.

Leaving Bac Ha, we wind down the valley to a stop where we leave the van and start a 30 minute walk through a farming area and to a canoe pickup point.  The canoe is iron with a motor on the end of a shaft.  The steering is in the method you move the shaft around.  We make our way down the Chay River and experience the picturesque scenes on the riverbanks.  They are ‘mining’ sand from the river.  We then re-join our van towards Lao Cai and visit the boarder to China.  There are people carting large loads of cargo across the bridge, from China into Vietnam.  Perhaps the loads contain ‘copy-cat’ products for sale in Vietnam.

We have a meal in a restaurant in Lao Cai before boarding the ‘first class’ express to Hanoi at 8:00pm.  We ‘stuff’ ourselves into our room and take up the sleeping position for 8-9 hours.

October 15, 2011 Saturday Sa Pa

We awake at 6:00am but lie in waiting listening to the roosters all around the valley, and for the first person toget moving in our homestay.  Amazingly, none of us get up during the night as it is too difficult to get out of the mosquito net, climb down the sqeeky stairs, out the front door and along the house to the loo.  It is a full flush toilet but does not take paper – there is a bin beside for that stuff.

After a chat about the hardness of the bed, we are served tea and coffee outside looking over the Sa Pa valley.  The young daughter enjoys watching herself on the video and becomes a friend of us all.

The work of cutting the rice, thrashing it, sifting the chaff and bagging it has started for the day.  Breakfast is pancakes or, crepes – they are thin and covered with honey and banana; they taste better than McDonalds.

After packing, we start our walk for the day.  It is much shorter than yesterday and the track has dried out somewhat.  The slower pace gives us time to take photos we didn’t have a chance to take yesterday.  I wish I had my tripod as the movement in the fields is worth having done well – oh well, we will just have to put up with some jitter when the DVD is complete.

We all notice the difference of the faces.  The men and ladies’ faces tell stories of hard work, the children that of culture being engrained in them, but given a chance and they will beam.  Lots of photos are being taken with big lenses to fill up the space.

The area we are passing through is Giang Ta Chai village of the Red Dao minority.  Their clothes are hardy, black, and many have embroidery of high quality.  The many ladies and girls along the walk are trying to sell us handcrafts, some are the greatest rip off merchants around, we find, when we check out a local handcraft store.

The harvest is busy.  It is interesting to notice a couple that have a table set up to do their gleaning.  The rice falls down a hole and there are a couple of fans blowing the chaff away from the pile of rice.  As the rice is separated, kids roll down the piles of chaff before it is ‘fired up’.  Then the rice is spread out on tarpaulins to dry and bag for use during the coming year, for in this region, there is only the one harvest per year instead of the two or even three.

We walk around 5kms to where we meet our van, which takes us back up the valley to Sa Pa.  Fortunately, we are able to check in to our Hotel early and we are able to get a shower before lunch.

Sa Pa town seems to be just one big market.  Traders are all over the place.  The shops market good wares.  There are a number of “North Face” shops selling Gortex clothing at a very cheap rate.  $55 for what appears to be genuine product of the quality sold in Australia for over $400.  Keens walking shoes and sandals are $35 each instead of $150-200.  Good quality ponchos are just $8.  So … we buy.  Massages are going cheap too – 60 minute foot and leg massages for $5, 75 minute body massages for $12.  Lyn and I take the body massage after we have eaten dinner and made final purchases.

We retire at 10pm after packing ready for a big day ahead, which includes an overnight train trip back to Hanoi.

October 14, 2011 Friday Sa Pa

I awake soon after midnight – the train is stopped.  Half an hour and a train passes us going the other way.  The air conditioner is working and all are snoring their heads off.  I play iPhone Sudoku for an hour and a half before I fall off to sleep again.  I awake at 5:10am thinking that the iPhone has fallen out of my hand and onto the floor.

A ‘tap, tap’ comes along the carriage as the conductor wakes us as we near Lai Chai, just 3km from the China/Vietnamese border.  There is no-one on the platform to help us with our baggage so we walk 9 carriages to the station exit to find our guide, Hai, waiting for us.  We board a Hyundai van for our one-hour trip to Sa Pa.

It is raining and quite foggy.  Sa Pa is a mountain town.  It is very busy with lots of tourists finding breakfast and walking gear before setting off on a trek through the expansive valley we see ahead.  We have breakfast in a little restaurant from a set menu we can choose from, but only the one item. Hai comes back and announces that Lyn and Val don’t have the right legs for walking the trek planned for today.  “How dare you Hai!”  The shorter trek is planned.

Lyn and Val believe it is time for new ponchos. We find a shop with good quality ponchos at $8.50 each.  They are very bright but we buy these iridescent monstrosities and make our way back to a meeting point we have pre-arranged with Hai.  He suggests that gumboots are the best to journey in, and the girls think so too; so off again to buy Chinese gumboots.  Lyn, Val and Michael come back 30 minutes later in a pair of gumboots each, as well as two pair of new socks each; fit to be trekkers in the Sa Pa region.  I decline the idea and stick with my Keen sandals.

We finally set off, with an equal number of hill-tribes ladies in tow.  We try to fend them off but they stay by us.  We find they are looking for work.  “What work?” you say.  They turn out to be the best ‘walking sticks’ you can own.  Strong hands are available the minute the track gets slippery and hard to stay upright on.  Now, these ladies are worth knowing.  They have steady feet and strong bodies to take even our weight when it starts to slither along.

We take the track to the bottom of a deep valley.  It is a misty rain when we start but we end up shedding our glorious ponchos.  I slip over twice and Val and Michael the once.  The others are very clean.  We see the people tending their crops and gardens despite the conditions.  The scenery is not real bright but you can tell that on a clear day, beauty would surround you.  Rice fields on the mountainside are everywhere.  The track is muddy and slippery.

At our lunch spot, we farewell the ladies by purchasing  some of their handcrafts.  Lunch is ‘sub-way’.  White rolls, tomato, cucumber, omelet, and ham.  Some of the drinks are new to us.  Lemon tea in a can, guava juice in a can, watermelon juice in a can.  Coke had a rest for me for the day.

After lunch, we trek further down the valley to a village of minority tribes. There we see lots of other trekkers, some whom we saw back in Sa Pa.  We find our homestay and sit down to a cup of green tea.  Some of us take a shower.  I find the bed and go to sleep, with out a problem, for 90 minutes.

Dinner is served at 6:00pm after an entre of “Vietnamese” Fries.  We eat with the family of husband and wife, a couple of cousins, grand parents, and a daughter who is so cute; all she needs is to know English and she would be western.  The meal is made up of rice, chocos, tofu, vegetable stir-fry, egg omelet, buffalo meat, pickled bamboo shoots, spring rolls and watermelon.  Following the meal there is nothing much to do so we are in bed soon after 8:00pm.  The bedroom is upstairs and the bed is a thin mattress under mosquito nets.

October 13, 2011 Thursday Cuc Phuong National Park

We wake up early.  The security light is beaming into our room.  The room is comfortable and we have slept under mosquito nets appropriately hitched to poles from the corners of our beds.  Breakfast is different – back to very basics.  Would you believe French bread sticks, omelet, butter and jam?  Oh!  We have tea or coffee provided – but just the one cup each, is included in the menu.  We pay for the extra one – 1,000 dong (50c).

Cuc Phuong National Park is an area shared by three provinces

We set off on a 20km ride to an ‘easy’ walk of 6 km.  The drive is on a concrete road that meanders through the tall, tight undergrowth.  We arrive at the starting point and get packs and water sorted out.  Our destination is to a 1,000 year old tree.

Generally, the track is good, wet but places slippery in places.  After 500 meters, we are convinced our guide is not quite spot on – this is a category 3-4 walk, not a category 2 as has been explained to us.  The steps get steeper, the undergrowth denser.  An interesting little lizard is steadfast to, and the colour of a rock.  Ants are nipping a worm to kill it for future eating.  Long legged spiders give Lyn a fright and so the rest of the trek is taken up ensuring they don’t get near her again – her fear of leeches is still prevalent.

We make it to the top of many hills.  It starts raining and on goes the ponchos again.  It is just a passing shower and hardly penetrates the high overhead tree foliage.  Steps, and more steps.  Val slips over 3 times, that I notice, without injury.  We arrive back at the van for transport back to the visitor’s center.

We are too late to visit the Primate Rescue Centre, and so have lunch before setting off on our return to Hanoi City.

The Hanoi Hilton is kind to us in letting us use the Fitness Center to shower and prepare for our train travel tonight.  We sit around in the foyer and enjoy a ‘western’ snack before being collected for the train station.

Arriving at the station, we are met by crowds of people jostling for a space between the maze of motorbikes and buses doing the same as us.  A guy sees us not sure where we should be going and grabs our train tickets, takes a look, and says “follow me.”  We are off – on a journey not to be forgotten.  He finds the person who allocates our berth on the train.  Then off to where the train is parked in the marshaling yards.  We reach the train 5 minutes before the engine hooks on to the train.  Our ‘helper’ asks for his tip for service.  It has to be $2.  Oh well, what the heck and we pay.  When we struggle up into the carriage we eventually understand the numbering system.  Ah, the number is our ‘berth’ for the night.  A small room with four beds, four people, four people’s luggage is not much spare space.  We giggle – heaps.

The train leaves 10 minutes after scheduled departure time at 9:10pm.  It seems the position to be in for comfort, is the sleeping position.  So we take up our positions for the next 8 or 9 hours; sudoku books and pens at the ready, or iPhone/iPad for games to be endured.  By 10:30pm we have all fallen asleep.


October 12, 2011 Wednesday Ninh Binh

Today starts with breakfast at a four star hotel.  But it is not good – No cereal for breakfast.  Not even a ‘wheat pillow’.

We leave the hotel on our pushbikes with a tour guide who knows where he wants to go to but not sure how to get back on the track that he knows.  It is fun to ride through the back part of the towns, down alleys and beside fish farms.  Many of the lower level of the houses are used as either restaurants, workshops, hairdressers, trade stores, motorbike repair shops, iron gate makers, many houses were doing renovations so it was ‘use the street as a place to get the concrete ready’ sort of thing.  We venture more into the countryside where coaches never go.  We are impressed with the innovative ideas on how to farm.  Just simply, it is delightful.  A farmer ushers his 1000 ducks across the road in front of us.

In the distance, and silhouetted on the ranges, we can see a pagoda of immense proportions.  It is not on the list of things to visit for the day but we ride there anyway.  This pagoda is to be the largest in South East Asia.  We park our pushbikes and have to walk through the building site.  Ten years in the making, this pagoda is impressive.  It has been available for viewing for 12 months or so.  We climb stairs, lots of them.  There are two stairways separated by 100-200 meters of gardens.  Along each side of the walkways, are large carved statutes of men who are Buddhist followers who have a story to tell.  They number 500, 250 on either side.  Halfway up the walkway is a large open building that houses a bell and a drum.  The drum is 40 ton and 70 ton of bell.  They are enormous.

We move further up the walkway; another even larger building.  As we make our way over knee-high ledges (to stop evil spirits getting in), we see an enormous golden Buddha.  On each side is another golden statue.  There is so much gold around, the building doesn’t need any lighting, the natural lighting coming in reflects on the statues and provides a ‘golden light’ effect.  We venture still further up the walkway.  Another temple.  This one with three enormous golden Buddhas.  Lyn says, “What a lot of wasted money.”  Michael finds a standing Buddha at the top of the hill just near this large temple and returns with “magnificent, you should have come up”.  “What?  More stairs?”  This will have to be considered as one of the most impressive temples or pagodas around when it is completed.

After so many stairs, it is a little hard to get the cycling rhythm going again, but we enjoy the sights along the way.  People fishing for snails, farmers guiding ducks, rice harvesting is taking place.  Immediately the rice is thrashed, it is set out on the roads to dry while the husks and stalks are milled to be used as silage, or to put back into the soil.

We find a place for lunch (one of Heyun’s cousin brothers we assume).  There we find a single girl from Perth that we saw at the sidewalk restaurant where we ate yesterday.  She is travelling alone around Vietnam on the back of a motorbike with the non-English speaking driver as her guide.  A group of 4 French couples are eating here too.  They have been trekking up in the Sa Pa region where we will be going in a couple of day’s time.

In the afternoon, we take a motorboat ride around the river system that ends up being part of the Red River that flows through Hanoi.  Today we have a cover on the boat so we don’t get wet when the torrential rain arrives around 3:00pm.  It is very interesting as the scenery is picture book stuff if the sun was out.  Most enjoyable, after riding pushbikes in the morning.

We arrive at the Cuc Phuong National Park and have two hours free time to have a sleep before dinner.  We retire early at 8:30pm because we have an early start tomorrow.

October 11, 2011 Tuesday Ninh Binh

Saying goodbye to friends we have made for life is often hard.  Today is no exception.  However, we manage, and our ways separate; seven back to Melbourne, two staying on in Hanoi and Val, Michael, Lyn and I boarding a Mercedes bus for our trip to Ninh Binh.

Prior to leaving Hanoi, we have to find the place where we are hiring our bikes.  It takes an hour to locate and unlock the secure padlock.  Huyen has trouble unlocking the padlock and you can tell he is getting frustrated.  Huyen moves away for a short time and I grab the padlock and key, turned it and we are in.  Huyen couldn’t work that out and I’m not going to tell him what makes the difference.  Ha Ha!

We have mentioned often in these posts that the traffic is a real problem.  Today is no exception, but worse.  We travel on a divided ‘highway’ for quite a distance before the road changes dramatically.  A main road that is riff with potholes is there to ‘enjoy’.  Cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and cyclists; all with one intention, “I am coming through, and no-one is going to change my mind.”  We come close many times to having a major accident.  At one stage, the traffic is banked up and travelling slowly.  A cement truck comes roaring up the inside on the gravel; dust is being thrown up in the air like a tornado and would you believe it? Sellers on the side of the road have racks and racks of shirts for sale.  “Want a dusty shirt, $2 sir.  The only one covered with dust.  No one else will have one like this.  Please sir!  Buy from me!”  Gorgeous.

We finally stop at Hoa Lu, which has been the capital of Vietnam in years gone by.  Hue was the original capital, then Hanoi, then Hoa Lu, and finally since 1945, Hanoi again.  It is very interesting to hear the origins of the dynasty, and how it worked. The dynasties were sort of like our royalty – with the same sort of problems I sense.

After lunch in a ‘beside the road café’, we stand up to leave and 3 cats have plonked themselves on top of Michael’s daypack and gone to sleep.  Now that never happens in McDonalds.

We unload our bikes and start on our tour of the countryside of Hoa Lu.  We are presented with magnificent landscapes.  For those who have been to Ha Long Bay, Hoa Lu is Ha Long Bay without the water.  Our cycle tour is slow and easy with no ups or downs.  The track is bitumen most of the time but the views are just stunning around each corner.  Michael looses his newly purchased local hat quite a number of times.  He is photographing a scene from a levy bank on private property and suddenly hears that he should ‘get off my land’.  Soon after then, he notices he has lost his sunglasses and goes back in search for 30 minutes or so to no avail.  I just hope the photos depict the feelings we had about the scenery we saw on our cycle tour.

Rowboats are something, but when people use their feet to move the oars, someone has to be kidding.  We board a rowboat just outside Ninh Binh, without our tour guide Huyen.  A young lady is our rower; she must have enormously strong legs.  An older lady is helping her.  It turns out the older lady has some other work to do.  She is part of a plan to get us to buy things from her, or from other ladies ‘planted’ along the river with rowboats full of ‘stuff’ that we ‘need’.  One ploy is to move alongside another boat and the seller in the other boat, trys to get us to buy a drink for our rower and then gets the drink back.  The scenery is like we have cycled through but the superb views come from a boat instead of a cycle.  We (she) rows for an hour, does a quick ‘U’ turn, and rows back.  We pass through 3 caves which are very low – you need to ‘pull your head in’ or it will get knocked off.  As we come back, it starts raining, heavy.  There is no-way it looks like rain when we left the wharf, but the rain is coming down as a torrential downpour.  We get back to the mooring site and are asked for “extra tip” because it has rained.  When we find Huyen, he laughs and laughs at the sight of 4 of his new friends coming at him like drowned rats.  “I didn’t say it was going to rain, and you have ponchos and umbrella.  Very good!”

We get in the van, as the sun sets quickly.  Huyen has been told that we are staying at a different hotel to where he usually drops his tourists off.  We see a sign “Legend Hotel”.  We go down this road.  It is very gravelly.  It is dark with no streetlights or houses along the street.  There is a lamp ahead.  Val calls, “Careful.  Here comes a train.”  We all get the giggles.  Arriving at the Hotel, we stop and unload.  Our goods are not too tidy.  We are all sodden wet.  Bits of this and that get taken into the foyer.  The Hotel we upgraded from is a 2 star; you know the type that takes backpackers, cause that’s what we looked like.  This one is a four star with high ceilings and is very swish and commenced operations last spring.  Asking Huyen if this is the correct hotel, he laughingly says, “We always care for our customers very well.”

Our rooms are enormous, bigger than any we have had on this tour.  The bed is one you could have an argument, and keep appropriate distance the length of the night.  Or, “shall I bring a cut lunch to have on the way” if I want a cuddle?

The company that is organizing this three-day adventure is “Wide Eyed Tours”.  When we get to the dinning room, we find the menu has on it “Wide Eyed Markey”  (The Markeys are the other couple travelling with us.)  Reminiscing on the day was a laugh a minute, just one of those special times when you travel in a group.

As we will be staying in a National Park tomorrow, we will be ‘downgraded’ to the lowest grade there is, we are told by Huyen.  There also will not be a post until we find a free WiFi location somewhere between here and Hanoi.

October 9 & 10, 2011 Sunday & Monday Ha Long Bay

Due to us not having internet connection for Sunday night, I have included Monday in with this post.  Sorry to all those who have been clicking away hoping the latest post is available.

Today, we start with a four-hour transfer from Hanoi to Ha Long by coach.  Coach travel is always interesting if you don’t mind travelling at the speed limit of 80kph maximum but often between 40 and 60kph.  To see accidents almost happen in slow motion is rather scary.  We see 3 large vehicles coming towards us side-by-side on a two-lane road.  We make for the far right side of the vehicle mass coming towards us and then a Mercedes overtakes us and squeezes in between us before we pass the broad face of vehicles.  Ooh, that is close.  The road builders don’t seem to have any co-ordination with the bridge builders – we almost have to stop to get onto, and off, most of the bridges due to some sort of surveyor glitch.

We stop for a rest at a handicrafts factory where 70% of the workers are handicapped.  Beautiful embroidery, lacquer work, woodcarvings, marble work, clothing.  Some of us purchase clothes, others artifacts to carefully pack in already bulging suitcases.

The more you get out into the countryside, the more interesting some of the loads become.  We see motorbikes loaded with market food but this one tops the lot.  A bull has its feet tied together, lying on its side on the back of a motorbike.  His head is hanging down close to the axle.  And the driver is a female.  “Call in the cruelty to animals campaigners”.  Of course, and we can’t understand why, but he is displaying all his manly bits.  We realize it is all a ‘load of bull’.

Arriving at the town of Ha Long, we board a Junk.  This is a traditional Chinese invention, and we cruise to Ha Long Bay, just 2 hours away, while having lunch.  Ha Long Bay has been nominated as one of the seven natural wonders of the modern world.  The area has over 2000 islands that come straight up out of the water and make a rather imposing sight.  There are many other Junks in the bay, full of tourists who have come out to visit and to wander through some extensive caves.  The locals have done a great job of creating a safe path through the caves.

We have a chance to kayak or swim for an hour or so before the evening meal.  The meal comes to 6 courses.  Our evening is free and we enjoy sitting on the top deck taking photos of the other junks anchored in the bay and reminiscing on the trip to-date.

The early morning light on the junks is impressive as other passengers on other junks gather on the top deck to do some tai chi warm up exercises.  Breakfast does not include weet-bix and milk, just some bacon and eggs, and banana and bread.  We have to collect fresh water before setting off back to Ha Long to board the coach back to Hanoi.  We leave behind one of the great memories of a great trip in Vietnam.  More interesting traffic; wow, another interesting load – this time a pig is in the same position

Arriving back in Hanoi, we have 2 hours of showers and resting before boarding cyclos as transport to our restaurant for our ‘farewell dinner’ as our group splits tomorrow; 7 returning to Melbourne, 2 staying on in Hanoi for 3 more nights, and 4 including a cycling tour and a visit to Sa Pa in the highlands near the Chinese boarder.  The cyclos take us into the busy evening streets of Hanoi and through the ‘old town’ where the locals and tourists are enjoying the evening.  It is Vietnam Independence Day and the lights around a lake and in the trees is impressive; and I have forgotten to bring my video camera, bummer.  The meal at this hidden away swish restaurant is ‘fit for a king’.  Speeches are given and our tour guide, Huyen, says he has been proud to show off his country, again and looks forward to seeing us in the future.

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