Sapa & Ninh Binh, Vietnam

We were pretty excited to get to Sapa. The pictures we had seen were incredible. Uninterupted views of terraced rice paddies, lush and green with beautifully dressed ladies, adding bursts of colour. It is fair to say, our view was a little interrupted.

We spent the first part of the morning walking along the cloud filled road being harassed by the beautifully dressed women. We were well aware that they were going to be there and expected the attention so we had prepared our blank ignoring faces. A few minutes later, we detoured off the road into a steep muddy hill that would be our path for the next couple of hours of walking. We soon learned to love these initially annoying ladies. Their balance was incredible as everyone of the group slipped, slid and fell down the paths. They were always there to lend a hand – to Sarah. They were always there to laugh – at me, as I did reversed rendition of a cartoon character running on the spot. They eventually stopped laughing, and held my hand for the rest of the trek.

Eventually we made it through the fog to get a tiny glimpse of the fields that had been harvested, which meant the lush terraced fields were now steps of brown. We ate lunch as some uninterested pigs wallowed in the mud while ducks washed in the small puddles of water.

 

Majority of the group were on the day walk so headed off just after lunch. We were left as a group of six to stay the night at a homestay in the tiny village. There seemed to be only ten buildings in the area, but three of them were pubs containing fireplaces. Thankfully, as it was cold, the group decided to enter one with a giant Christmas tree as the quintessential Christmas tunes of Mariah Carey bellowed from the bar. We could have been in London.

There wasn’t much else to do in the village, we had played with a puppy and visited all the establishments, so we just relaxed in the homestay after a dinner to listen to a nineteen year old Tasmanian girl, explain to us how cool she was and how she was a hipster. After a few looks across the table to the rest of the group, we realised it was time for bed, especial for us as we organised to be picked up at 4am to be driven out Bac Ha Market a few hours away.

The market is held only on a Sunday and people come from far and wide to sell their wares and wheel and deal. After being disappointed with the “Cultural Experience” of the Sapa Walk, we crossed our fingers that the market was authentic and not just a tourist trap. Thankfully, it turned out to be fantastic.

We spent three hours wandering in and out of the different sections. There was food, knives, fabric, clothes. Sections dedicated to coffee and sections dedicated to some medicinal offerings. It would have been any old market, but the colours of the tradional outfits that the ladies wore made it even more colourful. But then we turned a corner to see a different side.

Around the corner was an open aired section consisting of half a dozen barbers, a chicken market, pigs tied to motorbikes, the motorbikes down the hill from a massive buffalo market which stood above the pet market which sat next to meat market that included everything from dog to seafood. We could have spent more time there, as everytime we turned a corner we saw something new. In the end though we only had enough time for a quick lunch and to add to our ridiculous collection of backpacker essentials. This time – a cleaver. We are idiots.

We returned back to the Lao Cai for a glimpse across the river to China and to wait for the train. We were excited as within a few days we would be in the China itself.

After another overnight train journey were back in Hanoi and getting ready for our last adventure in Vietnam, a motorcycle journey to Ninh Binh. We had the choice of riding ourselves, which was tempting for about five minutes until we went passed a four lane highway that was 20 bikes wide on both sides, so decided to leave it to the experts. We booked with Easy Riders Hanoi as we heard great things, and we were not disappointed. The trip took us south of Hanoi to a National Park that is considered a mini Ha Long Bay. It took a while to leave the bustling city behind us, not because of the hectic traffic, but we had to stop and a small store selling thousands of ducklings. We were discussing buying a crate, but felt they might not have travelled well in backpack – with a cleaver…

We were soon off the main road cruising through the countryside with the wind in our helmets and some bugs in our teeth. We stopped at what seemed a small craggy hill (until we climbed it) for a view of Tam Coc. The view was good, but the highlight was definitely the statues of the Monkey Magic team at the base of the hill.

We cruised back around to the Tam Coc Wharf river and jumped on a small boat. It was quite peaceful being paddled through the craggy rocks but as all things go, we ended up at the end of the tour with three ladies wanting to sell us something. We opted out and paddled back through the caves via a couple of boats piled high with Selfie Sticks attached to Chinese tourists.

There wasn’t much left to do but head to a small little restaurant on the side of the river. If we weren’t with the guides, we would have missed it. It was just a house from the front, but at the back was a massive deck over the water with a table filled with Whiskey drinking locals. Goat was on the menu today, and the smell from the kitchen was inticing. But before we could indulge in a perfectly grilled goat, we had to have a traditional dish. It was a small bowl filled with a bright pink gloop. We do not remember the Vietnamese name for it, but we are sure it would translate to congealed goats blood, -as that’s what it was.

It wasn’t horrible, nice and salty, but the lack of texture did not keep us going back for more. One of the guides told us it was good for my man parts, which led me to ask him his intensions considering on I was sitting on the back of his motorbike for the next two hours. He assured us it doesn’t work straight away and we jumped on the bike for the long ride home.

We hit Hanoi at rush hour which meant zigging and zagging though a million scooters but we made it back into town for a well earned beer. Overall it was a great trip. We wandered the one block home, packed our backs and got some sleep before our flight to Shanghai.

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