Let me get the other things out of the way first.
After the dismal trek up Fansipan (read about it here), we downgraded our expectations. Drastically. The trek took up 5 days (2 days travelling/acclimatising, 3 days trekking) and then we were left with 4:
Day 1: arrived in Hanoi. by mini van to Sapa
Day 2: Sapa
Day 3: Fansipan trek day 1
Day 4: Fansipan trek day 2
Day 5: Fansipan trek day 3, back to Sapa town by noon. Had dinner at Red Dao, then to lao Cai. Overnight train to Hanoi.
Day 6: Arrived in Hanoi. by minivan to Cao Bang
Day 7: Visit waterfall and cave 90km away (next blog)
Day 8: Left Cao Bang for Hanoi
Day 9: Left Hanoi for home
Day 1: To Sapa
Here’s us, on the first day in the van.
First night’s dinner was at Indigo. The food was decent, but not memorable.
The tourist strip, Cau May -> Muong Hoa, was lined with shops selling imitation trekking stuff. Get your supply here if you are short of any gear.
Day 2: Sapa in a Day
Day 2 was free and easy. We debated whether to head to Bac Ha sunday market (110km) but the weather said nay. Dropped the idea, decided to stick to Sapa market and the garden on Mt Hamrong. Mt Hamrong had some nice rock structures and might have been pretty if the weather was good.
Sapa market used to be lais·sez-faire, open air, but now housed in a bleach-coloured concrete building near the bus station. It wasn’t much fun and there weren’t many shops so we were quick to settle down for hot noodle soup and coffee. Then we headed to Le Gecko for some Vietnamese-french fare (lunch). According to my pals, they had the most delicious spring rolls at there but trust me, those were gone before I could see them. Tea break was at Hill Station Deli after a very wet walk at Mt Hamrong. Dinner was at Nature View.
The Hill Station Deli served good coffee and dessert. Definitely worth a stop.
Nature View served up pretty good Vietnamese fare. Hands down better than the first night dinner.
We ordered all the spring roll dishes hoping to meet the one they ate at Le Gecko. None of them was it. But all of them were good but of course not as good as Le Gecko’s. Make sure you order the spring rolls at Le Gecko.
Of course, we couldn’t not eat Banh Cuon when we saw it. Sapa’s Banh Cuon was slightly different from the rest of Vietnam’s. The Banh Cuon was more translucent and springy. It was very good and very satisfying.
Day 5: Drama at Lao Cai
Lao Cai, an hour’s drive from Sapa, connects to Hanoi directly by train. There are usually 2 overnight trains to Hanoi, one departing at 835pm and another at 910pm. You miss both, you gotta wait till tomorrow.
We thought our script was already cast in stone: reach Lao Cai by 730pm, collect train tickets, board train no later than 805pm and then settle down for the night till Hanoi.
But the actors mutinied. First, the ticket broker refused to give us the tickets, pretended to be busy on the phone, and only relented when she got sick of us stalking/pestering/making riled-up phone calls to the Sapa agent. Eventually, she waved a stack of tickets at us, then showed us up the train. That was 845pm.
Our tickets didn’t match the berth numbers but the lady insisted it was ok. 5 mins before the train was about to pull out of the station, a family of Vietnamese arrived and plonked themselves into my friends’ cabin. The argument began: between the Vietnamese, my friends, the train officer, the ticket broker. The Vietnamese claimed that they were the rightful occupants of the cabin and they had tickets to prove it. Yep. their’s were legit.
Come 910pm, the train left the station. The broker remained on the platform and the commotion carried on (without her). After each party had repeated their piece for like the 5th time, the officers got tired of it. They released one of their own cabins to my friends so everyone could go to sleep. What a night.
I seethed (and also because the ceiling of my cabin was so low I couldn’t sit up) but at least we reached Hanoi without any more drama.
I’m sure they do this all the time: double-book tickets, resell them at higher prices to people who are desperate then delay the other group so that they’d miss the train etc.
Day 6: Cao Bang
We reached Hanoi at 525am. Duk, our guide, was there waiting to meet us so everything was back under control. Thank goodness for Duk. We freshened up at a nearby hotel and were off to Cao Bang by 8am.
Cao bang was an almost 300km-drive from Hanoi. The journey was full of picturesque, green rolling hills that made us went ooh and ahh. But we reserved our loudest exclamations for when we arrived at Cao Bang’s sunny hotel (430pm): those wet, soiled, smelly trekking clothes from Fansipan were raising a frightful stink.
Cao Bang felt like a town that hadn’t emerged from the 80s. The morning market was the most colourful affair we’d seen. Our main pastime was grocery-shopping: in Cao Bang’s only supermarket for local produce such as coffee, dried noodles, fish sauce etc.
Lacklustre as it was, people continued to stay over at Cao Bang because of the Ban Goic waterfalls.
Day 8: Return to Hanoi
We were back to Hanoi on the second last day, also reaching at 430pm (Anise Hotel).
Anise Hotel was sited quite close to the Hang Dau watertank, to the north of that touristy lake (Ho Hoan Kiem, the one with a temple-on-an-islet-in-the-middle). To us, it was just a huge, retro-looking cylindrical structure standing in the middle of a busy junction.
As soon as we stepped out to explore the streets, a big storm blew into town so finally the explore-the-shops-brigade whittled down to 3. The 3 managed to visit Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu) though, thanks to GPS and a friend’s recommendation. The beef noodle salad was authentic Vietnamese and a major highlight of our trip. In fact someone said, almost the best meal in Vietnam this trip. Made that long walk from the hotel to the shop worth it.
Day 9: Farewell, Hanoi
Perhaps it was a hangover from our Fansipan trek; everyone woke up early and went to breakfast at 630am (except the 3 who were gallivanting outside till late).
Breakfast done, we took a walk to the Long Bien market (10 mins). The market was rather big, very busy, full of street vendors stocking up on their wares: fruits, vegetables, flowers. Nothing particularly exciting so we didn’t linger. The shops we passed by on the way intrigued us more. Walking back, we stopped by Cafe Phoc for real Vietnamese coffee (couldn’t get enough of that), snuck into a busy Banh Cuon shop, even goaded Duk to try a Balut. All before we left for the airport at 930am. Pretty good huh?
There were lots of makeshift food stalls on the sidewalk near our hotel. Duk bought this from one of them:
One last shot before we left Hanoi for the airport. This one was taken from the hotel room.
Next: The Waterfall and the Cave