With 15 days in Vietnam, the scope of our visit had to be limited. We stuck to northern Vietnam and didn’t deviate too far off the tourist trail in order to take in the highlights. We had two goals: to see lots of limestone karst, and to get a taste of hill tribe culture. Outside of Hanoi, we made three stops: Lan Ha Bay, Tam Coc, and Sa Pa and the surrounding villages.
Limestone karst formations are one of my favorite geological features. Limestone is porous and susceptible to erosion that leaves behind all kind of lumpy and bumpy formations. I have always thought that limestone karst landscapes have a special feeling. Maybe it’s because limestone is made of the skeletons of coral and other sea creatures, so it represents a joining of land and sea. Limestone hills can conceal caves with underground rivers and spectacular stalactites and stalagmites. In the Yucatan, cenotes or sinkholes were believed to be passages to the underworld.
I had seen beautiful limestone karst caves and cliffs in southern France, Bosnia, and Mexico, but nothing like the spectacular karst scenery that stretches across Vietnam, Laos, and southern China. Seeing these landscapes was a priority on our jaunt through Northern Vietnam. The most famous example is Ha Long Bay, a World Heritage site with thousands of karst islets jutting up from the bay. We had heard a lot about pollution, aggressive vendors, and substandard boats at Ha Long Bay, so instead we opted to visit Lan Ha Bay, an extension of the same body of water but less commercialized and accessed via Cat Ba Island.
Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay
Our introduction to the Vietnamese hinterland on the bus out of Hanoi wasn’t great. We took the combination bus-ferry-bus journey from Hanoi to Cat Ba, via the port city of Haiphong, a speedboat to the port on the west side of Cat Ba, and another bus to Cat Ba Town on the east side of the island. The driver of the first bus leaned on his horn every time he saw another vehicle. Since the highway out of Hanoi was choked with traffic, that meant the soundtrack for the trip was the near constant horn. After several hours of this, we rolled through the vast, dusty, polluted industrial port of Haiphong before jumping on the speedboat to the island.
Cat Ba Island was like a different world from the mainland. The bus wound through jungle-swathed mountains and past karst formations hunched over small farming villages. Most accommodation is in Cat Ba Town, a weird hybrid of English seaside resort and communist concentration camp. A row of austere tower-block hotels lines a curving shore road overlooking the harbor. We found the office of Cat Ba Adventures and organized a cruise in Lan Ha Bay for the next day.
We boarded the charming wooden ship and set sail through the stunning scenery of Lan Ha Bay. The scenery lived up to the hype. Persistent haze from the mainland somewhat obscured the views into the distance, but as the sun came out and burned through the haze, we got great views of limestone hills jabbing sharply up from the sea. We stopped for a swim near a tiny beach and lounged on the deck of the boat. The karst islets were particularly beautiful in the slanting afternoon light.
Afternoon light in Lan Ha Bay.
The highlight of the day was a sea kayaking trip. Readers of this blog know that Paul isn’t so comfortable with any activity that carries the risk of going into deep water. He did some grumbling and whining as we donned our lifejackets and got into the kayaks. But once we saw that the kayaks were pretty sturdy and got the hang of paddling and steering, it was all smiles. Another first for Paul! I think he’ll be a water boy before this trip is over!
We paddled through a series of low caves into a hidden lagoon. We were accompanied by a gaggle of gap year students from a party boat that anchored near our ship, complete with techno music. Vietnam was the first country where we encountered a lot of drunken youngsters having “cultural experiences.” It was a bit dispiriting but we were amused by the girl who managed to simultaneously row her kayak and drink a can of beer!
After the boat ride, we thought about taking a hiking or biking tour of the island the next day, but decided we had already seen the best that Cat Ba had to offer. We also weren’t too keen on taking another guided tour, but that was the only real option for us to get out of Cat Ba Town. Some tourists rent motorbikes to explore independently, but we’ve never ridden them and Vietnam is not the place to learn! In hindsight, we should have come on the trip armed with motorbike skills. Practically every man, woman, and child in Southeast Asia has a motorbike and locals often seem surprised that we don’t know how to ride them. A common sight in rural Indonesia is 8-year-old girls driving themselves home from school on their motorbikes!
Vendors going home on the Tam Coc River.
Our next stop was the area around Tam Coc, a village outside the city of Ninh Binh surrounded with flooded rice fields, rivers, cave temples, and ubiquitous karst hills. A lot of people visit the area in day trips from Hanoi that feature a boat ride into the karst hills down the Tam Coc River. These trips sound terrible. It’s a long drive to and from Hanoi, the river trip would be in the midday heat, and the river gets crowded with tourists and pushy floating vendors.
The Lonely Planet really gets this area wrong. If you read it, you would think the only way to see the area is on a day trip from Hanoi. In fact, there are several guesthouses in quiet, scenic riverside locations and many temples and beauty spots to explore. We are happy that we opted to spend two nights in the area at the Tuan Ngoc Hotel, located just off a quiet country road by the river and run by the charming Ginny.
Tam Coc is an example of how industrialization is encroaching on the lovely Vietnamese countryside. As our taxi drove us out of the unattractive city of Ninh Binh, ugly buildings were replaced with fields and karst formations. The scenery was all very bucolic until we saw a factory belching smoke, nestled between two karst hills! Mercifully, the factory isn’t visible from Tam Coc, but the resulting pollution seriously compromises the views. Preservation of natural and cultural treasures is clearly not a priority in Vietnam. I doubt if some of these beautiful areas will even be worth visiting in ten or twenty years if development and pollution continue unchecked.
That night, we took a short walk down the road from the hotel to take a first look at the scenery. The air pollution may have been a concern, but it gave some nice color to the sunset.
Small boats on the Tam Coc river.
We found a bia hoi place by the river and unwittingly ordered a mini-keg… oh well, better finish it!
The next morning, we rented bicycles from the hotel, and armed with a map provided by Ginny, we set off to explore the area’s scenic spots. Our first stop was the Bich Dong temple and lookout point set on a jagged pinnacle above the Tam Coc river. We sweated up the 500 steps to the viewpoint, where the haze made the view over the river less than spectacular.
The temple structures set into the rock spires, on the other hand, were very impressive.
We spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon cycling through the countryside to the “Bird Valley” park, stopping at many spots for photos and shade. Every bend in the road brought a new view of karst hills reflected in the serene river. Despite the crushing heat and humidity traveling by bicycle was a tranquil, refreshing way to see the area.
Scenery near our guesthouse in Tam Coc.
That afternoon, when we judged that the busloads of day trippers had headed back to Hanoi, we took a pedalboat ride on the Tam Coc River. This boat trip is unique in that the boats are piloted by middle-aged women who power them with their feet.
How to paddle a boat with your feet. Tam Coc.
The drivers don’t speak much English, but it was enough to watch the landscape sliding by as the colors faded to sunset. We timed our boat ride perfectly: the boat vendors who harass the bus tourists were all headed home as we went upstream, and we had the river almost to ourselves. The boat ride was a bit overpriced for lasting less than an hour, but it’s worth doing if you avoid the midday heat and crowds.
Overall, the Tam Coc area was a highlight of Northern Vietnam. Not too many crowds, beautiful scenery, and easy to explore independently. It’s just too bad about the pollution!
Happy hill folk on a propaganda poster in Sapa.
The final stop in our loop through Northern Vietnam was the former colonial hill station of Sapa, in a mountainous region just over the border from China. Ethnic minority groups such as the Hmong and Dzao live in this area, and almost everyone who visits is there to trek into the villages to get a glimpse of hill tribe life. Ethnic groups are distinguished by the color of the clothing worn by the women; so, for instance, if you are a Red Dzao women who looks best in green, you are out of luck! The main minority group in Sapa town is the Black Hmong in deep indigo and black clothing. Black Hmong women roam the streets and hawk handicrafts. They can be unbelievably persistent and follow you for block after block, but they also have a silly sense of humor and enjoyed Paul’s banter even though we didn’t buy anything.
We did an overnight trek to a Red Dzao village with Sapa O’Chau, a company that a young Hmong woman started to provide a way for minority women to earn a sustainable livelihood. Our guide, Sun Mae, was a charming and intelligent young mother who used to hawk handicrafts to trekkers. A few years ago she started to learn English and lead trips. Conversation with her was the most interesting part of the trip.
Several factors combined to make our Sapa trek less enjoyable than it could have been. For one, the smoke! We have been looking at temperature and precipitation charts to try to determine the best time to visit each country: not too hot, not too cold, and not during the rainy season. The climate charts showed that October is one of the least rainy months in northern Vietnam. Perfect timing, right? Unfortunately, we found out in Sapa that the dry season isn’t necessarily the most beautiful season. Sapa is known for the miles of rice terraces sculpted into the surrounding hills, receding into the hills in curves of lush green and yellow. Well, that’s what we thought they would look like. It turns out that September and October is the harvest season. By the time we arrived, all the rice had been harvested, so the terraces were dry and brown. Worse, the farmers were burning the rice stalks, creating clouds of smoke that billowed through the valley and obscured the views. We could tell through the haze that the countryside would have been stunningly beautiful with better visibility and rice growing on the terraces. Sapa is one place that would be better to visit during the wet season. Yes, you would have to put up with some downpours, but the views of the terraces draped in fog would be spectacular.
Smoky hills on our trek in Sapa.
Secondly, the trek companions. Our fellow trekkers were Matteo, a solo traveler from Italy, and Enthusiastic Girl (EG) from Washington State. EG was a bright-eyed youngster taking a semester off college to do volunteer work in Cambodia and Thailand. Unfortunately, she demonstrated an ignorance of the world that made me embarrassed to be a fellow American. Matteo politely put up with her questions like, “Does it ever snow in Europe?” EG was also one of those people for whom everything is AMAZING and INCREDIBLE. Paul got really fed up with her oozing accolades of the perfectly nice but unremarkable pancakes for breakfast. He may be English, but his manners are more Cockney street urchin than Mr. Darcy. “Don’t you think this pancake is SO AMAZING!!!” EG gushed. “It’s a pancake.” Paul said flatly. That about did it for conversation between those two!
We were also skeptical of EG’s volunteerism. While her desire to volunteer undoubtedly came from a good place in her heart, it’s questionable how much good short-term volunteers can do without specific skills. She was about to go to Thailand to “help the recovery process” of women who had escaped from human trafficking. Just how a sheltered young girl from America could ever understand the struggles of women caught up in sex slavery is beyond me, but EG seemed to believe that her presence would somehow solve their problems!
We hiked along a narrow roadway through the rippling hills and rice terraces just outside of Sapa, stopping for lunch at a Hmong restaurant. Along the way, several more Red Dzao women including Sun Mae’s sister-in-law appeared and walked along with us. Their goal was to sell cheap trinkets to trekkers. Apparently, the trek companies don’t like this practice, but it is difficult to stop because many of the hawkers are related to the trek guides, and asking the hawkers to leave would cause problems in the community. We had heard about this phenomenon and were prepared for some hassle, but the hawkers were surprisingly un-pushy. It did make me wonder about the economics of the situation. Three local women joined our little group for about two hours. The purses and bookmarks they were selling cost $2-$3, and none of us bought anything. How often did they sell any souvenirs, and how could such a small amount of money make their time worthwhile?
A few more hours of walking through farmland, most of it hazy with smoke, brought us to our homestay with a Red Dzao family. Here, we took a traditional herbal bath reputed to have medicinal properties and admired the host mother’s embroidery. Our hostess modeled her traditional finery and had us all put on a set of Red Dzao clothing. I’m not sure if that was kind of interesting or cringeworthy. We sampled some of the local arak, slept in a spare room, and were on our way back to Sapa the next morning.
We have mixed opinions about the trek and homestay. On one hand, it is indisputable that conscientious tour operators such as Sapa O’Chau have improved the lives of many minorities, especially women, in the area, and this is worth supporting. Sun Mae told us that her guiding job gives her enough income to pay for her children’s food, clothing, and schoolbooks. As a young girl in a poor family, she didn’t get an education, but now she is learning English in classes run by Sapa O’Chau. And we did get some glimpses of Red Dzao life and culture, mostly from conversations with our guide.
On the other hand, the whole experience felt somewhat contrived and remote from actual village life. Not much cultural exchange was possibly during the homestay because of the language barrier. The scenery would have been beautiful if the fields had been green and we could see more of them through the smoke. Also, most of the walk was along a village road so it didn’t feel like proper trekking. If we had visited at a different time of year, able to enjoy the scenery without the smoke from agricultural burning, we would have rated the trek more highly.
Before leaving Sapa, we went on our first souvenir shopping spree of the trip. The textiles here are incredible and there are a couple of shops that sell high quality, fairly traded crafts (Sapa O’Chau and Indigo Cat). Our packs are now a bit bulkier than they used to be, and we’ll be happy to send our purchases home with my mother when she visits us for the holidays.
Bac Ha Market
Market vendor taking a nap.
We timed our visit to Sapa to coincide with the Sunday market at Bac Ha, another village several hours away. It would have been preferable to stay in Bac Ha on Saturday night in order to catch the market before the day-trippers arrived, but we didn’t finish our trek until Saturday afternoon, there is no public transportation to Bac Ha in the evenings, and we were quoted $80 for a private taxi. We took the easy, cheap option and organized a bus trip to and from the market through the tourist office for $15 each.
The predominant ethnic group in Bac Ha is the Flower Hmong, so called for their multicolored clothes, but it’s attended by members of a number of groups. The Bac Ha market is one of the most colorful sights I have seen. There were plenty of tourists but it still felt like a proper, local event. People wearing a kaleidoscope of colors browsed through sections of produce, livestock, and traditional clothing. In many ways, it reminded me of the market town of Chichicastenango in the Guatemalan highlands. Mayan and highland Vietnamese textiles use remarkably similar bright colors and styles of embroidery.
Women wearing colorful clothes at Bac Ha Market.
One sad sight was the section of the market where adorable, fuzzy German shepherd puppies were for sale. Judging by the number of dog meat (thit cho) restaurants we passed by on the way to Bac Ha, I don’t think these puppies are destined to live as pampered pets.
Our bus tour made a couple of goofy stops on the way back. We did a “village visit” that consisted of the load of tourists trouping through a typical family compound in a way that seemed unbelievably insensitive and obtrusive. Okay, the family was probably paid well to let people come into their home, but the behavior of some of the tourists was terrible! In the kitchen, an elderly woman in traditional garb was sitting in a picturesque pose, stirring a cooking pot. She got up to do something else, but a tourist yelled at her to sit back down so that she could take a picture!
Northern Vietnam was one of those places I’m glad I have visited, but I wouldn’t necessarily go back. There’s a lot to see and do here, with fantastic scenery and interesting hill tribe culture. It was all a bit touristy, but with a little more time (and motorbike skills), it would have been possible to get way off the beaten track. There’s a lot of mountain and hill terrain in this area that begs to be explored. I am concerned that like a lot of the developing world, the natural and cultural attractions here will be marred by overdevelopment and pollution in the next few decades.
Sleeping on the job in the Bac Ha market. Priceless.
It’s a pretty common sight in these parts. When you feel how hot it is in Southeast Asia, you understand why people spend a lot of time lying around!