Hanoi & Sa Pa
Hanoi (May 29 to June 7)
We stayed in Hanoi for a total of nine nights, using our one bedroom apartment as a base. The apartment was in the Westlake district and our apartment looked out over the lake, through the window in the picture below.
While staying in Hanoi, we took a couple of side trips to Sa Pa and to Halong Bay.
The living room at Somerset Westlake.
While we were staying in Hanoi, we visited different parts of the city on different days. These are some of the places we visited during our time in the city.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. His embalmed body can be seen inside (like Lenin and Mao) although he asked to be cremated in his will.
It wasn't open on the days we could have visited so we didn't get to see Uncle Ho.
The One Pillar Pagoda, originally built in 1049, but destroyed by the French in 1954 as they withdrew from Vietnam. It was rebuilt by the Vietnamese.
It is regarded as one of Vietnam's most iconic Pagodas. It is designed to resemble a lotus blossom.
The Presidential Palace built between 1900 - 1906 was the home of the French Governor General of Indochina until Vietnam gained independence from the French in 1954.
It is currently not open to the public but used for State events.
Ho Chi Minh lived in this simple two room stilt house from 1958 until his death in 1969. The area was heavily bombed by the Americans trying to kill Ho Chi Minh, but he had an air raid shelter and bunker nearby and they were unsuccessful. He died of natural causes.
Ho Chi Minh's living quarters and office
Ho Chi Minh's office
We toured the old quarter of Hanoi and the Dong Xuan Market by cyclo or bicycle rickshaw. They will soon be phased out .
The side streets of Hanoi are lined with trees. There aren't a lot of cars, but the sides of the streets are lined with parked motorbikes, which forces pedestrians to walk in the street.
A flower shop in Hanoi
Baskets and hats for sale on the street
Goods are carried on motorbikes or even on bicycles
Kris stopped to buy a customized chop (stamp) in a tiny shop. It was made while we waited.
This is how it turned out !
The same day, we attended a traditional Water Puppet show:
It's clearly intended for Western Tourists, but it does come from a genuine Vietnamese tradition.
The Vietnamese art of water puppetry originated in the Red River Delta in the 11th century.
The show is performed in a large water tank with the puppeteers standing in waist deep water hidden behind a bamboo screen.
The puppets glide on the water acting out traditional stories to music played by a small orchestra sitting at the side of the tank.
The puppets - full size in some cases
And the puppeteers (up to their waists in water) take a bow at the end of the performance
Another evening, we attended a performance at the Hanoi Opera House.
The Hanoi Opera House which opened in 1911 is modeled on the Palais Garnier in Paris
The performance we attended included the Hanoi Philharmonic, Opera and Ballet.
None were outstanding but it was an interesting experience.
In the lobby of the Opera House with the Grand Staircase behind
The interior of the Opera House
The Hanoi Opera accompanied by the Philharmonic Orchestra
Sa Pa (June 2)
We took the overnight train from Hanoi to Lo Cai which is the nearest station to Sapa. Although it wasn't a very smooth ride, we had out own sleeping compartment and it was actually quite comfortable.
Arriving in Lo Cai
We were then transfered to Sa Pa by a four wheel drive vehicle. It was very uncomfortable so we asked if they had something else and they transferred us to a minibus when we arrived in Sa Pa. That created other problems later!
The main shopping street in Sa Pa, not far from our hotel. Sa Pa is growing very rapidly and as is often the case with destinations which expand rapidly, is quickly losing it's charm as a small town in the mountains.
The Sunny Mountain hotel, where we stayed in Sa Pa
The view from the back of our hotel - not pretty!
Once we had checked in, we went for a guided tour of the area. Sa Pa was a hill station for the French and is almost 10,000 feet above sea level, so it's nice and cool - even chilly in the evenings. The mountains and the scenery are spectacular and it'a a popular area for hiking. The hills are extensively terraced for rice growing.
Although it was misty that day, the mist did lift a couple of times and we could finally see the mountains.
As we headed deeper into the mountains, we came to a spot where the road had actually been washed away. It was under repair and we had to wait while two trucks carrying steel reinforcement were unloaded.
There was no way past them, so we just had to wait and watch the work going on!
Watching and waiting as the steel is unloaded a few pieces at a time !
The road has been washed away. You can see the bridge over the stream at the left and the roadway to the right of the bridge is just gone!
Once the (temporary) road was open again, we went to visit a local farming village, Ban Khoang. These primitive villages have a few modern amenities, like electricity, but the way of life can't have changed much in centuries and they seemed to be largely self sufficient.
The village consisted of half a dozen homes linked by a concrete path
Home sweet home. (Note the one modern feature - a satellite dish)
This is home for an extended family. The two people in the picture are our guide and Kristine (taking a photo)
The homeowner was cooking over an open fire. It looked suspiciously like a rat and smelled terrible!
One house had a litter of puppies outside. Always cute!
Water buffalo are still very common and are used as work animals in the fields and for milk and meat
Ducks were also very common. Of course, they are also cute when little but are raised for food.
At one point, we had to cross a river using a n old suspension bridge. It wasn't very safe and we had to pick our way carefully between the broken slats.
Not a bridge you would want to use in the dark or with anything in your hands, although I'm sure the locals manage just fine.
Once back in Sa Pa, we had time to walk around the town, which isn't very large. One of the main features is a Catholic church built by the french.
The Holy Rosary Church, Sa Pa. Not terribly impressive as churches go, but a pleasant reminder of the days when Sa Pa was a french hill station.
And finally, a pretty sunset over the lake at Sa Pa
Next day, we had a late start, as we were going back to Hanoi that evening on the night trains, so we weren't in any rush. We took another walk around the town and stopped at the local market.
As is often the case in foreign markets, there were things for sale that either looked inedible or totally mysterious,
Suffice it to say, we didn't buy anything.
In the afternoon, we went on another "walk" as our guide described it. As we noted earlier, this area is well known for hiking and this was a "hike" - at least for old folks like us. And of course, we didn't have anything resembling hiking boots or shoes. We will know better next time.
The scenery was very pretty, with miles and miles of rice terraces.
The Muong Hoa Valley
This was a little girl we passed as we walked past the paddy (rice) fields !
Later in the walk, we climbed down to an old hydro electric station, which although defunct, has some pretty waterfalls nearby.
The Cat Cat Waterfalls
A butterfly on the flowers under the waterfall
Crossing back over the bridge to climb back to Cat Cat Village
On the next. longer, leg of our walk, we met up with a Hmong woman and her daughter who were heading home. We realized later that they had been selling handicrafts in Sa Pa, but they were very pleasant walking companions although we spoke no Hmong and they spoke almost no English. The little girl was especially cute.
Our hiking companion
And her mother, who was selling handicrafts, we discovered. We bought something small from her, although I don't remember what it was.
Then we had a problem. We had descended down into the valley and we were supposed to climb up a steep road to get back to the main road to meet our bus. However, it was VERY steep and we asked if the bus could come to us. It made it down the hill OK, but then couldn't turn around to get back up and we weren't sure if it would make the climb. Finally, with some extra weight in the back of the bus (us!) it made it, but it still rather scary! We should have stayed with the 4 wheel drive vehicle they had originally wanted us to use.
Guiding the bus onto a very narrow bridge with no room for error. We got out of the bus, just in case!
Once we were back on the main road, we drove back to Sa Pa and then to Lo Cai, where we had to kill some time while we waited for the train back to Hanoi, where we arrived the next day.