From scenic Sapa to the South

After a quick pit stop in pretty Ninh Binh, where we visited Tam Coc, temples, rode bikes and took a boat trip through rice fields and caves, Sanne and I said our goodbyes. She headed south to Hoi An and I went north to Sapa. 


For those who were there, imagine Glastonbury 2016 mud. How it either clung to the bottom of your Hunters and sucked you in or you slid and slipped around the top of it before you eventually fell arse over tit. This is what I spent a day trekking in in the remote mountains and valleys of Sapa, but without pints of Brothers cider and Adele singing her lungs out on the pyramid stage to make it all Better.

It was a test of physical endurance to say the least but it was probably one of the best days of my trip so far. 

After hearing night bus horror stories, I booked an early 6am sleeper bus through Inter Bus Lines. You have a little sleeping compartment (and by little I mean, suitable size for borrowers), charging socket and wifi. I prepared by downloading as many episodes of Suits as my phone could store and a new book for my Kindle. It was supposed to leave at 6 and arrive before 12 but in the end left at 7:30 and arrived just before 2. My plan had been to arrive in Sapa, drop my stuff and head straight to the Bat Ca Sunday market in a nearby town, but because I was late I wasn’t able to do this. 

My guesthouse was clean and comfortable but the on the edge of Sapa town was unremarkable and had I done better research I would have avoided being near the town altogether. 

That being said, I was only using it as a base to trek from and given that it was so cold in Sapa, I was so grateful for a hot shower and own room after my trek. The trekking homestays aren’t amped up for tourists, you are literally living the way the tribe live. From the one I’d been shown on my own trek, to others I had spoken to, who had rats in their homestay, no water, a rug on the floor instead of a bed or a pig sharing their sleeping space, I think that may have tipped me over the edge after my day trekking in the freezing rain. 

My trek 

I booked my trek through Sapa Sisters after careful research. It wasn’t cheap at £35 but they seemed by far the best company and I really liked their ethos. 

I was paired up with a delightful guide, Jane, who spoke perfect English and became my friend (slash hand holder) throughout the day. We also joined up with another few small trekking groups for the day too. 

I was advised to opt for the easy-medium trek given the weather. The mud made it difficult but I think I could definitely have just done a medium trek in normal weather. Amusingly (and, some might say, in a further tribute to Glastonbury) I was told not to bother with hiking boots and wear their wellies instead – later I found that this was because in some places, the mud would be almost up to my knees. 

We trekked around 15k in total, down into the foothills of the valleys, through rice terraces and up the other side of the mountain again. There were places that the path wasn’t muddy or we’d hit the main road/dry grass for a short time, and this was a god send. On the way we walked through tiny rural farming communities, horses, pigs, cows, chickens (and puppies!!!), past children playing, women grinding rice maize. 

We stopped for lunch in a modest local house and I was served welcome steaming hot plates of ginger and garlic water spinach, tofu, pork, runner beans and rice. However, when I said I was full after two bowls, this wasn’t accepted. I was told I should finish all the food (enough for about 7 people), literally force fed around 6 bowls of rice and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so full in my life (except maybe the time I ate so much at a Spanish buffet restaurant when I was 13 that I was sick – it was the all you can eat ice cream, tell me you wouldn’t do the same). 

After lunch, we continued trekking – you could either opt for the same route back into town or keep trekking for another couple of hours further into the mountains and get a motorbike back to Sapa. I opted for the latter so we could see a different route, and thinking the motorbike back would be an adventure. Of course, on beginning this journey back in cold mountain rain and zero visibility with a driver who thought it was sensible to overtake other vehicles on narrow mountain roads in these conditions, I wondered if I should have taken the easy option. There aren’t really any times on this trip I’ve genuinely panicked and feared for my life, but as we skidded around bends next to a sheer cliff drop, this was unequivocally one of those times. In the end I just closed my eyes, repeated my auntie Pauline and Mum’s mantra ‘all will be well’ and clung on for dear life while getting pelted in the face by rain. And here I am!

The Hmong tribe – and Jane 
The Sapa region’s ancient black Hmong tribe are fascinating and I asked Jane as many questions I could, as long as I could breathe, while we trekked together. The women wear black clothes accessorised with bright, patterned home dyed and stitched fabrics, elaborate headwear and plenty of jewellery. Most women in the Hmong tribe go out to work while the men stay at home and clean the house, cook etc. Women are highly respected and held in high esteem. Riiiiiise! They live modest lives and work hard, but the irony of ancient and modern worlds meeting as Jane took calls on her smartphone while we trekked through remote Vietnam was not lost on me. This slow and slightly jarring merging of the East into the West is apparent everywhere you turn in Asia, and this was just one prime example. Jane was different from other Hmong women, though. She was full of questions about my travel because, it turned out, she wanted to travel too. She had married at 18 but, now at 23, didn’t want kids yet. She felt she had more life to live and spent the little free time she had trying to see more of Vietnam. “My family want and my husband to have children now, but we dont want. We want to explore Vietnam and take trips. I work 7 days a week and in my time off, I go on holiday,” she said frankly. Jane was the first woman in her village to have ever taken time off to go on holiday, having visited Hanoi, Halong Bay, Cat Ba and Hoi An with her husband, much to the distaste of many of her fellow villagers. It was Jane’s ultimate dream to fly on a plane to another country. Somehow I think she’s going to make it happen. (If you couldn’t already tell, Jane is my hero). 

Sapa town

Sapa town was grim. Perhaps foolishly, when I read about the lake, church and square I imagined some lovely quaint French market town in the mountains. It was so foggy and rainy I could barely see a thing, but what I could see was that the town was a construction site, polluted, ugly and soulless. I found one nice restaurant to eat in but the rest of the town left very little to be desired. Most people don’t go to Sapa to see the town, so it’s not a big deal and shouldn’t put anyone off going to the area to trek. It’s just one of the few places I’ve ever visit that I have been really pleased to leave! 

Hanoi home truths 

It’s not all sunsets and life changing experiences and euphoria when travelling, although that’s what Instagram might suggest. Sometimes things go wrong and it’s shit, especially when you’re alone. I was looking forward to going back to Hanoi. I planned to spend the afternoon buying north face stuff for my family and posting that, and stuff I didn’t need anymore, home – then buying a new backpack and repacking (my old faithful backpack sadly died a death, much to my devastation) before having a relaxing evening wandering the Old Quarter. 

Instead, I had a difficult 24 hours when seemingly everything went wrong. I hadn’t slept for a few nights before hand, then spent 7 hours on a bus which was, as usual, two hours late arriving. I had booked a well rated private room so I could rest and sort all my stuff out. When I arrived, the receptionist beat around the bush for about half an hour, serving other guests, offering me coffee, bananas, water, before finally saying that they had double booked and I had to go somewhere else. “But don’t worry!” She smiled cheerily. “We have a motorbike ready to take you there. It’s 5 minutes away and a very nice hotel!” It wasn’t. It was 15 minutes drive, the other side of the lake. And it was a shit hole – it was an actual construction site on the inside with only the top floor of rooms suitable to stay in. I should have moved hotels again, but at that point I was too exhausted to walk the streets trying to find somewhere and didn’t trust the hotels on to actually have availability. I had to get my shit done so I decided to suck up the room as inside it was clean and at least private, but the construction went on all night. I tried to say I didn’t want to pay the full price the next day, I was met with a hostile, aggressive reaction and they refused to give me my passport back until I paid. 

When I headed to the airport to fly to Da Lat, My taxi driver drove like a maniac and then threw my stuff from the boot onto the floor when I refused to give him more than a 20,000 tip. In Dalat, I was ripped off further by a different taxi driver who promised me one fee before I got in his car then doubled the fee once I was in the car, before getting lost for an hour. When I put my brand new backpack on the baggage belt at the airport, one of the back straps completely snapped – yet again, despite extensively examining every zip and strap, I’d been ripped off and paid well above the odds for a cheap fake backpack which had broken (and I may as well just have kept my old one). In this 24 hours, I also realised I had lost my precious crystal bracelet my mum gave me for protection on my trip. By the time I arrived in Dalat I was a bit of a tearful wreck. 

I generally hate complaining about things on this trip. I am fully aware that none of the things that happened above are going to harm me in the long run. I am aware of how lucky I am to be on this adventure, so feel guilty and berate myself when I start to feel sorry for myself. I repeat the mantra “at least i don’t have to go to work” to myself if I start to feel this way and generally that snaps me back into positivity. I remind myself that when I get home I’ll laugh about the all the mishaps and misendeavours as the bad days will pale compared to the good. And they already have!

But I did have to admit to myself at this point that solo travel in Vietnam was starting to wear me down a bit. Being constantly on the move, the cold, wet weather in Hanoi and Sapa (Ninh Binh was actually sunny!), the long days travelling, not sleeping because everywhere I stayed was a construction site and being repeatedly ripped off, all without a travel partner, justifiably made me feel a bit wobbly. 

You see, travelling alone is not a holiday. In fact it pisses me off when people at home describe it as that, although I know it’s usually in jest, as while it’s AMAZING it could not be further from a week in the sun in Europe or a sightseeing weekend break with your mates. There is an abundance of relaxing and beautiful and exhilarating moments, yes, but it’s much more convoluted than that. Being alone, especially as a woman, navigating foreign and unfamiliar countries; always needing to plan your next move, think on your feet, keep safe and be resourceful; constantly checking your budget, checking your map, checking your backpack, checking your valuables; being your best self because you’re meeting new people; having time to really think about your life and face up to some home truths about yourself, relationships, friendships, money and work – it can all be a challenge. And it’s especially a challenge when you have anxiety and tend towards introversion for at least 50% of your life. And I think it’s ok for me to admit that, knowing fully now that after every down comes an up, and they totally make every challenging moment worthwhile. It’s just part and parcel of this wild and wonderful experience. 

Part of this involves taking matters into your own hands, so I decided to head down to south Vietnam, where the sun was shining, for just over a week then cut my time there short and head to Cambodia ahead of Akriti arriving. I’m so beyond disappointed to miss Hoi An and central Vietnam but the rain hasn’t stopped in two weeks and Hoi An flooded again. And I absolutely made the right decision as my week and a half in the south was one of the happiest and most relaxing of my trip! I will blog about Dalat, Mui Ne and Ho Chi Minh next. 

Learning to love hectic Hanoi

Well Hanoi, you are something else. 

If you can imagine Bali as being a feast for the senses, arriving in Hanoi was more of an assault on them. Yet over my 13 days or so using it as a base to explore the rest of Northern Vietnam, I have become rather fond of this big, utterly mad city. 

I decided to throw caution to the wind and not plan ahead too much for Vietnam. I didn’t even know if I was going there, until a few weeks before as my original plan was to go to Myanmar. But it didn’t sit right with me to visit a country where ethnic cleansing is being blindly ignored by its leader to have a jolly around temples, so Vietnam rose up the ranks and I booked a flight to Hanoi on a whim, planning to travel North to South. I didn’t do too much research and figured I’d work it out when I arrived.

However, this meant that on arrival in Vietnam a) I wasn’t really prepared for Hanoi’s chaos and b) I hadn’t paid attention to what the weather would be like in Vietnam (really cold and wet in the North, In case you were wondering), which c) included the huge typhoon that has flooded parts of central Vietnam, causing loss of life and real damage. Hoi An, the lantern laden town in Vietnam I basically came to the country to see, has been worst affected. All of this affected my plans and made me wish I had been SLIGHTLY more organised. It has required a bit more thinking on my feet now I’m here and I decided a few days ago that, rather than my original linear North to South route, I would (perhaps nonsensically for a country of this size) dart around more than planned on the off chance that Hoi An will have dried out by the very end of my trip. After Northern Vietnam I’m heading south to Dalat, Phan Thiet, Ho Chi Minh city and the Mekong Delta before coming back up to Hue and Hoi An – I can catch a flight from Hoi An’s nearest airport directly to Cambodia where I’m meeting my friend Akriti, so it’s actually worked out quite well. 

Arrival in Hanoi 

I felt like an absolute deer in the headlights when I arrived in Hanoi after gentle Bali. The city is sprawling, the roads from the airport are huge, it is heavily polluted (you can literally feel the smoke entering your lungs and clinging to your skin) and a low, eery fog hung over the city the day I arrived. It then rained for four days straight (and has continued to rain across much of Vietnam ever since). 

Then there’s the traffic. Let’s take a minute to try and understand the madness of Vietnamese traffic. There are no sides of the road, mopeds whizz past in both directions, on both sides, with no apparent regard for pedestrians. They are usually piled high with bananas, boxes or families. I’ve had several near miss collisions and been clipped by a couple, and it takes some seriously gritty reserve and determination to cross the road. Some advise to cross the road slowly, as then they’re forced to slow down, and others advise you just get across it as quick as you can. I’ve tried both and neither make me feel particularly more convinced my life is valued by drivers on the road! 

Yet exploring the Old Quarter on my first day, with its steaming street food stalls, narrow maze of streets, constant beeping of horns, throngs of Vietnamese and western people drinking beer in the street, low wires and crackling neon signs, I realised THIS was everything you imagine a crazy Asian city to be and started to perk up a little more. Since then I’ve embarked on a little love affair with this part of the city. 

I have taken my time exploring the area, taking in the colours and smells and atmosphere and huge array of street food (more on that later). Women walk the streets selling bananas, fried fruit snacks and rice hats, while men stand in front of their beer restaurants trying to usher you in. Everywhere you turn, there are shops and markets selling souvenirs, elephant pants and trekking gear (there’s a lot of North Face which is apparently genuine as their main manufacturing factory is here, though I’m not sure I believe that. I bought an insipid pink North Face rain jacket for £3!). 

The real plus about Hanoi, despite the crazy, is that I feel really safe and not at all hassled here, apart from the ferocity of the scooters. I’ve wobbled home on my own as late as 2am and the streets have been busy and I’ve felt totally at ease. 

My digs 

I have stayed in two hostels – Old Quarter View Hostel and Cocoon Inn. I prefer Cocoon simply because the rooms are nicer and more private, but both are clean, in prime locations, and proper backpacker joints set up to help you travel as comfortably as posible (I didn’t really find any of these types of hostels in Bali) with a mixed clientele. You’ve got your 18 year old gap year kids fully primed for drinking games night after night, you’ve got your 65 year olds on a late life adventure, you’ve got people in their 30s trying to find themselves who might also be fully primed for drinking games on the odd occasion (ahem). 

Dorm life continues to be a mixed bag for me, some days I don’t mind it and other times I hate it. Other travellers can be really selfish (7am loud phone calls in bed, deciding to turn on the lights and pack at 3am, etc) and you just have to grit your teeth and bear it. In Vietnam I’ve had less of the space and quiet time I have spoken about needing in my previous blogs, and that’s just something I’m learning to deal with.   

Old Quarter View especially was a great place to meet people if you needed to – I swapped many stories with fellow travellers over breakfasts or beers. On my first night I met a lovely Dutch girl Sanne (who quickly became my travelling BFF and I subsequently travelled northern Vietnam on and off with for 12 days – I MISS YOU SANNE!) and two German guys, and we went our for Bia Hoi on the aptly nicknamed Beer St. The street is packed with pavement bars, where you perch on tiny little low-down stools to eat or drink while locals eat their chicken feet and Pho chien (yes, dog really is a thing here) around you. Bia Hoi is as locally brewed as you get, and costs 5000VND which is precisely 16p. So naturally I had to have several. We then moved onto gin, which was 40,000VND (£1.20) for a double and, again, I had several. 

And just like that, party Ceri, who I was pretty sure I had left behind on my leaving do in London (the very same leaving do which saw me get pushed to the tube station in a pushchair by a tramp) was back and LOVING LIFE until 2am. I mean reeeeeeeally loving life, dancing to Euro Pop/every song Pitbull has ever released and drinking shots with people I had never met but were of course my new best friends. The next day I experienced my first travelling hangover and it was truly horrendous. I rolled out of my room for an egg baguette at 9 then went back to bed until 1, whoops. Hanoi is a fun place to party, and I’ve had some ridiculously good nights here now but the hangovers are raging and I’m not sure I can manage any more! 

What I did in Hanoi (besides drinking)

I can’t put my finger on when Hanoi grew on me, but it suddenly became familiar and I have enjoyed every single day spent there in between trips and tours. On the whole I’ve found Vietnam a mixed bag – lots of beauty, lots of adventure, but also long days travelling and terrible weather and places I really haven’t liked (like Sapa town) – but Hanoi, for all its crazy, has been fairly consistent. 

Old Quarter Hanoi

I’ve summed up why I love the Old Quarter above but it’s a great place to walk, shop, eat, mingle with locals. On Friday and Saturday nights they close of the streets to traffic (thank god) and everyone just walks and mingled for hours on end, street musicians play, children play. It’s when Hanoi is its most vibrant and wonderful.

The lake

The lake offers a great sanctuary from the rest of the city and is great for an early morning or late afternoon stroll, a bia Hoi and game of cards or a peaceful cup of tea overlooking the water. 

Vietnamese Women’s museum and the French Quarter 
Full of French influence, as it’s name might suggest, this area is packed with boulangeries (I was delighted to find an almond croissant here) and is also home to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. I found it really fascinating to find out more about the role Vietnamese women have played in their culture – they are powerful figureheads of their society and not shrinking wallflowers expected to stay at home, put up and shut up. I learned about how women were revolutionaries and guerillas in the Vietnam/US and civil wars, as well as typical traditions involving women, like marriage and childbirth. It’s definitely worth a visit! 

My uncle Graham recommended this place to me and I’m so glad I went. KOTO stands for ‘know one, teach one’ and is a social enterprise restaurant designed to get children off the street and into employment. The front of house and kitchen staff are all streetkids. For 250,000VND (£8) I had an amazing set menu including soup, fresh spring rolls, baked king prawns and coconut cheesecake. All served with the biggest oF smiles. The. Dream. 

St Josephs Cathedral 

Really lovely Cathedral square. I’m going to be honest, I didn’t actually go in the beautiful, classically gothic cathedral but to a rooftop gin bar overlooking it – the Mad Botanist. I met Louise, who I had done yoga with in Bali, for Friday night drinks. It is an absolute revelation and reminded me of Mr Foggs in London, through sweeping red curtains you enter an actual gin chamber with hundreds of ACTUAL gins and posh tonic water. They serve their gins in proper gin goblets. I was in my element, not quite believing this was Hanoi and that rather I was in some posh Barcelona bar in the Gothic quarter!  

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum 

Ok, so I didn’t go here because while I’ve been in Hanoi the man himself has been off in Russia getting embalmed! But apparently it’s well worth a visit. 

Food and drink in Hanoi 

Omg the fooooooood in Vietnam! The food! Where do I begin? But basically, Hanoi is THE place to eat. I’ve tried it ALL – banh mi (baguette with chargrilled pork or chicken, salad, coriander and chilli – and the bread is actually really good in Vietnam, it must be the French bakery influence!), DIY hot pots and barbecue with an array of meat, seafood and veg, Pho (I have Pho coming out of my ears), Bun Cha (my absolute favourite – little pork patties in a sweet, spicy broth with lemongrass, galangal, garlic and chilli and heaps of noodles), egg and chilli sauce sandwiches, soy barbecue skewers from street vendors, fried spring rolls, fresh rice paper spring rolls. The list goes on!

The coffee in Vietnam itself is a work of art. I’ve limited myself to one traditional condensed milk coffee only every 2-3 days because that stuff daily cannot be good for you. They also specialise in coconut coffee and, my favourite, egg coffee – it’s literally coffee with a whipped sugary egg white on top and totally not what you’d think it would taste like. Like a really sweet, frothy cappuccino! 

My main recommendations for food in Hanoi, other than street food and street cafes, are Koto, Blue Butterfly (where I ate the bun cha above) and Note Coffee, the sweetest little coffee place ever that so cheered me up on a homesick day! 

I’m going to be honest and say, around the 8 week mark, noodle fatigue has started. I’m really craving some wholesome, simple food. Pho just about does the trick but ideally something without rice, noodles and not unhealthy western food. Believe it or not, I would give anything for a nice salmon fillet and some broccoli! On the flip side, I’m also really craving cheese. I drunkenly rung my friend Rosie the other night and cried ACTUAL TEARS over wanting cheese, you guys. So if anyone knows a good cheese supplier in Vietnam hit me up! If not I’m holding out for Julia to make me the Christmas cheese board of all cheese boards come my return home on 28th December.

Initial reflections on travelling in Vietnam 

Food ramblings aside, I’ve now been in Vietnam almost a fortnight and travelled around a lot already. Travelling this country is really different from anything I’ve ever experienced and I’ve really had to change the way I approach things. My slow travel approach, lazy lie ins and beach days of Bali feel like a distant memory, and I’m definitely ticking boxes more than I usually do but that’s because a) I met a great travel buddy whose approach to travel made me want to see and do more and b) there really is so much to see and do and take in in Vietnam. I’m not seeing even half of the places I could visit yet I’m still on the go a lot. 

My sedentary six weeks (excepting the odd yoga and soft hike) feel like a world away. You’re up early to seize the day and go on tours and hike up to viewpoints as the sun is rising, before the crowds arrive. I’ve kayaked, canoed, trekked, rock climbed and motorbiked around mountain paths. I’ll share more about this in my next blog as I’ve loved it ALL.

I haven’t fallen in love with Vietnam yet the way I did with Indonesia. It’s a fascinating, beautiful place but the weather and needing to change my plans so drastically has definitely affected my overall morale and if I didn’t have my visa and flights to Cambodia all booked I would have seriously considered going to Laos instead. Does that mean I wish I wasn’t here? Absolutely not. Im just trying to enjoy every day and throw myself into every opportunity. It’s difficult to feel unsure or miserable for long when you live life that way, I just haven’t yet felt Vietnam ignite my spark!

What next 

Having just completed my Sapa trek (which was wonderful), tomorrow I leave Hanoi for the last time to head South and explore Dalat and Mui Ne. I have some blogs almost ready on Halong Bay and Cat Ba (which I LOVED) and Sapa, so will refine and share those soon!