I really dragged my feet traveling though southern Vietnam, so my time in the north was limited to six days. Taking the train from Huế to Hanoi wasted a half day and was my least enjoyable train ride. Not only was the trip very long, 14 hours, but unlike the trains south of Huế there was virtually nothing to eat or drink on board. The other trains I had been on always had attendants pushing carts of food and drinks down the aisles and were constantly trying to sell me something. On the Hanoi leg there was one or two barren carts with a couple of bottles of water, and the attendants basically ignored me. I suggest that anyone planning on making this journey bring plenty of drinks and snacks. In the future I will probably fly from Danang to Hanoi and skip this leg all together.
Hanoi is a really interesting city which has become a very popular travelers’ destination.
The main tourism hub is the “Old Quarter” area; a busy neighborhood composed mostly of buildings left over from the French period. This is a good place to find budget hotels, hostels, bars and restaurants. The area is conveniently located close to Hanoi’s most visited sites including the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Presidential Palace.
I only spent one day touring Hanoi before heading north to the town of Sa Pa in Lao Cai Province. Located roughly 23 miles (37 km) from the Chinese border, this small town sits at the base of Vietnam’s largest mountain which is known (in English) as Mt. Fansipan. Lao Cai Province has become a bit of a tourism hotspot with Sa Pa as its epicenter. The area is a breathtaking mixture of mountains, hills, valleys, rivers and waterfalls; a nature lover’s paradise. Living among this beautiful landscape are at least a half dozen different minority ethnic groups. These charming people are essentially subsistence farmers who subsidize their meager income by producing and selling a variety of handicrafts. They also act as trekking guides for the many visitors who come to this area specifically to hike to the remote ethnic villages scattered around Lao Cai Province.
There is no airport in Lao Cai Province; most travelers journeying from Hanoi will take either a bus or train to Lao Cai station and then connect to a local bus for the remaining one-hour trip into Sa Pa. A faster and better, but more expensive, option is to book a seat on the Sa Pa Express bus. This is a “luxury” motor coach which features large reclining airline style seats and makes the 196 mile (316 km) trip from the Old City in Hanoi to Sa Pa in five and a half hours. Tickets can be booked online on their website, or purchased from one of the many travel agents in Hanoi.
Sa Pa is an extraordinarily beautiful place inhabited by warm, friendly and welcoming people. However, travelers should keep in mind that the weather there can be quite intense. When I arrived on Thursday afternoon the town was engulfed in a thick fog, mariners call it black fog. It was cold and wet and I joked about it with the taxi driver on my way to the hotel. That afternoon I hiked to the west of town along Dien Bien Phu road and as worked my way up the hill above the valley the fog gave way to sunny blue skies. As I returned to Sa Pa town after the eight-kilometer trek, the fog began to clear and it started raining. A couple of hours later it was absolutely pouring rain which continued until around eleven the next morning when the clouds parted and the sun came out in all its glory. They say that Sa Pa has four seasons, sometimes all in the same day. The point is that travelers to Lao Cai Province should be prepared to deal with some cool soggy weather.
In the two and a half days I was in Sa Pa I managed to trek over 30 miles (50 km), see a number of minority villages and meet many friendly local people. Sa Pa was the highlight of my trip through Vietnam. It impressed me and I wished that I had more time to spend in the area.