Northern Vietnam is the supposed to be the pinnacle of the Vietnam backpacking experience. Most everyone who travels from south to north hightails it to Hanoi, and plans overnight tours to Sapa or Ha Long Bay or — if you’ve got the time — both.We were lucky and got to experience all of the above and then some. After our time in Phong Nha, Johanna and I decided to stop in a city called Ninh Binh, which about an hour south of Hanoi, for a few days. I’d seen a photo of a temple on top of a hill there that I felt I really needed to see in real life.
Our hostel was located in Tom Coc, a town about 20 minutes from Ninh Binh that sits among the area’s main attractions: more beautiful karst mountains, but this time spread out amongst bright green rice fields. Ninh Binh is quiet and calm and green, and, though it’s not on the solid tourist trail, I could tell it was going to be special. On day one Johanna and I met some really nice German sisters named Alessa and Marie, and decided to cycle around with them for the day. We biked first to the river for a 2-hour boat ride through the karsts and caves and amazing scenery.
Following our boat adventure, we biked through Tom Coc and watched kids making their way home from school on their own bicycles. When it was close to sunset, we finally made it to the Mua Cave, which was our big destination for the day, and the location of the temple that’d I’d been dying to see. We climbed hundreds of stairs to reach the top of a mountain that provided sweeping views of rice fields and the river below. We stared, in awe, at the views and watched that fiery Southeast Asian sun dip below the horizon before heading off in the dark back to our hostel.
We spent our second day in Ninh Binh reading and relaxing in hammocks. Almost three months in, I’d finally figured out how to shove away any guilt I felt about not exploring every spare minute. Johanna had been on the road nearly four months, and we both welcomed a day of doing nothing while surrounded by excellent scenery. Eventually, we headed out on our bikes again to explore some temples and walk around the rice fields in the evening before making our way to Cat Ba Island early the next morning.
I was sad to leave Ninh Binh, but we still had a lot of ground to cover in the north. First stop: Cat Ba Island, the place we’d chosen as our gateway to exploring Ha Long Bay, UNESCO World Heritage Site and Vietnam’s “tourist pinnacle,” more or less. Cat Ba provided a lot of adventure for us in three days. On day one, we went on a boat tour of the bay, which is a must. It was a pretty glorious day, filled with sunbathing, kayaking, and climbing mountains and hills so we could get a good view. The bay itself was, in my opinion, overhyped. I preferred the karsts and cliffs in Thailand’s Andaman Sea, but Ha Long was still gorgeous.
On our second day, Johanna and I signed up for a four-hour long jungle trek which, at the time, sounded fun. We hiked up and down and up and down four different mountains through thick jungle fighting off bees and humidity that rivals a summer day in the midwest. I’ve never sweat so much in my life, nor have I ever wanted to hurl myself off a cliff as much as I did that day. After 15km of hiking, we finally got to go home. I was exhausted. More than exhausted, if that’s even possible. But I was pretty proud of myself. That said, absolutely zero photos of that trek exist because I was too sweaty to snap any.
On our last day in Cat Ba, we met up with Thomas, who we’d ridden motorbikes with from Hoi An to Hue, and who happened to also be in Cat Ba. He and his friend Jaqui bought a ticket for the same bus we were on to Sapa, and in the evening we all made the long journey from bus to boat to bus to the mountains in the north.
We arrived in Sapa at 6 a.m. with no plans. We just knew that we’d want to do a homestay. What we didn’t realize was that we’d have to trek four hours to get to a homestay after we’d had a near sleepless night on a night bus. Regardless, we emerged from our bus to tons of local women telling us we should stay at their homes. We found a group that seemed nice and told them that we’d love to trek with them. We grabbed breakfast, changed into good shoes and warmer clothes, and by 8 a.m. we were on our way, hiking through the hills and the rice paddies away from Sapa town and into the mountains.
After our jungle trek in Cat Ba, I wasn’t looking forward to another four hour trek, but our walk that day was totally reasonable (mostly because it wasn’t uphill for 60% of the time), and was absolutely breathtaking. I had heard so many good things about Sapa, but I really wasn’t prepared for how gorgeous it really is. And after Ha Long, I was expecting to be a little disappointed at Vietnam’s other “must-see” tourist destination, but Sapa more than delivered. We had an incredible hike that day, and we finally reached out destination in early afternoon with sore feet. Jaqui, Johanna, Tom, and I were the only ones at our host’s home that night, and we spent the entire afternoon sitting outside of the front door staring at the rice paddies and mountains in front of us. I watched kids play with water buffalo and women carry their children on their backs as they walked through the fields. The village was quiet. We heard nothing but roosters crowing and the wind. It was a beautiful, beautiful afternoon, and I think we all really fell in love with Sapa and, in turn, with Vietnam, in that moment.
Our dinner that evening was delicious, and we shared it with Zi, our trek leader, and her husband and friend, who seemed to be her partner in crime in the trekking business. We watched in awe as Zi’s two kids ran around pantless and dirty, pawing at food on the table and on her, waiting to be fed. Zi’s husband broke out the rice wine after we ate and the seven of us finished nearly a liter by the night’s end. We were giggly and goofy by the time we crawled into our little cots upstairs. I had one of the best sleeps I’d had in weeks.
The following morning we woke up to see that our beautiful view outside of the house was covered in fog. We couldn’t see more than five feet in front of us and worried about how our trek back to Sapa town was going to go that day. Luckily, the fog started clearing up after we’d eaten breakfast and started on our way. We took a different route back to town that day, through other villages. We realized we’d hit the jackpot on homestays when we saw the touristy shops and restaurants and “hostel-homestays” in the other villages. We slowly climbed for the last two hours of our trek. It was tiresome but rewarded us with sweeping views of the valley, which held the villages we’d just visited. The fog was persisting and made everything even more beautiful.
When we made it back to Sapa, we were exhausted. We treated ourselves with pizza that night, and enjoyed our mostly empty, very comfy hostel. On our last day in Sapa, we walked around and bought bags and bracelets made by the village women, until it was finally time to get on yet another night bus and make our way to our final destination: Hanoi.
Our arrival in Hanoi was significant for all of us. For Tom and Jaqui, it meant the end of Vietnam, before they both headed to Indonesia for one last hurrah before going home. For Johanna, it meant the beginning of the end of her four-month long journey in Southeast Asia. After Hanoi, she’d head to a yoga retreat in Dalat before returning home to Sweden. For me, it marked the end of my time in Southeast Asia. Soon I’d fly to Tokyo to meet up with friends before making my way home. I was both excited to see friends and to be back in Omaha, but at the same time couldn’t believe my three months were coming to an end.
We spent our few days in Hanoi fighting various illnesses and exhaustion. We wandered the rainy streets and I ate as much noodle soup as I could before it was time to leave. By that point, Johanna and I had been traveling together for four weeks, and had been through a hell of a lot together. Tom and Jaqui had been with us for nearly a week, and we’d all individually and collectively fallen in love with Vietnam. Our last days there were bittersweet, as we were all ready for new adventures, but sad to leave such an amazing country.
Until next time, of course.