Some hours to waste in Hanoi

Yesterday morning I took the bus from Ninh Binh to Hanoi. My train to Lau Cai leaves at 11 pm tonight. To visit the ethnic hill tribes in Sapa, that is where the train stops, and where you get picked up by tour agents to drive further to Sapa by mini-bus. Checkout time in the hotel is at noon, so I still have many hours to spend wandering around town.

Intention to relax at Hoan Kiem Lake

At a slow pace, I walk to an eatery close to Hoan Kiem Lake for dinner. Afterward, I settle down on a bench near the lake, with the intention of reading. But almost immediately, a recruiter comes by offers me a kinky massage with a lady. I tell him to get lost. Two minutes later, a university student shows up to practice his English. When he asks me what I think of Hanoi, I give him an honest answer; the city does not really appeal to me. Around half-past four, I go back to the hotel to pick up my train ticket. I still have to wait until 10 pm.

To Lau Cai in a reasonably comfortable sleeper compartment

Luckily I can share a taxi with a Swiss couple in a taxi. In my sleeping compartment, I meet a German girl. She has been traveling for two years, first in Australia and then in New Zealand, then Southeast Asia. A little later two Dutch boys join us, making our compartment complete. After the exchange of travel experiences, we turn off the light and try to sleep. The legroom is not yet what it should be, but it is better than on the sleeper bus from Hue to Ninh Binh. All in all, I managed to sleep a few hours.

Booking a tour to the ethnic hill tribes Sapa is the cheapest in Hanoi

mountains surrounding Sapacloudy Fan Si Pan mountain in Sapa

Upon arrival in Lau Cai, someone from the hotel in Sapa is already waiting for me. I booked a complete tour package in Hanoi. Our minibus still has seats available, so we drive around to recruit some more tourists for the ride to Sapa. The price is three times that of what I paid at my reservation. When I try to interfere in the price discussion, the reaction of the hasslers becomes quite aggressive, so I back off. My room in the hotel is spacious, with hot water, a godsend because the outside temperature is quite low in Sapa. I estimate about 12 degrees.

Enjoying the surrounding mountains from within the national park

view of Fan Si Pan mountain from Hoang Lien National Park

After breakfast, I take a rest a bit, as I no longer have any grand intentions; no day-lasting trekkings for me. After lunch, I visit the Hoang Lien National Park that offers an excellent overview of the surrounding mountains at its highest point. You cannot see them all this afternoon, many tops are hidden by the clouds. Though you do see several ethnic hill tribes in Sapa, the place itself is, as expected, a large tourist city. Many people walk around in their traditional garb, but you feel that there is commerce behind it. They do sell beautiful things though, but for now, I can still restrain myself.

church in the center of Sapanatural wooden sculpture in national park in Sapa

Bars tend to fill up late in Sapa

After a refreshing shower, I take dinner in a restaurant built in colonial style; the food is excellent, and beautiful lounge music is playing in the background. Afterward, I want to have a drink and walk into a copy of an English pub. While I am the only customer at first, gradually the place fills up. Not that I really get into a conversation, so I drink a few beers and return back to the hotel.

In search of the ethnic hill tribes in Sapa

ethnic hill tribes of Sapa: rice terraces view from Cat Cat village

The next morning I am not feeling well, so I go back to sleep after breakfast. In the early afternoon, I start my exploration of the ethnic hill tribes in Sapa and decide to walk to Cat Cat Village, the closest ethnic settlement, a 3-kilometer trip downhill. The views are beautiful, but the villagers themselves are very accustomed to tourists. I descend an extra kilometer to a waterfall, rest a bit and start the big climb up which is not too hard at a leisurely pace. To see authentic ethnic hill tribes in Sapa, you have to travel a lot further down and undertake serious trekking in the area.

water mill down Cat Cat villagewaterfall near Sapa

Tasty food but inadequate service in restaurants

ethnic hill tribes in Sapa: happy inhabitant of Cat Cat village

For dinner, I treat myself and head for the best pizzeria in town. And for once this is true; the cappriciosa that I order is very tasteful. On the other hand, the service is just as clumsy as so many times before in so many different eateries in Vietnam. The staff is just standing and turning around, and if you beckon them to ask something, it is always awaiting whether they have understood you or not. Mostly the cause is their poor knowledge of English, they pick up words and phrases, but nuances in sentences are entirely lost.

A culture clash and lots of beers

To finish my evening, I enter a bar in a concrete cellar; the place is not that atmospheric, and there are not that many people yet. At some point in time, two ethnic hill tribe girls rush in, I estimate around the age of 16; they start to play billiards at a furious and aggressive pace. This culture clash makes me move a few meters further towards the counter. Somewhat later an English guy shows up who and we start a conversation reasonably quickly. Then we get to know an Australian couple. In the end, I consume many beers, and we all have a good time telling about the misunderstandings we have experienced during our travels. Around 11 pm, the bar is now well stocked with – mostly young – tourists, I leave the place, return to the hotel and go to sleep.