Friday, September 27, 2013

Trekking in northern Vietnam

Written by Monica S. Labels

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain

I'm starting this blog post with a quote I found in the "South East Asia Backpacker," a monthly magazine full of inspiring stories written by people who are either traveling through or have moved to South East Asia. I find it to be quite appropriate for the story I'm about to tell. Firstly, I knew absolutely nothing about the hill tribes living in the north of Vietnam before I came here. Secondly, had I not met them in person, I would not be inclined as passionately as I am to do something to help them. And lastly, it made me aware of how fortunate I am to be able to travel. So many people are "vegetating" in their own corner of the earth and could only dream of traveling, but are too poor to do so. I used to be one of these people up until not long ago. Coming from a developing country myself, I've experienced poverty and lack of mobility. But I kept dreaming. And I am now so grateful to have fulfilled some of those dreams. 

We really wanted to do a trek through northern Laos and stay with one of the hill tribes there, but we didn't have enough time. When we got to Vietnam, we were happy to find out that they have similar tribes living in the mountains in the northern part of the country. We were able to arrange going up there, hiking around and staying overnight with a local family. Despite the cold weather that took me unprepared and reminded me of San Francisco, I absolutely loved this trip and would've gladly stayed there longer, had we had more time. 

The Black Hmong villages in northern Vietnam are located very close to the border with China. Apparently, many of them migrated centuries ago from China and parts of Mongolia. To get there we took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cao, a sad and grim, communist-looking town on the border with China. It reminded me a lot of childhood winters in Communist Romania. We arrived in Lao Cao at 6am and were shuttled in a packed minivan over a windy mountain road for about an hour until we reached the town of Sapa. Sapa is like a mountain resort, and the starting point for a lot of activities, such as hiking Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. It also boasts a full-on North Face fake store. Everything in the store is a copy and it costs about $20. I haven't been inside, but some people we met said the clothes looked the same quality as original North Face clothes. 

Our guide was waiting for us in Sapa and after we ate some breakfast we started the trek. During this time of the year, it is very cold and foggy, so you can't see much. The rice paddies are also not in full swing, so they don't boast the lush green you'd expect. Also, because of the heavy rains, the roads turn into a deep, slippery mud. Our hike was basically walking uphill or downhill through intense mud. Downhill was quite treacherous, at times it felt like hiking down a slip-and-slide. 

The girl on the right is our guide. The one on the left is one of the many women that followed us during the entire hike. Their strategy is to walk very closely behind you or right beside you. They try to become friends. They ask you a million questions: where you're from, how old are you, how many siblings you have, if you're married and have babies, if you have a boyfriend, etc. When you look like you're about to lose balance and fall, they're right there, holding your hand and showing you where to step next. Your heart melts and you think you just made a new friend. You are impressed at how friendly and helpful the people are. And four hours later, at the end of the hike, the shit show begins!

Daniel, flanked by two Red Dzao women. The tribes distinguish themselves mostly through the type of clothes and hats women wear. Red Dzao women wear red hats and embroidered pants, while Hmong women wear embroidered skirts and colorful head scarves. After harassing Daniel for the longest time possible, the two ladies called mission accomplished. 

The landscape, shrouded in fog the entire time, was magic. Tons of suspension bridges everywhere, but we didn't get to cross any. For every suspension bridge there was a new sturdier bridge built nearby. And some suspension bridges were really shabby, missing entire sections. 

Main street and grocery store in a Hmong village. I can't begin to describe how poor these people are. The only other place I've seen similar levels of poverty is Bolivia. Despite that, people seemed happy. It seemed normal. It felt like the simple kind of life that humans have led for centuries in these parts of the world. 

Hiking through mud along rice paddies. I felt really grateful for having my sturdy comfy hiking boots. This was yet another extreme test for how awesome they are. 

Our wonderful guide and her 10-month old baby. The cutest, smiliest, happiest baby in the world! Our guide was 19 years old and she had been married for 3 years already. Her husband, a year younger than her, takes care of the baby in the mornings while she's guiding tourists. At noon she gets back home and brings the tourists with her, to show them where she lives. She does this, so she can breast-feed the baby, strap him on her back and then continue the hike in the afternoon. At the end of the hike, she cooks for all of us and after dinner her husband comes to pick the two of them up with the motorbike. For the late night ride, the 10-month old baby gets strapped to the front of the mommy, so it can be sandwiched between its parents on the motorbike and protected from the cold. For guiding a group of tourists like this, she gets paid 5 USD/day. She works 4 days a week. Her husband is currently building their house, where she invited us. The house consists of a big room, walls made of bamboo leaves, no bathroom, no kitchen. Just a hole in the ground with a fire burning above it. A bed in a corner. A few clothes hanging on a rope. A few plastic stools. One piece of pork meat, almost black in color, hanging to smoke above the fire. 

The magic bridge - a photographer's dream. You probably can't even tell it's a bridge. It's suspended really high above rice fields, it's very narrow (a car can't fit), doesn't have railings and has zero visibility. We didn't see anyone walk on it, so we don't really know what its purpose was. 

Our guide's English was excellent, by far better than that of many people we've met in Hanoi or entire Vietnam for that matter. I asked her how she managed to speak so well and she said she started out following tourists and trying to sell them things. She would engage in conversations with them and pick up words really fast. Some tourists really liked her and wanted her to be their guide. The word got out that she's a likable girl with good command of English, so the trekking company hired her. The frequency of her gigs is solely based on feedback and reviews from tourists. 

The kitchen of the homestay where we slept. It was so cold inside the house that you could see your own breath. A few of our group of 9 gathered around the fire. The pot in the middle is boiling food for the pigs: a mix of cornmeal and leftover scraps.

Dinner in the homestay. Food in northern Vietnam is plain and some of the dishes remind me of Chinese food, maybe because they are so close to the border with China. All the food is stir-fried in a wok. We got stir-fried cabbage, chicken with bok choi and vegetables, steamed rice, spring rolls and fried tofu. The family also served us rice wine, which tastes more like vodka than sake. 

The next day the visibility was a bit better, so we could see the beautiful landscapes hiding behind the thick fog on the previous day.  

There was no bridge for this river, so we crossed the water on two metal beams, suspended across two rocks. We didn't want to do it at first, but it was actually easier than we thought. I love the ingenuity of the people here. There's always a solution for everything, even if it's not the most elegant, safe or logical solution. Things seem to always work out, somehow. 

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Sapa Trekking & Homestay tour.At an elevation of 1,600 meters, Sapa is a delightful former French hill station situated in the mountainous region of Vietnam's northwest, close to the Chinese border. The region is home to many ethnic minority groups, each wearing traditional and colorful attire. This trip includes a trek through the hills and valleys of the Sapa region, discovering several different minorities along the way. You will experience overnight accommodation in the hospitable villages of Giay and Tay ethnic minorities. The apparent hardships are worth it though as we walk through some of the most spectacular scenery that Vietnam has to offer and experience unique villages culture.


  • Awesome scenery
  • Rice terraces
  • Colorful minority groups 
  • Homestays in minority villages

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Trekking in Sapa and the Hill Tribes in Northern Vietnam

After our return from Halong Bay – which I will write about in a later blog post – we took the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, a remote town in the mountains of Northern Vietnam between China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. 

The landscape around Sapa is breathtaking and makes it a great destination for trekking. In addition to that a lot of interesting ethnic minorities live there – different hill tribes, each with their own language, traditional lifestyle and clothing. During our trip there we met the Red Dzao and the Black Hmong people.

The night train left Hanoi at 9pm and was surprisingly comfortable, and it was possible to get a good six hours of sleep before the arrival in Sapa around 5am. We had a long breakfast, and strolled a little bit through town before we were able to check into our hotel and get ready for a day of trekking.

The landscape around Sapa is beautiful and I was looking forward to my first hike after knee surgery earlier this year.We spent the day hiking with her and two other Black Hmong women – very nice and friendly people. This is one of the other Black Hmong women who came with us on the trek.

The Red Dzao women shave the top of their head and their eyebrows after they get married, as this is thought to be more beautiful and also to bring good luck. They wear striking, elaborate red headscarves with fringes attached to them – the more fringes the more important the person .

Red Dzao women
The Black Hmong women wear a really cool outfit that consists of several layers…

They wear the beautiful traditional clothing every day – independent of age and they grow their own hemp to produce the material for their clothes. During our hike we were surprised to come upon big patches of tall marijuana plants, which, they told us, are used to make hemp. The women also grow the plants that they need in order to dye the cloth indigo – and that is why they have blue stains on their fingers.

Many of the minority villages are several hours of walking away from Sapa, and a lot of these women walk to Sapa and back every day in order to sell their handicraft to tourists. They carry everything in woven baskets on their back.

 Black Hmong women
When they have babies they do the same walks and simply carry the baby on their back instead of the basket.And they learn at a very young age how to do that.One of the main characteristics about the landscape in Northern Vietnam are the terraced rice fields. The hill tribes are subsistence farmers who live off their land and the livestock they own. They do not pay taxes, but at the same time also do not receive any government pensions or other social services. They grow rice for their families, which is backbreaking labor – and in a bad season the land does not provide enough rice to feed them. In that case the Vietnamese government helps by distributing 300kgs of rice per family to the villages.

Water buffalo are an important part of life here…

Sapa has a much cooler climate than the rest of the country, and in many ways it doesn’t feel like Vietnam anymore – some of the minority people speak better English than Vietnamese; but then you look around and find propaganda of the Vietnamese government even in the most remote villages. Note the first billboard below is hand-painted and shows people of different ethnic minorities…

Lately the Vietnamese government has been building schools and has started to provide electricity also for the more isolated areas – which the people in the villages appreciate a lot. We passed one of those schools, and school kids were practicing a dance – obviously overseen by Ho Chi Minh outside the school as well as inside the class room.

At the end of the trek we arrived at the home village of one of the women – and her best friend was waiting there for her with a bottle of rice wine. We were invited to try the wine, and it was seriously strong stuff!

The next day I couldn’t resist buying a second-hand Black Hmong outfit to take home with me, and while Nat was climbing Mount Fansipan I had a lot of fun with the Black Hmong girls helping them sell their handicraft to tourists while dressed like one of them.

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like recommend Sapa trek & Topas Eco Lodge tour.At an elevation of 1,600 meters, Sapa is a delightful former French hill station situated in the mountainous region of Vietnam's northwest, close to the Chinese border. The region is home to many ethnic minority groups, each wearing traditional and colorful attire. This trip includes a trek through the hills and valleys of the Sapa region, discovering several different minorities along the way. You will experience overnight accommodation in the hospitable villages of Dzay and Tay ethnic minorities. Round off the trek with a nice stay in Topas Eco Lodge. The apparent hardships are worth it though as we walk through some of the most spectacular scenery that Vietnam has to offer and experience unique villages culture.


  • Awesome scenery
  • Rice terraces
  • Colorful minority groups
  • Homestays in minority villages
  • Topas Eco-lodge

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

9 Stunning Landscapes of Vietnam

At just three percent of the land mass of the United States, what most surprised me during our time in Vietnam was the diversity of the scenery. From white sand beaches and turquoise water to black rock forests and mountains that hug the clouds, here are some of the most amazing landscapes we came across.

With a coastline of over 2025 miles, it's no surprise that Vietnam has a ton of beautiful beaches. And when the rest stop during your bus trip looks like this, you don't have much to complain about.

Rest stops in Vietnam are sometimes on beautiful beaches
The biggest beach destination in Vietnam is likely the town of Nha Trang, which boasts all day boat tours and all night parties. If you're missing Miami while in SE Asia, this is the closest we found. The beach in the main town is pretty nice, but the offshore islands are where you want to head if you're looking to snorkel or dive. With perfect visibility, good quality coral, and thousands of multicolored fish flitting about, having a great day is easy, especially since the all day island-hopping tour costs approximately $6.

Great beach for snorkeling near Nha Trang
But Vietnam's coastline isn't all sparkling white sand and clear blue water. Our favorite coastal landscape was the sand dunes around Mui Ne, which come in both red and white varieties. Whether you jump, run, or slide, it's hard not to let the beauty of the dunes overwhelm you. Stretching for what seems like miles, the dunes are something you'd expect to find in Africa. Instead, they're here, only a few minutes away from one of the best places in the world to learn to kitesurf.

Red sand dunes of Mui Ne
Most countries with a coastline have beaches, but they don't all have rice terraces, especially ones that look like this.

Rice terraces of Sapa

The terraces in Sapa were carved over two thousand years ago by hand and are still inhabited primarily by the Black Hmong tribespeople. These mountain dwellers live off the land, planting and harvesting rice year in and year out in order to sustain their families.

A Black Hmong man takes a break from working in the rice terraces outside of Sapa

Tourists can explore the terraces by taking a multiday trekking tour with a Hmong guide. You'll stay in homestays run by the local villagers, get knee deep in mud, and appreciate rice way more than you ever have.

Wide view of Sapa's rice terraces
Further north and to the east of Sapa lies the unexplored Vietnam of the Ha Giang province. You need a permit to stay the night and a camera with lots of battery power to take all of the photos of the immense scenery that surrounds you as you drive by on your motorbike. The most beautiful part of the road, and arguably one of the most beautiful drives in the world, is the leg between Dong Van and Meo Vac. Here the road darts in and out of rock crevices and up and down mountains and valleys.

Windy road in Northern Vietnam

Children in traditional tribal outfits scream "hello" from above and below as they carry double their weight of sticks in bamboo baskets. Men wear high-necked black tunics and matching berets and women wrap electric pink scarves over their hair, giving the game of "I Spot" a whole new meaning.

Rock forest in Northern Vietnam
Perhaps the most quintessential scene of Vietnam is the floating limestone karst formations of Halong Bay. Best seen on a multi-day boat tour, these rocks rise out of the still water and emerge through the mist forming, if you look hard enough, the shape of a descending dragon. At least that's what the locals tell you, and how Halong Bay gets its name. Kayaking through some of these formations is a must, as is sitting back on your boat tour and letting the scenery and mist envelop you.

Kayaking Halong Bay

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like recommend Motorcycling adventure in Northern Vietnam  tour.The mountainous area of Northern Vietnam has long been famous for its beautiful scenery and great diversity of ethnic minorities. With our adventure motorcycling trip you will make a big loop to experience all the bests that area can offer. Starting in Hanoi you will explore Northwest before jumping into Northeast, back to Hanoi after a day relaxing in Ba Be Lake. The perfect itinerary and the support crew ensure you get the most out of the trip in terms of comfort, enjoyment and adventure. Along the way we encounter dramatic landscapes and sweeping panoramas as the rural population goes about its business. Highlights include the terraced valleys of Sapa, beautiful Ban Gioc Waterfall and many different colorful minority groups.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

World’s largest cave to open for public tours

Written by Soo Kim

Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave, the largest cave in the world, will be open for public viewing from next year.
World’s largest cave opens for public tours.

Son Doong Cave

Son Doong's largest caverns are said to be big enough to enclose entire city streets 

Visitors can now book a six-day trekking tour through the remote jungle of the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, including three nights in the magnificent Son Doong Cave.

Son Doong Cave

Led by a team of safety experts and guides, tour groups of no more than eight people will trek across river valleys and visit the Doong Village to meet the local Bru VanKieu people.

Tourists will witness jaw-dropping cave formations, including 250 metre-high cliffs where flying foxes, monkeys and hornbills may be sighted, and descend an 80-metre vertical drop before reaching the first passage into the grand Son Doong Cave which spans over 200 metres wide, 150 metres high and nearly nine kilometres long. Its largest caverns are said to be big enough to enclose entire city streets.

Son Doong Cave
The entrance to the Song Doong Cave was first found by a local called Ho Khanh in 1991 but the cave was fully uncovered by a British expedition team in 2009 led by Howard Limbert.

Son Doong has since been classified as the world’s largest cave by the British Cave Research Association. It is deemed to be nearly twice as big as Malaysia’s Deer Cave which is 90-metres wide, 100-metres high and two kilometres long.

Son Doong Cave

Tucked away deep within Phong Nha Ke Bang in the Quang Binh province near its border with Laos, Son Doong forms part of a network of nearly 150 caves yet to be explored in the Annamite Mountains.
Last month, six people from the US, Russia, Australia and Norway became the first foreign tourist group to have fully explored the Song Doong Cave.

Son Doong Cave
ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Son Doong Surroundings: En Cave & Phong Nha National Park Discovery tour.Son Doong Cave, En Cave (Swallow Cave or Hang En) are the most spectacular sights in Quang Binh province (Central of Vietnam). Fortunately, when Son Doong is currently restricted to scientists and cavers only, we can have a great two-day trek to En Cave. The Cave is 1.645 m long and has three mouths. One is halfway up a mountain and two others are located on another mountain which has its foot on the south-east and north-west alongside Rao Thuong Stream. All of these make the cave different from other well-known caves in the country.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Laos motorcycle diaries

Writen by Richard Waters

Reclining Buddha at monastery in Vientiane

Landlocked Laos, fortressed by mountains and dissected by the mighty Mekong River, is best travelled by road; its dramatic routes twisting sinuously through jungle, paddy fields, mountains and karst country.
Normally seen from one of the country’s wheezing buses, there is an exciting alternative for those eager to drive through Laos’ stunning panoramas. Over the last 10 years – in a voracious desire to create speedy supply routes to trade neighbours Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand – China has invested heavily in widening and sealing the Laos’ roads. This, combined with affordable satellite navigation technology, has made the country a new favourite for amateur motorcyclists. After all, wouldn’t you rather be the architect of your journey with the wind on your face, than stuck in the back of a decrepit bus beside a cage of bats?

In 1975, after the Vietnam War and parallel Laotian Civil War, the communist country slammed its doors to the outside world until 1991, meaning that Laos has had far less exposure to the West than some of its neighbours. Beyond its main cities – Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet – four-fifths of the population live off the land, including its more than 100 ethnic tribes; and the country is still thickly carpeted in forest that harbours tigers and leopards. To best explore this mysterious world, hire a speedy motorbike to tackle the rough trails and mountain roads. You can arrange to have your bags forwarded to your destination and even drop the bike off at the end to avoid doubling back on yourself.

Start your journey in the languid capital of Vientiane, where The Midnight Mapper (ask for Don Duvall) hires handheld Garmin GPS devices to help you safely find your route in the most remote of Laos’ backwaters. If you already have a device, an excellent digital GPS map is also available via sim card. Thanks to Duvall’s slavish obsession to detail – taking 10 years to map every corner of the country – the possibility of getting lost in the jungle is now nearly impossible.
Laos is a new favourite for amateur motorcyclists
Before you leave Vientiane, spend a few days soaking up its French restaurants, bakeries and spas, before heading to Jules Classic Rental, a Western-run outfit in the centre of the old town. They have well-maintained heavy-duty dirt bikes for hire and a solid reputation to match.

From Vientiane it is an easy 340km ride south on Highway 13 to the pretty colonial town of Tha Khaek. The road is generally flat, with Thailand on your right across the Mekong River and dramatic jungle rearing up like a dragon-green tsunami to the east. Given that dusk comes around 6 pm, try to travel early, before the vampish dangers of night increase your chances of colliding with an errant water buffalo. Also many Lao lack bike lights, and dogs have a suicidal leaning to sleep in the centre of the road. An hour of this nocturnal Russian roulette will fray your nerves.

In Tha Khaek, stay at the delightful Inthira Hotel, the town’s only boutique accommodation. While this former colonial outpost is pretty enough with old French houses, Chinese merchants shops and locals playing pétanque under the tropical sun, its main purpose is as a base for travellers who come to tackle the jungle-rich, three-day, 500km odyssey known as the Loop; the highlight of which is the country’s most spectacular cave, Kong Lor.

Up until now, travellers attempting the Loop had to rely on unreliable narrow-wheeled scooters to take them over demanding terrain, from passing trucks throwing up thick dust to sheer mountain roads with gravel surfaces. Not surprisingly, fatalities occurred and casualties were myriad. 

Day one of the Loop heads 140km northeast from Th Khaek toward Vietnam, surging through lush jungle and along unsealed roads past lunar landscapes of flooded valleys. From there it rears west from the logging town of Lak Sao back into Khammouane Province. Lak Sao might not be much to look at, but you will be glad of its acceptable hotels, street food and ATMs to accommodate your first night.

Motorbike crossing in Vang Vieng
The second day sees better conditioned roads as you motor 100km west to Kong Lor Village through extraordinary karst country, the triple canopy rent  by forbidding charcoal-black cliffs, visible for miles around. Amid this surreal topography are lethally tight switchbacks that snake through clouds of fluorescent butterflies and past roadside tribal folk with antique guns slung over their shoulders. It is best to overnight in Kong Lor village and see the cave early the next morning, giving yourself plenty of time to ride back to Tha Khaek before it gets dark.

Less than 1km from Kong Lor Village, your first view of Kong Lor cave is that of a dark mouth leering at you from the base of a towering limestone mountain. From its ragged teeth flows the Kong River, which you have to board a stuttering longtail boat to navigate. With its stalactites and stalagmites twisting in the church-high darkness, Kong Lor cave looks like a backdrop from a Star Trek movie. As the river flows quick and dark through the heart of the mountain, it is just you, your feeble torch and the boatman, puttering into the Stygian gloom.

The trip through the cave takes about 40 minutes, the boat emerging mole-like into the sunshine where you stop by a small ban (village) for a cold drink. The relief is short-lived, however, as you have no choice but to return back the way you came. At 7.5km long, this eerie cave is surely one of Laos’ most unforgettable experiences.

After the cave, grab some lunch before travelling the last 180km of the Loop, back to your pressed linen sheets and rain shower at the Inthira Hotel.

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Vietnam-Laos Adventures tour.Laos is the least populated of the Indochinese countries. The landscape is dominated by mountains, jungles and of course the Mekong River, which runs for 1800km along the western border of the country. A devoutly Buddhist nation, Laos has opened up to provide travellers with an opportunity to experience the diversity, tradition and natural beauty of the country. This trip offers adventurous travellers a great opportunity to discover the combined beauty of northern Vietnam and northern Laos.

Highlights :

  • Sea kayaking in Halong Bay
  • Trekking and home stay in Mai Chau and Pu Luong
  • Plain of Jars in Xieng Khoang
  • Ancient city of Luang Prabang
  • River kayaking in Luang Prabang Area 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Motorbiking Northern Vietnam !!!

Written by Orna
So, I have now returned from my 5 day motorbike tour of some of the north of Vietnam and am now in crazy Hanoi. The destinations changed a little and hopefully for the best because my tour guide - Mr Binh said he was taking me to places that were far less touristy than those mentioned in Lonely Plant. I wrote a bit of a journal while I was away and will re-write what I wrote:

Motorcycling Northern Vietnam

Day 1 - Thursday 22 Sep

So! Right now I am at a homestay with White Thai people (a minority group) somewhere west of Ninh Binh in a village that is not mentioned in Lonely Planet. And I am exhausted from sitting on the back of the bike! I don't know how it can be so exhausting just sitting!! Anyway, the scenery has been absoluetly stunning - there are the rice fields that are elevated like they show in Sapa - absolutely stunning! And apparently I've found out that today is the first sunny day after 20 consecutive days of rain!! I am soooooooooooooo lucky!! (So much for it not raining much in the north as per the information provided by the woman at the guest house selling me the tour!!)

Motorcycling Northern Vietnam
Anyway, this homestay is in one of the gorgeous rice fields in the hills. And their toilet is Western style - yay! Already today I was taken to a "toilet" which was just floor boards with a hole in the wall at the bottom and I figured you just had to somehow pee through the hole in the wall! Don't ask me how they dispose of their no. 2's in this "toilet"! Here at the homestay their shower is just a cold water tap that you have to try wash yourself under - I can deal with that! Though they don't seem to use towels here??

So I also had a bit of an unexpected and slightly unwanted adventure today that I wasn't so happy about. We were riding along on the motorbike and my guide suddenly stops and tells me to walk down a track off the road for about 100m and he will meet me at the other end (he does not communicate this information in a very clear way and I am unsure whether I understood right). So anyway, I think ok, and start walking down a track by someone's house in a small village. But soon I come across a fork in the track and don't know which way I'm supposed to go! So I choose one direction and walk for a bit and then decide that I should just go back to the road and find the guide because I don;t want to go the wrong way and get lost in this village where no-one speaks english! So I go back to the road and start walking along the road hoping to meet with the guide soon.

So I'm walking, walking, walking and no sign of the giude! Great! And once again I'm thinking - well thank g-d I have my water, passport and money on me! And I'm thinking that I might have to stay with someone in the village if I don't find the guide and how will I ever get back to the city?? Anyway, there are lots of nice people and kids along the way all saying hello which was very nice, but I was just very pissed off about the guide leaving me to walk a path with many directions!!

So, 1-2 hrs later of me walking through the village, my guide drives up from behind me. And I say to him - "so! There wasn't one path where you left me! And I didn't know if I would see you again!!" and how does he respond? "No problem!!". Yeah! No problem for him but BIG problem for me!! So I was quite pissed off by this stage - imagine just leaving me without any clear information!! Luckily I even had my water cause I would have gotten dehydrated for sure without it cause it was quite hot and hardly any shade!

Hill -Tribes people

So, after this he made it up a little by at least taking me to a really beautiful village with the staggered rice fields. This time, when he told me to get off the bike and walk he at least kept waiting for me down the way to make sure I went the right way. So again I walked through another village where all the people were very friendly and I walked through the rice fields to the homestay where I am now. Living in this house is a husband and wife and their daughter. And it was really nice cause we all ate dinner together on the floor sharing dishes and then afterwards they put bamboo mats down on the floor and hung mosquito nets over the mats with bits of fabric hanging in between for us all to sleep. So it felt like a little sleepover! I was quite happy though when we went to bed about 7pm cause they were all just talking in Vietnamese and of course I couldn't join in so it felt a little strange.

Day 2 - Friday 23 Sep (Happy Birthday Dad!)

So right now I am at a homestay with Hmong people (another minority). This morning, Mr Binh told me to walk to the next village via apparently ONE path with no forks! He drew me a map of the things I would pass along the way - i.e. first a school, then mountains and then I would look down and see a village and then I would come to a road where I would meet him. So, it was again very beautiful because I was walking through the staggered rice fields watching people work in the fields, BUT - I came across forks in the path!!! I was soooooooo mad!!! So I just chose one and hoped for the best, all the while seething at Mr Binh!! Luckily for me it was the right path because I did see the things he said I would and I did meet him later on at the road!
Hill- Tribes People at Market

We then drove through a small market where Mr Binh bought food to cook for dinner that night. There was a family there who just kept pointing at my nose ring and commenting and laughing!! After this I walked some more for maybe another hour through the next village where everyone was again very friendly - "hello!, "bye bye!" "xin chao!" (hello).

Later that afternoon we walked to a waterfall which I swam in which was absolutely divine! Clear mountain water - cold and refreshing!

So this homestay is again a traditional bamboo hut in the most beautiful setting. I walked up the hill a bit from their home to a "stadium" where boys were playing soccor. The "stadium" was just a cleared bit of land with bamboo goal posts surrounded by the beautiful mountains! Then, it was bound to happen, on my way back down the hill I slipped in the mud/clay and fell on my bum - so embarrising! These people do full on work in the mountains with just these flimsy plastic slip on sandals and I slip with my proper colombia walking shoes!

So, I've had a yummy dinner of tofu, fish, bean sprouts and bamboo and it's now 7pm and things are winding down - no TV or sun to keep people awake! Tomorrow we head to Mai Chau (which is in the Lonely Planet) which is maybe 1/2 day of driving.

Day 3 - Saturday 24 Sep

Woman at the field

So I'm now in a homestay in Mai Chau which has other western people!!! I hadn't seen another western person for 2 days! Also because it's the weekend it's very busy because apparently people can get the local bus here from Hanoi and there are many Vietnamese tourists who come here for the weekend. So when we arrived we went for a beautiful 2 hr walk through villages and rice fields. Then we had a communal dinner with my guide and other tourists staying at the homestay - I even tried fried insects!! I'm not sure what they were - maybe grasshoppers and other things but i guess they just tasted of chips! Vietnamese chips! They really do eat everthing here - even cat I found I said, anything...

Then after dinner my guide said there was some dancing happening tonight that I could go and see in the village - I couldn't decipher whether this dancing happened every sat night or if it was some festival (you ask my guide something and the answer that comes back makes you realise he totally didn't understand the question!!).

So we walked to this field where there was this crazy / bizarre partying going on - groups of people around bonfires where there was traditional dancing and costume mixed in with really loud pop music and really drunk young Vietnamese people (probably from Hanoi?) jumping around with the traditional dancers! It was really bizarre... so we stayed for a bit and then walked back to the homestay where next door a family were holding their own event of traditional dancing which was much better!

Day 4 - Sunday 25 Sep

We left Mai Chau at 7am for the most spectacular market - Pa Co Market - a market for the Blue, Red and Flower Hmong people which was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had!!! This market is not listed in the Lonely Planet and my guide took me here instead of the Bac Ha market further north because he said this one does not have tourists and it is much better because the people don't pester you to buy things like they do in Sapa and Bac Ha.

So we arrived at 8am and it was all fully happening with Blue, Red and Flower Hmong people everywhere in their amazing traditional clothes and silver hand made jewellery - I really was absolutely brimming with exhilaration!!! It was just one of the most incredible things I have ever seen and I felt so privaleged to be there watching everyone!!! I could have sat and watched all day! And I really was one of the only westerners there - people really were looking at me as if to be thinking what are you doing here? The market was mainly selling the traditional clothes of the Red and Blue Hmong and some for the Flower Hmong (whose colour is mainly purple). In amongst all my exhilaration I realised that I had lost my glasses that I had tucked into my top!!! (I was wearing my sunnies). I got such a shock and started searching the stalls and LUCKILY I went back to one stall and indicated that I had lost glasses and they had them!! But they made me PAY them to get them back! Ha! I don't think it was much but I bargened and got a purse thing as well :)

Later on we went to a Red Hmong village and I recognised one of the women from the market and vice versa! She was quite lovely and let me take some photos with her. Being in this village was so surreal... being among these minority people who wear these exquisite it was unbelievable that I was really there!

Next stop was a Blue Hmong village but I didn;t feel welcome there - some kids started yelling at me and pulling at the purse thing I had bought at the market and I didn;t understand what was happening other than that I didn't feel welcome! Overall, on the road as we passed more minority people, some kids were friendly and some seemed very angry or mistrustful of me - some threw things at me! Generally the adults were very wary of me and also seemed not to like me - I was very conflicted because I so wanted to take photos of them and yet I felt it was not ethical to take something from them that they did not seem willing to give! Ahh the ethical dilemmas of travel photography!! So it felt really good whenever I saw a minority person that was friendly! I definately got the impression that they were not familiar with tourists - at least not the people I was seeing. They also seemed to be poorer than other village people I had seen.

But everytime I saw someone wearing the traditional dress I got so excited!! And now I am sooooooo glad to have been able to see them - definately one of the most amazing parts of my trip.

Now we are at another homestay by this massive man-made lake for electricity in the mountains. Tomorrow we head back to Mai Chau and then to Hanoi I think.
Motorcycling Northern Vietnam

Day 5 - Monday 26 Sep

Today we went on a long and bumpy journey through the mountains back to Mai Chai. Probably the only really interesting part of the journey was that I saw some Xao people (another minority) who were wearing their traditional clothes!

When we arrived back at the homestay it started to rain - so we were lucky that we had missed it! Again I ended up going to sleep early cause everyone else were talking and laughing in Vietnamese!

Day 6 - Tuesday 27 Sep

Today we left for Hanoi in the rain and cold. I was glad my motorbike journey had ended with the bad weather and that I had had amazing weather for all the good bits! The journey to Hanoi took 5 hrs - it was cold and rainy and very foggy and I couldn't wait to arrive! Though it definately felt sad leaving the beautiful countryside - going to Hanoi all of a sudden on the roads you have all the beeping and honking and cars and trucks and buses with crazy sounding horns that are really annoying!! I was getting very irritable with the honking!!! So unnessesary!!

Arriving in Hanoi has certainly been crazy. First of all, my guide just drops me off with my bags and tells me there are many guest houses here - not so far to walk. The goodbye was very quick and distant - it seemed bizarre. So I start walking with my pack to find a guest house and of course there are none where he has dropped me off - only shoe stores!! So I'm walking and walking trying to find signs of guest houses and I'm very annoyed at my guide for just dropping me off on the road without at least dropping me of on a street with many guest houses like I thought he had! So I thought that was really bad and rude of him and I'm thinking of seeing if he is on Trip Advisor so I can make a comment!

Finally I get my Lonely Planet out and realise that the guest houses are too far to walk to and I get a xe om (motorcyle taxi) to the guest house. Rrrr - so rude of my guide!!!

So I am now in the room of my guest house and have settled in a bit - I've had a walk around the crazy streets and lanes of the old city of Hanoi and felt quite overwelmed at the craziness after spending 5 days in small villages! I had a shower in the bathroom which has such a low ceiling that anyone who is a bit taller than me would have to crouch! It's like they have really crammed as many floors and rooms into this tiny space as possible!

Tommorrow I will spend the day in Hanoi and then the following 2 days I will go to Halong Bay before flying back to Bangkok!

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Motorcycling adventure in Northern Vietnam tour.The mountainous area of Northern Vietnam has long been famous for its beautiful scenery and great diversity of ethnic minorities. With our adventure motorcycling trip you will make a big loop to experience all the bests that area can offer. Starting in Hanoi you will explore Northwest before jumping into Northeast, back to Hanoi after a day relaxing in Ba Be Lake. The perfect itinerary and the support crew ensure you get the most out of the trip in terms of comfort, enjoyment and adventure. Along the way we encounter dramatic landscapes and sweeping panoramas as the rural population goes about its business. Highlights include the terraced valleys of Sapa, beautiful Ban Gioc Waterfall and many different colorful minority groups. 


  • Stunning scenery
  • Stunning Pha Din Pass and Tram Ton Pass
  • Terraced valley of Sapa
  • Ban Gioc Waterfall
  • Babe Lake
  • Colorful ethnic minorities

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ultimate Road Trip: Vietnam's Northern Loop

Written by Adam Hodge 

Anyone who has been to this country (and even some of those who haven't) will no doubt be skeptical about the words "Vietnam" and "road trip" in the same sentence. It's true: In a city like Hanoi, the traffic can make you freeze up like an opossum. But outside of the cities, where vehicles are few and far between, the scenery is unforgettable, the culture vibrant, and the road trip experience unparalleled.

Driving the legendary Northwest Loop is the best way to get a glimpse of the rural side of a country in the throes of relentless, voracious development. In the less-visited north, you can explore the Vietnam of rice terraces, karst formations draped in verdant jungle, purple mountains, and thundering waterfalls.



The Northwest Loop begins in Hanoi. If you're going to tackle this route in a car or truck, it's best to get a 4WD. Most of the route is sealed, but heavy rains can occasionally wash small rocks and debris onto the road in the mountains. And speaking of rain, since you're in the mountains all bets are off when it comes to the weather. It's true that Vietnam's dry season runs from October until April, but if you try this during "rainy" season in the summer months you can still get away with it. And remember, as you get higher up, the temperature will drop, so you may use both the A/C and the heater in the same trip.

But be warned, the small twisty roads were drawn into the hills for the pleasure (and ease) of two-wheeled travel. The trip can be done on a 125 cc semi-automatic "motoscooter," which are incredibly easy for even non-riders to get a handle on quickly. You can rent one in Hanoi for less than $10 a day from an outfitter like Flamingo Travel, who provides helpful English-language service. Flamingo also provides guided tours for those who don't want to tackle the country alone.


After you've explored Hanoi's bustling Old Quarter (the Essence Hanoi is a great boutique hotel option) and filled up on Hanoi's legendary street food, it's time to brave the traffic on the highway from hell out of the city. This is a straight-shot, get-it-over-with drive to the first stopover. Look on the bright side: You will never again complain about traffic back home. Just under 30 miles southwest of Hanoi on Highway 6, you'll have the chance to turn left onto a skinny two-lane secondary road. Take it! This is what you've come for. The road weaves its way through rice terraces, bypassing the truck-heavy main drag. You'll meet up with H6 again soon enough, which you'll take the rest of the way to Mai Chau.

Motorcycling Mai Chau
Once in Mai Chau, take a day or two to explore the surrounding countryside, which is home to many of the White Tai ethnic minority. The lush, rice paddy-filled valley is a world away from the noise of Hanoi, the horns and hawker shouts replaced with gurgling irrigation rustling leaves. Here you'll find one of the best accommodation options in northern Vietnam: the terrific Mai Chau Lodge.

When you leave Mai Chau, you will follow weaving valley roads and mountain switchbacks up H6 to Son La. The journey is not far, but you will stop so frequently to take in the view, so budget extra time. A good idea is to break up the day with pit stops in the small towns you'll find on the way, where you can refill with Vietnamese iced coffee or pho.


After Son La, you can head directly to the big city in the north, Sapa, but you'd be wise to head to Dien Bien Phu on the QL279 turnoff instead, where you can view the site of one of the most decisive and game-changing military victories in modern history. DBP is where the French rule of Vietnam came to an ignominious end—think Custer's Last Stand in Indochina. Walk around Hill A-1, and then visit the ranks of unmarked graves in the war cemeteries. It's a grim reminder of the war-torn history of the beautiful surroundings.

Motorcycling Northern Vietnam

On to Sapa, the center of northern Vietnam. A former French hill station, the town overlooks a valley of waterfalls and rice paddies, and frequently finds itself in puffy white fog as clouds roll into the town center. This is great place for trekking and mountain biking. Trekking Sapa leads multi-day tours around the area, showing off the natural beauty and the culture of the local Hmong hill tribes. For a place to stay, try Thai Binh Sapa.

Motorcycling Northern Vietnam

It will take a solid day to drive back to Hanoi from Sapa, so it's wise to break up the trip into two pieces, sleeping the LaVieVuLinh ecolodge homestay near Thac Ba Lake on the way back. If you have time, though, spend an extra couple of days and head east to Ba Be National Park. This remarkable area is up for UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site, but is seldom visited because it is tough to access using public transportation. The park plays host to countless species of fauna, including bears, tigers, and the king cobra. Stay in one of the stilt-house homestays in Pac Ngoi village, which cozies up to the shores of Ba Be Lake, the freshwater centerpiece of the park.

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like recommend Motorcycling West to East Northern Vietnam tour.This motorcycling trip reveals a different route to get from Son La to Thac Ba. It offers adventurous riders stunning scenery and great tribal culture exploration. The route is not yet popular thus you do not share the roads with other tourist but mainly share the roads with the locals who are on their Honda to the farm. The perfect itinerary and the support crew ensure you get the most out of the trip in terms of comfort, enjoyment and adventure.

  •     Stunning scenery
  •     Challenging roads
  •     Thac Ba Reservoir
  •     Colorful ethnic minorities