by in Out of India

Cat Ba Harbour
Floating village
Local fishermen
Monkey Island beach
Cat Ba bay sunset

When you think about Vietnam, you will quickly think about the Halong Bay. But the attractivity of this unique landscape along with the strong entrepreneur spirit of Vietnamese may have transformed this perfect postal card into one of the most exploited tourist place on earth… So after some research on travel blogs and the Lonely Planet, we thought we could still try to have a slice of the Halong Bay, but getting-in from the “backdoor”, through the Cat Ba island.

Arriving in Cat Ba after a pretty long bus-ferry-bus trip we got mixed feelings as most of the island consists of krastic hills and lush nature while Cat Ba “city” is a coastal touristic town, built too fast with too high slim hotels along the shore.
We tried to “escape” by renting a scooter directly but we didn’t find any hotel free out of the city. So we came back to one of the many seafront hotel which still had the big advantage of a great view over the bay.

The cruise around the island on a scooter is nice and can lead you to a beach, to a cave-hidden military base dating from the Vietnam war or else to a 360 hilltop view point which is perfect to enjoy the sunset. But the main show is elswhere… as very close lies the Halong Bay that we got to discover the day after on a a boat with a solo guide-driver. This unique landscape of krastic limestone formations in the middle of the sea are creating a maze where a real life has been developed, a Water-World like one: here some fishermen on tiny boats, there some floating villages of piscicultures guarded by dogs and here some crab traps gatherers…

One of the tourist activity there is also to wander on a kayak in the middle of this fantastic landscape and access to places you can’t go to on a boat. We’ll keep in our memories for long the sort of natural giant swimming pool we were allowed to enter through a narrow entrance where we even had to lie on our kayak to go through. We finished the day on the so-called “Monkey Island” beach where a short walk can lead you to a great viewpoint of the area.

So we won’t be able to compare with the “normal” tour of the Halong Bay but this solution through Cat Ba was meeting our expectations and really quiet.

We really loved Vietnam for this mix of rich history, strong culture (special mention for the gastronomy!), dynamism and unique natural landscapes. We’ll be back for sure but this time we may go in the South to discover an other face of this country.

And the good thing is that we could even get a glimpse of Bangkok on our way back as our stepover was quite long (8 hours). But that was actually perfect as we had enough time to go once again (it was our 3rd time) to the famous Chatuchak market (which is conveniently pretty near from Bangkok’s second airport, DMK). We’re never tired of this fascinating market offering a bit of everything in a bazaar atmosphere that we love. To reflect this unique atmosphere and the diversity of its vendors, we’ve even shot a small photo series you can check here.

by in Out of India

View from Sa Pa over the opposite moutain range
River of paddy fields in terraces
Paddy field near Sa Pa

After visiting Hanoi, we decided to head north for the mountains, near the Chinese border, where the sun was shining at this time.

As we weren’t having an unlimted time, we targeted Sa Pa, easily reachable from Hanoi by bus. What’s funny with Vietnamese (and slightly irritating) is that they absolutely try to put tourists in kind of organized tours even when it’s not necessary. For example, our bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa was populated almost exclusively with tourists and they thought that it was a good idea to pay a kind of guide to speak to the mic and let us know what what happening at the beginning, at the middle and at the end of the trip: “so here we’re making a stop, so you can go to the toilets and eat something” – “here we’re leaving Hanoi and will reach in 5 hours”. Thank you very much!

So here we were in Sa Pa. We knew it from the guidebook, this used-to-be (we’re talking 5-10 years) charming mountainous town became a perfect tourist hub with its 10 plus floors hotels, its “multi-cuisines” restaurants and its women from the ethnic minorities harrassing tourists to sell necklaces or get them visiting their village… So we weren’t surprised when getting off the bus to check all of that. The splendid view over the mountain chain opposite the village still worth it though, specially with a bright sun as we were lucky enough to get.

Even before reaching, we wanted to rent there a motorcycle to wander around, in the small villages and in the middle of the paddy fields. We still had in mind the stories of our bikers friends who reached France from Vietnam driving iconic Minsk Bielorussian motorcycles which were a very common sight in Vietnam thanks to the used-to-be global communism friendship. So that was very simple for us, we wanted to rent a Minsk and only a Minsk. We thought we would find them everywhere anyway but it looks like they are also fading away, being replaced by modern scooters. Still we found one guy who was still renting some. We weren’t disappointed as the Minsk is quite an experience! It’s loud and really rustic! But it’s a funny and when you’re used to the old Royal Enfields, it’s not complicated. It’s also way more stylish than the scooters for your holiday pics!

So we climbed the small roads around Sa Pa and we loved it. As usual, as soon as you get off the beaten path you finally find yourself alone in the middle of scenic landscapes, terrace paddy fields really amazing. There, Vietnamese have sometimes completly reshaped the mountain! It’s extraordinary and quite impresive (even if it wasn’t the best season for that as most of the rice plantations were dry). The other local “attractions” are the ethnic minorities, communities with a culture apart who kept their unique traditions, langage and outfis alive. So, this “attraction” seemed also a bit over-exploited at times and it would be better to immerse further in the mountain (as our friends Solenne and Alex did during their tandem-cycle trip) to really appreciate the richness of those minority cultures.

Concerning tips in Sa Pa, we only recommend one restaurant which stands apart from the rest, the “Hill Station Signature Restaurant” which offers original meals inspired by North Vietnam ethnic minorities cuisine in a quite unique decor.

To continue: Cat Ba island

Is it ringing?
Rue Hanoi
Graduates Hanoi
Vietnamese noodle soup
Nature Morte Hanoi
Hidden Temple Hanoi
night hanoi

We wanted to make a last small trip before the end of 2015 and we thought about Punjab first. Finally, flight ticket prices were more interesting to go to… Vietnam. So even if what’s happening above Delhi is still quite a mystery to us, the lure to discover a new country like Vietnam was stronger!

As we’re sligthly serious entrepreneurs, we decided to leave just for a big week so that our business doesn’t run too long without us. According to our friends who already went to Vietnam, the North seemed to be more authentic than the South so we focused on this part, landing in Hanoi with the plan to go in the mountains in the North and towards the famous Halong bay.

After a stop-over in Bangkok, marked by our horrible discovery of the Paris attacks happening right at the same time, we finally landed in Hanoi asleep and confused. Finally, the first taxi tried to cheat us with a price in dollars which had the effect to completely awake us. It also triggered our backpacker’s mood to put us in the right condition to start soaking up the Hanoi atmopshere. Quite early in the morning, Hanoi is a bustling city, with waves of two-wheelers released in its tiny streets and all its pavements invaded by street restaurants and their patrons, seated on mini-plastic stools eating up their breakfast made of noodles and soups. Compared to the distorted roads and the agressive traffic we’re used to in Bangalore, Hanoi appeared to us instantly like a small and nice city with just the right amount of restlessness to make it not boring.

Our first feeling was confirmed as we visited this human-scale capital, most of the time walking in its narrow streets where life seems to unfold in the public eye, on its pavements overloaded with scooters, small shops, kitchens, markets and restaurants of toys-like size which seem spontaneous but are finally happening everyday at the same place. And of course, all the street-food is scrumptious! Pho, Bun-bo, nems, and all the Vietnamese classics are there and tasting better than you ever had them. We also tried some new ones we never heard about before like the Cha Ca (cat-fish being cooked on your table) or this one street where we found out that only tripes were being served! So if you love street-food and are a bit adventurous, Hanoi is a paradise. French heritage can also be felt in the food but remixed with local flavours like the delicious Banh-mi (baguette sandwiches with Vietnamese ingredients) or the “Ca-Phe” (coffee) mixed with concentrated milk directly brewed in your cup.

Also, we find in Hanoi a kind of old Chinese heritage (or at least the nostalgic version we can think of) with for example many ladies wearing the typical chinese hat, many small Tao-Buddist temples (sometimes tucked at the end of a corridor!) and also in its markets full of life.

To be continued: Sa Pa, the mountains in the North…

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