Feb 16, 2014

Our top 3 moments in Vietnam

I was slightly apprehensive about going to Vietnam after having read and heard many unflattering testimonies about the country and especially the unpleasant attitude - sometimes even racist - of the Vietnamese towards tourists. For this part of the trip, I was joined in my journey by Sophie, a childhood friend and luckily our experience was at odds with all the stories we had both heard before the journey.

Category: Vietnam
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I was slightly apprehensive about going to Vietnam after having read and heard many unflattering testimonies about the country and especially the unpleasant attitude - sometimes even racist - of the Vietnamese towards tourists. For this part of the trip, I was joined in my journey by Sophie, a childhood friend and luckily our experience was at odds with all the stories we had both heard before the journey.

Back to the best moments we had during our month in Vietnam:



Homestay Sapa

Sapa has developed a lot in recent years. Indeed, its picturesque setting with its rice fields and small villages in the mountains are perfect for hiking. The region is also home to many ethnic minorities making the visit of surrounding villages fascinating.



However the town Sapa itself is a bit out of interest, it only serves as a base for tourists visiting the surrounding villages and a business ground for women belonging to different ethnic minorities who come to sell their wares and convince tourists to follow them to spend a night with their family. After all, it is their main source of income - sometimes the only one - and they have a whole family to feed. Sooo….I would say that the best way to enjoy Sapa is not to stay in Sapa! Surrounding villages (Ban Ha, Lao Chai, Ma Tra example) are particularly accessible and provide easy escape from the "tourist attraction" part with impregnating stunning countryside.



The people we encountered along the way were extremely nice. I remember at one point we had no water left, we were in the middle of nowhere until we arrived in front of a "home" (people live in small wooden huts) A woman was sitting outside with her children so I asked them if they could fill up my water bottle. One of the children immediately filled up my bottle and then I wanted to give the mother some money but to my surprise she refused! In Sapa it would have been a different story, women are flocking to sell you something, if you start talking to one of them then you can be sure that you'd immediately be surrounded by 4 or 5 other women who would see you as a potential buyer and gosh they are really not easy to get rid of! The experience is rather unpleasant but it is with one of those women that we had one of our best experience in Vietnam. In fact we decided to deal with one of them rather than going through an agency to do an homestay - at least we knew that the money would go directly into the pockets of the person who was going to host us.



Our host is Hmgong, her name is Maye, she lives with her husband and three children a few kilometers from Sapa. In the morning she picked us up at our guesthouse and we stopped at the morning market on the way to buy vegetables and meat for our evening meal. Her English is really good and this is a chance for us because we can really interact with her - which is not always the case during homestay experiences - by asking her all sorts of questions which she is happy to answer to. We walked for several hours before arriving to her house, a small hut in a valley surrounded by rice fields. Inside there are no rooms , it's just one open space with two beds at different corners, there is no ground floor, only dirt and a wood fire on the ground is used as a stove. The toilet is outside and consists of a hole in the ground next to the barn. It is difficult to imagine that a family can live in these conditions. We spent time with the children, three adorable boys. The youngest who is 6 years old was playing with a wooden top. Later, I let Sophie to explore a bit the area around the house. I came across a huge rice terrace on top of which many children from the village were playing ball. On my return home, barely an hour later, I found Sophie with a huge circular bruise on her forehead!



She told me that Maye had just sticked a hot bull horn on her forehead! The Hmong use this technique to cure migraines and Sophie decided to test this remedy! At least she no longer had headaches but she remained disfigured for a good couple weeks! In the evening, Maye cooked for us and we dined with the family. We had mushrooms, omelette, pumpkin and rice.



A simple but delicious meal. Maye's husband made us drink some really strong rice alcohol shots that warmed us up very quickly. We went to bed soon after diner, after all, it had been a long day. While we shared a bed for two, the whole family slept in the same bed!



I highly recommend anyone traveling to Sapa to experience an homestay and not to be put off by the touristic mess when arriving in Sapa because once you find someone to do the homestay and escape from the city, the experience becomes truly authentic and it is extremely interesting to observe the lifestyle of ethnic minorities, to spend time with them to share and learn more about their culture.


Exploring Nim Bin by bicycle

Nim Binh is called the 'on land Halong Bay' and we quickly understood why. Indeed incredible karst peaks similar to those seen in Halong Bay dominate the landscape of the region. Many tourists just go for the beautiful boat ride from Tom Coc village located very near Nim Binh but it is well worth it to stay a few days to enjoy the beauty of the area by motorbike or bicycle.



We chose bikes and went to Bai Dinh Pagoda located more than fifteen kilometers from Ninh Binh. This is a beautiful day trip that really allow you to soak up the stunning scenery, away from the tourists. Even the great pagoda itself worth the trip. You can see two beautiful temples sheltering huge statues of Buddha. On the way back we could admire an incredible sunset.


Homestay and meeting amazing locals in the Mekong Delta

To end our stay in Vietnam we decided to go down to the Mekong Delta. Many tours can be purchased in travel agencies in Ho Chi Minh but we found their offers a bit pricey so we decided to visit on our own. We took a bus to a small town called Ben Tre located less than two hours from Ho Chi Minh. When we got there we found a ghost town and we understood that it would be more difficult than we thought to organize our visit of the delta ourself. While we were looking for an information centre a Vietnamese guy stopped us to sell us a 2 day tour on the delta. We hesitated for a bit before accepting his offer. Overall we were delighted with the two days we spent and we do not regret having accepted this guy's offer.



It was one of the highlights of our travel in Vietnam. The first day was not the most interesting as we did exactly what everyone else do with those organised tours: we visited several small islands on the Mekong, on one of them we could observe the making process of caramel candies - and of course buy some and yes they were delicious! The second day we were taken to our homestay by motorbikes. The journey that lasted all morning was especially nice because we could enjoy the tropical climate and landscape of the region, very different from the rest of the country. When we arrived at our homestay - which was very similar to a guesthouse - a hearty lunch was waiting for us.



Then we had the rest of the afternoon to do what we wanted, so we took the opportunity to rent bikes and ride around the small roads in the middle of the vegetation of the Mekong. En route, we were pleasantly surprised by the hospitality and friendliness of the locals who invited us several times to drink with them.



When we arrived at a small village, the locals even took the karaoke out and Sophie went singging along with them ... in Vietnamese!!! This afternoon was for us the highlight of this trip in the Mekong and the kindness of the local in this part of the Vietnam made the whole experience one of our best memories of our month there.


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