Vietnam


A backpacking trip around Vietnam:

About scams, dog meat, pig ears and extraordinary landscapes

Vietnam is a great country for backpacking. It is very easy to get around by buses and public transport. And as long as travelers stay on the main backpacker trail in Vietnam, they will always be in good company. It’s possible to travel on a budget and still get the maximum fun out of it.

Traveling on a budget of 20 Euros a day

Busses, trains and accommodation as hotels and hostels are cheap. On a budget of around 20 Euros per day, you can still get a lot of fun out of backpaccking Vietnam. I met travelers on my backpaccking trip around Vietnam, that spent even less. Depending on the city, you can find a hostel bed starting from 5 to 10 Euros. For around 20 Euros, you will easily find a private room for two people in cities like Hanoi. Very often, you might get a soup in a street food place for less than one Euro.

It was June, when I went on a backpacking trip to Vietnam for four weeks as a solo female traveler. I was on a longer trip around Asia, coming from Cambodia and continuing my travels to Laos afterwards. I had a 30 days tourist visa for Vietnam, that I had gotten in a Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia before.

Hanoi, street food, Vietnam

Vietnam is a great country for women traveling alone

About backpacking in Vietnam: I loved the busy Cai Rong Floating Markets, discovered the Mekong Delta Island An Binh on my backpacking trip around Vietnam, had beers with other backpackers in Saigon, went to Mui Ne, Na Trang and Hoi An for beaches and swimming, saw the Crazy House in Dalat, ate pig ears in Hanoi, smelled dog meat in Sapa and visited the beautiful Phung-Na-Caves.

But backpacking in Vietnam, I also got scammed and overcharged, paid too much for buses and tried to ignore some unfriendly Vietnamese. But in total, I had an amazing time backpacking around Vietnam. I met new friends and also many extremely helpful Vietnamese people. The countryside is amazing. Because of good public transport with buses and trains, it is also a good country for backpacker beginners to go on a backpacking trip. And Vietnam is definitely a great country for women traveling alone. You won’t be the only one.

Pineapple, Can Tho, Vietnam

Best time to travel to Vietnam

The weather and the climate differs a bit between North and South. I had a great time in June traveling around Vietnam, although it was raining on a few days. But generally, it was very hot. I didn’t need a lot of clothes except from in  the mountains like Dalat and Sapa. Find more detailed information about travel weather here and here.

    Bus ride to Can Tho, Vietnam

    Bus ride from Ha Tien to Can Tho: All eyes on me

    After the horrible border crossing from Kampot in Cambodia to Ha Tien in Vietnam (read more here), Can Tho was my first destination in Vietnam. I went there to see the famous floating markets. But before I got there, I was stuck in the crowded local bus to Can Tho for hours. I realized much later, that I must have been overcharged for the bus ride, because I had paid a lot more for this trip than for any following bus trip in Vietnam.

    No one in the bus to Can Tho spoke English, but everyone was looking at me curiously. No one showed any fear of contact. As soon as I took my packet of Cambodian chewing gums out of my bag, everyone was holding his hands open to get one. Just a few seconds later, my guidebook was handed around in the bus. They all wanted to see the pictures of Vietnam. The locals in the bus to Can Tho were also very curious about my mobile phone. I had to take it out of my neighbor’s hands, before he was able to hand it over to the next person.

    Smoking in the bus to Can Tho was totaly okay

    Almost every man was smoking inside the bus to Can Tho. The passengers even organized an ashtray for me. I smiled. It was interesting. A bit surreal. But I was curious about what was coming next. I started to relax and to feel very welcome as a traveler on a backpacking trip around Vietnam.

    Business on Cai Rong Floating Market, Can Tho, Vietnam

    Lost among helpful strangers in Can Tho

    I was in a good mood, when I arrived by bus in Can Tho in the evening. Just, that I had no idea about where I was. The bus didn’t stop at a bus station. I didn’t have a street map. The bus driver had stopped somewhere in the town center. I couldn’t communicate properly with the people and walked around – lost.

    Suddenly, a guy on a motorbike stopped next to me. He seriously wanted to help me. I told him the address of a hostel, that was recommended in my guidebook. He didn’t understand. But he was cool enough to bring me to a hairdressing shop, where an English-speaking friend of him was working. Together, we figured out, how to get to my hostel. And just a few minutes later, I was able to do the hostel check in. My driver didn’t even expect money for the motorbike ride, but was happy about some money for petrol. And I was happy about his help. I had arrived, where I wanted to be.

    Sale of fresh fruit at Cai Rong Floating Markets, Can Tho, Vietnam

    Sunrise at Cai Rong Floating Markets in Can Tho

    My alarm was ringing at 5 am in the morning. It was still dark outside, but it was time for the Cai Rong floating markets. The hostel in Can Tho had arranged everything. I was getting ready for a sightseeing trip of real Vietnamese market life. Just a short time later, I was sitting in a wooden boat, together with a cool Dutch traveler from my hostel.

    The guide was driving us around the floating markets while the sun was rising. Boats full of mangoes and melons crossed our way. The business took place on the water. Hundreds of electric boat engines were roaring. People speaking, shouting at each other. I liked the traditional huts, that the Vietnamese were wearing .

    Some bigger boats looked as if people would live on them – or have spent all their lives on the water. Some looked colorful, some run down. There were also basic houses standing on stakes at the shores of the Mekong river. I enjoyed the busy atmosphere. The colors. The boat ride. There had been a few other tourists on boats. On the shore, guides were offering boat rides – probably even cheaper than the prearranged trip by the hostel. But the whole setting was not made up for tourists. It was an authentic experience, that I would love to make again.

     

    Can Tho, Cai Rong Floating Markets, Can Tho, Vietnam

    Can Tho, Vietnam

    Cai Rong Floating Markets, Can Tho, Vietnam

    Mekong-Delta-tour was a big rip-off:

    Think twice before booking!

    After the trip on the Cai Rong Floating Markets, my Dutch sightseeing partner from the hostel went back to sleep. I had to travel on. I had been a little stupid and had booked an expensive trip the day of my arrival in Can Tho. There had been a tout of a travel agency in my hostel. He had sold me a trip on a motorbike to Vinh Lung including a night in a home stay on the Island An Binh, ferry rides and the ongoing bus to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon).

    He had been a clever salesmen, that had talked me into that deal the night before. He had pretended to be a nice tourist guide. And I thought to be in the protected environment of a hostel. But the guy had been there to earn money in cooperation with the hostel owners, using the naivety of a new arrival.

    The Dutch traveler was laughing about me, when I told him, that I had paid 60 US-Dollars for the trip. He was probably living a whole week or even longer in Vietnam of 60 US-Dollars. And he was right. I should have known better. I knew, that the costs of living in Asia are low. And I knew, that Vietnamese people are known for overcharging travelers in a friendly way. I heard a lot of stories about that. The problem is: They often do it with a smile.

    Boat on Cai Rong Floating Market, Can Tho, Vietnam

    Average income around 150 US-Dollars per months

    My stupid tour to Vinh Lung, An Binh and Saigon started. The driver, who was supposed to give me a ride on his motorbike to Vinh Lung was already waiting. He was a nice man. He didn’t look as if he was rich. He spoke a little English. And he told me, that he gets paid 2 US-Dollars out of the 60 Dollars to take me to Vinh Lung. The average income in Vietnam is around 150 US-Dollars per month.  He gave me a warm smile.

    I felt terribly ashamed telling him about the horrible deal, that I had made. We are all learning. And I was obviously still able to afford getting ripped off. Stuff like that happens while traveling. And as a western tourist, you will always be a very interesting subject to earn money with. But don’t worry! It happens to many people who are traveling individually. Some just prefer not to speak about it. But really true, listening to the stupid scams, that happened to other travelers is one of the most entertaining things, that you can do.

    The driver was really nice to me and also drove me to a shop, where I was able to get a cheap Vietnamese SIM card. In every country in Asia, I used local SIM cards for my phone calls, which made it a lot cheaper to phone hostels and to stay in contact with travelers, that I met on the way.

    Houseboats, Can Tho, Vietnam

    Popular scams in Vietnam

    • Be aware of fakes: Don’t easily trust anyone, who wants to sell you a bus or train ticket. You might get overcharged, even get a fake ticket or not the ticket, that you wanted. A good advise is to get your tickets right at the bus station from registered ticket booths inside the terminal, from your official Open Tour Bus company or directly at the train stations.

    • Fakes everywhere: Be aware, that hotels and restaurants might use the names of much more successful competitors, but offer less quality.Vietnamese Dong

    • Book sellers sell photocopies of books in the street, which look like normal books from the outside. Just be aware, that you will buy a copy, sometimes of low quality. If you wanna buy it, be aware of what you get and make sure to get a fair price.

    • Bus drivers of local buses overcharged me a few times, especially the ones, who pick up passengers on the street or offering private service in minivans. Be aware, that as a tourist, you will very often pay tourist prices. Sometimes, you cannot do a lot about it, if you really have to take Vietnamese Dong, Vietnama specific bus/ way of transport. When I realized, that a price was too high, I tried to bargain in a friendly way. But not always successful.

    • I got overcharged once in a restaurant. The price for my dish didn’t include the rice, that I got served without having ordered it. The plate of rice could have fed a whole family and was ridiculously expensive. Some restaurants don’t even show the prices on the menu. Always make sure to know the prices of what you order to avoid bad surprises on the bill.

    • Count your change everywhere!!! The local currency Dong can be confusing.

    • As everywhere, taxi drivers and motorbike taxi drivers are not always there to help you. After the trip, the price can be much higher than the price, that you have agreed on before. Personally, I never had any problems with that in Vietnam. But heart a lot of stories about it.

    Waiting for the ferry to An Binh, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

    On the ferry to An Binh, Vietnam

    With dozens of motorbike riders on a ferry to An Binh

    As angry as I was about myself, the expensive trip to Vinh Lung, to the island in the Mekong Delta and onward to Saigon was well-arranged in advance. My driver brought me to a ferry. That boat took me to the Island in the Mekong Delta An Binh. The island An Binh is extremely popular with tourists. I didn’t know that before. And the island was still beautiful enough to get discovered.

    A few dozens of motorbike riders were on the really small ferry. Strangers gave me shy smiles. And a few kids were asking me some things in English, that they had learned at school. On the Island, there was already a guy waiting for me, who brought me to the homestay.

    The homestay experience was nice, but not authentic at all. It was basically a kind of hotel. There was a whole French tour group sleeping there. I had expected a more familiar environment. But I got a clean bed and a lot of fantastic food, enough to feed a family.

    An Binh, Vietnam

    Market, An Binh, Vietnam

    Completely lost on An Binh

    Riding a bicycle is a great way to discover the Mekong Delta Island An Binh. There are small paths, colorful houses. A peaceful chilled out atmosphere. Friendly faces everywhere. Kids were waving their hands. The sun was burning without pity. And I got completely lost. Everything looked so similar. Do yourself a favor and take the address and phone number of your guesthouse with you. In the end, I really had to ask a friendly Vietnamese to call my homestay.

    Even if I was ten kilometers away from where I wanted to be, I made it to catch my bus to Saigon in the evening. Again, everything had been arranged. There was a guy waiting for me at the ferry in Ving Lung to take me to the bus station. Never again in Vietnam, it was so easy to travel.

    Church on An Binh, Vietnam

    Saigon: Cheep beers in Bui Vien Street

    It didn’t take me long to find the backpacker quarter in Saigon (officially called today: Ho Chi Minh City). I went to the famous Bui Vien Street by motorbike taxi. And it took roughly three minutes until I met travelers on the street, that I knew.

    I felt immediately right in that place. These incidents started to happen to me more often without any appointments. Most travelers take the same route across Southeast Asia. Some get lost in some places for a few days. And suddenly, you sit next to them in the same night bus again. I became part of the traveler’s family. And got some new travel mates.

    Backpacker quarter in Saigon, Vietnam

    Motorbikes, Saigon, Vietnam

    Saigon: Big city full of smog, history and contrasts

    I had a good time in Saigon, hanging out with fellow travelers, having beers for 20 Cents each in some street bars on Bui Vien Street. We were sitting outside on mini stools exchanging travel stories with a lot of travelers from all over the world next to neon signs of shops, street food stalls and book sellers.

    I liked Saigon, even if it is a big city full of smog and contrasts. I could feel a cosmopolitan atmosphere between nice facades of representative buildings, of expensive hotels, parks, museums, noise, skyscrapers and the slightly run down old quarters with thousands of electric cables hanging between the houses.

    Saigon City Center, Vietnam

    Park in Saigon, Vietnam

    Saigon, Vietnam

    Sights, that I can recommend in Saigon:

    • Definitely a must: The War Remnants Museum

    • Many hostels and agencies offer day tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are outside of Saigon. It s a mass tourism site, but still interesting. I just found the Firing Range really disturbing, where visitors are offered to use guns. Very bizarre in a country with such a sad history. Anyway, a lot of members of my tour group went for it: www.vietnamtourism.com

    • Right in the center, you can find the Reunification Palace, (formerly known as Independence Palace):

    Traffic in Saigon, Vietnam

    Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam (2)

    Open Bus Tours around Vietnam

    For traveling by bus along the coast from Saigon to Hanoi or vice versa, you can book tickets including stopovers in different touristic towns in advance. It is called Open Tour bus and quite popular with travelers. A popular route is for example: SAIGON – DALAT – NHATRANG – HOIAN – HUE – HANOI.

    You can stay as log as you want in each chosen place and usually have to confirm the next part of your trip 24 hours in advance by calling the company. In Vietnamese cities, you find a lot of agencies offering these deals.

    It can make sense, if you have limited time and want to follow a fixed time plan or if you prefer a specific bus company. I just bought single tickets in every town to stay more flexible. I often went by local buses and bought bus tickets at the bus terminals. Sometimes, I also took the Open Tour buses for one or two stops along the coast. It clearly wasn’t more expensive the way, that I organized my backpacking trip around Vietnam.

    • To get an overview about prices, the following websites of Open Tour Companies are helpful:

              www.sinhcafe.com

              www.vietnamopentour.com

    Sleeper bus, Vietnam

    Russians welcome at the beach of  Mui Ne!

    Mui Ne  is a beach resort with slightly more upmarket accommodation. But I was surprised, that it wasn’t a problem to bargain in the low season. A lot of rooms were empty.

    So we moved into a comfortable wooden hut just 20 meters away from the sea for around 10 Euros per night. But there were also hostels available for single travelers on a low budget.

    The waves at the beaches of Mui Ne were big, but the white sand inviting. A lot of restaurants were catering especially for Russian tourists. There were advertisements and even a menu available in Kyrillic letters.

    We experienced some of the restaurants as being slightly overpriced and especially set up for tourists. But the whole atmosphere in Mui Ne was chilled out, quiet. At least in low season, it was not a party place.

    Worth a visit in Mui Ne:

    The Red Dunes and the Fairy Stream

    But Mui Ne was a great base to discover some natural treasures by bicycle. The amazing Red Dunes are worth a visit. And also the Fairy Spring, a little river embedded in red rock formations with a picturesque waterfall at its end, is worth a little excursion.

    At the Fairy Spring, we walked in the water through the red canyon to a waterfall to have a little swim and a picnic. No one else was there, when we made our way along the red canyon. It’s definitely a cool unique place. Both places are easily reachable on a day trip by bicycle from Mui Ne.

    Fairy Spring, Mui Ne, Vietnam

    Beach road, Mui Ne, Vietnam

    Mui Ne Beach, Vietnam

    Beach hut, Mui Ne, Vietnam

    The other side of Mui Ne, Vetnam

    Map of Mui Ne, Vietnam

     

    Vietnam, Dalat, colorful roses at the marketVietnam, Dalat street actionVietnam, Dalat, TransportVietnam, Dalat city centerVietnam, Dalat MarketVietnam, Market in DalatDalat: Sharing a double room with seven strangers

    Dalat ist the place, where I saw blue roses for the first time in my life. By bus, I went by myself to Dalat, a small towns in the mountains. It is probably not on every backpackers route, but that is exactly, what makes it interesting.

    The atmosphere is lively and authentic. It is a holiday destination for Vietnamese tourists who love to escape the summer heat and enjoy the cold breeze in the mountains.

    When I arrived in Dalat, there was a special event going on that particular weekend, so that all hotels were fully booked. There had been seven more western travelers in the bus. After half an hour, we met each other again in the street. We all faced the same problem looking for free beds.

    It was probably the first time, that I had ever experienced that in South East Asia. We were all asking around for hours. It was getting dark. I felt cold. But I was far from being desperate, because I had company. All of us were walking around together now.

    Vietnam, Dalat, Crazy House (2)Putting mattresses and blankets in the floor

    One hotel owner felt finally pity for us. He offered us to share a room with a double bed under the roof of his great hotel. They gave us a few more mattresses and blankets, that we could put on the floor. So I ended up sleeping in a room with seven strange people mainly from Germany and the Netherlands. But was happy, that I didn’t have to spend the night outside. The costs of the hotel room was okay sharing it among eight people. And we all went for dinner together and had good stories to share.

    Crazy House of Dalat, VietnamSightseeing in Dalat: Things, that I can recommend

    Vietnam, Dalat, Crazy HouseThe main attraction is Dalat is to simply enjoy the town, the markets, the food, the cold breeze and the people and the mountain views. But there is more to discover. For sure.

    • The Crazy House: Get a feeling like Alice in Wonderland! It’s a cool surreal artist place: www.crazyhouse.vn

    • Summer palace: If you have seen everything else, you might as well step into the Summer Palace: www.tripadvisor.co.uk

    • Get on a motorbike tour with the famous Easy Riders: www.dalat-easyrider.com

     

     

    Nha Trang beach, VietnamAmong flashpackers partying in Nha Trang

    I loved the beaches of Nha Trang, but I hated all the flashpackers partying all night long in fancy bars. I’m always surprised to see quite a few western girls walking around Vietnamese towns in high heels at night.

    In Nha Trang,  many travelers waste bis amounts of money in expensive tourist bars. And a few travel with their parent’s credit card in their pockets.

    Nha Trang is one of the spots, where you find a lot of very young backpackers on a party tour across South East Asia. The same people have probably celebrated Thailand’s full moon party, got hammered in Sihannoukville in Cambodia and have gone tubing completely drunk in Laos.

    Nha Trang, City Center, VietnamI’m not saying, that parties are not nice or these people not friendly. But it is a decision, weather you want to be part of that specific crowd or not.

    Getting tattoos drunk

    The most funny guy, that I met in Nha Trang, was an English guy, who collected stupid tattoos on his body from all the party places across Southeast Asia. He got them, when he was drunk.

    He also got one in Nha Trang. The laughter stuck in my throat while seeing it.

    I still enjoyed the beach. It was beautiful. And at the end of the day, I had bought a pineapple, four bananas and a bracelet of very good saleswomen doing their rounds around the tourists.

     

    Hoi An, Vietnam (2)Hoi An, town center, Vietnam

    Hoi An, streets life, ietnamHoi An, VietnamHoi An, sunset at the riverHoi An beach, VietnamWant a new suit? Go to Hoi An, a city full of tailors

    I took the night bus to Hoi An. It’s a beautiful historical town, well restored for tourism. It’s still nice walking around the big number of clothes shops inside the yellow painted buildings.

    Hoi An is a perfect place to get new suits and dresses. I’ve never seen so many tailors in one place before. Some travelers came to Hoi An well prepared carrying pictures or pattern of dresses, that they wanted to get tailored there in a few days or sometimes even in a few hours.

    And I enjoyed the relaxed small town atmosphere. I also met my travel mates from the Netherlands and the US again for some evening drinks at the river. I also rented a bicycle to get around Hoi An.

    Especially the beach close to Hoi An is very popular with the locals. It’s a few kilometers away from the town center.

    And especially in the evening hours, it gets crowded with Vietnamese people riding there with whole families on a motorbike taking all kinds of floating tires and inflatable swimming equipment into the sea. Food stalls and beach bars offer the right atmosphere. I had a great time watching that.

     

    Paradise Cave, Phung-Nha-Caves, VietnamDiscovering the famous Phung-Na-Caves: Money is welcome

    I made a short stopover for a day in Hue to see the Imperial City. It was interesting also on a rainy day, but I could have lived without ticking it off my sightseeing list. Afterwards, me and my travel mates went to Son Trach (Phung-Na town) to discover the giant and extra beautiful Phung-Na-Caves. Well, we wanted to visit the Entrance ticket of the Imperial City, Hue, VietnamParadise cave, which was meant to be the most beautiful of all of them. But it was not really easy to get there. We first had to catch a bus to Dong Hoi. From the Nam Ly bus station in Dong Hoi, we had to get another bus to Son Trach. Nam Ly bus station ist the bus station, where the local buses leave. There are two bus stations in Dong Hoi. The staff was not very helpful in any of them. Unfortunately.

    Among busloads of tourists: High prices and bad food

    We expected to arrive in an idyllic place. But no. Son Trach was catering for busloads of tourists, who wanted to visit some caves. The hotel rooms were overpriced, but bargaining was possible. The food, that we got in the restaurants, Inside Paradise Cave, Phung-Nha-Caves, Vietnamwas completely horrible. Once, I got completely charred chicken leg. The other time, I got overcharged and had to pay for a massive too expensive plate of rice, that I hadn’t ordered. I thought, it was complementary. But it was not.

    Rental bikes were ridiculously expensive. It was a complete rip off. And no one spoke English. It did help a bit, that the children were as friendly as everywhere else in Vietnam. And some teenage boys offered us some cans of beer. But everyone old enough to earn money with tourists seemed corrupt.

    Horrible bike ride uphill to the cave

    The bicycle trip through the beautiful landscape to the Paradise cave was extremely horrible. 14 kilometers uphill. It was hot. It would have been a lot better going there on motorbikes. But we used manpower and womanpower on crappy old bikes without gears. In 2012, we haven’t found anything better to rent than that.  Lonely Planet describes quite well, what you can see in´side the caves.

    On the way to Paradise Cave, Vietnam (2)But finally walking through the massive Paradise cave felt like walking through the setting of a fairy tale. It was breathtaking. It was worth the effort. The ride back was a lot easier though. We had to spend another night in Son Trach until we were able to catch a bus back to Dong Hoi the next morning.

    Get information about Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park:

    www.phongnhakebang.vn/en

    whc.unesco.org

    Get information about Paradise Cave:

    www.tripadvisor.co.uk

    www.lonelyplanet.com

     

    Bored in Dong Hoi: No one on the street around lunchtime

    Dong Hoi is probably the most boring town in Vietnam. Especially during the day, life seems to stand still. No matter, where we went in North Vietnam around lunch time, hardly anyone was on the street. Many restaurants and museums were closed. In Dong Hoi, we spent the day at the beach in front of slightly run down hotels.

    When the food stalls opened in the evening and loud karaoke music got played in the streets, unfortunately, it was time for us to catch the night bus to Hanoi. And as usual in Southeast Asia, there was a certain number of locals getting sick in the bus while there were karaoke videos shown on TV.

     

    Hanoi, street view, VietnamHanoi, puppets

    Pho-Soup, Saigon, VietnamHanoi traffic, VietnamEating pig ear in Hanoi

    Hanoi is the place, where I ate pig ears for the first time. I was sitting on a small chair of a streets stall and had a beer. I guess, I wanted to be polite, when the Vietnamese guys from the neighboring table offered me a snack. It was not easy to chew. They smiled. “That is pig ear”, one guy said.

    My first reflex was to spit it on the floor. But instead, I smiled politely. “Really good. No thank you. I don’t want more.” It’s probably always good to open up your horizon and to do something for the understanding among nations.

    Pho for breakfast

    Hanoi has a lively and vibrant vibe. And although, there are some million people living in Hanoi, it almost has a small town atmosphere. Me and my travel mates stayed in a hotel right in the old town. It was a perfect place to discover the city. Hanoi attracts backpackers. Many comfortable and new hostels are to find in the old town.

    They don’t always offer the best deals, but are great places to meet fellow travelers. If you are traveling with some other people, the budget hotels in the city center can be an option to share rooms. For food, I loved the Pho served with all the fresh ingredients at street stall for small money. I had it for breakfast at a street stall very often. Sometimes, it cost even less than one US-Dollar.

    Some attractions in Hanoi:

     

    Ha Long Bay boat ride, VietnamTotal mass tourism at Ha Long Bay

    Boat trips along Ha Long Bay, get offered everywhere in Hanoi. Ha Long Bay is located in the Gulf of Tonkin,165 km away from the capital of Ha Noi There are significant differences in prices. I guess, that you never really know before, what you really get for your money. We got a great deal and just paid 55 US-Dollars for a one night and two days trip including the bus ride to Ha Long Bay.

    We were lucky: The boat was in a good condition, the cabins clean and comfortable, the food on board was okay and the tour group really nice. Well, just that the eight Israeli travelers at our boat complained permanently about the food not being kosher. They had to eat salad all the time. I had no idea, if they had been promised kosher food when they booked the trip.

    Ha Long Bay, VietnamPart of the deal: cave visit and kayak trip

    We have seen much more luxurious and also worse boats on the way. There seem to be hundreds of different companies around. It was mass tourism. One part of our program was to stand in a queue of hundreds of tourists to get guided through a small cave, illuminated by cheesy neon lights. Another part of the program was a kayak trip. It was all fun. But it surely was no individual trip. We had to share Ha Long Bay with a lot of other boats and people. It was still beautiful.

    And me and my travel mates had smuggled some vodka and coke on the ship. This way, we were able to avoid the high prices for drinks on board. The other passengers were jealously looking at us.

     

    Sapa, rice fields, VietnamSapa, marijunana field, VietnamSapa: All about dog meat  and plants of marijuana, roses and tea

    Marijuana, roses or tea: In the mountains of Sapa, everything gets grown. The scenic train ride from Hanoi to Sapa took ten hours. We had gotten our tickets at the Hanoi station the day before. There was a choice of different trains at different prices and different levels of comfort. We chose a cheap train leaving early in the morning to be able to fully Sapa, mountain view, Vietnamenjoy the scenery at daytime.

    The air was cold, when we arrived at the town, roughly 1600 meters Sapa, city center, Vietnamabove sea level, located in the Hoàng Liên Sơn Mountains. Sapa reminded me of a village of the Alpes – set up for tourism – just with more smokeable substances around. Hill tribe women in traditional clothes walked around the town. It just took a few minutes until they came up to me to try to sell to me whatever they could.

    Sapa mountains, VietnamThey were definitely able to speak basic sentences in multiple languages. Something, that I hadn’t even experienced in Hanoi or Saigon. At first, I liked to see their dresses and to have a little chat with them. After three days in Sapa, I tried to avoid them. I found it exhausting to explain to all of them, that I don’t want to buy bracelets or necklaces Sapa - this restaurant sells dog meatevery day.

    Restaurants offering dog meat

    Sapa, Market, VietnamIf you want to try dog meat, Sapa is definitely a place to go. After someone told me the words for dog meat in Vietnamese (Thịt chó) , I saw the signs everywhere. My travel mates went to a restaurant to try it. I went with them. The meat was served to them. I was tempted to use this “once in a lifetime”-opportunity to try dog meat, but I couldn’t. Well, I didn’t know at that point, that the dog meat industry in Vietnam is highly criticised. Neither did my travel mates know much about it. Afterwards, I read some newspaper articles about it and was happy, that I didn’t try it: www.theguardian.com

    In Sapa, I loved the view from the beautiful roof terrace of my hotel. And to walk around the market for lunch. There was not so much to do in Sapa except from relaxing and hiking – guided and by yourself. One day, me and my travel mates went on a six-hours-hiking-trip around Sapa by ourselves. Sapa, traditional clothes, VietnamThe weather was not great. It had been raining constantly for the last days. I got stuck a few times with my shoes in a rice field. I fall a few times. I looked like a mess after that trip across the mountains.

    Women in traditional clothes

    We visited some mountain villages, saw the wooden huts, where farmers live up there. Dogs were barking. Women working on the fields, kids waving at us. Some women were wearing traditional clothes and baskets on their back while they were taking some pictures of us with their mobile phones. When we wanted to take some pictures of them, they asked for money.

    On our walk, we discovered hidden fields of marijuana plants and less hidden plantations of roses and tea. It’s quite interesting to go on hikes around Sapa. Many tour operators as well as local guides even offer guided multiple day trips around Sapa with homestays in some villages.

     

    On the way from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, VietnamBorder crossing from Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam to Cambodia

    After almost 30 days of traveling around Vietnam, I had to leave the country. My visa was running out. I had never planed to stay that long in Vietnam, but had met interesting people and saw more interesting places than I had expected.

    It was an eight hours bus trip from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese border city. For the bus ticket, I got charged much more than the usual price. I knew exactly, that I was paying too much. But the driver was not open for discussions. All the western travelers had to pay more than the regular price. “Pay or stay”. That was his way of talking. And there was no other way of leaving the country to Laos from Sapa. I was pissed off. The bus trip was rough, but the views amazing.

    Spending the night in Dien Bien Phu in a run down hotel

    Me and the other travelers had to spend one night in Dien Bien Phu. There were some Dutch travelers on the bus, that I had already met a few times during the last weeks. We all stayed at a cheap hotel in a horrible room with a few beds next to the bus station. We had some horrible dinner and some horrible breakfast before we took another horrible bus to Laos the next morning. During the last weeks, I have had a bit of bad food in Vietnamese restaurants, that didn’t give a shit about quality food for tourists.

    All seats in the bus had been sold. We had to sit on some rice bags during the eight hours bus trip across the border. At the border to Laos, we had to pay for our visas plus a weekend fee of 3 US-Dollars for the border officials. On top, we had to pay for a ridiculous heath check. The border officials wanted to take our temperature. I knew, that it was another way to get some more money out of us. But I also felt, that we didn’t have a choice.

    Some travelers refused health check at te border

    Some American travelers refused to pay for the health check. That meant, that our bus left with one hour delay. It took a while until they realized, that taking part in the game was the only way to enter Laos. If you have more time and energy, you can probably try to wait and see, what happens. Of course, it got on my nerves to pay the border officials. But in the end, it was just a few Dollars extra. The bus driver kept his humor. When driving on, he was turning the music loud. And while entering Laos, we listened to the song “My heart goes shalalalalah. Shalalalalah in the morning ….”

     

    Visa regulations and border crossing

    Read more about my backpacking trip around Laos here

    Janina

    Janina

    Travel writer at Travel Steps
    Traveling around the world is my passion. On www.travel-steps.com, I'm writing about my backpacking trips with all ups and downs.
    Janina

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