January 2016 Travel Report: Winter in Northern Vietnam
- A very warm (and possibly fake) Columbia jacket
- An alpaca wool hat bought from an old woman in a market in La Paz, Bolivia
- An alpaca wool jersey bought from the same woman
- A thermal top (which I carried with me for over a year and never wore)
After reading that little list you must be thinking that I was more than prepared for the freezing, wintry conditions in northern Vietnam. I wasn’t. Those were all the things that I left with my girlfriend in Singapore because I severely underestimated how cold it would be. I even saw snow in Sapa, something I never thought would happen in Southeast Asia.
Here’s a quick look at what I got up to in January, half of which was spent being perpetually cold in northern Vietnam.
Reunited in Hoi An
Gia (my girlfriend) came to visit me in Hoi An, where I’d spent the previous month relaxing, writing and eating great food. We looked around the old town, watched Fargo (great TV show by the way), ate lots of nice food — including some of the Southeast Asia’s best butter chicken — and visited the ancient ruins of My Son. Gia returned to Singapore and I headed north to wage war with winter.
I spent a couple of days in Hanoi, a city that I enjoyed during my first trip to Vietnam 4 years ago. I ate lots of mango and Nutella crepes and got a bit sick of pho after a few bowls. People rave about pho but I’m not a huge fan; the noodles in Hoi An (cau lau) are so much better. I walked around the chaotic old quarter of Hanoi, visited the “Hanoi Hilton” (the prison where John McCain was held) and explored the ancient citadel.
The weather started off OK in Sapa but deteriorated quickly. The morning I left there was snow everywhere and it was really, really cold. I had already organised and paid for a tour to Bac Ha market so I couldn’t just stay in bed. The van was pumping the air-con for some reason and it was a miserable trip. The market wasn’t bad but I was glad to get into a warm bed at the end of the day.
Ha Giang Province
You might not have heard of this place but I think it’ll be next big tourist destination in Vietnam. The scenery is amazing and there are lots of small, traditional villages that haven’t yet been exposed to mass tourism. Ha Giang province is home to some of the friendliest people that I’ve met during my travels in Southeast Asia and it’s just an all around special place. I’ll be writing more about it very soon, so stay tuned for that. Oh yeah, it was also freezing in Ha Giang and again the buses had no form of heating. Luckily I stayed in a hotel with a heater, although it took about 2 hours to warm up the room.
I caught a crowded local sleeping bus for the short journey between Hanoi and Ninh Binh (I had to return to Hanoi after visiting Ha Giang Province). It was, of course, raining and I was dropped off in the middle of town with no clue where the hotels were. I’ve experienced this quite a lot over the years so I just started walking until I stumbled on a market area with a few nearby hotels. There were half chopped up dogs (I think) in the market along with other strange looking meat products – it was a bit disturbing. The highlight of my time in Ninh Binh was a tour of the countryside on the back of a motorbike. I stopped off at a viewpoint with an awesome view over a narrow river surrounded by mountains, and I went for a boat ride through extremely low caves (Trang An Grottos).
Back to Hoi An (and the plan for February)
Tet is coming (and so is winter…and Game of Thrones). It’s the biggest celebration of the year in Vietnam and apparently travelling gets very difficult and expensive for not only Tet but also the days before and after it. I already felt it even though I travelled a week before Tet – my bus ticket between Ninh Binh and Hoi An was double the normal price! I’ll be back in Hoi An for the next week or so until Tet is over and then backtrack to Phong Nha to visit some of the world’s best caves. I’ll then head down to the south of Vietnam and over to Cambodia. I’ve been to Cambodia a few times but there are still lots of places that I haven’t seen and I can’t really go back to Singapore until Gia finds a job and a house, so I might as well keep travelling!