If you read my previous post, you’ll know my introduction to Vietnam wasn’t the greatest. Having visa issues, I knew the immigration office would be my first port of call in Hà Nội on Friday 17th February.
After an interesting night of sharing a room with five guys – one who snored, two who decided to get ready for a night out at 11.30pm (filling the room and my nostrils with aftershave) and another who got up at 4.30am, needless to say I didn’t get much sleep. I still rolled out of bed at 7am and navigated the streets for half an hour to the immigration office. Long story short – they do not extend visas. Instead you have to get it through a travel company 🙈. So tail between my legs I headed back to the hostel.
There is however a happy ending to this story. Luckily my hostel organised visa extensions and could easily get it sent off and processed. They also rang the company who didn’t get my visa sorted in time (turned out they were legit) to get my money back. Only issue is I had to leave my passport with them for four days 😱. With no choice, I handed over my life to Hanoi 3B Hotel.
Now that was sorted, I could enjoy the rest of the day exploring Hà Nội with Erika and a new friend I met at the hostel called Joe, who became our unpaid tour guide.
The first stop was a walk around the lake, which didn’t last long before my stomach dictated our next move. Joe knew of a dumpling place (recommended on Lonely Planet) and a restaurant with a balcony. We went to both 👍. We then explored the Temple of Literature and walked to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where Ho Chi Minh’s body is kept for people to see (so bizarre). Turns out the Mausoleum is closed every Friday afternoon, so no Uncle Ho for us! However sitting on the steps working out our next plan, I had a celebrity moment where a guy asked to take a photo with me 💁. Oh the perks of being so pale. Our last trip together took us to a coffee shop called Cafe Pho Co, which overlooked the river. Other than the view, this hidden cafe was special as it sold Vietnamese egg coffee. Sounds weird, but it’s super yummy. That evening, Erika and I had booked a sleeper train to a mountain town called Sa Pa. Picking up tickets from Hà Nội station is super shady. You have to speak to a girl, who passes you onto a guy, who rings another person, who then brings you your tickets 20 minutes later. Also explaining you have booked two tickets, instead of one takes a good hour, so happy we arrived two hours before our train left.
Proudly with our tickets in our hands, we walked over the train tracks (yes you heard correctly), to get on the train.
Believe it or not, I slept pretty well on the sleeper train. Being on the top bunk I was worried I may fall off with the abrupt stops and movement of the train. However I didn’t 🥇.
Our train stopped at Lao Cai around 5.45am with a mini bus waiting to take us to Sa Pa (about a 40 mins drive). We got to Sa Pa O’Chau (the trekking company), ate our breakfast, met our guide Pay and headed off.
The start of the trek was in fact a car ride to the Silver Waterfall and the Love Waterfall. After waterfall gazing, we started our trek. I love trekking so was excited for the next couple of days, especially as it was the toughest one on offer. However I wasn’t feeling great 😔. Not sure if it was something I ate, but I was pretty sick and exhausted. I spent most of the day plodding behind Erika and Pay, but still had an incredible time viewing the mountains and forest. As part of our tour, we had booked a homestay, which is a night in one of the local families homes. If you’re visiting Sa Pa, I would highly recommend this as you are away from the tourist side of the area and really feel immersed in the community. Myself and Erika even ended up playing football with the local guys! One thing that has stuck with me from that day is when we went to Pay’s house (he lived a two minute walk from the homestay). His dad was outside looking after his four grandchildren who were all just sitting there watching the world go by. I commented on how content they were and Pay said how if you don’t give children toys then they won’t know they need them. It’s so obvious but I never thought of it before. We spend so much time and money buying children toys to entertain them, but if they don’t have those things then they’ll be content with what they have.
Anyway the rest of the evening was spent eating our body weight in food and consuming shots of rice wine. I even tried a bug that lives inside bamboo and believe it or not, it tasted like crackling. It was then to bed for an early night…
Sunday 19th February
Up until 4.30am on Sunday, it hadn’t hit me that I wouldn’t be home until December (potentially longer). Trying to live in the moment doesn’t give you time to sit and think further ahead than the day in front of you. However I had a dream that my backpacker friends couldn’t find a hostel in London, so I suggested they stay at my family home. Before stepping into my house, I woke up startled and confused. Finally coming to terms with the fact I was in a wooden house in a small village called Cat Cat, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be going home for a long time. I can’t fully explain the feeling, but it was almost a heartbreaking realisation that the little things such as chatting to my brother while he prepped his meals, or hovering around the kitchen pinching food and annoying my mum as she cooks or sitting and watching the football with my dad, were in this present no longer in my life. If I think any deeper about it I could quite easily get on a plane and go home, but these feelings in them self are all part of the journey (and I was raised not to be a quitter).
Our trekking started again at 9.30am, with our slightly hungover guide. We had formed a lovely relationship with Pay, who was both sweet and cheeky. At one point he took us through the more tourist part of the village, which we disliked so quickly left. You’d think that the tourist stops benefit the community, but it seems they instead line the pockets of the government. It was actually why we chose Sa Pa O’Chau as they are the only tour company that gives back to the local community.
I couldn’t believe that the hike could be more stunning than the previous day, but with the sun shining we were blown away. This is my happy place 👌. The day got dramatically worse as we sadly left Sa Pa to make our journey to Cat Ba, which is an island off of Vietnam. Most people go to Hà Long Bay, however we heard it was touristy so wanted to avoid the copious amounts of people.
We arrived at the bus station in Lao Cai and were then taken to another station to get on our sleeper bus. Erika had heard unnerving stories about sleeper buses so tried getting some clarity from the bus company about the route. Not that it helped 🙈.
The sleeper bus was already overpacked by the time we turned up. With no beds available, one of the four guys manning the bus (four seemed excessive) made two people get off theirs so we could have our own. We felt awful but didn’t know what to do. You may think I’m over exaggerating when I say the journey was one of the worst and scariest moments of my life. But after the series of events that unfolded through the night you’ll understand why.
Upon getting into our beds, a heated argument broke out amongst the men on the bus. As we were at the front we got caught up in it, trying our hardest to pretend we weren’t there. When we finally began our journey, the bus made a stop to pick up six people from the side of the road. As the bus was full, these people were crammed down the isle, sitting on each other’s feet. This happened on four more occasions, with one instance a guy running off and the bus driving away fast, as we assumed it was illegal to pick up this many people. Feeling scared and uncomfortable I decided to message my dad to ask him to follow me on the route through find my friends. This helped me relax a tiny bit so I decided I’d try and sleep. With the lights up on the highest setting I put on my eye mask thinking it wasn’t that bad. Oh how wrong I was – the four ‘bus operators’ decided they’d love to watch Vietnamese music videos, turning the speakers up full blast above my head. Also, despite it being the middle of the night, the driver still insisted on beeping people on the road every five minutes.
The night also saw the men snatch Erika’s pillow from under her head while she was sleeping on it, a heated discussion in which we were accused of taking two blankets and five rude men mocking/laughing at me when I asked when the toilet stop would be. The way the men looked at me as well, made my skin crawl.
We finally stopped at around 3am in the morning and everyone got off the bus except us. We were told aggressively to sleep, so assumed that meant we’d stay on the bus until the ferry departed at 7am. Even with the guys cleaning the bus and watching a soap opera on the tv, I still managed to get a bit of shut eye before I woke up terrified from a guy whacking my legs and shouting Cat Ba at me. We slowly got up and we’re bundled into a pink Kia and taken to another bus, then a ferry and finally one more bus before we arrived in Cat Ba town at 9am the next day. I’m surprised we made it!
The moral of this story – if you have the option do not get a sleeper bus. If you do, get one for foreigners, not locals.
So that has been my first few days in Vietnam. It’s definitely been an emotional rollercoaster, but I’ve learnt a lot about myself and other people.
I’m currently having a great time in Cat Ba and I’ll be uploading a separate post in the next few days on my island adventure.
Much love family and friends ❤️.
Jessica Storm ✌️