You Can Do An Unforgettable 67 Hours in Viet Nam
And It Will Be Worth Every Penny
Recently, we had a free weekend, and also needed to re-up our visa in Hong Kong as we await our longer term visa being approved. So we looked around online for places with cheap flights. There were a number of options, but many took us to places where there would be active monsoons. But finally, we found some good tickets to Ha Noi from Hong Kong.
So we started planning a weekend in Viet Nam.
Day 1: The Departure
We set off for Ha Noi on a 2 hour flight on Jetstar. The seats were tight and uncomfortable… but they were cheap! We had considered changing money for VND in Hong Kong, but the exchange rate was going to have us lose almost 8% of the value of the money exchanged, so we gambled on waiting until Viet Nam. This was the right choice. As soon as you leave security in Viet Nam, you’ll find exchange offices where they will change your money with just a 1% loss rate. They can also book you some (somewhat overpriced) taxis.
Trip Tip 1: Change money in the Ha Noi airport. The exchange rates are the fairest you’ll find, and the experience is secure and simple.
But getting past security is a bit tricky. We had filed our visa paperwork online for Viet Nam, been emailed a visa letter, and had been told to print it off and bring cash (VND or USD) and some passport photos. So we did, arrived, got in the line for passport clearance, then were turned around back to a little waiting area, handed over our documents, paid some money, waited around for our name to be called, and THEN got our visas. Bit of a runaround, but we eventually got through. Then we got in the cab we booked from the exchange office, and off we went to Ha Noi!
The drive in was surprisingly fun. The Vietnamese have a real sense of flair to their houses; even the typical suburban house has interesting features to it.
We’d told our cab driver to take us to the train station… but we ended up telling him to drop us off earlier, on a random street corner near the historic French quarter of Ha Noi. The taxi ride from the airport to the edge of the French quarter was about 45 minutes, near rush hour.
Ha Noi is a remarkable city. Ruth had been once before, but it was Lyman’s first time. It is full of villas with hidden courtyards, passageways with secluded cafes, and beautiful parks. The city has a bustling life to it, it’s chaotic like any fast-growing place, but the architecture of the historic city is beautiful. Plus, there’s awesome food and lots of fun handicrafts around.
Trip Tip 2: Absolutely do not skip out on a few hours wandering in Ha Noi’s French quarter. Walk street by street, stopping in at shops and galleries, enjoying the sights. Be careful not to get hit by the gazillion motorbikes.
We slowly meandered from the northeast side of the French quarter down and around. And, of course, got some stick meat. Stick meat is our favorite ANYWHERE.
Trip Tip 3: Always get stick meat when abroad!
As we kept walking, we saw a pottery shop called “Cerender.” We stopped in… and walked out with a few teacups and saucers. Their stuff was very neat, and all looked hand-crafted. We didn’t see duplicates of their wares anywhere else, at least.
Trip Tip 4: Many of the shops have identical or nearly-identical wares. Even in the art galleries, it’s clear that a limited number of painters are producing a lot of art and selling to many galleries. Even so, there’s a good diversity of products around. But there are also little gems like Cerender where it’s pretty clearly unique stuff. In either case, the prices everywhere are more than fair.
As we carried on our walk, we got hungry… so stopped for some banh mi and pho!
It was cheap and delicious.
Trip Tip 5: Ha Noi is a foodie paradise. Vietnamese cuisine is delicious, diverse, with options for people of many different tastes. Plus, you can sample tons of stuff for cheap. It’s easy to buy small portions, and it’s all affordable. That bowl of soup and that sandwhich combined cost about $2.50.
We kept walking, kept enjoying the scenery (the French quarter is centered around a large lake and park)… and stopped for some more food! At this place, you just load up a tray with some of your choices from the (well-chilled) options, their barbecue-guy gets the meet cooked to a safe-to-eat temperature, and then you finish it up in a little BBQ pit they provide. It was awesome and, again, something like $5.
From there, it was getting close to time for our overnight train to depart. We hurried to the train station. There, we had some confusion.
We’d bought tickets for the “Chapa Express” on Vietnam Railways. Well, we’d reserved tickets. But we still needed to pick them up, and couldn’t find where to do so. Nobody really spoke enough English to help us, but one of the workers told us to just wait, someone would come for us. So we waited. And eventually, someone did come for us, had our tickets, and took us to our berths. This was a bit confusing: we don’t really know how the person found us and knew we were the right people (we didn’t show ID), and we don’t really know why we weren’t just given our own tickets to handle, especially since we booked through the central Vietnam Railways website. Oh well!
Trip Tip 6: Train travel in Viet Nam can be confusing. It still isn’t clear to us how the train ticket booking process actually works, “under the hood,” so to speak. But if you wait patiently, pay attention to signs, and repeatedly ask people for help, it seems like you can usually get things sorted out. For what it’s worth, the Ha Noi train station experience was very complex, but our return journey from a smaller local station was much simpler.
Soon enough, we were on the train. It was an overnight train up to Lao Cai, so we tucked into our bunks and tried to sleep. Actually sleeping was a bit tricky given the bounce and jostle of the train, and the fact that Lyman was too long for the bunk, but we did manage to get a little shut-eye.
Day 2: The Paradise of Sa Pa
We woke (or, rather, ceased our futile attempts to sleep) just around sunrise, and shortly after pulled into the Lao Cai station.
We quickly disembarked and headed to the front of the train station. As part of our rail ticket, we had reserved seats on a van to drive us from Lao Cai up the mountain to Sa Pa. Thankfully, this experience was simple: there was a person holding a sign with our name who took us to the van.
Trip Tip 7: Book the van in advance. There were people offering rides, but the prices seemed higher, and there were definitely some desperate-looking tourists suddenly realizing they weren’t sure if they’d be able to get their group and their bags all in one vehicle.
So we piled into the van and drove up!
Guys, Sa Pa is really far up the mountain.
Finally, the van got to some random hotel in Sa Pa town and dropped us off. Our hotel was too far down the village road for the van to drive to, so they dropped us basically in the town square where we had requested. We quickly got mobbed by local ladies (they call themselves sisters) offering to take us to their village. We did not need that, but we did need help finding the visitor’s center to grab a map, and a good place to eat some breakfast. Luckily, two ladies helped us with that, so we gave them a tip.
And boy howdy did they give us a good recommendation for breakfast!
In most travel blogs we read, Sa Pa town gets bad reviews: it’s ugly! dirty! loud! full of tourists! always under construction! not the quaint place it used to be!
Sure. Fine. Whatever. It’s loud, it’s full of tourists, and there’s construction. But we actually found it to be really lovely: the steep, narrow streets; the gazillion craft stores; the ENDLESS delicious food. And our first breakfast ushered in the experience well.
The bun cha, bottom right, is AMAZING. It’s apparently a regional specialty of this area. It’s some kind of sweet and sour beef thing with noodles and cilantro; it’s like what we’ve always dreamed of pho being. We also got some of Sa Pa’s famous many-colored rice. All quite good, and the place had nice ambiance.
But we also got beverages. Viet Nam has so much good stuff to drink. At this meal our big discovery was their ginger-lemongrass teas. Holy cow. People, it’s amazing. We have since tried to duplicate it and have not been able to, but all over this area in Viet Nam (and to a lesser extent in Ha Noi), there are ginger, lemongrass, and ginger-lemongrass teas that are simply to die for.
Trip Tip 8: Eat everything. Drink everything. Order unfamiliar dishes. Ask for regional specialties. Viet Nam is packed full of amazing food and you will not be disappointed. This restaurant was quite close to the church square, just a bit down the hill towards the visitor’s center, tucked behind a big fountain area. We do not recall its name.
From there, we departed and hailed a taxi. We haggled a bit, which made the driver hesitant: he said our hotel was far away, down a muddy road. That was news to us! But finally he agreed to do it, and in hindsight, his quoted price was probably fair. He drove us down, down, down a long, muddy road. And we immediately realized that we had booked a very isolated spot. This road was basically just dirt and gravel in most spots, and in many places eroding down the mountain. In others it was under active construction for improvement. When we came to the park gate, our driver tried to explain something to us, but it was lost in translation…. we think that he got us into the protected area illegally by using fake tickets, but we can’t be sure.
Anyways, we finally got to our hotel.
People, this place is amazing. You want to go here.
As soon as we stepped out of the taxi, someone came up to greet us and take our bags. When we walked into the lodge house, they sat us down and offered us an amazingly good cinnamon tea, as well as steaming hot towels to wash our hands and faces. Our host, Nam (“as in, Viet Nam” he says), had very good English and immediately made us feel like the most special guests in the world: checking us in, talking to us about our trip, explaining how he could help us, etc. He clearly has a firm grasp that hospitality and customer service wins loyal customers. Crucially, he was helpful in booking all of our activities: he arranged our trek, a driver for the next day, a massage, everything. We decided to do a trek down to the villages right away.
After we had dropped our things in our room, we came back out and waited by the warm fireplace for a few minutes for our local guide to arrive. And here we should mention the weather.
It was cold. It was foggy. It was wet. It was chill-to-your-bones kind of dampness. And that made this place EVEN BETTER. The warm Vietnamese soups, the aromatic teas, the cozy fireplace, the mountain view…. suddenly we realized we weren’t doing tropical highlands, we were doing the most perfect autumnal cozy-up-and-enjoy-the-season vacation you could imagine. Plus, ginger and cinnamon are already good autumnal flavors for Americans!
Trip Tip 9: EcoPalms House is amazing. Stay there. It is definitely more expensive than many of the other places in Sa Pa, but it is incredibly nice. We got our own valley-view bungalow, which was very comfortable. Good food, help with logistics, amazing view: EcoPalms House can’t be beat.
Once our guide got there, we put on our mud clothes, and went on a walk down to the villages in the valley.
Sa Pa valley is incredibly beautiful, and walking through the villages was a wonderful, scenic experience. We stopped for lunch as well (included in the cost). It was fun just meandering through with our guides, hearing about life there, chatting with them, and seeing a very different kind of life.
One thing the Sa Pa area is known for is textiles. Their traditional textiles are woven hemp, dyed with natural indigo. The area is still basically a subsistence economy, so as you walk you will see lots of indigo growing and *ahem*, hemp as well. Since Lyman is a textile nerd, stopping at all the little shops and inspecting their wares was an absolute must.
Trip Tip 10: You will get better prices, and often more interesting selections, buying from the local shops along the hike than going to the big market in Sa Pa. We assumed otherwise and so didn’t buy as much on the walk as we were tempted to: a choice we came to regret. Viet Nam is extremely cheap: don’t hesitate to make some impulse buys as you walk (after haggling a bit, of course): the prices at most of the villages seem pretty reasonable and competitive compared to the markets in town.
Trip Tip 11: Tourists often want “authentic” products. We did too. But what it means to be “authentic” is debatable. Just how hand-crafted must it be? What technologies can be used? Traditional Hmong weaving in this area relied heavily on indigo and a few other natural dyes: but now, the “authentic” local style, meaning the style most of the women actually weave for themselves, incorporates lots of cotton and synthetic yarns, and brightly colored synthetic dyes. Is it right to demand that a culture be frozen-in-time to earn your tourist dollars? This question is significant in Sa Pa, where much of the experience is cultural or heritage tourism: you are coming to see and experience a different kind of life for a while. This is inherently an unstable equilibrium, as the commercialization of the local culture makes them richer, changes their technologies, and enables them to access goods and services they did not have before. All of that to say: it’s fine if you want to buy exclusively indigo-dyed-hemp-products-made-by-hand-weavers. But understand that if you like that cotton table-runner with neon-green stripes, you aren’t destroying the culture! And to those who ONLY want to buy the traditional stuff (we prefer it as well!), don’t trick yourself into thinking you are somehow helping these women by insisting on only purchasing the stuff that takes the most effort and time to produce, and which is a style that was in vogue in their grandmother’s day. In the end, we bought some more traditional handicrafts, and some more modern ones. The point is: don’t feel like you HAVE to buy only more traditional products. Buy what you like!
As you can see, we had a lot of fun on the hike.
Trip Tip 12: Overall, we highly recommend the village walking experience in Sa Pa. We did a lightweight version: only about 4 hours walking, with a lunchbreak. It was delightful and made us feel like we got our money’s worth. We have heard great things about longer treks and treks out to do overnight things; they’re probably wonderful. But we enjoyed our mountainside bungalow.
Trip Tip 13: If you’ve read our travel blogs before, you know what’s coming: DO THE THING THE PEOPLE DO IN THE PLACE! Trust the crowds! If everybody who goes to Sa Pa goes on a village trek, then go on a village trek! Don’t insist on always breaking new ground. Just let yourself enjoy the thing the people do! The village treks are delightful.
After the trek, we got back to the house, just in time for Nam to serve us a complimentary juice drink of some kind. It was great. An hour later we had a complimentary cocktail (mocktail for the non-drinker!) provided, also amazing.
And, as the sun went down, we sat in our beanbag cushions on our valley-view bungalow porch, turned the space heater on behind us for warmth, and enjoyed the crisp mountain air as clouds rolled over the mountains.
Speaking of our room, here’s what it looked like:
Again, guys, EcoPalms is awesome. It’s like some real-life Bachelorette fantasy suite episode stuff.
People, EcoPalms has an AMAZING chef. Everything that kitchen produces is GOLD. That’s a mushroom-stuffed chicken thigh on the right, and on the left, that’s duck breast in an orange glaze. Naturally, cinnamon tea and ginger tea.
After dinner, Ruth got a foot massage, and Lyman read by the fireplace in the lodge. Then it was time for bed.
Day 3: Seeing the Sights
Remember, reader: this is just our third day in Viet Nam! This trip was packed. While our Peru trip is hard to beat in terms of “that trip we always talk about,” Viet Nam might have the highest density of fun.
We woke up early to get our complimentary breakfast. We assumed it’d be continental style. Instead, we rolled into the lodge and found breakfast menus. So we assumed we’d order an item each, and it’d be complimentary. Instead, Nam comes over and tells us that actually it’s all you can eat and we should probably go ahead and order the entire menu. Like we said, Nam gets hospitality!
Alas, we did not photograph our breakfast of tea, crepes, fruit, eggs, toast, and sausage. But there are some pictures of the lodge in the morning instead!
Our plan for the day was simple: we wanted to see EVERYTHING. We had a list of sights we wanted to do: Love waterfall, the “Heaven’s Gate,” and the cable car up Fansipan (endearingly called “fancy pants”) mountain. We figured we’d need to hire taxis between them. But it turns out, these are the three things most moderately-well-informed weekenders want to do. So Nam asked us basically when we checked in if we’d like to hire a driver to shuttle us to those three places all day. We said uh, sorry, we’re not that rich. But it turned out it only cost about $60 for the entire day! Never mind then. We’ll pay that for expeditious and knowledgeable driving to ensure we see everything!
So off we went in an EcoPalms branded van! First we drove up the mountain, and up, and up, and up, to the “Heaven’s Gate,” a high mountain pass above the cloudy valley of Sa Pa.
Trip Tip 14: Go to the Heaven’s Gate. The drive up is gorgeous on its own; you pass rolling hills of what look to be vineyards and possibly tea plantations. The view is incredible. You’ll have to pay something like $0.25 to get on the platforms to take pictures, but that’s no problem. When you get to the top, if it is cloudy, wait a few minutes! The wind can be fierce, and clouds roll in and then dissipate VERY quickly. Also, don’t be discouraged just because it’s cloudy in Sa Pa! While we were at the Heaven’s Gate, Sa Pa was 100% cloudy and got substantial rains! This place is ABOVE the clouds of Sa Pa valley!
After that, we got back in the van, drove a ways back down the scenic road the way we came, and then the driver pulled off at a little tourist area so we could visit Love Waterfall. We had heard it was a thing to do, and, as you know, we believe in doing the things the people do.
The hike was brief and lovely, through a little valley and a creek. The waterfall was quite nice. We wished it was okay to swim in it: it was an incredibly appealing swimming hole. But, alas, swimming seemed off limits (or at least we assumed…it was also simply too cold to try). Also, our pictures are cleverly angled to avoid showing you that there were a lot of other people here.
Now, we want to mention those grapes. There were some ladies sitting by the trail selling grapes. It was about $0.25 for a whole bunch. We weren’t interested, but they invited us to try one, and we did need to buy a water bottle. And folks, THE GRAPES WERE INSANE. We have never, ever, ever had grapes that good. They were of course locally grown, and probably fairly freshly picked. They were smallish, incredibly sweet, and did not have the slightest hint of that mouth-drying sensation many grapes give. They were different in taste and texture from other grapes we’ve had.
Trip Tip 15: Love Waterfall is nice. It’s a pleasant jaunt. If you miss it, it won’t be the end of the world; if you do it, you’ll enjoy the walk. But ABSOLUTELY DO NOT MISS the grapes. We saw a lot of the street vendors selling what looked like similar grapes. But when we bought grapes again down in Sa Pa, they were different again. Our cursory look suggests this varietal of grape maybe doesn’t leave the valley. So EAT THE GRAPES when you do your trip up to Heaven’s Gate and love waterfall. It helped, of course, that we were there in November, which is still in the harvest season.
After Love Waterfall, we got in the van again, and our driver took us to the dropoff point for the cable car to Mount Fancy Pants.
Mount Fancy Pants is the highest mountain in Viet Nam, and actually the highest point in mainland SE Asia aside from the Himalayan front-ranges in northern Myanmar. Conveniently… it has a cable car to the top! Woohoo! Great for folks on a tight schedule.
But getting there is not necessarily direct. First you take a car. The car drops you at a parking lot. From the parking lot, you take a free little golf-cart type shuttle down to a lower parking lot. From that lower parking lot, you walk about 5 to 15 minutes down another hill, through a market area, to the cable car station. It isn’t hard to find if you simply have faith in its existence. Once at the cable car station, you buy tickets and depart.
When we got there, there was no line. We got our ticket, walked to the boarding area, and hopped on, no hassle. That was at about noon. On our return to the station around 3:30 PM, there was an insanely long line of people getting ready to go up.
Trip Tip 15: Do the Fansipan cable car! It’s worth it! Also, allow yourself proper time to do the Fansipan cable car. With no lines, you will spend 2–3 hours. With lines, it could be 4.
It was, as we have mentioned, seriously cloudy. So the cable car was wreathed in mist as we dipped into the valley. We did occasionally get a view of the mountainside or the valley floor, but it would have been more exciting if we could have had a clear view.
But eventually, we rose above the clouds again.
The view was striking. And it was possible to get photos without glass between the camera and outside by Lyman shoving his camera hand out one of the high ventilation windows and clicking wildly in the hope of a good photo. Our Vietnamese fellow cable car riders thought we were weird.
After the cable ride (maybe 15 minutes?) we got to the station at the top of the mountain.
Trip Tip 16: Understand: the cable car does NOT take you to the summit. It takes you to a higher station. There’s another little tram (a funicular) that can take you a bit higher ALMOST to the summit, but even then it’s about 80 steps up the stairway. From the cable car station, it’s several hundred steps to ascend up. Also, be aware, it is quite cold and windy at the top of Fansipan, but also quite sunny. In the sun, out of the wind, you’ll be hot. In the wind, you’ll be cold. Make your peace and carry on.
In the station there is a lot of streetfood for sale at surprisingly reasonable prices (for a tourist spot); so don’t worry if you didn’t bring up food for the walk.
From the station, you start walking. The whole mountain is a Buddhist religious site. I should note that this is actually not without controversy: the local Hmong people and many other ethnic groups in the area are majority Christian, but the mountain has been used to build a sprawling Buddhist complex that is largely new construction.
The clouds blowing over the mountain peaks were incredible to watch, forming and vanishing in moments. We’d have times as we walked where we were in thick cloud, and then suddenly we were in the light again. Although Fansipan is very crowded with (fancy pant wearing!) tourists, it was still a lot of fun, and had truly incredible views.
When we came down from Fancy Pants, we then walked back up to the parking lot, where our driver was waiting for us (guys, hiring a driver for the day is TOTALLY worth $60USD). He quickly drove us into Sa Pa to the main marketplace where we did some shopping. Then he drove us to a hotel nearby where we would be picked up by a van to go to Lao Cai.
There, we met some Belgian tourists who believed they were headed the same direction. Eventually, a van came to get us and, they thought, them as well. Alas, it was not for them! They got left behind, half an hour after the bus they thought they reserved was supposed to come!
Our bus did a loop around the block, went to another hotel to get someone, and then the driver did the mental math and realized he had enough seats for the Belgian family. So, we went back and picked them up, and had a very, uh, cozy hour-long drive down the mountain.
Trip Tip 17: Get the contact information for your transportation providers. Double check all the times and dates. Transport out of Sa Pa stops after a certain time because the dark, foggy mountain roads are unsafe on wet nights. Do not wait until the last minute to figure out your transport!
Back in Lao Cai, we had a much easier train experience than previously. Our train, the Chapa Express, had a lounge area where we got some food and waited. Eventually, we boarded for the overnight train trip back to Ha Noi.
Trip Tip 18: The Chapa Express is cheap and good enough. It’s not luxurious at all, and the bathrooms are not the cleanest, but the beds are fine, they provide some water and snacks, and it’s quite affordable. If you have a group of 4 people, it could be quite fun actually. As the case may be, sharing an overnight compartment with strangers who want to sleep is not highly social.
Day 4: The Last Day
Here we are, at the end of the whirlwind. There’s so much stuff you can do in Viet Nam! Look how much we packed into ONE weekend! And we were able to book it all without needing to use pricey travel agents!
We got into Ha Noi around sunrise. Waking up with Ha Noi on a Sunday morning was fun. We just wandered the streets, looking in alleyways, enjoying the calmer side of the city. There was an art gallery we wanted to revisit to buy a painting at 9:30 when they allegedly opened, but from 6 AM to then we were free to meander. So meander we did.
Alas, the art gallery did not open. We will be returning to Viet Nam someday again, if for no other reason than to purchase art, decorative pieces, and ceramics. Everything in Viet Nam has a care for beauty, and attention to aesthetic, that is missing in many countries. We have both traveled many places and we generally try to avoid blanket generalizations about countries like that; it’s all too common for somebody to visit a country and come away full of sweeping generalizations about the people there. But after Ruth’s two visits to Viet Nam and now Lyman having been there, we feel comfortable saying that traveling in Viet Nam exposes you to a place where people seem to have a stronger-than-average impulse to make even common pieces of life beautiful.
After waiting as long as we could on the gallery, we hailed a cab and headed back to the airport. We were headed home!
It was a whirlwind 67 hours or so in Viet Nam. We saw and did so much, and yet there is so much left to be done. We will have to return.
If you liked this piece and found it useful for planning your travel, feel free to check out our previous travel blogs! We love to travel, and we love to help others find places they’d want to go!