Hanoi Excursions: Sa Pa & Cát Bà

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We used Hanoi as a springboard for a few excursions before leaving northern Vietnam. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve we headed north for a three day trek in Sa Pa, and after the holidays we went east to Cát Bà Island so we could see the famous Halong Bay.

Trekking in Sa Pa

Part of the package we booked for Sa Pa included a super nice overnight train ride. Unfortunately, going to sleep right after boarding and being woken up at 5 am made the train not that exciting. Coming from temperate Hanoi, we were surprised that nobody mentioned just how cold, rainy, and muddy Sa Pa would be. Thankfully, we brought our full packs with all the weather gear we needed. Several other people in our group came with nothing more than shorts, flip flops, and t-shirts so they had to walk into town to purchase brand new boots, socks, pants, coats, and hats. Luckily for them, it was crazy cheap to buy North Face knockoffs.

We started our trek through the region by hiking down a muddy mountain between rice paddies. Before long, everyone’s butt was covered in mud after many falls. Several local women followed our group, offering help down the slopes while only wearing simple rubber boots on their feet, making us feel pretty pathetic in our high tech gear. Some even carried children in baskets on their back! We quickly learned that these women were working for tips and anyone who used their help was more or less required to buy souvenirs from them at the break points.

The rice paddy terracing makes the area look like a giant topographical map.

All the guides we met along the hike could weave crowns, bracelets, and more from the grasses and leaves along the trail. Our guide taught Vesper how to make a horse. He was very proud of his creation.

In order to see how the local ethnic groups live, our guide took us through several villages that dot the countryside. We saw gardens and livestock, learned how to make spring rolls, and watched kids playing with makeshift toys. We also learned how local textiles are woven and dyed and saw a working water-powered rice flour mill.

These kids were riding down the hill on a six inch metal rod stuck through a ball bearing. Creativity and lots of balance required.
The red color is an algae that grows in some of the rice paddies, which can be used as food for pigs.

The last day of our hike, we stopped at a beautiful waterfall before heading back to catch the train to Hanoi. Despite the cold weather, some hikers even jumped in for a quick swim! We were not that brave.

The island of Cát Bà

Many visitors to northern Vietnam opt to do a cruise through the iconic Halong Bay, but we followed the advice of friends and went directly to Cát Bà. The Halong area is more about resorts and cruises, while Cát Bà is more for budget-minded backpackers. From here, we were still able to do a full day boat cruise exploring Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay where we kayaked through small caves and limestone isles, visited fish farms, and ate some delicious local seafood for lunch.

A floating village of fish farms. There were also a few pearl farms throughout the bay.
Kayaking through caves and around Lan Ha Bay.

We also explored the island by scooter, visited an old cannon fort, hiked through the national park, and spent a little R&R on some of the island’s beaches. The town of Cát Bà is nothing to write home about, but the scenery of the island and surrounding bays is a unique and beautiful landscape to explore.

Around the Cannon Fort.
The view from a lookout point in Cát Bà National Park.
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