A week after returning from Hanoi I reflected the risks we exposed ourselves to during the holiday and I must confess we could have chosen safer itineraries but the adventurous spirit in me and the thought that if I miss this one I'd never get to do it made me go ahead as planned. Four areas made us vulnerable.
I had always travel in groups. Only once my wife and I went free and easy and that was to Kuching, Sarawak where we were familiar with language and culture. We had travelled a few times as family and those were the most memorable. I wish we can have more of this. We travelled once with a church member family and that too gave me enormous satisfaction of a great holiday. But being with strangers is both challenging and at times risky. This Hanoi trip was totally different from all other travels.
Booking online is not a problem. In fact it offer wider choices and I was happy to use this approach. Had I chosen a local tour I would be safer but with less excitement and adventure. In my package we dealt with different people every time. On arrival, a man with my name on a card greeted us at the arrival hall and whisked us into a taxi whose driver doesn't speak English much. At the agency office where I settled the balance due I met my contact Xuan for the first, and last, time. I only spoke to her out of necessity to resolve our transportation issue for our city tour on the last day.
During the Halong Bay tour we were served by a guide from the cruise company. He brought us back and made sure we got to the hotel for our rest before the train ride to Lao Cai. Another couple took over this stage of driving us to the station, buying the tickets and bringing us safely to our cabin in the correct coach of the correct train. Just remember everything is in Vietnamese.
When we arrived Lao Cai, a different guide and driver handled our Sapa holiday and bought us down to Lao Cai the following evening. We were checked into the coach by a different person as the guide had an emergency to attend. And back in Hanoi the next morning fortunately the same guy who bought us to the station 2 nights previously came to look for us and arranged for us to be sent to the hotel to rest and have our breakfast. And finally on the city tour we had a different guide altogether.
We had no group, met new people every time and probably not able to build friendship since our contact last 24 hours or less.
Neither my wife nor I swim so deciding to wear life jackets and get into a kayak took great faith. We've never done this and until we started donning the jackets I wasn't sure if it was a good idea but we went ahead anyway and didn't regret one bit. We struggled with the paddles and couldn't coordinate smoothly and were left behind the group of 5 kayaks. Just remember the rest were around half our age!
The thrill and laughter rejuvenated me although we got ourselves wet. We were told that was because we didn't paddled deep and hard enough. A few times we rammed into other boats and kayaks and had to be pushed away. Back at the jetty we got the kayak pointing the wrong direction and received last minute tip how to reverse paddle to stop. All in we failed as kayakers but it was fun.
Honestly I wasn't prepared and wasn't keen but since it was in the deal and opting out means watching tv in our room, I thought I would be laughed at if I missed this out. The first trek was a few hours after our arrival at Sapa and even before we checked into our hotel room. The guide was unhelpful and probably helped us go ahead with minimal preparation. For 4 hours we walked over muddy and stony terrains, up and down uneven steps. My knees were wobbly, I have knee problems so I had to walk cautiously. Climbing down was more demanding as the downward impact on the knee joints caused more pain. Thankfully I didn't slip or fall. It was at the top of a tiring climb that we stopped to rest on a bench set up by this young man who sell belts and made me a customer.
Back in our hotel room I gratefully applied the analgesic cream we brought to soothe the ache. I was deeply apprehensive if I had to abort the longer 12km trek the next morning. The guide reassures it would be easier.
Looking back I was satisfied we made the 12km hike unscathed. Would I repeat this hike? I think once is good enough. Seriously there were moments when an accident can happen. We were walking on our polyurethane klogs, not ideal for such outdoor activities. However with wet weather forecasts we felt this is the best all-weather footware and was proven right during our city tour when it poured and flooded a temple we visited. My main worry was puncture by sharp rocks or pebbles which fortunately didn't happen. The klogs now boast among our other foot wares of having gone to places the others missed.
Overnight Train Ride
I nearly revised my itinerary when I discovered the trip to Sapa involves sleeping in tight 4 berth cabin uncomfortably for 8 hours sharing space with total strangers. I confess I am claustrophobic and I visit the lavatory several times at night. Would I survive such a trip? Not once but twice? I spent a few nights before our holiday imagining the scenario.
Our first ride was in the company of a Swiss couple about early 50s who had arrived Hanoi that very day. They needed rest so didn't converse much. Miraculously in spite of the shaky ride I managed to grab almost 7 hours of sleep. And I didn't feel closeted at all. On our return ride we shared cabin with an Australian couple about our age. We chatted bit because we've bumped before while buying my belts. The ride experience was similar to the first ride. Thank goodness our cabin sleep mates didn't have body odors! Nor snore loudly!
One advice for first time traveler is beware of very limited storage room for baggages in the cabin, so travel as light as possible.
Final words. Please don't let my caution discourage you from this great holiday destination. Although most of the tourists we met were younger than us I believe physically fit older people can enjoy the many encounters. The Australian couple didn't trek. Instead they rented a motorbike and moved independently. I believe the key to a great holiday is freedom to express and enjoy what is available and not be inhibited by caution. I may not re-visit Hanoi and that is not because I didn't like it, in fact it gave me fond memories of people, food and sceneries. As I visit other holiday destinations I will compare what each has to offer and how we who are different culturally can admire and respect each other. Hanoi, thank you.