Sa Pa and Hoi An – 6 days – 1500 metres above sea level

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We arrived in Sa Pa early in the morning. Our night in a sleeping bus was not very quiet. To get some sleep, we forgave being stuck in our berth and all the curves of the road to reach this city at 1500m above the sea level.

Sa Pa is very touristic since the French colonial era. The French authorities built a station there before it became one of the most touristic places in North of Vietnam. This district of the Lao Cai province has a natural and unusual scenery with mountains, forests and rice field terraces.

It was 6am when we arrived by bus. We managed to avoid the rain and to arrive just in time in a little café for our breakfast. But when we left to find a hotel, it was heavily raining. The rain created impressive mudslides in the streets of the city. After running under the heavy rain to find a hotel, we finally found three rooms in the hostel of Manh.

Early in the afternoon, we decided to go through the bad weather to discover the city, but with no surprise, the city is not appealing for the several guesthouses, restaurants and hotels under construction. Visiting Sa Pa, it was also accepting to share the sidewalks with many other tourists.

However after a little narrow street, we opened the door of an intimate museum having an exhibition about the different ethnic groups of the city. We went though this door and it was like seeing a new universe full of authenticity. We discovered the cultural and traditional secrets of the area, far away from the touristic places mentioned earlier. The main ethnic group in Vietnam is the one of the Kinh. There are minor ethnic groups living in the surrounded mountains. They have their own culture, a different language and wear clothes with specific colours (for example, the H’Mong wear dark costumes).

Back to the hostel, we dedicated the end of the afternoon to cook Vietnamese dishes with Manh, the hotel owner. We began our cooking class by purchasing the ingredients at the market. Then we cooked and enjoyed the delicious feast we made.

The following day, we woke up slowly to be in good conditions for the hike of the day. A big sunshine and a nice blue sky replaced the rainy weather of the previous day. Ideal conditions for the discovery of the terrace fields. We discovered these landscapes without a guide, but with the previous advice of Manh. He recommended to go towards Ta Phin. Once we reached the artificial lake of Sa Pa, we went towards left on a small path through the mountains.

We walked up to the small village of Ma Tra. We met young H’Mong women who revealed their knowledge for making the intense indigo colour from plants which colours their fabric pieces. There were many other small villages between the beautiful terrace rice fields. The kids were at the entry of each one of them to say hi to us. Sadly, others were begging which highlighted the issues of the mass tourism. We explored the Ta Phin caves. We didn’t think about this activity so we didn’t have any lights with us. We explored the deep tunnels with the lights of our phones. The last kilometers of our hike were alongside the main road with a high traffic. The only bad point of this great hike under the sunshine.

Our stay in Sa Pa ended with a new night in a sleeping bus going to Hanoi. This journey was more epic as it ended at 3:30am in the middle of an avenue. Too late to find a hotel and too early to enjoy breakfast… So we “camped” in front of a Burger King in a small street. Some of us managed to get some sleep while some others were playing cards. When the sun was rising, we enjoyed a Banh-Mi for our breakfast. A new day began!

We took a “Grab”, a local taxi to go to the Hanoï airport. We sat down in a plane going to Dan Ang. Again, we used a local taxi to do the 40 kilometres between the airport and the Hoi An city. On this journey, the driver put the radio louder. We enjoyed a nice Vietnamese techno music. On our arrival, we chilled by the pool of the hotel. We ended this travelling day by a tasting a Cao Lao, the speciality of this city in a nice restaurant.

The following day, we decided to go between our hotel and the historic area of Hoi An by bikes. We parked our two wheels at the entry of the old city. Its access is possible only by foot of bicycling. Located by the Thu Bon river, the city is famous for its unique charm from the past. It has been registered at the UNESCO in 1999, for its multicultural heritage from its port history.

Quickly,  we had the feeling of going back to the past. We walked between the old houses with an ocher colour lighten up by the sunshine. Like a museum with an open sky, we loved the old houses of the traders with an architecture from the colonial period. We have been particularly impressed by the Cantonese assembly dedicated to the gods of the sea. Behind the altar, we discovered a garden with fig trees and a splendid fountain decorated with dragons.

We continued our walk alongside the river. Being by the old city, it’s the origin of the economics success of Hoi An. We followed the colourful and traditional boats to reach te old Japanese bridge which has over 400 years old.

Our discovery of the city center ended in the old theater. After unfolding the old velvet seat in the complete dark, the heavy red curtain opened and revealed 4 animals. Following folkloric Vietnamese songs, the dances gave life to them with poetic steps. A beautiful panther which, at the end of the afternoon, arrived and put us away from the modernisation.

At sunset, the city of thousands lanterns took its sense. Their warm lights were reflecting on the river. With the wind blowing, they were dancing under the bridges, in the trees and on the windows. The evening was focused on discovering the Night Market. Unfortunately, its wide busyness reduced its charm. Tasting a surprising coconut cake was the only good point of this market for us. On the river, the paper candles made in a lotus  shape were drifting with the current, escaping the wishes of their owners. This practice comes from a legend: “a young boy went on sea and never came back. His fiancée is still waiting and deposed every evening, on the river, a lantern to indicate the way back to him.”

At dawn, we started a new exploration around Hoi An, with mopeds, following randomly the various paths with a felling of freedom while traveling in the middle of the field and small villages.

We took the direction of Cam Thanh, a small place known as the “Coconut Tree Bay”. The water was brackish, which made the place appreciated by the water coconut trees (similar to the normal coconut tree, the only difference is they grow with the feet in the water. Arrived in the small village at the entrance of the bay, we parked our mopeds behind a house and went by foot exploring the small streets in the aim to find a sailor to bring us to the mangrove. It was on the isolated pier, we found our man. He called his friends for creating 4 crews. After paying the fees, we took places in a kind of a huge walnut shell (named basket boat) driven by the captains and their oars. Equipped with our Chinese hat made of bamboo, the sailors brought us in middle of the bay. They shown us they expertise by spinning the boat on itself at a high speed. To increase the folklore, they made rings in shape of shrimp with coconut tree leaves. They also invited us to fish crabs between the trees with bamboo fishing canne.

After this boat trip, the journey brought us to the village of Thanh Ha. Located on the Thu Bon river, this village is famous for the pottery. We created, one by one, vases, pots and bowls with clay before leaving with a nice whistle made of clay.

We kept going with a break on the island of Tra Que Herb. Its 40 hectares were dedicated to the culture of vegetables and aromatic herbs. We walked between the small organic gardens. We observed the work of the farmers who far away, from the modern technology, were irrigating the plants with a strange watering can held on their shoulders…

Hoi An was at 4km from the seafront. We enjoyed to go to the beach of An Bang, for the last stop of this day of discovery. The time to have a swim in the hot and clear water and enjoy the quietness and the peacefulness. The sign of a calm evening with an early night. The next morning, the alarm rang at 6am for an early flight from the small airport of Dan Ang. We flew in direction of Hô Chi Minh and the South of the country.

Where to sleep?

The hostel of Dang Trung
031 Cầu Mây, Muong Hoa Valley, Sa Pa

Even if it was difficult to find the place, this small auberge offers a nice patio with a nice view on the mountains. The rooms have a good standing for a reasonable price. Moreover, Mahn, the owner, is very nice.

Suburban hotel
1 Nguyễn Tri Phương, Hoi An

An hotel with a very good standing. A bit outside of the city center of Hoi An. They offer a sympathetic terrace with swimming pool. You can use their bikes for free.

Where to eat?

Ngo Mart Coffee
125 Nguyễn Tri Phương, Hoi An

A good address, still not very well known by tourists, maybe because this is not in the city center. We loved the design of the tables made of drums from washing machines and their delicious Cao Loa (a local dish).

Banh Mi Queen
115 Trần Cao Vân, Hoi an

Own by Ms. Khan, this small restaurant worths a visit. Its name is justified because the sandwiches are delicious and the prices are fair.