How our honeymoon was turned into an adventure around Vietnam.
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On November 1st 2015 my husband and I started to discuss our honeymoon plans given that the wedding is happening on December 4th. Our first choice was Greece particularly Santorini; a place known for its amazing beauty and relaxation activities. We’ve been working on our new house nonstop for the past 3 months and a quiet break was badly needed. We logged online and started our research. We were planning to travel to more than one city around Greece however, ferries that are the best option to commute around are mostly closed during winter season. Greece was out of the picture and we were running out of time. – November 9th
Years ago, I talked my husband into adding Vietnam into our travel list, but I knew it was farfetched to be doing it anytime soon. So when hope was lost to go to Greece I made a joke out of going to Vietnam instead, my husband was not kidding when he answered “Let’s do it”.
My husband and I met 7 years ago, we were both part of a travelling community which ventures exploration trips around Egypt; we fell in love in the desert of South Sinai. It was not strange for us to explore a new place and plan for an extraordinary adventure rather than an expected honeymoon destination. – November 10th
The research for Vietnam has started; weather, activities, hiking trails, traditions, places and people. Such a fascinating country to not to have known much about before. Vietnamese weather is so unique that you can experience nearly all weather conditions at the same time by traveling from North to South. Luckily for us we would be catching the last of that perfect timing; experiencing winter chills and rain as well as sunny summer and its soft breeze. I guess it was a sign.
We booked hotels, international & internal flights then decided to book activities & trains when we arrive to Hanoi; the capital city to pay by local fare; early bird reservations shouldn’t matter. Our international flight route would take us to Bangkok, Thailand then we would take a separate flight to Hanoi, Vietnam since there were no reasonable direct flights from Cairo to Hanoi. All set, except for visas.
Based on our research Vietnam provides a legitimate online visa application system to make it easier for travelers, recently Egyptians were not allowed to use this system anymore. However, the offline system is pretty easy compared to other countries, I brought 3 photos of each of us as well as our passports and went to apply without an appointment. I filled 2 applications, 1 for me and another on my husband’s behalf, printed out a copy of our passports and gave it to the visa officer. Four days later, we got our visas. We were told that no need for supporting material since our passports proves that we’ve been abroad many times before including the EU. All done, one issue remains. – November 22nd
Since we are taking 2 separate flights from Cairo till Hanoi, we had to make sure that we don’t need a visa to Thailand. I asked the Vietnamese and Thailand embassies and the local visa authorities, all replied that no need for a visa since we will be staying for less than 12 hours in Thailand and will not get out of the airport. All seems to be clear.
We had a beautiful wedding by the Red Sea, then we went off to the airport. Checking in for our first flight all seems in order, we thought to check in for the second flight to buy us sometime. After checking with his colleagues the ticket officer gave us the news: we can’t take our second flight. – December 5th, 15 minutes before boarding 1st flight
The tale of 6 flights, 9 taxis and 2 trains
Since our 1st flight is in a different terminal than the 2nd flight, we would be technically “leaving” the airport, which was not possible without a visa. Could that have been the end of our dream honeymoon? The challenge was now to find a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi boards from the same terminal, and to check in to that flight so that it would seem we were in transit. That flight needs to be part of star alliance so that our 1st flight airline can connect to its system and check us in. 5 minutes before 1st flight gates closed, a flight was found. My husband ran to the ticketing office to pay for the new tickets, I waited in the middle as if we were in a tag game, grabbed the reservations and ran to the check in desk. Off to Bangkok.
16 & a half hours later, we arrived to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Contrary to popular Egyptian belief, Vietnam is pretty advanced. The airport was extremely clean, they had organized taxi services. Our first destination was to our hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter of the city right in front of Hoan Kiem lake. Motorcycles everywhere, leather jackets & masks, everyone looked like a gang member, a very colorful gang.
Hanoi city is famous for its historical monuments and street food. The city looked relatively clean & organized despite the traffic mess, try passing the streets with tens of motorcycles coming your way. But it was no strange for us Cairo residents. It was painfully funny seeing a European tourist trying to pass the street like we did though. Every street was famous for a certain commodity; jewelry, knockoff hiking gear, knockoff ray ban sunglasses, grave stones, Buddha statues. Restaurants covering the streets with tables to serve hundreds, the food was great, we didn’t expect to find toothbrushes in the bathrooms of those restaurants, but we did and kept them!
Spending 3 days in Hanoi sightseeing, wandering, discovering and eating was not enough but we had to move to our next destination, something that was more familiar for us than the city life. We took an overnight 8 hour long train from Hanoi to Lao Cai city then a 45 minute taxi to Sapa, north of Vietnam close to the borders of China. A beautiful small town 1,500m above sea level overlooking a valley of rice terraces and mountains towering above all sides. Colorful tribes’ people around the town as well as European trekkers. You can see off the horizon mount Fansipan (PhanxiPhan) 3,143m; Vietnam’s highest peak. Sapa is a mecca for trekking and nature lovers.
Initially our plan was to hike mount Fansipan, but due to weather conditions and after talking to locals we found out that the best way to really experience the monster mountain is to reach the peak through 5 days of trekking. We decided to leave mount Fansipan on hold till our next visit. Instead, we ventured to a one day trek into Muang Hoa valley where we would be visiting villages of different tribes living in the area. The most known tribes are the Mong, the Dzay and the Dzao people, each historically came from different places around Asia to settle in this area. Recently it has been accepted for individuals to marry from other tribes.
Our guide was a 19 years old young lady from the Mong tribe who learnt English from travelers within 1 year. Along the trail we met 2 other ladies who accompanied us as well, one was a 30 year old mother of 4 and another whom we can only guess ages between 50 to 60 years old. Most guides in the area are women, most farm workers in the valley are women. Women dominate the working industry in Sapa and they know it, full of confidence and control.
The trail was muddy for early morning showers, the air was clean, and the sites were breathtaking. Going down the valley visiting villages, you can tell which woman is from which tribe depending on her head band & traditional outfit. Most whom we meet along the trail try to sell us beautiful handmade clothing or jewelry. My husband who seemed at some point as the largest man in town had a hard time finding something to fit him. We stopped for lunch at one of the many home stays welcoming travelers around the valley. Back to Sapa in the evening, streets are filled with restaurants posting their menus for hungry cold trekkers, fog starts to cover the town, by night the town turns in to a mystical ghost town.
Stay: Sapa Elite hotel
Price: $55/night double room
Review: Great view, clean room, poor hotel in total, friendly staff, great breakfast. If you are looking for a cheap clean stay then it’s recommended. For higher standard hotel look for U-Sapa.
After Sapa, we took the train back to Hanoi, then an internal flight to Da Nang, a city in the southern center of the country.
Our destination was Phu Loc, a quiet town with sunny tropical weather overlooking series of lakes branching from the Pacific Ocean; where we plan to spend a few days of relaxation before heading back to Cairo. The ride from the airport to the hotel was around 1 and a half hours, with sites of the shore, green mountains, many oil shops and tunnels undergoing construction. We were treated like kings and queens, being served the best food possible, stayed at a private villa with a pool and an amazing view, free kayaking anytime we wish and of course free bicycle rides around the resort. We were kids in a candy store enjoying the last bit of sweetness before getting back home.
Phu Loc was the end of this adventure yet there are many more things to see, to learn and to experience; this is no doubt the first of many visits to Vietnam. Next visit; Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Doong cave and mount Fansipan.
Stay: Vedana resort and spa
Price: $130/night private villa + pool
Review: Amazing remote resort, great food, great service, great value for price. Highly recommended for couples and families.
General tips: Bargaining is a must everywhere around Vietnam, cut to half of the price, show you have the money and the vendor will agree to discount.
Taxis bargain as well, but before doing so check the standard fare per km on the side poster of the taxi. Taxis are categorized based on standard and fee, you may think you are bargaining but you may just be dealing with a lower rated taxi.
Offline maps and Lonely Planet are a traveler’s best friends.
Off to the next destination. Travel Stories continues..