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Trip Report Just back from an 11 day trip to Northern Vietnam

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Hi there,

Some of you have likely already rung in the new year while others are waiting to do so. But, here's wishing everyone a happy, healthy 2012 with wonderful journeys and adventures.

We (my husband and I ) got back from a trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong recently - well, it's actually been more than a month, but let's not dwell on that. :-) We are in our mid-30s from NYC and plan all our trips on our on own, and for the past 3 years I've been posting our trip reports on Fodors. So, here goes.

Vietnam was not at the top of the list of countries we wanted to visit in Asia; we were more keen to get to Laos, Burma (Myanmar) and Indonesia. But, with a visit to Hong Kong on the cards for 2011 (to visit my aunt, uncle, cousin and grandmom), Northern Vietnam seemed to be the perfect destination to spend 10 days.

Once I began my research, I knew immediately that we would spend a few days in Hanoi and Sapa. The more I read, it seemed Sapa had gotten touristy in recent years, so I was keen to visit a quieter and more secluded area to do a homestay - the villages in the Mai Chau province seemed to fit the bill. I was conflicted about Halong Bay; while I didn't want to miss it, being surrounded by a hundred junks didn't appeal to me either. In the end, I was able to find a 1 night cruise that sailed to a less frequented part of the bay - Bai Tu Long Bay. And, that sealed the deal. The itinerary was in place. Now, we were really excited about the trip! We were most excited about indulging in one of our passions - food, especially street food. And boy, did we!!

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    We booked 5 nights at the Hanoi Elegance 4 Ruby in Hanoi. We had them book the train tickets to Sapa (I let them know which train/carriage we wanted to be on), as well as a night on the Red Dragon cruise operated by IndoChina Junks. We planned to arrive in Lao Cai on a Sunday so we could go to the Bac Ha market before making our way to Sapa. For this and the homestay in Mai Chau, I contacted a few local travel agencies to see what they could arrange for us. We wanted to get away from the typical Mai Chau itinerary that most agencies offered; Vietnam Stay (or Aurora Travel) were the most accommodating and their itinerary the most interesting, so I decided to go with them. For Sapa, we booked 2 nights at the Thai Binh hotel. Deposits were paid for all the pre-arranged trips, and we were all set. A week before we departed, I emailed the hotels to confirm our reservation. The owner of the Thai Binh hotel in Sapa let us know that the hotel was under renovation that wasn't expected to be complete prior to our arrival, so he graciously offered to book us in another hotel in town - Sapa Elegance. I looked up the hotel and it seemed like a newer hotel in the same price range, so we asked Mr. Nam to go ahead and reserve us the room.

    The organized chaos of Ha Noi:
    Our flight to Hanoi is on Cathay and Dragon Air with a 4 hour layover in Hong Kong. The flight is uneventful and we arrive in Hanoi at 9:45am on Friday, the 11th of November. We had already gotten our visas at the consulate in New York, so immigration was a breeze. Note: Getting the visa from a consulate/ embassy is about double the price of a visa on arrival. Should have paid closer attention to this, oh well! We had arranged for an airport pickup (which is not all that more expensive than taking a taxi from the airport and you can avoid all the taxi scams), so getting to the hotel is easy, albeit long, and we are checking in by 11. The HE Ruby is on Yen Thai, a quiet narrow street in the Old Quarter to the west of the Hoan Keim lake and ideally situated. We are able to get an early checkin and some cold towels and fresh fruit juice while we wait. Our room is small but lovely and we quickly freshen up before heading out for lunch.

    Our first stop is the ATM a few yards away, and we walk away with a million Dong...wow! we've never had a million in any currency on us before! The large notes takes some getting used to though. Flush with cash, our next order of business is lunch. Luckily, right across from the hotel is Bun Cha Dac Kim (#1 Hang Manh), one of the places we've been wanting to try. This is a cramped, narrow, 3 floor restaurant with a steep staircase, and serves one dish only - Bun Cha. We are ushered up to the top floor; the place is busy with the local lunch crowd. We sit at a shared communal table and are asked for our choice of drink (a couple of Bia Saigons, a local beer, is what we get), and soon all the food is brought to us. There is no menu here. On the table, there is already a plate of green herbs, a plate of cold rice noodles, a bowl of chilies and chopped garlic, and a bowl of Nuoc Cham and pickled green papaya. The server brings each of us a bowl of grilled pork patties and sliced grilled pork in a clear lemony broth. A side of fried spring rolls (or nem) completes the meal. We watch our neighbors to figure out how best to eat this dish and this is what we do - put some rice noodles in the bowl mixed with some pork meat and broth and finally some garlic, chilies, green herbs and pickled papaya. The mix of hot and cold, spicy, sweet and sour and the different textures is amazing! So simply put together, yet packs a punch in terms of flavor. The dish is filling too, we are unable to finish it all. And, it cost a total of $10.

    Blisfully full, we make our way to the offices of Aurora Travel, a 20 minute walk to the other side of the railway tracks. We need to pay up the remainder of the money for our trip to Bac Ha and Mai Chau. The traffic is chaotic (reminds us of when we were growing up in India and there were more two wheelers than cars), but the trick is to walk slowly and keep moving, allowing the motorcycles to navigate around you. Easy peasy. It's not too hot either, so the walk is pleasant. Once the payment is taken care of, we start walking towards Hoan Kiem lake. The streets are filled with people, moving markets, hawkers, food stalls on the side walks, small markets here and there; the energy of the city, as with most Asian cities, really appeals to us. The lakeside is brimming with activity as well, with people strolling/jogging, doing Tai Chi, catching up with friends/family etc. We walk alongside the western edge of the lake and walk over to the Cathedral, then stop by one of the Highland Coffee locations to have a Mango shake (or Sinh To) and a Ca Phe Sua Da (or Iced Vietnamese Coffee with condensed milk). I'm not usually a coffee drinker, but I love condensed milk so much that I could drink this every day! Not sure my arteries would agree with me though. We walk back to the lake, relax on a bench and people watch for a while, stroll over the bridge to see the temple and finally make our away to a small cafe across the busy intersection. We sit on a second floor terrace with a refreshing Bia Hanoi, and watch the activities on the street below - people picking up baguettes on the way back home, stopping for food at a number of bustling street side eateries, accidents being avoided at the very last minute at the busy intersection. Our jetlag coupled with the aromas wafting from the stalls below make us very hungry, so we walk back to the hotel, take a shower, and decide to have a quick and simple dinner close by. We choose Pho 10, which is one of several Pho locations in the city; this one is a few blocks from the hotel and is small but full. We choose 2 types of Pho Bo - one with brisket and flank steak and the other with well done beef; there are condiments on the side that we generously add to the broth - vinegar with garlic and chili, hot sauce and lime juice. This really hits the spot for us; the warm broth is comforting while the noodles and meat fills us up. Quick and cheap at about $3 total. Once we are back at the hotel, we fall asleep really quickly.

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    The next morning, we are up bright and early and are among the first at the dining room for breakfast. The staff greets us with big smiles, they're just lovely. I order banana pancakes with honey and a ca phe sua nong (hot coffee), while Ajit orders an omlette and toast with tea. We share a plate of fruits and get fresh juice as well. This becomes our standard order for all 5 days that we stay here. The banana pancakes especially are scrumptious. We have to check out this morning since we leave for Sapa tonight, so we go back to the room and pack our bags. We will carry one bag with us, but leave the rest at the hotel.

    Our plan for the morning is to walk around the Old Quarter, follow the Lonely Planet walking guide and soak in the sights, sounds and smells! This is Hanoi's historical heart, with narrow bustling streets and elegant old crumbling buildings with hints of French architecture at every turn. Each of the original 36 streets specialized in a specific merchandize (or Hang) that the street is named after. We love markets so we start at a small market at the intersection of P Gia Ngu and Hang Be. The market is busy at this early hour and we easily spend an hour walking around, browsing the shops and stalls with their incredible variety of foods, meats, vegetables/ fruits, flowers and fresh bun being sold and watching the locals get their Pho at the street side stalls. From here, we walk on Hang Bac, stop to take a peek inside a restored Chinese house at 87 P Ma May, pause to watch a colorful wedding procession on the street and wander up to the quiet (!) Bach Ma temple on Hang Buom. On the way to the temple, we walk by a side walk stall selling Banh Cuon, which is something else I'd wanted to try. Having had a very early breakfast, we decide it is time for a mid morning snack, so we sit down and using hand gestures, order a plate to share. There are only a couple of tables and they're full, which is a good sign. The owner quickly and deftly whips up batch of the delicate steamed rice crepes filled with minced wood ear mushrooms and pork, sprinkled with fried shallots. On the table, there are chillies, limes, fresh herbs and the ubiquitous nuoc cham to dip the sliced crepes in. This is popular breakfast dish in Vietnam and we can see why. We love it! And it only cost us 15K d. Feeling energized, we continue walking through quiet streets to another local market - this one selling everything from fruits and vegetables to all kinds of meat and live seafood. This market is a lot busier than the one at Hang Be and a lot more congested as well (it seems like we are in everyone's way), so we move on to our third market of the day, Dong Xuan. We skip the part that sells clothing and housewares, but poke around the stalls that sell rice, several types of dried noodles, many varieties of mushrooms, eggs, dried shrimp and fish as well as live fish, squid, frogs, turtles and eels. Endlessly fascinating! Oh, and something else that we see an abundance of are cages with love birds for sale. By now, we are tired, so we make our way back to the hotel.

    For lunch, we go to Bun Bo Nam Bo (#67 Hang Dieu) that serves another Vietnamese speciality, its namesake dish. We are hustled into a long narrow dining room and seated at a communal table. Orders are quickly taken and in a matter of seconds, there are 2 bowls and 2 beers in front of us. In each bowl is a delicious layer of lettuce and herbs, topped with rice noodles, some bean sprouts, tender slices of grilled beef, crushed peanuts, crispy fried shallots and a sweet sauce over the top with pickled papaya. It's fresh, light and the explosive flavors and riot of textures light up the taste buds. We are in and out in about half an hour (this is not a place to linger; there is a constant churn of hungry patrons) and the damages total to $6. Seriously, as if we hadn't eaten enough already, we stop across the street at #76 Hang Dieu for some Che, a layered desert made with vermicelli noodles, beans, tapioca, coconut milk, and other additions like fruits, jelly, syrup etc; it's very sweet and has a gloppy texture. We order ours with lotus seeds and shredded coconut. Reminds us of the falooda in India. Interesting and refreshing; but it isn't something we'll crave for when we leave Vietnam. We finally end our multi course lunch with fresh sugarcane juice at #77 Hang Dieu...Aaah!

    Now that we couldn't eat another bite, we decide to walk to the Temple of Literature. It's a good 20 minute walk, which we need after that food orgy. The temple, Vietnam's first university and dedicated to Confucius, is set in lovely grounds. I expect it to be quiet, but it is quite busy, with large groups of Vietnamese girls & boys (the girls dressed in traditional clothes) getting their pictures taken (not sure what the special occasion is). The temple was first constructed in 1070, though it has been rebuilt several times since. We easily spend an hour and a half here strolling through the complex. I only wish the government would move the tacky souvenir stalls to the entrance. Craft Link, a handicrafts store, has a couple of locations here, so I stop to browse while Ajit waits outside. I don't find anything compelling, so we walk over to KOTO to get a drink. Food is never far from our mind, so we order a plate of spring rolls as well. The food is fine (to be fair, we just had the one dish), but this restaurant employs street kids like Friends in Phnom Penh, so it is helping a worthy cause. We then walk back to the hotel. We get our Sapa train vouchers from the front desk; freshen up in the bathroom that is available for guests who have checked out and relax in the upstairs lounge. We meet a couple from Canada (Mike and Gail) who are also headed to Sapa and decide to share a taxi to the train station with them. For dinner, we keep it light and have Banh Cuon at #14 P Hang Ga; delicious. The LP mentions a Bia Hoi location close by at 2 P Duong Thanh with good spare ribs to go with the local brew, so we can't resist a stop there. We are the only non-locals in this packed joint, called Bia Hoi Ha Noi (they have several locations); we sit at the sidewalk tables, sip the cold very light beer and nibble on the salted ribs. The beer is brewed fresh everyday and distributed to Bia Hoi locations around Hanoi and it is really cheap. There is a lot of laughing and general merriment at the tables around us, as well as a lot more bia hoi being consumed!

    At about 8pm, we head back to the hotel. The hotel staff call us a taxi at 9pm and we are at the station in a few minutes. The taxi ride costs about 50K d, which we split with the other couple. We are on the 9:55 pm train on the King's Express carriage. The hotel has very kindly sent one of their staff to the station with us and he exchanges our voucher for actual tickets. We cross the train tracks to get to the train; our cabin is clean and looks comfortable, and they've provided water and beer as well as pillows and blankets. We've booked all 4 berths which is a blessing because there is a large group of loud travelers a few doors down and we're glad we don't have to share our cabin with any of them! We are barely awake for an hour and are soon fast asleep, dreaming of the wonderful experiences that await us in Sapa.

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    What a fabulous start to your report...so descriptive and it makes me want to return. Love the food orgy! We stayed in the same hotel and loved it. The staff and location were amazing. Loved the Bun Bo Nam Bo restaurant. Unfortunately, my DH does not eat pork which makes our restaurant selection a bit limited at times. Can't wait to hear more of your report.

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    Thanks dgunbug! Wasn't the HE wonderful? Some of the friendliest staff I have ever met.
    And just thinking of the food while writing about it makes me want to return. :-)

    I'll continue the report tomorrow. Heading out to a friend's place now for a NYE get together.

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    Happy new year, and thanks for the report! I can't believe you ate so much! But it sounds like you had a great time in Hanoi. Looking forward to the rest of your report--we loved Mai Chau and enjoyed Sapa but didn't like the throngs of girls and women who were constantly begging for us to buy something from them. I'm interested to hear how you felt about it.

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    Thanks sf and april!

    We felt the same way about Sapa. We loved the Bac Ha market and the scenery in Sapa, but didn't connect with the place as much as we did Mai Chau. Which part of Mai Chau did you travel to?

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    A feast for the senses at Bac Ha:

    I'm up at about 4am, while Ajit is sound asleep. The expect the train to arrive at Lao Cai at 5am, but I mis-calculate. Plus, the train is running late, so I have a couple of hours to kill. Ajit wakes up at 5, and we watch dawn break as the train rattles along on the tracks. We love train travel, especially looking out the window as the rural scenery whizzes past. An attendant brings us tea at about 6 am, and we reach Lao Cai around 6:45. I had told Aurora Travel that we would be on the 5 am train, so I am hoping that the guide stuck around for our train. Luckily, he has, but I do feel bad that they had to wake up at 3 am to get to station from Sapa. A few apologies later, we are on our way to Bac Ha. It is much cooler here than in Ha Noi, especially at this early hour and I'm glad I have my jacket on. Our guides name in Tung, and he is in his early 20s. Tung is easy to talk to and we chat about the Sapa area, the people and their lives. The drive to Bac Ha should have taken a couple of hours, but there is little traffic on the road as we weave our way through the mountains, and we are there in about an hour. I'm glad we were not on the last train, as the traffic to Bac Ha would have been much worse then.

    The Sunday Bac Ha market is the largest market in this region of Vietnam. Having been to similar ethnic markets in Guatemala and Peru, we are very excited about experiencing one in Asia. Our plan is to wander around on our own as we much prefer that, and then meet up with Tung and the driver at about 11:30. Most days, Bac Ha is little more than a sleepy, dusty, mountain village, but on market day, the place is alive, and you can feel the electricity in the air. The market draws large numbers of the Flower H'mong tribe from surrounding villages - the women decked in their Sunday best, with their richly embroidered dresses lending a wonderful burst of color to the scenery. As we walk away from the main drag, we pass by the vegetable market and stalls upon stalls selling crafts for tourists. We quickly skip these and head towards the livestock markets first; on the way we pass food stalls that are already bustling with families getting their morning breakfast fix of local delicacies. There is pork and more pork everywhere, with every last bit of the animal on display, in a pot or being grilled on charcoal. There's a variety of dried fish, all sorts of fried foods, herbs, and corn whiskey, the potent hooch decanted by vendors from large white plastic jugs to used bottled water containers. The busy stalls look inviting and we wish we were brave enough to try some of the freshly prepared food, but not knowing the contents of those pots, scares us just a little. From the food stalls, we make our way to the livestock market along a narrow path filled with throngs of people. This area is large with all kinds of animals for sale - from chicken, roosters, chicks and ducks to pigs stuffed into cages to little puppies on leashes (this was pretty sad to watch). The din from the locals negotiating/ bartering to the cacophony of the animals, especially the pigs as they are being pulled out from their small cages, is palpable and quite unsettling. The little pups are sold as pets, but are killed when they get old, as dog meat is popular in the area. Sigh. It is all fascinating nonetheless (even if hard to comprehend), and such an intrinsic part of the lives of the tribes in these remote regions. There is also a rooster fight in progress in one corner, so we join a small group of people standing around and cheering their roosters on. It isn't much of a fight though as one of them is much bigger than the other and wins easily.

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    By now, the crowds are beginning to arrive, clogging the already cramped walkways. So, we climb up a small hillock to where the water buffaloes are being sold. This area also proves to be a great vantage point from which to observe all the activities below, and there are several locals doing the same. There are many people milling around the buffaloes, quietly observing and examining them. All conversations and negotiations are quiet as well. We didn't see any money exchanging hands though in the hour that we spent up there. It is hot now, so we make our way down and over to the area where horses are sold. Horse meat is also popular here. This area is very pretty with a lake and mountain peaks in the distance. We stay for only a few minutes here, before making our way to the clothes and household goods market. This is the most colorful area of the market as all the women and girls have gathered here. Multi-hued and textured skirts, tops, beaded bibs, sandals, lovely hoop earrings and cross body purses are all sold here. There is even a photo booth where several giggling teenage girls take turns to put on bright make up and pose for photographs. It is also interesting to see that many people carry a cell phone here; teenage girls with a phone to their ear doesn't seem strange, even when they are in traditional clothes in Bac Ha. It is almost 11, so we make our way back to the food stalls and from here to the main road.

    Before we have lunch, Tung wants to take us to a nearby local village, Ban Pho. We walk to one of the homes and an old woman living there graciously lets us in. The home is much larger than we expect, but basic. There is a TV and some chairs around it and beds on the other end. In the back, is the kitchen, with a large not so deep well in the middle, which is where they make their corn wine. The woman's 2 grandkids run around the house. The littlest one, who is just over a year, loves the camera and keeps sticking his face into it! Our next stop is the H'mong Kings House, built by the French and Chinese in the early 1900s, and a typical stop in most Bac Ha itineraries. We spend only a few minutes here and watch a traditional dance performance, but by now, our stomachs are rumbling and we stop for lunch at Hoang Yen restaurant. We invite Tung to join us and order some beers, fried rice for me, beef with lemongrass for Ajit and a pork curry for Tung. The pork is bland, but the fried rice and beef are delicious. It's almost 1:30 pm now, so we begin our drive to Sapa. It's takes us an half and a hour to reach town and we catch up on our sleep for most of the way, intermittently waking up to marvel at the beautiful scenery with the steep rice terraces going all the way up the hills. We arrive at the Sapa Elegance hotel at about 3pm and check in. Tung asks about our plans for tomorrow; when we tell him we want to do a day long trek to a few villages, he wants to be our guide. Not wanting to commit to anything in a rush, we tell him we will think about it and get back to him later in the evening. Our room is large, clean and comfortable with a small terrace facing the street. We take a hot shower and a short nap under the warm blankets; by the time we get up, it's already 6 pm and dark outside. Our plan was to go to the tourist center and inquire about the price for the trek we want to do with a local guide. But, we get lazy and decide to call Tung and make arrangements with him. He is excited and promises to pick us up at 9 am.

    Since we have to pay Mr. Nam at the Thai Binh hotel for our stay in Sapa (given our prior arrangement), we pop up to his hotel and see if we can take care of this. Unfortunately, the hotel is locked and still being renovated with no sign of Mr. Nam. We decide to have an early dinner and call it a night, since we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow. It is very chilly outside and we walk briskly to warm up a little. We make our way to Sapa Rooms, which is a boutique hotel at the top of the road going down to Cat Cat village. The restaurant is loungy; they have comfy sofas and chairs with books and board games; we take a liking to it immediately. A roaring fire in the fireplace would have been even better. We get a couple of Lao Cai beers; Ajit gets the clay pot fish and I get a soup. The soup is just Ok but the fish is amazing! I always seem to like what he orders better! We are too tired to hang around after dinner, so we walk back - the last stretch up the street to the hotel is a steep climb and we are ready to hit the bed after that.

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    I love the imagery you create with your writing! (my reports are all "just the facts, ma'am" -- you may be too young to recognize that reference but dgunbug isn't :-) )

    Thought you 'd be interested to know we read in a local ex-pat paper in Vietnam that there are more phones in VN than there are people, and 95% of them are cell phones. Also, that the entire country is wired for fibre-optics, and every elementary school child has access.

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    Thank you very much , were are going to Vietnam in May and I just started looking into it. You step by step description and enthusiasm is wonderful. Please do not stop . Are you walkers we like hikes in mountains (not climbs but walks. We want to go up Fansipan. Arava

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    sf7307 - What...do you think I'm an old bag??? LOL. I couldn't agree more though. What great imagery in this report. I'm loving it.

    Seemaskt - You were very wise to arrive on a Sunday and have a driver waiting to take you directly to the market. While we loved the Bac Ha market which was full of color and action, by the time our bus arrived from Sapa, most of the animals had already been sold and we missed that portion of the market.

    Can't wait for more of this wonderful report.

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    LOL sf! I didn't get your reference till I googled it, but most pop culture references are lost on me since I haven't lived in the US for very long. :-)

    Very interesting fact about how well the country is wired...we noticed that in Sapa and in Mai Chau as well. Also, Vietnam's largest cell phone operator is military owned; no wonder the reception in the border areas is so good!

    Thanks dgunbug! Our initial plans had us departing Lao Cai on a Sunday, but after reading about the livestock market, I moved our itinerary around so we would arrive on a Sunday instead. Glad we did.

    Hi arava, I really enjoyed our hike in Sapa, it was an easy to moderate hike. There are more difficult hikes available as well. I think Fansipan falls in the latter category and takes up to 3 days, so I'm not sure if that is what you had in mind. Have a wonderful trip in May!

    I'll be back with more tomorrow.

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    Trekking through rice terraces and hill tribe villages in Sa Pa:

    Having gone to bed early, we are up at dawn. We go down for breakfast, but no one's around yet. So, we take a walk down to the main square and church - it's cold, but clear and sunny and we can see the tall peaks of Tonkin's Alps framing this small hill town. Sapa is usually foggy and grey this time of the year, we are told, so we are glad for some sun and blue skies! We go back to the hotel for breakfast; it's banana pancakes for me (again!) while Ajit has a baguette and fried eggs. We ask the girl in the reception (her name is spelt Dung, which she is a little embarassed by :-), the manager teases her about it too) to call Mr. Nam and ask him to come by the hotel in the evening so we can pay him. She hands the phone to me and we agree to meet at 6:30 pm. We have some more time to kill before Tung arrives, so we decide to go for another stroll. Several ethnic minorities inhabit this region, but the most prominent in town are the Black H'mong, characterized by their black indigo dyed attire with leg warmers and a small pillbox hat or turban on their heads. As we walk, several H'mong women approach us to either buy trinkets from them or to use them as guides for a trek to their village. They speak a few words of English - What's your name?, Where you from?, How many days in Sapa?, You buy from me?, I take you to my village? - and so it goes. Some do get aggressive and keep following you. H'mong men on motorbikes yell out as you walk by and ask if you want to hire them for the day. The H'mong are outgoing and very business savvy, and with the tourism influx in recent years, use this to their advantage to make money. Every tourist on the street is usually surrounded by a group by H'mong women. Anyway, we try to be polite to a few of them and engage in conversation while we ignore the more pushy ones. There is a primary school close our hotel, with a large group of children practicing for a dance, so we stick around and watch them for a while. The kids are really cute, but there is one little boy in the front row who stands out with his enthusiastic hip gyrations and graceful hand movements. So much fun to watch! We drag ourselves away to go get some tea and a pain au chocolate at Baguette & Chocolate - this is a cute little spot; we plan to come back again tomorrow. Back at the hotel, Tung is already there with a car and driver, so we get our bags and cameras and head out for the day.

    Our plan for today is to hike through 3 ethnic villages - Lao Chai, Ta Van and Giang Ta Chai. We drive 8 kms to a point from where we can hike down to Lao Chai. As soon as we step out of the car, we are sieged by H'mong women and children from the village selling trinklets. We keep walking downhill and hope that this will not be the norm for the day. It is a steep hike down and the views are lovely - of the majestic peaks and verdant hills with the terraced rice fields scattered around the valley. Sapa has a single rice harvest in the late September early October timeframe, so the rice terraces are not as picturesque as they would have been then. Nonetheless, it's beautiful. Soon, we lose most of the touts (who are off chasing other tourists), except for a young woman carrying a small baby on her back and two little girls. They walk with us without pushing us to buy anything, so we don't feel harassed. The woman speaks a little English and we talk about her family and ours; she tells me she has 3 kids all under the age of 4. Her older kid goes to a primary school in the village. She asks, very shyly, if Ajit is my husband or boyfriend and how long we've been together. As we get close to the village, I give her 20k d. When I tell her I don't want to buy anything from her, she insists on tying an embroidered friendship bracelet around my wrist. We wave goodbye and trudge down the dirt path, the 2 little girls continuing to follow us. I'm not sure how long the woman would have walked with us had I not given her the money, and I am not sure I like the idea of giving someone money to encourage them to leave us alone, but I didn't have a better idea at the time. As we walk through the village, we see a few people working the fields, some carrying baskets on their back with heavy loads of hay or wood, and kids running around. We also see men in traditional clothes wearing indigo dyed cropped pants and tunic with a bright belt. At one point, we stop to watch a some men try to catch a water snake trapped in the sewer. Tung is probably the most excited of the bunch!

    We keep walking to Ta Van, which is home to the Dzay minority. We don't see too many people out on the street, probably because it is lunch time. We seem to be the only tourists around as well. Ta Van is one of the villages offering home stays in the area, so it is a richer village compared to Lao Chai. Tung has arranged for us to have lunch in one such home. We go up to the covered terrace and relax, while Tung brings up some tea and drinks for us. The little girls play with marbles with a couple of other friends across the street. Soon, Tung brings up course after course of food - garlicky french fries with hot sauce, fried spring rolls with a light dipping sauce, a soup with pork meat, steamed rice with beef and finally fruits for dessert. We are so full at the end, we can barely get up. We take a peak inside the homestay, which is setup dorm style with several beds. We thank the people who cooked us the splendid meal and continue walking, the girls running up behind us as soon as we do. They tell me their names but barely speak any English. I ask Tung if they go to school and he checks with them and tells me they go to school in the afternoons (hmm, it appears they are playing hokey today). We pass by a marble workshop and pick up a pretty knick knack. Once we leave Ta Van, we begin a much steeper climb up the hills and the views keep getting better as we go. It's a good workout after that heavy lunch! There are rest huts setup with benches at a few points along the way, so we (or rather I) can take a break every now and then. The mist swoops down the hills in the afternoon, giving it an ethereal feel. The two girls are still with us and as we are hiking farther from their village, I decide to give them 20k d each so they will go back home. They smile, give me a friendship bracelet, wave goodbye and leave. Sigh! Next, we make our way through a dense bamboo forest and reach a ridge with a small waterfall overlooking a valley where the Giang Ta Chai village is situated. The Muong Hoa river flows at the base of the hill and we see farmers working in the fields with their water buffaloes. From here, it's a downhill walk all the way to the village, home to the Red Dzao tribe, but not before we cross a rickety bamboo bridge across the river. The sun is out again and it is hot, and there is a steep climb up to the main road, so we don't spend too much time walking around this village. It's almost 3pm and it feels so good to get into the car and rest our feet after a long, but rewarding day. We had walked/hiked about 14 kms in all.

    Throughout the hike, Tung has been either talking to us or on his cell phone. It's amazing how good the reception is in these remote areas, while back in New York, we lose signal even if we haven't moved an inch! At some point during our hike, he starts catching and collecting dragon flies in a bottle, supposedly to feed a friend's bird! He's quite the character.

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    Beautiful description of the area. We wanted to hike more extensively like you did but a combination of rainy weather, automobile breakdown, and our failure to effectively communicate our desires to our guide/Tonkin Travel meant we only had a couple of shorter hikes. Sounds like you had a great day! I see that the constant attention from the women and girls kind of got to you, too. Not sure how that's ever going to be resolved, since it seems to be an effective way for them to earn money. We bought a few embroidered pieces from the women who "accompanied us" through the Red Dao village--the women were really lovely to talk with and not pushy (except they stuck to us like glue), but I was very conflicted about encouraging them by purchasing. A travel conundrum, for sure.

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    Agreed, aprillilacs. Unless there are other ways for them to make money during the off season (after the harvest), I suspect this is not going to change. In their minds, this is quick and easy money.

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    On the way back to the hotel, we pass a funeral procession. Both Tung and the driver give some money to a man in the procession collecting it, which we learn is a Vietnamese tradition. At the hotel, we pay Tung for his services and bid him goodbye. He hangs around to chat with Dung, the receptionist, who he is friends with since the time they studied English together at the Sapa Summit hotel. After we take a shower, we decide we need a good foot massage. We had several of these in Cambodia a couple of years ago and loved them! The manager recommends the Ham Rong hotel, which is right across from the Thai Binh hotel, so off we go. We sign up for the 1 hour foot massage - it starts with a soak in warm water that lasts about 15 minutes by which time the water has turned cold. The staff also has a space heater in the room that uses a bright light and gives us a headache. Not a good start. But, once the heater is pointed away and the massage actually begins, there is some hope. Strong or medium they ask, medium we say, and for the next 45 minutes, we are able to close our eyes, relax and feel the aches and pains melt away. All this for $6, but we both agree that the equally cheap massages in Cambodia were superior. We head back to the hotel for our 6:30 meeting with Nam Hong. While we wait, we get chatting with Dung. She's originally from a village close to Hanoi, but moved to Sapa recently to get a job. She's been married a couple of years, but her husband works in Hanoi. Their year old daughter lives with her parents, and she sees them only a few times a year. Her husband visits Sapa as often as he can to spend time with her. She doesn't like Sapa very much and thinks it's not very safe for her especially because she's married but lives alone. She's a sweet girl and we wish her good luck in finding a job in Hanoi so the family can be together. It's almost 7pm and Nam Hong hasn't arrived so we have to once again ask Dung to call him, this time to tell him that we will leave the money with her so he can pick it up at his convenience. For dinner, we head back to our favorite spot, Sapa Rooms. The staff recognizes us and greets us with big smiles. This time, I order the pork clay pot and Ajit orders beef in betel leaves. Both dishes are equally good and we wash them down with a glass of Chilean wine and Lao Cai beer. We then walk back to our hotel and call it a night.

    This morning, our second and last day in Sapa, we are on our own. We follow yesterday's routine of waking up early, taking a walk around town and coming back for breakfast. At about 7 am, we walk down to Cat Cat village, 3 kms away. Surprisingly, it's another clear and beautiful day, and the downhill walk is pleasant. There are pretty purple wildflowers growing everywhere, we had seen them on the way to Giang Ta Chai as well. From the entrance to the village, there are steep steps going all the way down with stall after stall on one side selling postcards and other gift items, not quite what we were expecting. But, as we walk down, we do see the local H'mong go about their daily lives. There are indigo vats everywhere, and we see clothes being dipped in them and hung out to dry. The H'mong we see all have blue stains on their fingers from the dye. They have an interesting water supply and irrigation system using bamboo pipes at varying heights. We almost get to the waterfall, but instead of going across, decide to walk back up the steps and hail a xe om (motorcycle taxi) to take us back to town. Cat Cat is a nice way to spend a few hours on your own, but not as rewarding as getting to villages further away. We stop at an ATM to get some Dong, make another stop at Baguette & Chocolate for coffee/tea, and get back to the hotel to pack our bags and check out. We ask Dung to get us two seats on a van going to Lao Cai this evening (50k d each), so we can catch the train back to Hanoi. We leave our bags at the hotel, and walk to Sapa Rooms yet again for our final meal there. We get spring rolls, green mango salad and fish claypot, all excellent. Then we settle down on the couches with some tea, hoping to just chill out for a few hours. An hour later, I unfortunately begin to feel feverish. Oh no, I hate to fall sick on vacation! Anyway, we say goodbye to the staff (who seem like old friends now), go back to the hotel and get a room for a few hours (we pay 100k d). I take some Tylenol and go to bed, while Ajit reads. This works like a charm, and when I get up at 4:30, I am feeling much better. Whew! We go down to the lobby to wait for the van, and watch the staff play an interesting game out front called da cau where they kick around a feathered shuttlecock. In the informal version, they stand in a circle. They are very adept at it, and it is fun to watch them play. At 5, the van arrives and we are on our way. Initially, we are the only passengers, with at least a half dozen bags behind (we are not sure whose they are!), but the van makes a few stops in town to pick up four locals who are headed to Lao Cai as well. They are all cramped into the back seat with the bags while we sit in the front next to the driver. The first hour of the drive has gorgeous scenery with rice terraces starting all the way down at the river and going up the steep mountains almost to the top (you don't see it all driving the other way), but unfortunately it is dusk and too dark to see clearly. We both sleep the rest of the way, until we reach Lao Cai.

    We need to exchange our Fanxipan carriage vouchers for tickets and ask the driver to drop us off at the address printed on the voucher. He drops us off in front of the station however. It takes us a while to find the address, but we find it shuttered. Strange! We think the place may open at 7:30, which is an hour before the train leaves, but the shop is still closed. Thinking we may have the wrong address or that the location may have moved, we ask around in the other shops, but no one seems to be able to help. Luckily, we meet a woman on the street who happens to speak some English and has a cell phone, so she calls the number printed on the voucher and informs us that a man will be by in 15 minutes and will meet us on the street with our tickets. Even stranger! We hang around and sure enough, a few minutes later, this same woman gestures towards a man squatting on the other side of the street with a few envelopes. I'm very wary of this entire operation. The envelope however has our names and the name of our hotel in Hanoi written on it, which convinces me that this isn't a sham. Hmmm...this entire process was weird, and I wondered how the others had managed to get their tickets. Anxious to get a bite to eat before we get on the train, we try to find a restaurant not serving pizza. After walking a couple of blocks and not finding anything interesting, we get into the nearest place that looks decent. We order a coke, hot tea and fried rice. You can never go wrong with fried rice in Asia, and we're not disappointed. Having rushed through dinner, we end up waiting for the train for about 20 minutes. The Fanxipan carriage is not as well appointed as the King's Express, but it is nice enough and most importantly, clean. We have reserved all 4 berths again, so are able to sleep comfortably all the way back to Hanoi.

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    seemaskt - While the constant attention from the locals can at times be annoying, I enjoyed our interactions with the women who accompanied us on our various hikes. My husband tried to shoo them away as he didn't want to feel obligated to buy any of their goods. IMO however, it was worth the small pittance that they charged to have them accompany us and to learn about about their lives. They were most helpful when the footing got a bit precarious and I appreciated their help and company. One of the items that I purchased was a small bag which I use as a wallet. I was recently delighted when a vietnamese woman noticed that my bag came from VN and we had a very pleasant conversation about her country.

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    We took the Fanxipan coach for our train ride back to Hanoi from Sapa as well. We also had the whole 4-berth cabin, which I was really happy with. The whole boarding situation in Lao Cai, where you can't trade your vouchers for actual tickets until an hour or so before the train departs, was very confusing--one time where we were definitely happy to be traveling with a guide! Kudos to you for doing so well in a difficult situation.

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    Hi dgunbug - I'm glad you enjoyed your time with the women. I did too, with the one woman who walked with us without pressuring us to buy, but not with any of the others. I felt like the women smiled at us and came to talk only to ask if we wanted to buy something. Most of them only knew the same couple of phrases, so we couldn't interact much after that. I think local guides employed by the tour companies probably speak better English so you can have a more meaningful interaction with them. In Mai Chau, while none of the locals in the village spoke English, they all smiled, waved to you and said Sin Chao without any expectations, and so our interaction, while limited, felt more genuine.

    Having grown up in India, it's the same difference between a rural area versus a small village or town with a big tourist draw that is suddenly seeing a big influx of tourists. It's not a matter of right or wrong (in my mind at least) given that these people live in poverty, hence the conundrum.

    When I see kids off chasing tourists to make money instead of being in school, it saddens me. We saw a lot of this in Siem Reap in Cambodia, but not in Battambang or some of the other rural areas we visited.

    Hope this gives you some context around my earlier opinions.

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    Thanks aprillilacs! I was hoping our experience with Fanxipan was an exception, but it looks like you guys had similar issues. They really should have a counter somewhere with a proper sign like all the other companies do.

    I'll be back with more on the trip report later tonight.

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    Back in Ha Noi and it's mostly about the food:

    We're up at 4 am this morning after a restful night's sleep. The train arrives in Hanoi at 5 am and we go looking for a taxi. The staff at Hanoi Elegance had told us earlier that the early morning taxi rates to the hotel shouldn't exceed 50K d, but we end up only bargaining down to 60K from 100K. With no traffic on the streets, we are at the hotel in less than 5 minutes. A couple of the staff at the hotel are asleep in the lobby; they wake up when we arrive and get us settled with some water and towels so we can freshen up in the lounge area upstairs. Our room will be ready only around 9 am, which is fine with us since our plan is to walk down to the lake and walk around the old quarter and markets. We walk down Hang Gai, and watch the city slowly come to life. Down by the banks of the lake, there are groups of people, mostly older and clad in tracksuits, doing synchronized Tai Chi, their slow and graceful movements set to soothing music (sounds like counting) playing on small stereos. There are people stretching, exercising/ massaging their neck and face while catching up with friends, jogging, and a small group of women doing fan dancing. It's really fun to see how exercise can be such a communal activity - reminds us of the evening group aerobics set to techno music in Battambang (Cambodia). Across from the northern end of the lake, there are people playing badminton and the more serious version of da cau (or foot shuttlecock) using the badminton court/net. All this keeps us entertained until about 7, after which we get some breakfast - tea and sticky rice with sausage - at a cafe across from the lake. We then walk towards Hang Be market, but to our surprise we see cops walking about and an empty street! It appears that the street side stalls are illegal and the vendors disappear as soon as they see cops. Thinking about this later, I think we may have missed the actual Hang Be market altogether! Oh well! We buy some custard apple that we pay a ridiculous amount for (20k d each, but worth it since we don't get this in the US), walk around the streets some more until we are hungry again, and decide to go back to the same banh cuon stall that we ate at a few days ago. We hadn't taken the address down, but are able to retrace our steps and find the place at #41 Hang Buom. The woman recognizes us right away, smiles and offers us a table. A few minutes later, we are enjoying another plate of scrumptious banh cuon each - can it get any better than this? We revisit the other markets, put away the map and zig zag our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets and make our way back to the hotel to check in.

    For the next couple of hours we relax in our room, check emails, download pictures from our camera, enjoy the sweet custard apple along with the other fruits provided by the hotel. We also drop off a large load of laundry at the front desk. Since we hadn't eaten in a couple of hours :-), our next stop is lunch, of course. Off to Cha Ca La Vong at #14 Cha Ca street, a Hanoi institution that serves it's namesake dish - slices of delicate white fish grilled with turmeric, scallions and dill and served with bun, herbs, nouc cham and peanuts. Ajit loves fish and is most excited about this dish. Now, we did end up at a place on Cha Ca street with a sign up front that said Cha Ca La Vong along with other signage and posters that seemed to corroborate the fact that this was the original restaurant, but based on our experience with the food and having googled the restaurant on our return, we were definitely in the fake restaurant. We weren't aware that a rip off of this restaurant even existed, so beware of this. Anyway, back to the food. We are the only ones in the restaurant, but given that it is before noon, we don't think much of it. We are seated on the ground floor and are handed the menus. The prices are high compared to some of the other food we have had so far - I think it was about $8 per plate. They bring over the bun and other sides/condiments and cook the grilled fish on an electric stove right at the table. By the way, the electric stove is a dead giveaway, had we known, since the original uses charcoal stoves. For the exorbitant price (by Vietnamese standards), there is barely four small slices of fish per person. While the food tastes good, we pay close to $20 for the meal including 2 fruit shakes. Crazy! Underwhelmed and very disappointed, we decide to go back to Bun Cha Dac Kim for a second lunch. This time, we share a plate of bun cha and enjoy every morsel. At the hotel, we tell the staff about our experience at Cha Ca La Vong, but no one mentions the fake location. I'm surprised that such a venerable restaurant would allow a rip off to exist. But, it's time to move on!

    We ask the hotel staff to book us tickets for the water puppet show tomorrow. They try to get us into the evening shows, but they are all sold out, so we end up with tickets to the 3:30pm show. We also decide to attend a cooking class in the morning and having dome some research earlier, settle on Hidden Hanoi. The staff offers to call and reserve us a spot in the class. Wonderful! We can head over to the theatre when the class ends, so it's perfect. I have the names of a few art galleries on Hang Gai that I want to check out, so for the next hour, we browse these galleries looking for an interesting painting to buy. While there are a few really fine pieces, unfortunately none grab our attention nor will they work with our decor back home. We go back to our room for some more R&R, and around 3, we ask the staff to call us a cab to go to the Ho Chi Minh memorial. We stroll through the complex taking a peek at the one pillar pagoda, the memorial and the presidential palace. While we are outside the palace, the Canadian Governor General arrives on a state visit and we watch (as much as we can see through the gates that is) the ceremony honoring him. Afterwards, we decide to head to the lake for some evening refreshments, and opt to take a cyclo instead of a cab. The negotiation routine is hilarious - we start at 60K, he starts at 100K, we meet him in the middle with 80K and he says no, 70K. We're a little flummoxed, but get in anyway. It takes him a couple of minutes to realize his mistake and he starts yelling 80K, 80K and we all burst out laughing! This area of Hanoi is home to several embassies and is a posh neighborhood. It takes us about 15 minutes to reach the lake, but it is hard work for the driver, especially with two of us in the seat. He is an older guy too, so we give him 100K and he flashes us a big smile. We go to a lake side cafe, and enjoy cold beers and a papaya shake as the sun sets and day turns to night. For dinner, we want to try Nha Hang Ngon, which is famous for serving street foods from all over Vietnam. Given we are not traveling to central and south Vietnam, this seems to be a good place to try some of their specialties. Before we leave the hotel, we ask one of the staff to point us in the right direction. This restaurant is on their map of Hanoi and they mark it for us. So, off we go walking through the French Quarter towards the spot on the map, to the south and quite west of the lake. It takes us about 15-20 minutes to get to Tran Hung Dao, but when we do, the street numbers are in the nineties, while we need to be at #26. We start walking east, and it takes us another 15 minutes to get to the restaurant, which is actually south east of the lake. Argh! We should have just googled the location before we left! The restaurant looks lovely and we sit in the courtyard surrounded by several open kitchens, each representing a different region. The menu is a few hundred pages long (I'm kidding, but it is extensive). Ajit has grilled mackerel with chilli, and we share chicken wings and a fried dumpling that they call a samosa (we order this just because we are curious, turns out to be our least favorite dish). We are a little cranky and tired though and don't appreciate the food as much as we should have. Exhausted, we hail a cab to take us back to the hotel and we tuck in for the night.

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    The cooking class doesn't start until 10, so we sleep in a little and have a leisurely breakfast. We pretty much order the same breakfast everyday, it's so yummy. A taxi arrives at 9:30 to take us to the Tay Ho neighborhood (near West Lake). One of the hotel staff tells the taxi driver where to take us (we feel so pampered here!). It's a 20 minute drive and the taxi driver drops us off on a very busy road (more like a highway with lots of cars and larger vehicles). Well, Hidden Hanoi is on the other side of this road, so what do we do? We stand around for a few minutes waiting for a clear break in traffic so we can cross. When this doesn't seem likely, we go down the steps of the elevated road to a side street and look for an underpass that we can walk across. No such luck. We ask around in the shops, but no one understands us. Finally at the risk of being late for our class, we decide to brave the traffic and cross the road - it's only when we make it to the other side that we breathe again. Whew! Hidden Hanoi is an oasis of tranquility - with a lovely courtyard dotted with fruit trees and a beautiful bungalow where the class is held. A few minutes later, a couple of Australian girls arrive - we are the only ones who have signed up for the market tour before the cooking class. The four of us head out to a few local markets with our guide, as she explains how locals shop for their food (fresh is key), the various types of markets (local, moving and frog/illegal) and the concept of communal cooking/eating that is so intrinsic to Vietnamese food. We pass by a few homes where women cook over a small charcoal grill on the street outside while conversing with a neighbor doing the same. She talks about the important ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine and picks up a few things for our cooking class. She also buys some sticky rice and Vietnamese sausage that we will snack on later. Walking through the markets with a local definitely adds to the experience and is a lot of fun. Back at Hidden Hanoi, the other class participants have arrived - an Australian couple who have been touring through south/central Vietnam and a Spanish couple. We have some hot tea and munch on the sticky rice snack that is yummy, while we introduce ourselves to each other. It seems like a fun group of people, although the Spanish couple barely speaks any English. Anh, the proprieter, is a lovely woman (and beautiful!, she also teaches salsa). She talks to us about Vietnamese cuisine, the importance of yin and yang (the contrast of flavors, temperatures and textures) and the regional nuances. In talking about the importance of fresh food, she tells us how when her parents bought their first refrigerator, it was displayed in the living room as a sign of prosperity, with nothing in it but water! Anh leaves after this and introduces Ling who takes over the class from her. We are going to be cooking the monsoon menu that includes fresh spring rolls with prawns, banana flower salad, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced pork and mushrooms, caramelized chicken cooked in a claypot with lotus seeds and wasabi leaf soup. We learn that a typical home cooked meal has to always have at least 3 components not including rice. Vegetables (and only the green kind), meat (always a little salty to limit the quantity consumed), and a broth to slurp (without making the sound!) at the end. For dessert, it is almost always fresh fruits. We split into pairs and each make a dish (Ajit and I make the cabbage rolls) and finally, we all make the spring rolls together. We also learn how to carve a rose from a tomato, which I must say I sucked at. Ajit's rose was outstanding however! The class is a lot of fun and Ling is outgoing and engaging, and while we do get help from a few sous chefs in the kitchen, we do most of the chopping and cooking ourselves. At about 1pm, we sit down at the table to enjoy the meal, and it is outstanding, if I may say so myself! :-) The class with the market tour costs $50 per person, which is expensive (it was $8 pp in Battambang with fewer dishes), but well worth it. We sit around in the courtyard chatting and nibble on pomelos for dessert, by which time the taxi arrives to take us to the Thang Long water puppet theatre.

    We theatre is packed with large tour groups (no wonder they sell out so quickly), and we have seats in the fifth row. The show begins with a traditional orchestra playing folk songs. One of the women has a beautiful voice and the music with the traditional instruments in haunting. Then the puppets rise out of the water with the puppeteers standing behind a curtain, and for the next 45 minutes, we are thoroughly entertained. First performed in the 11th century on the surface of paddy fields in Vietnam's Red River Delta, water puppetry is the artistic expression of farmers who spent their days in flooded rice fields. The puppets enact several stories - of daily life in the village, the harvest, fishing, water buffalo fights and festivals - with the orchestra providing background music and dialogue. There are some scenes that are clearly humorous and the singers can't seem to control their laughter. This is a good way to spend an afternoon. After the show, we go up to the Highlands Coffee location that's next door with a great view of the busy intersection. A few beers for Ajit and a fresh coconut for me, and we sit down to enjoy the chaos below - traffic in several different directions all at once, people casually crossing the street, kids on cycles going home back from school, motorcycles transporting all kinds of heavy loads, a just married couple posing for photographs. It is a fabulous place for a drink.

    We go back to the hotel (stopping on the way to get sugarcane juice at our usual place) and freshen up for dinner at Green Tangerine, which is to be our one splurge dinner on this trip. Green Tangerine is a French Vietnamese restaurant in the Old Quarter at #48 Hang Be. As we walk through the Old Quarter with its many street side stalls spilling on to the streets bustling with locals enjoying their dinner, and the tantalizing delectable smells drifting through the air, we are really tempted to sit down and get a bite...but we don't. Green Tangerine is set in a beautiful colonial villa with a courtyard (and a world apart from the food stalls outside), but since we didn't make reservations, we are seated upstairs. We get a half bottle of wine and start with the trio of soups and scallop carpaccio with beets and pineapple (laid out in an interesting pattern), both of which are lovely. For the main course, Ajit gets steamed fish with a passion fruit sauce and risotto and I get duck in a tamarind sauce, and we finish it all off with a caramel lemongrass cake for dessert - delicious! The meal is, relatively, quite expensive at about $90; I must say that I didn't enjoy it more than the $6 Vietnamese meals we have had so far, but the food and service are great for a special night out. We enjoy the walk back to the hotel after our eating binge today. Tomorrow, we will check out of the hotel for the second time for our 2 day trip to Mai Chau. Our guide, Vinh, calls us at the hotel around 10 pm to let us know that we'll start an hour later at 8am instead of 7, which works well for us.

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    Seemaskt - I participated in a cooking school in Thailand but sadly never used my newly acquired culinary skills. Just curious if you have cooked any of the dishes you learned to make since you returned from your trip.

    We also went to Cha Ca La Vong, but noticed that there were another by the same name directly across the street. As we had the address on hand, we chose the correct one with the charcoal grill. IMO you did not miss out on much. While the experience was fun, the food was rather bland and not as good as other meals we had in VN. We enjoyed the Green Tangerine for a change of pace, but as you said, the food was far more expensive than most of the fare we ate. My favorite restaurant was still the hole in the wall "Bun Bo Nam Bo"!

    Looking forward to the rest of your report.

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    No, I haven't yet made anything from the cooking class; have been busy during the holidays and trying to get the trip report completed and photos uploaded. Hope to make them soon though. I made all the dishes we learnt in the cooking class in Cambodia and they turned out great, so hoping for the same outcome with these dishes. :-)

    Someone on the TA forums (where I've posted this report) also said the same thing about the original Cha Ca La Vong. We were quite bummed initially to learn that we were in the fake restaurant, but feeling less bummed now. lol.

    Thanks for still reading along, dgunbug. Doesn't seem to be as much interest here as there is over on TA. But, I'll finish up the report in a couple of days - that's the goal.

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    I'm still reading, too!

    I was addicted to pomelo while there. Wish we could get it here.

    We also took a cooking class in Hanoi - same price, different place. Loved the market tour. The cooking was fun, and the other two people in the class were very nice, so lunch was enjoyable. I haven't made anything we cooked, and I don't intend to (but I am still on a quest for the best bun cha in the Bay Area!!)

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    Seemaskt - don't fret. Likely
    more people than you realize are reading along. It's always discouraging though to put such effort into a report and not get any feedback. please continue. Your report is wonderful.

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    Oh, you guys are the best! Thanks for the encouragement. Really!

    sf, please tell me if you find a Bun Cha place that comes even close to the ones in Hanoi. If so, I'll definitely add it to my list for the next time we visit the bay area. I've been trying to find a place in NY that serves banh cuon, only found one but they don't get very good reviews. I looked up the recipe thinking I'll try to make it, but it's way too complicated for my tiny NYC kitchen. It's such a pity that most of the restaurants in the US (and I'm told in Australia as well) serve south Vietnamese food predominantly. I guess it all depends on where most of the immigrants are from.

    How exciting to be able to buy locally grown pomelos! We usually get our fix of tropical fruits in Chinatown, though I still crave for mangoes and custard apples. Have to check if they have pomelos here.

    shelleyk - Thanks! I am posting the Mai Chau portion now.

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    Trekking to unspoilt and scenic Kho Muong:

    We're up, finish breakfast and check out by 8am, when Vinh arrives to pick us up. He is in his mid twenties and seems friendly. As we drive out of the city, we pass the newer areas of Hanoi where many offices are located. The traffic is heavy at this time of day with the morning commuters. Hanoi has been gradually expanding into surrounding areas to accommodate its growing population and recently acquired another province. The drive to Mai Chau takes about 3.5 hours with some spectacular karst scenery along the way. We stop at a roadside vendor at one point to snack on sticky rice in bamboo dipped in sesame seeds. Pretty good, but I prefer the sweeter variety in Cambodia. We also notice several Thit Cho (or dog meat) restaurants along the way. We ask Vinh if he's had dog meat and he says yes and that it tastes good.

    The Mai Chau region is home to the White Thai ethnic minority (originally from Thailand and Laos) and they live in stilted huts. They don't wear their traditional dress anymore except for special occasions. We arrive at Poom Coom village around 11:30 and stop for lunch. There are homestays here, but it feels like a very touristy setup; we're glad we are staying elsewhere for the night. Lunch, however, is an amazing spread with rice, broth, morning glory sauteed in garlic, omlette, chicken, pork and fruits. Too full to move after lunch, I relax in a hammock while Ajit plays with the local dog (Ajit calls him Thit Cho; bad Ajit!). We are soon joined by a woman from the nearby Lac village - she doesn't speak any English but will be our local guide for the hike to our homestay. We drive for about 40 minutes to a point in Pu Luong nature reserve from where we start trekking; the driver drops us off and will pick us up after our trek tomorrow. For the first couple of hours, we walk along a road being built through the reserve to facililate the transport of people and goods from the small villages scattered across this area to the larger towns. The views along the way are beautiful with high mountain peaks and golden terraced paddy fields sprinkled with stilted homes. It gets really warm as we walk and we peel away our layers, but our local guide wears a jacket and carries an umbrella to keep from getting tanned! For the last hour, we get off this road and walk on narrow paths up and around the hills until we see the sign to Kho Moung village, which is where we will be staying the night. It's another 2 kms downhill walk from here, we have trekked about 14 kms in all today.

    As we descend the final stretch to the village, we marvel at its spectacular location, cradled between steep karst peaks with rice fields and stilted homes in the valley. We first walk to our hut to leave our bags and freshen up. The eco homestays in this village have been setup in conjunction with an international NGO and are done nicely - they're what the villagers live in, simple stilted huts that are basic but clean with a shower, sink and western style toilet outside to accommodate the guests. We are welcomed by our hosts and enjoy some hot tea and tangerines picked off a tree, before we take a walk through the village and fields.It's almost dusk, so the light is beautiful and we observe the villagers finishing up in the fields for the day before heading back home. Each family owns a plot of land for farming, which they are responsible for. This region has 2 rice harvests a year and we watch as some of the last fields are being harvested, while others are being plowed using water buffaloes for the next season. The wooden bells on the buffaloes make a lovely sound as they walk up and down the same path that we are on. The setting is magical! The villagers are also very friendly and we say Sin Chao (or Hello) to each other as we pass by. As dusk turns to darkness, we walk back to our hut and find a group of eight Brits who have just arrived on their mountain bikes. They will be staying in the homestay right across from us. Our local guide's husband has also arrived and has brought with him ingredients for our dinner tonight. We sit at a table, rub mosquito repellent all over our exposed skin, sip cokes and watch as our hosts go about getting our dinner ready, which includes a rooster being killed in front of us. Around 7pm, our dinner is ready and it is an incredible array of food turned out by such a modest kitchen - there's rice, vegetable broth, sauteed vegetables (looks like chinese celery), delicious fried fish, moist tender chicken in fragrant lime leaves (there is something to be said for the freshest ingredients!) and beef wrapped in betel leaves. We eat every last bit of every dish! Our guide's husband comes around with a plastic bottle filled with a clear liquid - it's potent tapioca wine - and he wants us to do a shot with him. We follow his lead and shout out "Cheers" in Vietnamese and gulp down the alcohol. It's good but really strong and we politely decline a second shot. He then walks over to the Brits and does a round of shots with them as well. Vinh brings over fruits for dessert and we chat with him for a little while, before retiring for the night. The first level of the hut has 3 mattresses, pillows, blankets and mosquito nets for us. There is a cooking area on the other side which is where the family would typically cook their meals. After the long day, we're both asleep in a matter of minutes and sleep through the night.

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    We're up at 4:30 to the sound of roosters crowing and pigs grunting. The flock of animals right below us are very active as well. Vinh is still asleep, but Ajit and I take a walk through the village as the sun rises and bathes the fields in the soft golden glow of dawn. Families - old and young alike - are back in the fields for another day of hard work. At about 6, we head back and pack up. For breakfast, we have a baguette, jam and eggs with ca phe sua; there is a small pot of condensed milk on the table and I can't help but add a few dollops on my plate and lick it up. Yumm. By 7:30, we thank our hosts, wave goodbye to the Brits and are ready to leave. We will trek another 12-14 kms along a different route to a town from where our driver will pick us up. It is much cooler this morning, and trekking is pleasant. As we turn around the hill, we keep looking back to catch our last glimpse of this lovely village. The Brits pass by on their bikes a short while later. We pass through multiple villages along the way, waving to women and kids and saying Sin Chao a few hundred times; everyone seems incredibly friendly and welcoming here as opposed to Sapa, where our experience was very different. At one village, a group of kids come running to me with big smiles on their faces. I show them how to high five and soon we are all high five'ing each other without actually saying the words, until one of the older kids yells out "High Five!". Looks like I am not the first tourist who's shown them how to do this. :-) They want their pictures taken, so I oblige, and watch as they look at themselves in the LCD display and make fun of each other. It's very cute. We keep walking until we reach another village that Vinh tells us is funded by an NGO that also brings over kids from American schools to help the community. Tapioca wine is very popular in this area and we see a whole lot of tapioca drying on the side of the road.

    At around 10, we reach the main road in a bigger town (we are early), and wait by the roadside outside a butcher shop for our driver to pick us up. Our local guide stays back as her husband will pick her up shortly. Our next stop is the Cam Luong spring in Thanh Hoa province. The stream originates in the mountain, flows out through a small cave and contains thousands of fish jostling in the narrow spring. The locals (Muong ethnic minority) believe that unfortunate events will befall those who endanger the fish, so they do not catch them. In recent years, this place has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, more so for visiting Vietnamese than foreign tourists. We see several groups of them taking pictures and feeding the fish. Our driver brings over 4 ears of corn, so we can all feed the fish as well (even though there are signs indicating the fish are not to be fed). With all this constant food and freedom, the fish are huge. They are also wierd looking with big pink lips. Our driver is clearly enjoying this, so we have to persuade him to leave after awhile. Outside, where the car is parked is a stall selling cut sugar cane, which I am so excited to see, so we buy a bag. As we drive to our lunch stop, Vinh and I chew on the lusciously sweet cane (I lost my first milk tooth to a sugar cane, but it has been years since I've had them raw). For lunch, we stop at a road side restaurant in another town. Here, we run into the Brit group again. The food they bring out here is similar to what we had for lunch yesterday, and very good as well. A glass of tea later, we are on our way back to Hanoi. For a part of the way, we drive on the Ho Chi Minh highway that roughly follows the legendary HCM trail used during the war. The drive back seems longer and we sleep for most of the way, until we get closer to Hanoi. We are back at the hotel by 4 and check in again for another short stay. We stayed in room 402 the first time, #202 the second and this time we get #502.

    We are feeling pretty fresh after our nap in the car, so we head out after a hot shower. We walk back to the lake and get a balcony table at Highlands coffee. But they appear to be short staffed today and after we wait 15 minutes for someone to take our order, we get up and leave. We go back to the other lake side cafe we had been to earlier and spend the evening there. There are colorful lights and lanterns around the lake which we hadn't seen on prior nights, very pretty! For dinner, we decide to have our last Bun Bo at Bun Bo Nam Bo. We can't go wrong here - it's another delicious meal. We finish our dinner with sugar cane juice next door. As we sip our drink, several people stop on their motorbikes and get their juices to go in little plastic bags. There is a small road side stall in front of the sugar cane place that has some delectable looking sweet treats laid out. We memorize the sign "Banh Troi Tau Nong" and ask about it later at the hotel. Doan, the receptionist, tells us that they are glutinous rice cakes filled with a sweet bean paste. We are too full today, but plan to try it when we get back from Halong Bay, which is where we are headed to tomorrow for a 2 day/ 1 night trip. We pack our things for the trip, download and enjoy our pictures of Mai Chau, and it's time for bed.

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    Here's the final installment. dgunbug, I'll post the link to the pictures tomorrow. Still deleting so we have a resonable number posted on our website.

    Cruising the waters of Bai Tu Long Bay:

    This mornining, we check out once again for our 2 day 1 night cruise aboard the Red Dragon operated by Indochina Junk. This is a smaller boat and sails in Bai Tu Long Bay which is far less frequented by all the boats, hence our decision to go with them. Our driver arrives at 8:30 - we are the last people to be picked up (there are 7 others in the van) - and we are on our way. The drive to Halong Bay, to the east of Hanoi, takes about 3.5 hours with nothing much to see along the way (the drive to Mai Chau was so much more scenic). We stop for 20 minutes at a tourist rest stop with massive marble sculptures (do tourists even buy these?), art, handicrafts and food items for sale. We end up getting a small ceramic sculpture here as the price seems to be decent. We arrive at the Indochina offices around noon, sign in and wait to board the boat. We run into the Mike and Gail, the Canadian couple from our hotel (they just finished a 3 day cruise with the same operator), and the mountain bikers from Kho Moung (they are doing a 2 day cruise but on another boat)! There are only five others on our boat - a British couple and a French couple with their daughter - a small and nice group. The junks are docked away from shore, so we set off in a smaller boat to embark the Red Dragon 2. This is a lovely boat, named and modeled after an authentic Chinese fishing junk that traversed the waters of the Far East many years ago. It is ornate with traditional woodwork. There are only 5 cabins on board; ours is a corner room, large, and has an en suite bath. We drop our bags off and meet back up in the sun deck as we set sail towards our destination.

    Bai Tu Long Bay is located to the northeast of the Halong Bay area, a UNESCO world heritage site in the Gulf of Tonkin. The bay features thousands of monolithic limestone karsts and isles of various sizes and shapes rising dramatically from the ocean. Many of these are topped with thick vegetation. The biodiversity in this area is tremendous, hence the recognition by UNESCO. The afternoon sun is bright and the views hazy, but we enjoy the calm and gentle breeze as we sail. Our guide arrives to give us an overview of our itinerary and specific plans for the afternoon. His command of English is not very good and he tends to repeat things multiple times and keep talking (which he does before each activity and meal!); a sweet fellow though and very eager to please. At around 1:30, an elaborate lunch is served out on the deck - there's soup, spring rolls, jumbo shrimp, grilled squid, fish, beef and I'm sure I am missing a few courses. During lunch, we get to know our fellow passengers - they are an interesting and fun group. Later, we take our beers out on the deck and enjoy the views as the boat meanders its way through the sheer cliffs. Meanwhile, a passenger realized she was missing one of her backpacks just as we set sail, but a few calls are made and it arrives on a smaller boat some time after lunch. Awesome, only in Asia! At about 3:30, we arrive at an island with a small white sandy beach and dismbark. Indochina Junk is the only operator with the rights to bring tourists to this island and so the 4 Indochina boats are the only ones to anchor here. We first go up to a large cave in the limestone karst with lovely stalactites and stalagmites. We get a nice birds eye view of this corner of the bay from up here. Then, we go down to the beach for kayaking. There are two of us to a kayak and we start paddling around these massive rocks. The wind gets stronger, the water rougher, so paddling gets harder as well. Many of the karst formations have caves and grottoes in them and the perspective at water level is interesting. When we get back to the beach, the others go off for a swim while Ajit and I stay on the beach (the water's too cold for us!). As the setting sun dips behind the horizon, it casts a shimmering light on the water, boats and cliffs.

    We head back to the boat, and get cleaned up while the boat makes it way to the spot where it will anchor for the night. Afterwards, we sit out on the deck with a couple of beers. It is a little chilly at this time of night, and I'm glad I've brought along a cardigan. Oh, and Ajit finally has Halida beer on the boat - this was the only local brew listed on the menus in Hanoi and Sapa that they never had in stock, so he is thrilled to be able to drink it. Dinner is out on the deck and it's another wonderful meal, primarily seafood based. Given the nip in the air, we order a bottle of red wine for dinner. The other couples each order a bottle of white - the wine is not chilled however so they resort to adding a cube of ice to their wine - holy moly, did the French couple just add ice to their wine?? Wonders will never cease! :-) The staff also brings out a few surprises - a beautiful bird carved out of radishes and carrots and a replica of the Red Dragon carved out of watermelon - remarkable! During dinner, we have a light hearted yet spirited discussion regarding genuflecting to the Queen of England, brought on by the recent incident with the Australian prime minister. Needless to say, it is the 4 of us versus the British couple. After dinner, we try squid fishing for a while, but when we have had no luck for several minutes, Ajit and I go back to our rooms for the night.

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    The gentle bobbing of the boat in the water rocks us to sleep and we sleep well. I'm up earlier than Ajit and go up to the deck to catch the sunrise. Being the only one out on the deck, I enjoy the solitude and calm with some piping hot tea. Ajit joins me shortly while the others show up much later. A breakfast of Pho and baguette and omlette is served at 7 am, after which we sail to Vong Vieng fishing village, which is our next stop for the day. We arrive at the floating village, one of four in the bay, around 8:30 where there are several row boats waiting to take us around the village. With the men off fishing and the kids in school, the boats are all rowed by women. The government and some of the tour operators like Indochina Junks support these fishing villages (with electricity, fresh water, home/ school construction etc.) and also create a tourist infrastructure, providing these families with supplemental income. This village has about 50 families. The haze has disappeared and the sky is a clear blue now and the water a pretty bluish green. We row past colorful wooden homes floating on barrels set against the backdrop of the karst scenery, vendors in rowboats selling fruits and vegetables, and fisherman in their boats with the catch of the day. We stop by the local floating school where kids are busy studying math, and also visit the pearl farm where you can see the process of harvesting a pearl. They also have a gift shop with jewelery ranging in price from moderate to very expensive. On our way back to the boat, we row under a massive rock with a wide arch at the base - very nice! As we near our boat, we see a group of kids and their parents diving off the deck of the Dragon Pearl into the water - they look like they're having a lot of fun. Lunch is served early and a la carte - no more ten course meals! We then check out of our rooms and relax on the deck as we make our way back to the harbor. After we disembark, we wait for the van to pick us up and take us back to Hanoi. We stop at a different location on the way (where we pick up some banana candy and jackfruit chips), and reach our hotel around 5. It's so nice to see the beaming faces of the staff and being greeted with "Welcome back Ms. Seema and Mr. Ajit" when we arrive.

    We're back in room #402 for our final night in Hanoi and Vietnam. We pick up our laundry, check email, freshen up and head out. Our first stop - a fresh drink and dessert. Sugar cane juice followed by the banh troi that we had been eyeing a couple of nights ago. Since we don't know what to ask for, we mime and point to a bunch of things set out on her table. We end up with a plate of warm miniature banh troi with sprinkles of toasted black sesame seeds, a large bowl of hot sweet syrupy ginger broth with two rice dumplings filled with the same sweet paste floating in it and topped with shredded coconut, and finally, as if this were not enough, a bowl of sticky rice and sweetened mung beans with some of the same broth. Just delicious! We ask her how much all this costs, and she actually pulls out several notes adding up to 20k d, so we can figure it out. Cute. We then walk towards the lake hoping to go back to our favorite haunt but Highlands Coffee appears to be closed tonight. So, we settle into the cafe across on the other side of the busy intersection and people watch as we drink our beer and fresh coconut. For dinner, we make our way to Highway 4, a popular restaurant with a location in the eastern end of the Old Quarter. We are taken to a room upstairs, asked to take off our shoes and seated at a low communal table. There is one other couple at the table and we are soon joined by two guys. We get the green mango with chilli powder (yumm), bitter melon with dried pork (just ok), special fried catfish spring rolls (it is good, but the rice paper is too dry; we eat it all, but both groups next to us leave the wrappers), the spicy grilled squid (that is good but very spicy!), and a chicken grilled in lemon leaves (very good). Ajit has a beer while I try the apricot flavored rice wine, which is very strong. The meal costs us about $20 in all. As we get up to leave, Ajit notices that his flip flops are missing. He looks around, asks the staff but no one can find them. The staff looks perplexed while Ajit gets a little agitated and insists that he can't leave without them. This goes on for several minutes, at which point, one of the guys at our table asks Ajit if he was wearing flip flops. When Ajit says yes, he sheepishly pulls his feet out from under the table and proceeds to hand Ajit his flip flops. He thought that the flip flops were provided by the restaurant to customers to wear when taking off their shoes. It's hilarious and we laugh all the way back to the hotel.

    Our flight to Hong Kong leaves at 10:50 am, so we have time to enjoy our last breakfast at the hotel and say our goodbyes to the wonderful staff who feel like old friends. The car arrives at 8 to take us to airport. It takes us an hour to get there and soon we are on our way to Hong Kong. We have thoroughly enjoyed our stay in northern Vietnam - the uniquely Vietnamese and chaotic capital, the manic traffic, the quiet picturesque rural areas, the colorful hill tribes, the friendly people and of course the taste bud tingling food.

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    Glad you enjoyed your trip so much. Wasn't that chili mango fantastic! We found a street vendor selling some and I bought it on the way back to the hotel. I enjoyed it so much that the next day (our last day in Hanoi) I went back to search for it again, but could not find the vendor. When I returned to the hotel, I mentioned it to the staff and they actually went out looking for my mango. When they couldn't find the vendor, the hotel staff concocted a similar version with apples. (Not anywhere as tasty) The Elegance staff could not do enough for us. Nowhere in all my travels did I enjoy a hotel visit like I did the one there.

    I'm looking forward to seeing your pictures. Not an easy task to cull through pictures upon your return from a trip. We returned in October from India with approx 6000 pictures from a 3 1/2 week trip and we are still attempting to sort through them!

    Thank you so much for the effort you put into writing such a good trip report.

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    Sounds like you had a wonderful trip. You were very lucky to have had such great weather. We were in VN for 3 weeks in late Feb. early March and the weather in Halong Bay was misty and drizzly, but we still had a good time on the one night cruise. For us it was bt was better to have seen it in the mist, than to have skipped Halong Bay altogether. Do you have any desire to return to VN and see the rest of the country?

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    Thanks all!

    dgunbug - I love mango and chilli powder! I make it at home sometimes (but the mangoes are not as good here), and have it whenever I go back to India. I'm not sure if you visited South India, but you'll see vendors selling this on the road side there as well. A good substitute is star fruit with salt and chilli powder - you get the same sour, salty and spicy combination with the crunch.
    Wasn't the staff just amazing! Definitely one of my most favorite hotel stays as well.

    linawood - Lucky you! Where are you going this time? Have a great trip!

    shelleyk - if we revisit Vietnam, I think it will be the North again (we loved it) and maybe the Mekong (we have already been to some of the smaller floating village communities in Cambodia which were lovely), but with so many places to travel to and so little time, I'm not sure if we'll be back in Vietnam anytime soon. Next trip to Asia I'm hoping will be Myanmar or Laos (apart from our usual trips to India).

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    I really enjoyed your report and all the detail. Your trekking experience near Mai Chau sounds awesome. Those villages and the rice harvest were really wonderful experiences for us, though we stayed in on of the closer villages--either Poom Cong or Lat, not sure which one. Though they were indeed a bit more tourist-oriented than what you described in your village, the ambience was laid back and friendly, the food was excellent, and our night under the mosquito nets in the stilt house was great. Probably the best part, though, was wandering along the paths that border the fields and watching all the activity late in the afternoon and early in the morning.

    Anyway, thanks for all the detail you provided--it brings it all back to me! Happy travels--where do you go next? (BTW, we loved Battambang too.)

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    Thanks again. The pictures were great. Have you done China? That is our next destination. We spent 3 1/2 weeks in India in Sept/Oct, but did not get South on that trip. The mangoes here in Florida are just not up to par with those in Asia. Perhaps in the future we will return to Southern India.

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    We like the north too. We are looking at a 5 day trip to the Ha Giang area for starters then maybe Ninh Binh area and/or Phong Nha Farmstay and/or Hue (again - we got rained out last time). Still in planning stages which is a very fun part for me! Everything possible.

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    Thanks aprillilacs. Not sure where to next, since we will be going to India first to visit family. I've got a few ideas but it all depends on when we will be able to take time off from work.

    Dgunbug - Have never been to China though I did briefly consider the Yunnan area for this trip. Have you decided on an itinerary yet?

    Linawood, that sounds like the makings of a great trip. I love the planning as well. :)

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    WOH what a great report, I've only just started reading but have to go out agghhhhh.

    We leave for Cambodia & Vietnam March 19, so I'm saving this for a good read. We will be staying at Elegance Diamond hotel; hopefully the standard will be as good as the Ruby. Reviews are great and they have been so helpful. We usually book everything ourselves but they were so lovely with everything we too have got them to book our train to Sapa, (we’ve organised a driver for Bac Ha) Halong Bay cruise and all our transfers.

    Can't wait to read the rest, especially as you love food ha ha, I sometimes get 'confused' looks or odd comments when I post photos and comments about what we ate in foreign countries. For us it’s a highlight, wether its high end or street food. In Hong Kong last year, we ate in Michelin starred restaurants and it was great, but my fondest memories are of the awesome street food.

    Thanks for taking the time.
    (Ps. there’s always more people reading than there are commenting, but it’s nice to know that someone is reading, isn't it? :-))

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    What a yummy report. We will be in Vietnam from March 17 -31, and after reading your tips, we'll eat well. DO you know if the cooking schools accept school-aged children (ages 11 & 13). Also, you don't report any worries about all the raw veggies; does that mean that all is safe to eat? I hope so. Many thanks

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    Thanks ready2go! I am pretty sure kids will be accepted at the cooking school, but it may be best to email them to confirm. Or call them a couple of days in advance.
    Regarding raw fruits and veggies - we usually eat them no matter where we travel, but we grew up in India, so I guess that makes a difference. :) It all depends on your comfort level and what your stomachs are used to.

    Have a wonderful trip!

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    Hi aussiedreamer, sorry I missed your post..had been away from Fodors for a few days. Glad you're enjoying the report. I'm sure you'll love the Hanoi Elegance Diamond...I read very good reviews about them as well when I was researching our options.

    Ah, the food...I still drool thinking about it. You'll love it!
    We tried some of the food we had in Hanoi at a restaurant in NY this past weekend, but it was nowhere as good. Quite disappointing actually. Will try a few others, maybe we'll get lucky.

    Check out this blog - we got a lot of our ideas from here.
    http://stickyrice.typepad.com/

    Have a fantastic trip!

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    See asks, ever since we got back (last March), we've been looking for the best bun cha in the Bay Area - so far, we've only found 2 we thought were "reminiscent", but neither was anywhere near as good as what we had in Hanoi. Guess we'll have to return!

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    I guess so, sf7307. I haven't found Bun Cha here yet, but the Bun Bo and Banh Cuon were both mediocre. Sigh!

    I made clay pot caramelized pork last weekend that turned out great, so I'm going to try all the recipes from our cooking class. Hopefully, that'll be some consolation.

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    seemaskt - looks like we will do Beijing (6days), datong (2), pingyao (2), Xian (3) with day trip to luoyang, Nanjing (2), Hangzhou (3), shanghai (5) with day trip to suzhou or another water town. We don't have our tickets yet, but hope to get there on the second week of October. Finally, we will travel at the optimal time of year!

    Still searching for good Vietnamese food in Florida. My husband is not looking forward to the food in china.

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