Vietnam Ventures – Hanoi to Sapa

An intimate narration of a private journey to Vietnam which we were honored to organize for one of our esteemed patrons Mr. Indranil Saha and this is his story.

Growing up in a predominantly communist Kolkata in the mid 80’s, Vietnam invoked memories of discussions in Coffee House of how the ”Imperalist Americans” have been taught a lesson and that the Communist revolution is round the corner to free the people of the world from the capitalists and imperialists.

Well, a lot of water has flown down the Volga and Ganges in the intervening four decades; the Bolshevik’s revolution is long dead and the Socialist countries have become the champions of free market.

To delve into the recent history of Vietnam, a French colony till 1954 when the reversals at Diem Bien Phu led the French to relinquish the colony and grant them independence. The country was then split into two separate nations along the 17th Parallel. What followed was the famous Vietnam War which captured global headlines. The war ended in April 1975, when the Americans were evacuated out of Saigon. Well, while Vietnam (North Vietnam to be specific) won the war, the long war extracted huge costs in terms of loss of lives (3 million dead) and destruction of infrastructure. Interesting to know that un-exploded ordinance from the war has killed 42,000 people since the war ended more than 40 years ago.

For me personally, Vietnam invoked memories of the French Indo China war, the battle of Diem Bien Phu where the famous ”French Foreign Legion” was decimated, death of Robert Capa while photographing Indochina war, the ’Nam’ war of the Americans, the mighty Mekong delta and its paddy fields, the Tet Offensive and some of the Hollywood movies made on Vietnam, though not necessarily in that order.

So, on a mid-October Sunday morning, three intrepid travelers decided to utilize their Diwali holidays and made their way to Hanoi, via Bangkok. Well, we were off to a good start. The new Noi Bai International Airport was a serendipitous experience. Clean, neat, large, well organised, comparable to the best in the world, albeit smaller in size.

And then came the bad news. As we landed in Hanoi, we realized that a typhoon is on its way and our Halong trips stands cancelled. Well, thanks to some deft maneuvering by our travel planner Metanoia Travel , we managed to swap Sapa Valley Trip with Halong Bay.

As we hit the roads to reach the Old Quarter in Hanoi, we were left wondering if we had returned home already. Overcrowded roads full of two wheelers, driven with scant regard for traffic rules and signals, small shops hawking food, beverages and knick-knacks; people sitting on small settees on the sidewalks enjoying their evening cuppa made us wonder if we had caught the wrong flight from Bangkok.

As we reached the Old quarter in Hanoi, it was a sense of Deja Vu– narrow roads, two wheelers, hawkers scurrying around, food being sold in every other shops, people eating and drinking on the sidewalks. We could have been Chandni Chowk(Delhi), Shyam Bazar (Kolkata) or even Kalbadevi Market(Mumbai)

After a quick check in, as we wound our way through the Sunday evening street market in the Old Quarter for our local food fix, we were reminded of the street side eateries of Kolkata. There were seats or rather 10 inch settees, set up on the sidewalk with small tables. So you almost squat on the pavement and eat a sumptuous meal of your choice, with a million people milling around you, enjoying their Sunday evening out.

And thus begun our culinary journey into the world of Vietnamese food.

As we Indians appreciate, there is nothing called Indian cuisine. Food habits in India change every 150 km or so, sometimes drastically. The same is true in Vietnam as well. The Vietnamese cuisine can be (for a layman) segregated into the Northern cuisine, the Central cuisine and the Southern cuisine with similar key ingredients but the flavours have a distinct character and keeps changing as we moved from North to South. More on that later.


Next day morning, we hit the road. Destination? The northern mountains of Sapa. Sapa is a hill station in the far north of Hanoi, famous for its mountains, waterfalls, the terraced rice plantations and home to some of its ethnic minorities like Hmong, Dao, Nung etc. The road to Sapa (320 km.) was a precursor to our travelling experience in Vietnam. The macadam masterpiece, without a blemish on its face, ensured a predictable but memorable journey. Our guide in Sapa was Mai, a lady from the northern tribe of Hmong. What she lacked in language skills (spoke English with limited vocabulary), she made up with her smiling face, positive attitude and the willingness to make our experience memorable.

Sapa is a small hill station with a lake and a Church at the centre, reminds one of Shimla, except for the lifts.

After a soulful Vietnamese lunch, off we went to visit the villages of Lao Chai (Black Hmong tribe) and Ta Van (Giay Tribe), with Mai leading the way. Walking through the villages guarded by high mountains, where the populace subsides on step farming, allowed us a glimpse of lives of the hill tribes. The villagers seemed to be used to having tourists around and we managed to get invited to homes of villagers for a quick preview of their lives.

If we delve into history, we will see that for a considerable time in pre modern era, North Vietnam was part of the Chinese empire. Thus the prevalence of northern tribes, who are culturally and linguistically more aligned to Chinese than Vietnamese.

Walking through the highlands was a pleasant experience with small hamlets, rice fields, quaint houses, cantilever bridges over small rivers dotting the landscape. The life of those farmers did not seem very different from the average Indian farmer with a small landholding; neither did his economic status. Another interesting fact pointed out by our guide was that there is no inter-tribe marriage, which again reminds us of cultural similarities across South and South East Asia. What was different from our country were signs of development – good roads, schools, electricity and internet connectivity in the remotest part of the country.

The growth of tourism, of course, has provided a fillip to the livelihood of the local folks. From my travels, I have consistently seen, country after country that growth of tourism in a geography does wonders to the local economy and populace. And Vietnam was no exception.

Next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, we set out to see Tram Trong Pass and the beautiful forests, streams and waterfalls that dot the landscape. As we climbed higher from Sapa, the roads reminded us of our drives through the lesser Himalayas. What stood out again was the fantastic infrastructure available at each location – place for parking, washrooms, well build roads, walkways and steps etc.

As we reached Thac Bac waterfall on a cold, foggy morning, the majestic waterfall did not seem too inviting. Well, at the coaxing of ever smiling Mai, we decided to don our rainwear and climb up the steps leading to the midway of the falls. Half the way up lies the bridge across the waterfall. Standing on the bridge gives you an great view of the majestic waterfall as it cascades down the mountain. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up in its height and its ferocity as the water perpetually continues to pound the rocks around us, creating a cloud of mist. One could stand quietly on the bridge for hours and let the torrent of water go by. Standing on the bridge over the falls made the effort to climb up worthwhile, even in the inclement weather.

Then started the trek through the mountainous forests of Hoang Lien National Park. The trek would remind you of the innumerable movies on Vietnam War – impenetrable forests, fast flowing rapids and, of course, mountains. What awaited us at the end of the trek was a beautiful waterfall – Love waterfall. While not as majestic as the Thac Bac waterfall, Love had its own charisma, nestled deep inside the national park. Surrounded by dense foliage and mountains, the waterfall was a placid place to quietly sit down and introspect. The immense mountains, the babbling brooks and the greenery all around the Love Waterfall creates a mystic aura about the place. As we trekked back to the staging point, i was wondering whether a longer trek through the national park would have given us a better sense of the flora and fauna of the region. The trek we undertook, through the hills and dales of Hoang Lien National Park in North Vietnam is an optimum trek for a family, long enough to give you a feel of the location but short enough to be done by people with average fitness.

Time now for a quick lunch and then head back to Hanoi on Sapa Express.

A late night dinner in Hanoi was a Pho Ga (Vietnamese Noodle soup with Chicken) at a small restaurant. The subtle flavors of the Pho will be remembered by us for a long time.