Vietnam 3: Ha Long Bay and Sapa
We left Hanoi on a complicated trip to Cat Ba Town: bus, bus, boat, bus. Fortunately, this was all supplied on one ticket from one company, and wasn’t any more expensive than arranging it ourselves. Cat Ba Town is on one end of Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay. It’s mostly a destination for Vietnamese tourists but is also home to Slo Pony Adventures, which runs rock climbing all around the bay.
All the climbing on Cat Ba Island itself is in the beautiful Butterfly Valley, a 15 minute motorcycle ride from Cat Ba Town. It’s a great crag – no multipitch but with several climbs in the 25m – 30m range. Lots of variety in the grades. Robin and I climbed there for a couple of days then took a rest day. I went out to the crag on our rest day anyway, but not to climb.. I did it for the goat and the ride. The ride was a great bike ride to Butterfly Valley on an actual mountain bike (nice to have something with gears and decent seat height after the pokey Asian singlespeeds I’d been riding.) The goat was a goat! There is a family of farmers who live and work at the base of the crag, and they organize an amazing lunch for hungry climbers. But goat day was special: a whole bunch of climbers pitched in and they spit roasted a whole goat over a wood fire! Nom!
We also spent a day out on the boat.. Slo Pony lease a boat that’s used for Deep Water Soloing trips and taking climbers out to crags on other islands. They also organize tours on days when nobody’s using the boat for climbing, so Robin and I did one of those. We kayaked, visited a fish farm, and enjoyed fresh clams cooked in the boat’s kitchen.
Ha Long Bay is a great spot for climbing.. one of the ones I definitely want to return to (along with Tonsai.) It’s not as popular a destination as Tonsai but it’s easy enough to find partners. There’s lots to climb in Butterfly Valley and there are loads of other crags on other islands we didn’t have the chance to explore.
From Cat Ba we took the same boat + bus trip back to Hanoi (I wanted to take the train from Hai Phong but the boats to Hai Phong were sold out and it would have been more complicated and expensive anyway.) From Hanoi, we took an overnight train to Lao Cai and a shared (leaves when full) minivan up the mountain to Sapa.
Sapa is another beautiful place, and also a bit strange. The strange part is the hundreds of women from nearby minority villages that come up to Sapa to sell their crafts (bags, hats, clothing) to tourists, both foreign and Vietnamese (we visited during the May 1 holiday weekend, so there were a LOT of Vietnamese tourists!) It can be fun to engage them in conversation for a bit.. I eventually figured out that just because they want to sell you something doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them about other things :) But eventually they move on if you’re not buying.
Robin and I walked to the minority village of Cat Cat because it’s the closest to Sapa. It’s very touristy, with both sides of the main walkway full of stalls selling crafts… most of which are produced in other minority villages and brought to Cat Cat to sell to tourists. But there’s also a beautiful waterfall and a very pleasant river to walk by…
We then headed even furthur along the same road to Sin Chai.. much less touristy, mostly occupied by farmers (although one woman tried to get us to come into her house and smoke opium!) I was also trying to find one of the approaches to Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina, but gave up. Just as well – Mr. Fancypants had his head in the clouds for our whole visit!
The next day, I wandered up Ham Rong mountain, which is is a well developed park in Sapa itself offering great views of the town. Then I rented a bike and rode to another village, Ta Phin. I visited one of the local houses (on the invitation of one of the ladies making crafts in the town square) and after 5 minutes of polite conversation, was set upon to buy things (of course.) I also visited Ta Phin cave, which was free according to a sign posted right next to it but some guys at the entrance wanted money to turn the lights on. Great – caves are much more fun to explore with a flashlight anyway!
From Ta Phin I rode back up to Sapa then over to Silver Falls. I didn’t actually go to see the falls themselves because it was getting late and I wanted to be back in Sapa by dark… but the ride was great and so were the views along the way!
Sapa photos are here. There are also a few photos from my passport retrieval misadventure.
Or you can look at all my Vietnam photos here – they’re all uploaded, finally.
(Robin and I were in Cat Ba from April 22 – 28, and in Sapa from April 29 – May 1.)
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