After two days in Hanoi, our itinerary takes us north, to the mountain town of Sapa.  We boarded the overnight train from and headed out.

The overnight train was an interesting experience.  There are three trains each day to Sapa, each taking about eight hours to make the journey.  But each carriage on the train is owned by a different company, and they fit out the interior in their own style.

On our outbound journey, one thing became clear.  The carriage we were in certainly didn’t have much money spent on noise insulation or suspension.  We clicked and clattered all night, lurched back and forth and nearly flying out of bed every time the train came to a halt.  The best way to describe it was like sleeping in a tumble dryer.

But we made it, pulling into the station around 5am.  From there, it was another hour’s drive up the mountains to the hotel.  It was a beautiful drive, climbing the mountain just as the sun was coming up.  We finally arrived at our hotel – the Victoria Resort and Spa in Sapa.

Aude at the Victoria Resort & Hotel, Sapa

Aude outside the Victoria Hotel in Sapa

Matthew at the Victoria Resort & Hotel, Sapa

Matthew outside the Victoria Hotel in Sapa.  Wearing a jacket.  There was a big difference in temperature between Hanoi and Sapa, where it rarely got hotter than 20C.

Rice fields in the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam

‘Dry’ rice fields

Rice fields in the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam

Pictures don’t really do it justice, but there was an enormous feeling of space.  The mountain ranges just seem to go on and on.

Matthew & Aude in Sapa, Vietnam

A quick photo by the side of the road.

Rice fields in the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam

The rice fields here are difficult to maintain.  The Hmong people were some of the last to arrive in Vietnam and ended up withe least desirable, hardest-to-farm land in the mountains and hillsides.

Ox in the rice fields in the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam

Farming here is still done the traditional way — by hand and using oxen.

Bored ox in Vietnam

It’s tough work being an ox.

Brightly coloured rooster

Spectacular colours meant I couldn’t miss taking a photo of this rooster.

Rusty bridge in Vietnam

A bridge leading to one of the Hmong villages.

Aude with two Hmong girls in Vietnam

Our two Hmong shadows.  These two girls followed us for nearly an hour, trying to sell us their handicrafts.  You’ve got to give them credit for being persistent.

Matthew with two Hmong girls in Vietnam

Matthew with his two new Hmong friends.  One of them spoke exceptionally good English, all learned from her conversations with tourists.

Hmong school children playing

Children exercising at a local school.

Two puppies fighting over a toy

Two new puppies tussle over a toy.  Most dogs here start out as a combination of pets & garbage disposals (eating leftover table scraps).  And eventually, most end up as dinner, particularly in this part of the country.

Ox grazing in a rice field

Getting up-close and personal with an ox.

Hmong girl reflecting on a hillside

A young Hmong girl takes a minute to herself.

Aude in Sapa

Aude on our walk through the Hmong villages.

Jeep with flat tyre

Needless to say, the roads around these villages are pretty rough.  We came back from our walk to discover our driver changing the tyre.  He changed it very quickly – suggesting to me that this is something that happens pretty regularly.

Isolated building on mountainside

An old building built by the French, now being used as an ecology centre.  Perched by itself on the side of a mountain, it feels very isolated.

Hmong girl, from behind, as she stops for lunch

A Hmong girl stops for lunch on the side of the mountain.

Hmong Village Sign in Sapa

They’ve made a few concessions for the new-found groups of tourists that have arrived in their villages.  Like a gift shop.

Hmong child at play

A little Hmong girl playing.

Waterfall in Sapa

A waterfall, and a few minutes of unexpected calm.

Matthew and Aude by a waterfall in Sapa


Cheeky monkey

Cheeky monkey!

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Time for an escape from the hustle-and-bustle of Hanoi, and a chance for a visit to what was obviously the place to have your wedding photos taken, judging by the number of brides being snapped…  We had a few hours on our last morning in Hanoi and we decided to spend them walking through the Hanoi Botanical Gardens, a pretty park just on the edge of one of the main lakes in Hanoi.

Statue in the centre of the Hanoi Botanical Gardens

Flowers in full bloom.

Workers tend to the landscaping.

Relaxed in the Botanical Gardens.

Aude in the Botanical Gardens

Matthew in the Botanical Gardens.

Vegetarian meets hunter.


Fishermen on a lunchtime break.


Peace memorial.

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One of the things that struck me about Vietnam is that reminders of the war are everywhere.  Not just in museums and plaques, but in the fabric of the country.

The first thing that you notice is that there are very few older people in Vietnam.  Most of the people here are young, the generation born after the war.  And in parts of the country where the conflict was heaviest, there are still battle-scars everywhere — the buildings, the landscape, the people.  In the streets, you see beggars who suffers from missing or deformed limbs, either direct victims of the combat or the sadder case of the indirect victims of Agent Orange.

In Hanoi, we were tipped off about B-52 wreckage that laid in a pond in the middle of a residential district.  This isn’t a monument or memorial, nor is it on the tourist track (several of our books made no mention of it, and it took the driver quite a lot of wrong turns and asking directions to eventually find this place, which sits unmarked at the end of an alley in residential Hanoi).

But there it is — a testament to the events that happened here 40 years ago.


Several people recommended that we visit the Hanoi Military Museum.  Definitely worth the trip, and an interesting chance to see 20th century Vietnamese military history from their perspective — their journey towards independence from the French and later, the “American” war.  The museum is a story of the Ho Chi Minh-era rebellion struggles, and a very important part of the story of how the modern Vietnamese see themselves.

MIG-21 at Hanoi Military History Museum

A MIG-21 sits in front of the Hanoi Military History Museum, with the ‘Cot Co’ Flag Tower, built in the early 1800s, in the background.

American tank at Hanoi Military History Museum

An American tank at the entrance of the museum.

Sculpture from B52 remains at Hanoi Military History Museum

A sculpture crafted out of the remains of B52 bombers shot down over Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

American military hardware at Hanoi Military History Museum

A collection of US military equipment captured during the Vietnam War on display.

Temple of Literature as seen from the Cot Co flag tower

A view over the Temple of Literature as seen from the ‘Cot Co’ Flag Tower.  Don’t tell the Vietnamese government that I took this photo, as there were signs everywhere indicating that photography from the tower was strictly forbidden.

Courtyard of the Hanoi Military History Museum as seen from the Cot Co flag tower

Looking down into the courtyard of the Hanoi Military History Museum from the Citadel.

No tour to Vietnam can be considered complete without a ride in one of the cyclos, the modern-day equivalent of a rickshaw.  With a little negotiating, $2 gets you an hour of peddle-power around the city, and the locals swear that this is the best way to see the place.  I swear that this is the easiest way to give yourself a heart-attack, considering the unpredictable traffic and constant chaos on the roads.  Aude’s driver seemed to be okay, but my driver managed to hit 1) Aude’s cyclo, 2) a motorcyclist and 3) stopped mid-tour to buy a pack of cigarettes so that he could smoke as he peddled.

Aude in a cyclo

It was a good way to see the city, though, and we spent an hour riding through the old town, where each of the streets is dedicated to a trade.  Ironmongers on one street, porcelain on the next, and so on.  Despite having a haircut only a few days earlier, I must have had twenty offers of haircuts from the barbers who seem to station themselves at every lamp post, armed with nothing more than a small stool, chipped mirror, and pair of scissors.  Everyone needs to earn a living, I guess.

Wiring chaos in Vietnam

We never had any problems with the electricity in Vietnam, but most of the wiring looked like this picture and I was in constant fear of being electrocuted every time it rained.  The standard of wiring is similar in India, although the supply is a little less reliable in my experience.  In either case, it doesn’t really inspire confidence.

Motorcycles and scooters in Vietnam

Scooters and motorbikes are the kings of the road in Vietnam.  Cars are out-of-reach for most, so two wheels is how most people get around.  We saw anywhere from 1-5 people riding on a single scooter, and people carrying just about anything imaginable: plate-glass windows, full-sized beds, pigs, chickens, DHL deliveries.  You name it, the Vietnamese will find a way to strap it to their scooters.

After three days in Singapore, we’d seen most of what there was to see and were ready to move onto the exciting part of our trip: Vietnam.  We landed in Hanoi airport mid-morning and were met by our guide from Buffalo Tours, who incidentally did a fantastic job putting together an itinerary for us.  It took just over an hour to get into the centre of town, where we checked into our room at the Sofitel Metropole.  We took a few hours to relax, then went out for dinner and to see a traditional ‘water puppet’ show.

Traditional Vietnamese water puppet

Above, a traditional Vietnamese water puppet.

The next morning we started early on the main sights in Hanoi.  Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.

Matthew in front of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Outside Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  Unfortunately, we visited on a Sunday when the mausoleum is closed, so we couldn’t go inside.

Inside the Ho Chi Minh complex in Hanoi

One of the French colonial government buildings, now used to receive foreign heads-of-state visiting Vietnam.

Aude in front of Ho Chi Minh's House

Aude in front of Ho Chi Minh’s house.  Apparently it was built in the style of the farmer’s houses in the North where Ho Chi Minh had spent much of his time.

Aude in front of the One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi

Aude in front of the one pillar pagoda.

Chinese Lion in Hanoi

Around the Ho Chi Minh complex.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Entrance to the Temple of Literature.

Inside the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Inside the Temple of Literature

Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton

Inside Hoa Lo prison — the famous "Hanoi Hilton"

Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton

A plaque outside the Hoa Lo prison

John McCain's flight suit at Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton

John McCain’s flight suit and parachute, on display inside Hoa Lo Prison.

The entire tour was well done.  The centre of Hanoi isn’t very big and most of the main attractions are close to one another.

History is written by the victors, and Vietnam is no exception.  Travelling through Hanoi, I certainly heard a very different version of the "American" war than I heard when I was growing up, and while there was clearly an element of propoganda about much of what we heard, it’s always important to remember that there are two sides to every story.

Our first impressions of Hanoi were good, though.  The city was more developed than I’d expected, with an infrastructure on par with most other large, developed Asian cities.  There were plenty of very expensive cars cruising down the streets.  The French colonial architecture has been well-preserved and the streets have a small, intimate feel that you don’t find in a lot of other Asian cities.  The food is great and the people are friendly (and speak reasonably good English, for the most part).