Author Archives: Maria the Paperback Princess

About Maria the Paperback Princess

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We not big city lovers overall, so we only planned for 2 days in Hanoi and then did a day trip out to Tam Coc before taking a night train up to Sapa for 2 days.

Tam Coc is about a 2 hour drive from Hanoi, but has dramically different landscapes. Hanoi and the surrounding area is mostly flat, but Tam Coc and Ninh Binh are popular for their mountains. The landscape is still pretty flat, but then these mountains just rise straight up, seemingly out of nowhere. There are no valleys, just sudden mountains and the contrast is pretty dramatic. I’m a mountain junkie since moving to Vancouver, so I loved the landscape.

We visited two temples for the Kings Dinh and Le. We’ve only been here a few days, but I feel like we’ve already seen a million temples, but I learned the difference between a temple and a pagoda. Pagodas are for the worshp of the Gods (majority buddhism) and temples are for the worship of the kings.

The highlight of the day trip though was boating along the river. We went on a hour boat cruise that took us through the mountains and in some cases, under them. The river has carved alongside the mountains and created some pretty cool karst topography. We went through 3 caves, one of which was so long you couldn’t see the end when you entered and very obviously went under the entire mountain. It was very gorgeous, but it’s also highly commercialized and the crowds took away from it a little bit. April 30 and May 1 are both holidays in Vietnam for Reunification day and Labour day, and because they fell on a mon/tues, the Vietnamese had a 4 day weekend. So that meant a lot of locals were travelling as well, so Tam Coc and Sapa were both extremely busy.

The weather has been a bit hit and miss, but our timing has been good. We didn’t see the sun at all on our first 4 days and there’s been rain on and off, but it never lasts very long and with the exception of our second day in Hanoi, we’ve been lucky in missing the rain all together. It poured on our drive to Tam Coc, but it stopped just before we arrived and though the clouds looked a bit ominous all day, the rain held off for us.

Taking the overnight train was an interesting experience though. It’s an 8 hour train ride from Hanoi to Sapa, which is located in the far north, so we took the sleeper train from 10pm to 6am. The cabins each have 2 bunk beds and are extremely cramped. I was a little overwhelmed when we first got on the train, but fortunately our bunk mates were later showing up and we were able to get ready for bed and stow our bags before they showed up to keep things from being cramped. I was also worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep on a moving train, but we were exhausted after the day in Tam Coc and the rocking of the train is kind of soothing. So overall, a pretty good first experience on the train. We have to take it back from Sapa again and once more later in the trip, so by then we should be pros.

We’re still only 5 days into the trip, but so far Sapa has definitely been the highlight. It’s located in the far north and is a very mountainous region. It’s mostly mountains and rice terraces and is home to many different minority tribes. I booked the trip to Sapa through an agency, so I wasn’t sure on a lot of the details, but the hotel they booked for us was amazing! It had the best breakfast and our room had a balcony looking out onto the most amazing view of the mountains! Like I said, I’m obsessed with mountains and now Im in love with Sapa.

Again, the weather was a bit dicey when we arrived and it rained the whole bus ride into town from the station, but it mostly stayed away during the day. We met up with a group and did a short hike to visit 2 villages. The first was Cat Cat Village. Because it was a Sunday, all the girls were dressed up in their traditional dress and it was really cool to see all their vibrant clothes. Cat Cat village is like a huge tourist trap though and one of the funnier places I’ve visited. I feel like they took a few cues from Swiss Family Robinson, gave someone way too much creative license, and came up with some of the most hilarious tourist attractions I’ve seen! Everything was engineered using bamboo and built around the river. They had everything from bridges and water crossings, to giant homemade swings, see-saws, and even a ferris wheel. It was a little surreal, but we had a good laugh at it and people were definitely loving it.

My favourite part was the hiking though. Cat Cat Village is on the bottom of the valley and Sapa town is on the top, so we did some hiking through the trees and along the river to get between the two and I loved being out in nature, away from vehicles and crowds. It is exhausting because it is so hot and humid and there’s a lot of uphill, but I loved it.

It was overcast the entire day, but I didnt mind it at all because the clouds and fog made for some gorgeous landscapes. Growing up in St. John’s, I shouldn’t have been as intrigued with the fog, but I couldn’t believe how quickly it would move in and out of the valley. One minute it would be totally clear, and then 10 mintues later the fog would roll in and you’d lose total visibility. We loved watching it though and had a fantastic supper in this restaurant overlooking the mountains and watching the weird shapes the fog would make.

The second day in Sapa though was the highlight. We finally saw the sun for the first time on the trip and it burned off the fog that was hanging around, making for a gorgeous, albeit extremely hot, day. We were picked up at our hotel by a woman from the H’mong tribe and she took us hiking for 6 hours to several villages along the valley floor. The scenery was so breathtaking, I am totally in love with the rice terraces!

We started hiking down to the valley along some pretty steep and slippery trails. Once we got to the bottom we hiked along and around the rice terraces and visited 3 different villages, stopping in one for lunch. It was oppresively hot and we were sweating so much, but it was so worth it. The only frightening part was the end, when we had to take a motorcycle taxi back to the hotel because it had been a 1 way hike. I rode motorcycles all the time in Malawi, but the traffic in Vietnam is frightening, so I wasnt in a rush to ride one. It’s like a quintessential part of Vietnam though, so now I can say I did it and hope this will be the only time!

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This trip marks my first visit to Asia, my first time crossing the dateline, and the farthest time zone I’ve been from home (both Vancouver and St. John’s). I was dreading the flight there, but it was actually a lot better than expected. We flew out of YVR at 2am and we were just so tired by then that we both passed out as soon as we got on the plane and slept for a solid 7-8 hours. We had a short stopover in Taipei and then landed in Hanoi the following morning at 10am.

We took a cab to our hotel in the old quarter and were greeted with a message from my friend, Sarah, as soon as we arrived. She was finishing her honeymoon with her husband Nick, and we had one day of overlap, so they picked us up at our hotel and gave us a pretty fantastic food tour of Hanoi!

The food here is fantastic! I havent even had pho yet because there’s been so many other exciting things to try (update: I had it since writing this!). Sarah and Nick took us for Bun Cha and Banh Xeo, which are a grilled pork and noodle soup and these fried pancakes stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. We’ve since also tried Banh Mi and Cha Ca, which are vietnamese sandwiches and a grilled fish dish. I loved it all except for the Banh Mi sandwich. Mine was just listed as a “meat” sandwich and ended up being what I think was pork fat, so not a favourite for me. But everything else has been delicious and Sarah introduced me to an iced tea thats topped with cream cheese (so much yummier than it sounds), which is so refreshing in the heat.

On our first day we visited the Temple of Literature with Sarah and Nick and spent some time walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and the old quarter. The temple of literature was first constructed in 1076 and was a university for many years. We continued touring Hanoi on our second day and visited Tran Quoc pagoda, Ho Chi Minh’s mauseleum, Dong Xoun Market, and went to see a water puppet show. We didnt know what to expect from the water puppets, but it was actually a really fun show about rural life and culture in Vietnam. Plus its mind blowing trying to figure out how they move the puppets so fluidly!

We’ve been adjusting pretty well to the time difference with early nights and early mornings. Our hotel has a breakfast lounge on the top floor which boasts gorgeous views of the lake and I loved spending my evenings up there writing and looking at the city.

However, the traffic in Hanoi is truely frightening. I’m glad we had Nick to show us the ropes our first day because the city is totally overrun by motorbikes and scooters and crossing the road (and just walking in general) gives me so much anxiety. There are crosswalks everywhere, but no one ever stops, so you literally just have to walk out into the road and let the bikes avoid you. Finding Dong Xoun Market was probably the worst because there’s vendors everywhere and so many people, but motorbikes still insist on driving through the crowds.

My favourite part of the city though was probably Friday night. In the evenings on weekends, they shut down all the major roads around the lake and its open only to pedestrians. There’s a night market with tons of vendors and street performers. The lake is all lit up and it has the nicest ambiance without all the cars and honking!

Next up is Tam Coc, Sapa, and Bai Tu Long Bay!

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My Next Adventure

Hi Friends!

It’s been a while since I’ve gone on a trip out of country. My last trip outside of Canada/US was in 2016 when me and Emily travelled to Costa Rica and Panama for 2.5 weeks. I’ve been spending a lot of my spare time hiking over the past few years, so last year I decided to stay local for a year and did some traveling around BC and Newfoundland instead.

But I’ve been itching to visit Asia since I moved to BC 4 years ago and I decided to finally make it happen this year! Seth and I have decided to visit Vietnam as a bit of celebration of him finishing up with his thesis. Vietnam has been on my bucket list for a long time and I’m really excited to explore part of the country.

We’re going for just under 3 weeks, and while we are traveling the whole length of the country and doing lots of really awesome stuff, I still feel like we have to skip so much.

We’re flying into Hanoi and spending some time in the north. We’re going to visit the rice terraces in Sapa and go on a cruise of Bai Tu Long Bay. It’s a little ironic because the main reason I wanted to go to Vietnam was to visit Ha Long Bay, but I’ve since learned it’s super overcrowded and polluted, so we’ve decided to visit nearby Bai Tu Long Bay instead in hopes of escaping the crowds. I do have a bit of trepidation about skipping Ha Long Bay, but Bai Tu Long Bay looks pretty gorgeous as well. (They’re both part of a series of islands whose towering cliffs extending up out of the water makes for a dramatic landscape).

After that we’re starting our journey south with an overnight train ride to Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park. Phong Nha is known for it’s karst topography and intricate caving system. It has some of the largest caves in the world, and while we’re not visiting these, we will be doing a lot of caving and boating in the river!

Next we’re planning to see some cultural attractions with stops in both HuĂ© and Hoi An, with a little bit of birding for Seth in between. We haven’t totally nailed down our itinerary for this part of the trip, but we’ll probably be visiting some pagodas and touring the historical centres of both cities. I’m hoping to fit in a trip to the beach in Hoi An and cooking class or food tour.

For the last leg of the trip, we’ll be flying to Ho Chi Minh City as a home base and doing some other trips from there. We’re planning to do a 2 day tour of Cat Tien National Park, which looks to have some really cool wildlife, and a day trip out to the MeKong Delta.

As usual, I’m going to try and do some travel blogging along the way, which I’m really excited about since I haven’t done it in ages. I may try and get in the habit of blogging more about my hiking adventures, because I do get a lot of joy out them, but we’ll have to see whether that’s manageable on top of the book blogging. In any case, I got a fancy new camera last year with bluetooth and I’m pumped to not have to use crappy hostel computers to upload photos anymore. I hope you’ll come along with me for the journey! Here’s a photo of me and Seth in Peru circa 2013, back when I still wore glasses and he still had hair (shhh)!

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