Six weeks in Vietnam is a longer stretch of time than most travellers will deign to spend there. A tourist visa will last you 30 days, which is enough time to hit up the country's main highlights, travelling along the coast from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, or vice versa.
However, I'd decided a month wouldn't be long enough to explore the country as much as I wanted to - it was the nation I was most excited about visiting - and so I'd be spending a fortnight travelling the north before extending my visa and heading down the coast during my remaining month, with a couple of stops in the central highlands for good measure.
As I bused into Hanoi from Luang Prabang I knew it would be a challenge, but I don't think I quite understood how steep a learning curve it would be.
The hell bus: Say goodbye to your personal space
The bus to Hanoi was something of a baptism of fire. What was supposed to be a 24-hour ride on a sleeper bus turned into a 30-hour stint on two different buses, with 20 minutes of confusion in between as I stood on the side of a dark road somewhere in Vietnam, alone but for my big red backpack, with only the previous driver's directive of "you get on next bus" to go on.
The first bus had been the stuff of nightmares partially due to the fact it rarely stopped for food, water or toilet breaks, but mainly because it was so full that Vietnamese farmers were lying in the aisles two-across, pressed up against me and the other passengers in the beds affixed to the floor of the bus, making for a very uncomfortable 24 hours with no personal space to speak of.
I woke up several times in the night to realise the man behind was spooning me and rubbing his bare feet against mine, and survived the entire 30-hour ordeal on just a tiny peach a fellow passenger gave me and a small bottle of water. Due to a lack of English, the men in charge on the bus would sort of shepherd the tourists (all three of us) around, which involved a lot of shouting and shoving. Working out how to cross the confusing border, aided only by these men shouting at me in Vietnamese, was certainly an experience. Later one of my guides would tell me that Vietnamese people are "small but very, very loud" and this is certainly something I experienced a lot during my time there.
The second bus was thankfully emptier, but it did boast a number of chickens and a TV blaring K-Pop. By the time it clunked its way into Hanoi it was around one in the morning and I was very ready to get my head down. Unfortunately, reliable taxis at that time are difficult to come by, and my relief at having flagged one down was short lived, as two minutes into the journey a pair of men in military dress waved us down, pulled my driver out the car and shouted at him (though this could have been a polite conversation for all I knew) for a solid 40 minutes until he relented and gave them some money.
During this time I was entertained by the insane things people carry on the back of their motorbikes in Vietnam: my favourite probably being three pigs in a basket, while an honourable mention goes to the guy balancing a SMEG fridge he had tied to himself on his pillion seat. Back in the car, the driver, now understandably ruffled, dropped me off some distance from my hostel, so with my backpack on and my phone dead, I set off on a 3am walking tour of Hanoi's old town, no longer sure where I was, or even who I was anymore.
After 3.5 months of travelling, riding scummy buses and staying in accommodation that has seen better days, I am by no means highly strung (if I was I would have wimped out on the first night of the Inca Trail back in Peru), but it is safe to say that journey was the worst part of my trip so far, and may actually be a contender for the worst experience of my life. Whenever I think about that bus, I feel intense waves of relief that it is no longer happening. So with that in mind I will say to you, if you are ever considering taking a bus from Laos to Vietnam, just pay the extra money and take a flight instead.
Hanoi: Bright lights and motorbikes
Hanoi is commonly cited as a favourite Vietnamese destination by travellers. This big, blaring city is not without its charm, boasting a number of peaceful parks, lakes and a bustling old quarter where you can find tourist bars serving up beer and burgers, or sit outside a traditional restaurant on a tiny purple chair and tuck into some sizzling pho. In the old quarter you can buy everything from shoes and clothes to kitchenware and motorbike parts. Outside this area, luxury hotels sit on every corner, locals relax on the streets drinking dark Vietnamese coffee, old women tout baskets of fruit hanging from their shoulders, and the revs of millions of motorbikes fill the air.
The best way to get a feel for Hanoi is to have a stroll around it, and if you attempt this, you'll have some trouble to say the least. Pavements are not for pedestrians, instead being utilised for stalls, restaurants and for motorbike parking. The roads, meanwhile, are crazy and lethal: you commonly hear travellers saying:
"If you can cross the road in Hanoi, you can do anything."
The sound of car horns is a constant in Vietnam, with the country's motorists apparently seeing the horn as a noisy alternative to braking, and some pedestrians even craft homemade horns to alert others of their presence. Like most major cities in Asia, tourists are a target for street sellers and people offering motorbike taxis, meaning you can't take more than a few steps without people shouting at you. Hanoi is a manic and pretty city, and I enjoyed the electric atmosphere and the options for both Vietnamese and Western shopping and cuisine immensely.
Some of the highlights for tourists include "The Temple of Literature", an ancient educational haven that boasts bright red pagodas and manicured gardens, as well as the diminutive one pillar pagoda, and the mythical Hoan Kiem Lake. On a trip to the lake you can learn the legend of the tortoise - a revered creature in Vietnam - and the magical sword it lent the King back in the 15th century to help him defeat his enemies in battle. The story goes that once he had succeeded the tortoise rose to the surface of the lake and demanded the sword back, and the king promptly threw it in. Indeed, there are thought to be tortoises in the lake, but sadly American bombings during the Vietnam War are believed to have severely depleted the population.
To the Perfume Pagoda in a tin can boat
My first tentative steps outside Hanoi came in the form of a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda - one of the north's most beautiful areas. This would be my first experience of how tours in Vietnam are perhaps not as well organised as I'd become accustomed to in Thailand and Laos. However, while things can seem chaotic at times, somehow they all come together in the end. The most important thing - when you think you're being taken to the wrong place or suspect you've been abandoned in the middle of nowhere - is just to go with the flow and trust that the guides have it all under control, but admittedly have a different way of doing things.
This tour in question featured an hour-long bus ride to a service station on the side of a motorway. After dropping us off for a browse of the handicraft stalls that all these places seem to feature, our driver informed just three out of ten of us that we would have to wait for another bus his "brother" was driving to come and pick us up in ten minutes before promptly driving off with all the other tourists onboard. After about 40minutes of waiting, another man came along and told us he was the "brother" who was supposed to pick us up, but he didn't have enough room in his bus, and we'd have to wait for another guy. Half an hour passed and we were approached by a man driving a 4x4, which already had five passengers in it, and told to squeeze in.
A cramped two hours later we reached the countryside and piled out of the vehicle and into a boat, which looked suspiciously like a tin can cut in half and relying on pure luck to stay upright. As we climbed unsteadily into our less-than-majestic vessel, the Asians present laughed among themselves at the ungainly Westerners trying their best not to take a plunge in the river.
The scenery on the boat trip was beautiful, and we saw a number of other vessels selling drinks and snacks. The Chinese people on the tour invested in cans of Bia Saigon and laid banknotes on the surface of the river for luck, allowing them to float away. After an hour we reached a harbour and caught a tram up to a spectacular cave that had been lit up with orange light and contained a pagoda to the female Buddha. Locals inside were rubbing bank notes on various rocks for luck.
"Watch out for the jellyfish" in incredible Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam's most iconic locations, and an absolute must for anyone visiting the country. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the bay's turquoise waters are punctuated by jagged green rock formations rising out of the sea - and when you're there you just can't stop staring at them. Every night, numerous cruises moor up in the middle of the bay, and nearby there are floating markets and a number of islands visitors can spend the night on.
Cruising into Ha Long Bay with a Ha Long Beer in hand, and waking up the next morning to this unreal scenery has got to be one of the high points of my adventure.
Choosing a trip to Ha Long Bay is a bit of a minefield: you can pick between luxury, mid-range or budget. On top of this there is the famed Castaway tour, which is run like an 18-30s holiday and should be avoided unless you want to spend most of your time in this stunning bay throwing up over the side of the boat.
I went for a mid-range option, with one night spent on the boat and the following night in a beach bungalow on Monkey Island, which is situated nearby. The boat itself was small and rickety, and visions of this sort of vessel were exactly why I had avoided the budget option. We were warned not to take our own food and drink on board - apart from to surreptitiously consume in our rooms - as if the staff see you eating and drinking anything they will add a service charge to it. Predictably the drink on board was very expensive, but they did at least put a number of drinks deals on in time for the disco that night.
My favourite part of the evening was undoubtedly sunset. You go to Ha Long Bay for its natural beauty, and with the sun descending behind the mountains, the scene looked positively mythical. Sat on the top deck of the boat with beers and chill out music and watching the sun go down was just incredible.
It was around this time we were told we could jump off the hull of the boat into the stunning turquoise waters, and why not? Well, because of the jellyfish of course! We were told to avoid the jellyfish if possible, but that it would be a good day if "all we do is meet them". However, we were in one of the most scenic places in the world so I decided not to let a few stinging sea creatures put me off and took the plunge into the bay. The water was cool and refreshing, but after treading water for a while, I noticed a jellyfish lurking and decided to get back on the boat via the ladder that was hanging off the hull.
This may have been the most difficult physical challenge I have ever endured. As you stood on the small iron ladder, it swung under the hull, meaning you had to both support your own body weight and climb backwards, almost upside down, to get to the top. I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to do it but for fear of the big jellyfish hanging around at the bottom and it would have been nice to have a warning from the crew before I jumped!
The next morning I woke up, looked out the window and was once again completely awestruck by the landscape. I got up and took one of the boat's kayaks for an early-morning trip on the still waters of the bay, which was an incredibly peaceful and beautiful way to start the day. Then it was time for a quick cooking class (spring rolls) and onto another boat that would take us to Monkey Island. After slumming it a bit on the boat, I was very happy to see my comparatively luxurious beach bungalow, and I spent the day on the beach reading, Bia Saigon in hand.
If I could have fit it into my itinerary I would have probably extended my stay here, as it was pretty close to paradisiacal. However, I had a trek in Sapa to attend to, and it was time to leave the gorgeousness of Ha Long Bay to head back to Hanoi and catch a sleeper bus up north to the mountain town.
Sapa: Beautiful scenery, aggressive salespeople
Sapa wasn't exactly what I expected. I'd been told it was a quiet town in the northern mountains of Vietnam, popular among travellers for its stunning scenery and trekking opportunities. However, in the past few years as its popularity has grown, so has its tourist trade, and I was harassed, followed and frankly manhandled by salespeople here more than I was at any other point in the rest of my trip. It was intimidating at best, and as beautiful as the scenery was, I'm not sure it quite made up for the experience in the rest of the town. To put it simply, when I return to Vietnam, I'll definitely want to go trekking in the north again, but I'll try to find a quieter location.
There are 52 minority groups living in Vietnam, with many of them residing in the northern hills. On a trip to Sapa you'll visit the surrounding villages, which are full of people in traditional dress, who also come up to the town to sell bracelets, bags, scarves and more. Although I had become used to turning down salespeople on the street throughout my trip, these proved harder to evade. They use a number of sales techniques, such as forcing you to take free bracelets, and when I said "maybe later" to one pair on a trek I returned to my hostel hours later to find them sat outside waiting for me. When I said I had no money on me they said "you borrow off friend" and then "you go to ATM now".
In the end I gave in and bought a bag, which I thought would mean I would get left alone, but instead made me more of a target and as I walked to meet a friend for lunch I was trailed by around 15 of these women asking where I was from, when I was getting married and when I would buy all their things. When I reached my friend, they tried to sell to him too, with the one I had bought a bag off pointing at me and saying:
"...she buy for 200,000 dong, you buy for 50,000 dong!"
And laughing. To be frank, it was a nightmare. I just wanted to go trekking!
I'd signed on for two days of trekking in Sapa, and to be honest it was absolutely brilliant and boasted some of the best scenery I'd seen since I left the UK. Hills covered in rice fields, small villages and terraces rise up into the clouds, while rivers run throughout the verdant green valley. The trekking wasn't difficult, although walking back up the mountains to Sapa town was a steep affair and certainly got the heart racing. Along the way we stopped in lots of villages, took in a flute recital, enjoyed the majesty of Cat Cat Waterfall, and saw farmers going about their work.
North Vietnam: "A mixed bag"
One of my fellow travellers described his experience in the north of Vietnam as "a mixed bag" and I couldn't think of a better way to put it myself. The north's scenery is absolutely incredible, from the breathtaking beauty of Ha Long Bay to Sapa's pretty hills and valleys, and Hanoi is - in my opinion - one of Asia's best cities. However, the nation's incredible sights contrasted heavily with some of the experiences when it came to getting around and dealing with aggressive salespeople, which were a pretty constant blight. That said, a lot of Vietnamese people I'd met had been incredibly helpful and so nice: you can tell that especially when you're a solo female traveller they don't want anything bad to happen to you in their country.
While I'd seen a lot of beautiful sights in the north, as I ventured south I wanted to learn more about the culture and the people of this incredible country. I'd also heard from various travellers that the south was a much friendlier place and easier to navigate safely. I hadn't planned ahead too much, so at this point all I knew, as I boarded a night train to Hue, was that I would end my Vietnamese adventure in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It's safe to say the intriguing north had certainly whetted my appetite for Vietnam.