Sapa to Halong Bay: Mysterious Hilltops & Finding Paradise

So our first night train was awful, to say the least. We had a set of bunks between us and two Vietnamese men had the other bunks in the cabin. One of them seemed friendly enough, he asked ‘where you guys from?’, ‘Ireland’ we replied, ‘Ah Northern Ireland?’, ‘No the Republic’, ‘Ah I see, you have independence’, ‘yes’… ‘When we get to Sapa,I get you hotels? Girls? Guns?’ Oh jesus. We stopped talking to him then.

Unfortunately our new friend got sick during the night, he was in and out of the toilet for an hour or two, then after a while gone he returned and said ‘I maybe have to go to doctor, I have diarrhoea’. Thanks for the info, friend. He got off soon after. I didn’t sleep a wink that night while Diarmo didn’t stir, the guy would sleep on a rollercoaster.

 So we arrived at the train station the next day and got a bus which would take us to the hill side town of Sapa. For an extra 2 dollars, the hotel organised a pick up from the station and a man waited for us with ‘O’Ceallaigh’ written on a sheet, we felt like royalty. Now I for one had driven some intimidating mountain passes before, none like this though. Add to that the worst mist imaginable and a crazy bus driver. Like in Hanoi, there are no real road rules.

Anyway we made it to our hotel, a fancy enough place. The hotel is built on the hillside – fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. Did I mention there was mist? We couldn’t see a thing. Sapa attracts many tourists, mostly middle aged tourists from the USA and Russia, eager for a trek up the mountains. Being lazy and lacking any hiking gear at all, we settled for a walk up the hills. There were gardens and rocks and waterfalls and again, mist.

Even though you couldn’t see anything in the distance, the mist did bring a weird charm to the place. That night we had a nice dinner and searched for a pub with a bit of craic. We found that at night, Sapa is a ghost town. We tried one place which had a fusbol table. Two locals challenged us to a game, we got annihilated and left immediately. So Sapa is more of a day town really.

We had one more day in Sapa, so in the morning we had a lie in, we had comfortable beds for a change, it was much needed. We wandered the town for the afternoon, bought Vietnamese sim cards in fact. This was a slow process, the Vietnamese are a lovely folk but they are not blessed with good English. In restaurants, if you ask a waitress a question, the likely chance is she will comply and go off and do something completely different for you. ‘Actually could I have a coke instead of a 7up?’. She will come back with a napkin, but they are a sweet folk and it’s all part of the charm.

The town of Sapa, though misty and somewhat mysterious is quaint and peaceful. There are lots of cosy little cafes, little shops and stalls selling colourful clothes and jackets. Warm clothes are needed, the jeans we thought we were putting away indefinitely in Hanoi were back in force. There were lots of what Diarmo came to call ‘hill people’ wandering the town selling bits and pieces, they come at you speaking funny words and it’s hard to get them away without actually buying something. I’m pretty sure this picture cost me a few dong.

So we got on our train back to Hanoi the following day, one with working air con and we slept well. Out of curiousity we checked on Google how far Sapa is from Hanoi and we wondered why a 5 hour journey takes 12 hours on a train. On our way back, we realised the train goes very very slowly. The trains do not look old-fashioned at all, yet they literally do not exceed 40 kph. Next morning,  we arrived back in the city which was strangely starting to feel like home.

We spent the day wandering Hanoi happily once again, hoping the few days ahead would be as brilliant as we had heard this trip would be; I remember Diarmo sending me a picture of Halong Bay months before we set off on our travels and I hoped it would be as beautiful in real life; it didn’t disappoint, not even in the slightest. That night in our 12 bed dorm, an Aussie guy turned to me and said ‘you going to Halong tomorrow?’, ‘indeed and you?’ I replied. ‘Yeh me and Byron here are heading’, seemed like nice guys. Legends would be the correct term.

We awoke at the Ungodly hour of 7 am to get ready and head downstairs to catch our 8 am bus. We were given free breakfast at Hanoi Backpackers which was a nice touch, even if breakfast cost 1 euro. For some reason, the girls and the lads divided into the two buses. Diarmo and I were dumfounded but we didn’t want to seem un-man-like and jumped on board with the boys. It was a four hour journey to Halong bay and in that journey, it was already evident that we had a good group with us, group of guys anyway.

We had a good chat with three New Zealanders, we told them we would see them there in September for the world cup, which we also claimed we would win. They laughed of course. Along with our Aussie roomies, a couple of Canadians and a Norweigan lad, they seemed like really nice guys. Oh and there were 5 other Irish lads, we outnumbered them all. When we arrived at the bay, you could already see the amazing scenery out on the bay, in spite of a mist in the sky, it looked like something special out there.

So the girls came into view as we got on a boat to bring us to our much more impressive bigger boat, the Jolly Roger. If you’re staying on a boat called the Jolly Roger, that spells out guaranteed fun right? We were introduced to our tour guide, a very extroverted English guy, and we boarded our home for the night. The boat was incredible; the deck kitted out with sunbeds to accommodate every passenger, a big dining room and luxurious cabins with en suites.

The rules of the boat were explained to us: No.1 No jumping off the boat while its moving and No.2 No right hand drinking. I got caught breaking rule No.2 so many times it wasn’t funny. I ran to warn Diarmo after the first time I was caught and half way through I noticed his drink was already in his left hand. It turned out he is always prepared for that rule.  So we were given lunch and then everyone headed up the deck for a bit of lying in the sun. Sun, beers, islands and water all around us. I think ‘Pure Shores’ by All Saints was playing when Diarmo and i smiled at each other, this was our paradise.

We sailed for a good 3 hours and when the boat stopped at was time for some jumping off. A prize was given to the person who jumped off without any consideration for how painful it may be, Diarmuid won with a splash which clearly damaged him, a belly flop that would make grown men cry. A couple of the girls were too scared to jump in and one of those girls caught my eye then and there; Laura. Jumping into the water was pure bliss – the miliseconds in that twenty foot drop to the water are pure brilliance. We then went out on kayaks and explored some caves and islands, the sun setting in the distance, we were just in awe at all that was around us.

After dinner, the drinking games began. The 35 of us sat at a massive table and were divided into two groups and inevitably, some people got a tad messy. But brilliant craic was had, everyone gelled brilliantly. The tables were then cleared and a dance floor was created, the craic lasted well into the night. I distinctly remember Laura and I singing Macy Gray to our heart’s content. And we were only getting started, we still had a desert island to venture to.

The next morning, we were awoken seriously early and there were some tired and hungover heads up on the deck. The Jolly Roger began sailing again and at around 12, we arrived at our private island. The scene from ‘The Beach’ flashed in my mind, Leo Di Caprio and co in blissful happiness in their private paradise. We had found exactly that. And we had 35 great people, water sports, beach sides huts, many many beers and no last orders. Once again, the weather was perfect. Blue skies, sunshine, 27 degrees.

On arriving at the island, we checked into our cabins, which were literally huts with no walls, only rooves and mattresses. We all went for an eye opener at the bar, followed by a swim. The last place Diarmo and I had gone swimming before this trip was Banna, Co. Kerry in mid September. Needless to say, it was much warmer.

The afternoon was all about watersports. Tubing, banana boat, waterskiing, wakeboarding. We of course went for the easy option of tubing, we spent most of the time in the water but there was one point where the two of us could not physically get back onto the boat because we were laughing so much. At home our classmates were settling into jobs in freezing cold weather. Here we were on a desert island off the coast of Vietnam, laughing so hysterically unable to get onto our raft.

So BBQ was on the menu for dinner, the meat was fresh and tasty. Before hand, Diarmuid had a nap on a hammock looking out at the sea while I played volleyball in my usual over-competitive fashion. Anyway, after dinner, more drinking games were played. Strangely, even though there was no rule in the game stating this, I got my hands sellotaped to beers and then sellotaped  to each other. The beautiful randomness of this trip.

The party continued long into the night. We met some seriously great people while on the tour. The New Zealanders were brilliant, Laura and her Cockney mafia were lovely, the Candians were fantastic and a beautiful friendship began with the Aussie lads Byron and Andy. Most people went for a midnight swim and in the water where the plankton lit up like fireworks. I missed it though, Laura and I lay under the stars with the waves crashing beyond us on what was the greatest first date I could imagine!

Devastatingly, our Halong Bay trip ended the next morning. The boat took us back to the mainland and we got a bus back to the hostel. A lot of our group had a few drinks together that evening in the rooftop bar and it was a shame we had to leave the group behind. Laura and I grew pretty close pretty fast and I have to say leaving her was a bit heartbreaking. Diarmo and I left the building, pulled our backpacks over our shoulders and he asked ‘Oh no you haven’t gotten attached to her have you?’, ‘Me, never?’. Lies of course. We set off back to the train station again on our next journey to Hue.


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