12 highlights of my Vietnam trip

And so my much anticipated trip has finally come to an end. It was a much needed respite after a crazy few months at work, and this short week in the beautiful country up north has been one that was well spent, bringing about a fair share of pleasant surprises.

Not every thing went according to plan of course, but that’s the beauty and unpredictability of life isn’t it? 🙂 Here I pick out twelve highlights of the trip, which will undoubtedly be added into some of the fondest memories I’ve had for some time.

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#JAGS4Laughs awaiting lunch!

First off, about our group name #JAGS4Laughs. On our first night in Hanoi the four of us thought of giving ourselves a cool name so people can easily follow our travels on social media (doesn’t everyone?), and we finally agreed on #JAGS4Laughs, made up of the first initial of each of our names. Why JAGS? Well, let’s just say that we experimented with other combinations too only to find out to our amusement how wrong they all sounded… cue JSAG and JGAS…

1. Getting lost in Hanoi

First on the list of my Vietnam highlights reel has got to be the fact that we got lost on our first night in Hanoi. How often do you see Singaporeans having trouble finding a place where food is involved? Well in our case, it wasn’t just one but four Singaporeans who wandered around the bustling streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi like lost sheep. Broken GPS coupled with our inability to understand the road signs made a trip that should have taken just five minutes, into an hour-long find.

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The beautiful streets come to life at night in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

2. Experiencing Vietnamese Traffic

If you’ve never been to Vietnam, then let me tell you that something as simple as crossing the street is actually an art form. In a city made up of a population of about 7 million people and 5 million scooters, waiting for the green man before you cross any road will never bring you joy. That is unless watching scooters zoom by is top of your hobby list.

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Non stop traffic on the streets of Hanoi.

This is my second trip to Vietnam, the last one being to the city of Ho Chi Minh last year, and I’m starting to make sense of the local pedestrian culture. The trick is to walk at a consistent pace so that the motorists can veer around you smoothly while you cross. Hesitant movement or sudden stops in between may result in some unhappy glares thrown your way.

*Note: #JAGS4Laughs has found a safer alternative when crossing the street – we present to you the mobile zebra crossing (see pic below). Vehicles stop when they see this zebra crossing the road  😀

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Why use the zebra crossing when you can bring one around easily? LOL.

3. Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

We had some time to kill on our first day in Hanoi before our overnight train to Sapa, so we decided to head over to the iconic Hong Kiem Lake, right in the heart of the city, about 7 minutes walk from our hotel. It was a serene experience (no pun intended), and a good place to stroll about and just sit back to catch the sunset. So we did just that.

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The beautiful Hoan Kiem lake at dusk.

It was a cloudy day all morning and afternoon, but we weren’t about to be disappointed. Just after the sun went down over the city horizon, lights on the lake came on and we were treated to a beautiful sight as dusk was met with an array of colours upon the water.


4. Train to Sapa

Our experience in the overnight train trip to Sapa brought about natural comparisons to the recent Korean blockbuster and horror-thriller ‘Train to Busan’. No thanks to the fact that our train trip was on the day just after Halloween either. This brought out the inner boliaoness within us as we took turns imitating zombies in the carriage while waiting for the train to start. You can watch my poor albeit comedic impersonation here.

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The train cabin was cosy but impressive, made up of two double decker beds, just nice for the four of us! We were initially afraid that the beds would be too short for the taller duo of Serene and I, but they turned out to be a perfect fit. We wouldn’t recommend it for any of our taller Team Singapore basketballers to take this option though!

The train ride itself wasn’t as smooth, it was a rather bumpy ride with none of us getting any real sleep. But I think all of us agreed that it was the overall experience that really mattered, and also the train trip back into Hanoi on our return was somewhat better.

5. The Topas Ecolodge experience

One of the biggest highlights of the trip has got to be the Topas Ecolodge in Sapa. Situated right amidst the mountain tops overlooking rice terraces below, this was one of the best experiences I have ever had. Our ride up to the lodge took a little longer than expected and upon arrival we were hijacked by a group of Vietnamese Ajummas who clamoured around us willing us to follow them back to their village.

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Arrival @ Topas Ecolodge.

Probably the only gripe I have would be the weather, but that really isn’t in our control. We were shrouded for long durations within the clouds over the two days we were there which somewhat blocked what was really an amazing view. The lodge itself is one of those which you would imagine popping out of a Lord of the Rings movie, and the food was one of the better ones I’ve tasted during my week-long stay in Vietnam.

In spite of what wasn’t really within our control, it was an incredible experience overall. I really have to thank God for that, and a huge part of the fun we had on this trip happened right here at the top of the mountain.


6. The Sapa Trek

It goes without saying that the six-hour long 10km trek through the Sapa mountainside makes it into my top 12 picks for the Vietnam trip. We met our fluent English speaking 23 year-old guide Nini, who hails from one of the local villages and has been trekking through the Sapa mountains for the last 7-8 years.

We witnessed some of the most breathtaking scenery of our entire trip on this trek, from the silver waterfall, to the peak of Sapa mountain, where we took in the beautiful view for all of 5 minutes before making a mad dash back to the car because we were freezing our asses off as we were underdressed.

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Breathtaking view at the peak of Sapa mountain.

The slippery descent down the mountainside later on was probably the most memorable, with all of us falling at least once on the muddy terrain. Our climb was so slow that Nini almost gave up on us, but then wisely decided to chop up some tree branches for us to use as walking sticks, which aided us tremendously for the rest of the journey.

After finally reaching the bottom of the mountain, we made a short river crossing before climbing up the rice terraces skirting buffalo poo and the like, with lunch serving as our motivation to finish quickly.

We ended the rest of the trek via the main road in the interest of time, although it has to be said that the main roads in Sapa are like some of our military training areas in Singapore, more muddy tracks than concrete! Seeing the local children play with such joy in less than clean conditions around the village towards the end of the trek really struck a chord in me, and reminded me just how blessed and lucky we are as Singaporeans and how much we take what we have for granted.

7. Buying the same pairs of shoes

Next on the list of top 12 picks from my Vietnam trip would be us buying matching shoes. Needless to say our trek through the muddy mountainside left two of the four of us throwing away our shoes, and the other two needing multiple rounds of washing and having soaked shoes for the rest of the journey.

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Mud stained shoes after our Sapa trek meant we needed new ones.

This made shopping for covered shoes on the next day a really enticing option. And so we went about through the shops looking to see what we could find. But none of us would have imagined all four of us buying the exact same shoes! LOL. Talk about great minds thinking alike and having the same brilliant taste in shoes. 😉

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How’s this for a self-made nike shoe ad? #JAGS4Laughs ftw!

8. Hidden Talents of Ajumma Tan

Our original plan to get ourselves a nice Vietnamese massage didn’t happen in the end, though we did make a trip to the spa at Topas Ecolodge for more practical reasons – to wash up while awaiting check-in after our lengthy train journey. As it turned out, we didn’t really need to go for paid massages on this trip.

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Gina putting her hands and natural talent to good use here, with Serene the beneficiary.

Right in our midst was a champion masseuse: Ajumma Tan! Some people are just born with a natural talent in certain areas, and judging by her performance in the car on our last day, she could really make a second career out of it. 🙂 The only down side is her exhorbitant rate of USD$50 per massage, which means only those rich enough can afford her services.

9. Learning to eat Vietnamese Cuisine

We were treated to Vietnamese food of all sorts throughout our week-long stay in Hanoi and Sapa, but one of the food experiences that stood out for me personally was lunch on the last day en route to the Ngo Dong river. Our guide Sih, who was outstanding throughout, went the extra mile to teach us the right way of preparing and eating Nem Cuon, Vietnamese spring rolls made up of rice paper that is used in this instance to wrap goat meat and vegetables, dipped in soy bean sauce.

The lunch also saw arguably our best spread of the entire trip, with crispy rice crackers the other major highlight of the meal. Addictive much. I never used to be a big fan of Vietnamese cuisine, but after this trip I can say I found one or two items on the menu that I really like. The only thing is that not many Vietnamese restaurants in Singapore carry the authentic versions of them.

10. Ngo Dong River boat ride

Some miscommunication with the hotel staff meant that our original plan of heading to Halong Bay for a day tour and kayaking on our last day in Vietnam would be scuppered. Though somewhat disappointed, we found a viable alternative – spending the day visiting the country’s ancient capital of Tam Coc as well as taking a boat ride down the Ngo Dong river to check out 3 limestone caves.

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Picture perfect along the Ngo Dong river.

The incredibly scenic boat ride turned out to be the perfect way to round up what was an eventful trip for the four of us. I think the rest of the group will agree with me that this was a common highlight for all of us. So many of our photos taken here are like those you see in postcards and TV ads, with little to no enhancements and editing needed.

The ride took about 2 hours there and back, and watching how the locals steered and paddled their boats (using their feet in a circular motion), was a real eye opener for all of us. I would strongly recommend those who have not gone for this before, to give it a visit should you be here on vacation in future.

11. Charming Vietnamese Locals

One of the main things that stood out also is the unassuming charm of the Vietnamese folk. From the hotel lobby staff that we met, to our Sapa trekking guide and the tour guide on the last day, they really do go all out to serve with a kindness and authenticity that earns their way into our hearts. Just ask one member of our #JAGS4Laughs group, who will testify to how smitten she was by one of them! 😉

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A charming Vietnamese local. 😉

I guess that just like life itself, true authenticity always breaks down barriers and allows genuine connections to be made. It is little wonder then that each of the local people we interacted with during our stay left really lasting impressions on us.

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Nini, our guide for the Sapa trek, seen here breaking branches to make walking sticks for us to ease our descent down the mountainside.

12. The Company of the Trip

My 12th and final pick, and possibly the greatest highlight of my trip, would be the three beautiful ladies I had the honour of accompanying on this journey. I would like to say a massive thank you for your generosity and the kind invitation in asking me to join you on an adventure such as this.

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I appreciate all the fun, the laughter, the chats and the quiet moments we shared and everything else. This week will go down as a beautiful memory for me to add to my collection of wonderful moments that I have had the privilege of experiencing in this life.

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And so it’s back to the grind for us now. But don’t be too upset, because nothing in life is permanent, not even our work or daily struggles and challenges we face. God bless you all, and may you live every moment to the full, even the not so good ones, because life is beautiful. This is John, signing off.

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