Real Gap customer Cally has just come back from our awesome Vietnam Experience, and after tweets galore and a review for the website- she's kindly written up her thoughts on the Vietnam Experience for the old RG blog!
Xin ciao! If you talk to anyone about Vietnam they will mostly say the same: "it's so beautiful!" This however was not the first impression I had of Hanoi, the historical old capital where the Vietnam experience begins and ends. The traffic is insane, the markets spill out into the roads and there is no idea of organisation. It definitely set the scene for an adventure! My group was so big it took a few days to properly meet everyone, but after that we quickly became close friends. The amount of inside jokes and drunken banter will stay with me and provide laughs for years to come I'm sure!
During the first week was our introduction to Vietnam- we had culture lessons, hilarious language lessons and cooking lessons. We are all now experts at making and eating spring rolls! The village of Tam Coc is absolutely stunning, we explored the surrounding rice paddies and temples on foot, by bike and by a cute little boat trip- rowed by locals using their feet, as you do.
Our proper introduction to Vietnamese beer (and maybe a bottle of vodka or eight) was on the night of our own private karaoke party. A million dong (about £30) to get 25 people drunk? Bargain! Then it was back to the hotel to continue the party. On our free weekend we cycled to the pool and took photos of us jumping into the water and seeing how many people we could get on the waterslide at the same time. Pure childish fun!
The second week took us into the jungle, and roughing it in a couple of homestays. At one homestay on a seemingly isolated island are a few hot spring pools, at another homestay in the national park the electricity is turned off at ten, leaving no light pollution, so you can spend the rest of the night stargazing! The trek through the jungle to a 1000 year old tree accompanied by puppies was also a morning to remember. Bring proper walking shoes, it can get a bit slippy!
Third week is either teaching or trekking, depending on your preference. I chose the trekking option and it was the best week for me by far. We took a sleeper train and bus to Sapa, a beautiful little town at the top of a mountain. The countryside in Vietnam is definitely where the beauty is. The air was also much cooler and thinner than in humid Hanoi! We stayed in a hotel with a bar and a pool table and met lots of other travellers on the couple of nights we spent there.
We trekked down to Cat Cat village to learn about their agricultural way of life, and to sample the apple rice wine. We were accompanied by local girls who both gave a helping hand and attempted to sell their wares including cute bracelets that our whole group bought. Gotta support the local economy! It was about half a day's walk from Sapa to our remote homestay in Ta Van village. Here was a river to cool off in after a long day trekking, and seemingly unlimited pancakes in the morning.
A little tip for future trekkers: Rice paddies are not as easy to navigate as you'd think!
The fourth and final week is beach week! Other than spending the evening making our own seafood hotpot, beach week was pretty much free time.. but for us that included numerous boat trips through the stunning Ha Long bay visiting caves, kayaking, and jumping off boats, chilling on the beach, girly spa days, hiring bikes, rock climbing, trekking... the list goes on! All while staying on Cat Ba island with views from the hotel balcony of Ha Long Bay.
During your time in Vietnam, the little things become everyday luxuries: condensed milk, dairylea laughing cow cheese and the phrase 'don't expect too much'. The Vietnamese people live a very different way of life but it's as fascinating as it is infuriating. Having said that, all the locals we met were eager to make us happy and give us what they thought we wanted!
There's a lot to see in northern Vietnam that even a month isn't enough to do everything, but this trip definitely covers the 'must see' highlights and throws in more activities and experiences that you wouldn't necessarily have expected to be as brilliant as they are. If you're willing to get involved then you'll get so much out of this trip, but for me it was my group that made it as memorable as it was, and the reason I'd definitely do another Real Gap trip! Tam biet!