Sa Pa

Sa Pa

Sa Pa (or Sapa) is a small market town in the north west of Vietnam which attracts a lot of tourists due to it's picture perfect views, it's dramatic landscaping and it's cultural antics. Snuggled into the mountains and overlooking a deep valley, this French settlement has become the tourism central for the region. The town is filled with colour as the local hill-tribe people flood the streets, and even on a misty day, which is quite common in the mountains, the views are spectacular.

The town is quickly increasing in size, and due to some building regulations being ignored, the buildings are growing taller and taller over the years. The town is heavily reliant on tourism bringing in money, and as a result the town is quite busy and not as quiet as "a small town in the mountains" suggests. Most people who visit the area have come to immerse themselves in a world of trekking and hiking, and so the town merely serves as a place to sleep and eat after a long day of tramping through the hills.

The area is awash with the iconic cascading rice fields that are often seen on postcards and travel websites for the area. Set against a backdrop of dramatic mountains, rolling mist, and small local villages, the real charm for the region lies outside of the city. A lot of tourists also opt to see the area by bicycle with plenty of routes to explore and plenty of rental opportunities from the town. For those exploring the area, it helps to travel light, but also to prepare for rain and bad weather with a lightweight waterproof jacket as weather conditions change very quickly in Vietnam, and even quicker when you are at higher altitudes.

Sapa is also home to Vietnam's highest peak, Fan Si Pan, which stands at 3,143m above sea level. The trek to the summit is a three day ordeal and is probably the most challenging route for tourists to tackle. If you want to take on Fan Si Pan, it is not allowed that you hike alone and a local guide is required, as well as highly recommended. There are campsites at around 2300m and 2900m where you will sleep after your first and second days of hiking. The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking, and will be worth all of the hard effort of travelling up there when you have a panoramic view of Vietnam. The hike passes several remote villages, going through different types of forest and crosses over mountain streams, providing interesting and diverse landscapes throughout.

For those looking for something a little easier, there are medium and easy graded walks that can last for everything between a few hours and and a few days. Always make sure you have spoken to local experts to enquire about track conditions, weather forecasts, the difficulty of the walk and what equipment is required.

Sapa can endure some quite rough weather, and for those who are dissuaded for venturing outside when the rain is falling, there is plenty to see and do in the town itself that should shelter you from the showers. There is a museum quite aptly named Sara Museum which showcases the history and ethnology of the area, including information about the ethnic minorities and the French colonisation. This is located behind the tourist information office and is worth a quick visit. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants where you can relax after a long hike. There is also a market which operates just outside of the centre of town in a purpose built bus station.

Sapa is just a short journey from Hanoi, and some people even chose to hike there from the capital city. It offers a lot of diversity and contrast to the bustling streets of the capital, and is a great stop to include on even a short itinerary, especially for those looking for something a little more rural and a little more natural. There are plenty of transport options for those not willing to hike, and plenty of multi-day guided tours that leave from Hanoi for those who want to leave all the hard work and preparation for somebody else to worry about.

Stray in Vietnam

Stray in Vietnam

Stray is tour company that operates in South East Asia and in New Zealand. They operate guided bus tours, mostly aimed at younger backpackers who wish to experience the country with some like minded people. Founded in New Zealand in 2002, the company prides itself on taking travellers off the beaten track, supporting environmental values (for which they have been accredited the Enviro-Gold award from Qualmark), for providing a unique perspective on some quickly growing tourist locations, and of course their iconic bright orange busses.

The main office for the South East Asia Stray Network is actually in Thailand, however the company offers a number of packages that remain solely within Vietnam and also that include Vietnam as part of a multi-country tour through the whole region. There are a variety of different tours and passes to suit everybody. Flexi-tours include everything such as your transport, your accommodation, your tour leader, activities, and offer the chance to be flexible if you wish to stay longer at some of the destinations and to hop onto a different Flexi-Tour coming through at a later date to carry on. Hop-on Hop-off passes allow the same benefits as a Flexi-tour pass, apart from accommodation and activities are pay as you go. They also have one-off adventures such as tours to islands, and city arrival packs which ensure you have a smooth and pleasant introduction to your arrival culture and make some friends.

The exclusive Vietnam Only tours available are a 14 day Flexi Tour or a two week Hop-on Hop-off pass, both of which start in Ho Chi Minh City and finish in Hanoi. There are often deals and packages available directly from the website, so it is worth keeping an eye on the activity at as you approach booking your packages.

There are many tour companies offering similar packages to Stray, however there are many reasons why they are notable and worth considering. Stray, much like the name suggests, absolutely love to take their guests to remote and unique locations that are well off the beaten tourist path, so much so, sometimes they aren't even marked on popular maps. Obviously they still take you to all of the main places that are on everybody's Vietnam to-do lists, but even here they will try to give you a unique and individual perspective, and provide all of the history, culture and environmental information from their local guides and interpreters along the way.

The tour guides are not only very knowledgeable, but very friendly and helpful people. As you are accompanied by your guide for a couple of weeks, they ensure that they become not only your guides, but also your friends. They help you with booking accommodation and activities, tell you about their personal experiences, and ensure the whole group is always having a good time.

Stray's responsible tourism mission is quoted on their website as "to make sure our customers and crew leave the maximum positive impact on local communities, and the minimum negative impact on the environment." They are very supportive of local communities and eco-tourism initiatives, helping out by including homestays in rural locations, lowering carbon emissions, respecting and educating about local religion and cultures and encouraging travellers to contribute as much to the locals and undeveloped communities as possible.

The company likes their customers to relax and to do all the stressful and hard work obtained by travelling for them. The guides are so passionate about their jobs that not only do they know almost everything you could possibly know, but they will help you with everything with a huge smile on their face, and probably enhance your expectations by suggesting things you wouldn't ever have thought of.

While most of the travellers on Stray are under 30, passengers range from 18-45 and nobody is left feeling excluded from the group. If you are travelling alone, and with no travelling experience, it is a fantastic way to meet people from all over the world, to immerse yourself in the local culture, to have a unique experience, and to create some completely unforgettable memories. Everything can be booked directly from the website, and all information regarding passes, routes, and the company's value are all found at

Vietnamese Food

Vietnamese Food

Quickly growing in popularity all over the world, Vietnamese cuisine is packed full of flavour, and is a central part of the culture of the country. One of the greatest things about travel is immersing yourself in the local food scene and venturing as far away from the comforts of your own cuisine, and so here is a quick breakdown of some dishes that are worth trying during your trip to Vietnam.

Pho - perhaps the most well known and the most popular Vietnamese dish found abroad is the Pho. This found absolutely everywhere and anywhere in Vietnam, from the more established restaurants to makeshift Pho stands on the streets. It consists of a salty broth which contains rice noodles, meat (which is usually chicken or beef) and a generous serving of herbs. This dish is eaten by tourists and locals alike, and if you see a crowd of people seated on the street, you have most likely stumbled across a group of people enjoying it.

Bahn xeo - This is a very fine pancake, or crepe, like dish, which has been filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts as well as a garnish of herbs. The local way to eat this is to cut it into small pieces and to roll it in rice paper or lettuce before marinating or dipping it into the sauce that is served with it. Every chef has their preference on sauce and this will vary depending on region and the restaurant.

Bún Ch? - This is another popular dish all over Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi. This is grilled pork sausage dish served with bean sprouts, rice noodles, pickled vegetables and herbs, all brought together with nuóc châm sauce which should be used to cover the entire dish.

Bánh Mì - Much like Pho, this is another dish that has spread itself across international borders and can be found all over the world. This is actually a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine and originates from French Colonisation, when the French arrived with baguettes. The baguettes were filled with Vietnamese ingredients such as crispy pork belly, daikon radish, meatballs and picked carrots and usually a lot of chilli peppers, and they can be found all over Vietnam.

Bot Chien - This one is particularly popular in Saigon as street food, and is often consumed in the early hours of the morning during nights out, much like doner kebabs in England. It consists of crispy fried rice flour dough with egg, and is served with papaya, shallots, pickled chilli sauce, green onions and vinegar.

Canh - No trip to Vietnam is complete without trying Vietnamese soup. Soup is often the cheapest and most flavoursome option on the menu, and they make particularly good snacks if you're not feeling too hungry. The Canh soups are mostly found in the South and contain a mixture of seafood, vegetables and herbs served in a starfruit, tamarind, pineapple or tomato base. There are a lot of contrasting flavours and textures that will send your taste buds on an adventure.

Bahn Cam - This is a popular fried dessert, soft on the inside and crispy on the outside, and speckled with sesame seeds. They are filled with a sweet bean paste and are a particular favourite amongst the locals.

Xoi - This is a savory rice which is very sticky in texture and, while it is served with chicken or pork or even eggs, often steals the show and becomes the centre of the entire dish. Whatever protein is served with the rice, you can expect dried shallots on the top.

While you will find burger and pizza restaurants if you look hard enough, isn't it better to ditch the comfort food and try something exciting and new? While you may eat something you absolutely hate, you may also go home with a new favourite food and a new found appreciation for Vietnamese cuisine.

Vietnam by motorbike

Vietnam by motorbike

One of the most popular ways to experience Vietnam, or indeed any of the countries in South East Asia, is by renting or buying a motorbike to travel between points of interest. This is particularly popular among the backpacking community, and is a unique and interesting way to experience the country.

The first thing to consider, if you wish to travel this way, is to ensure that your licence covers you driving in Vietnam. Check with your national automobile association that you are legal and okay to ride, and if not make sure you make the correct amendments to avoid getting caught out by authorities. Before you travel to Vietnam you should also ensure that you have the correct visa for your travel, and also travel insurance, especially as motorcycle accidents can be very harmful and are actually quite common. With this in mind, it might be worth also considering buying some protection such as motorcycle gloves and even potentially a helmet from a trustworthy source in your home country for some added peace of mind. While a lot of people don't wear helmets, it is a very good idea to have a good one with you.

It is also a good idea to ensure you have satellite navigation of sorts. While it is possible to get around using maps and compasses, it might be hard to locate an english speaking local in rural areas in case you need help with this, and if you don't have time to learn basic Vietnamese, this is your best chance for easy navigation. If you intend to use your smartphone, check you that use this abroad before you embark on your motorcycle adventure.

You will most likely land in either Ha Noi or Saigon, and the best places to locate and buy a bike are in the District 1 of Saigon and the Old Quarter of Ha Noi. Here, many backpackers will display their bikes with "for sale" signs attached on the side of the street. You can also use Craigslist Vietnam to buy and sell motorcycles. You can usually find a bike for between $400 and $800USD, and if you are only owning it for a short time, it is worth not getting some too nice as this attracts thieves. Honda Cubs and Wins are popular choices that shouldn't break your budget. When you are buying your bike, make sure you ask as many questions as possible to check for safety and the history of the bike also. If you have any emergencies during your trip, there are plenty of workshops on the roadside that should be able to help you repair anything that you can't repair yourself, although a little mechanical knowledge will go a long way during your trip.

Travelling by bike is a fantastic way to see the country as it allows you complete freedom over where you travel, where you stop, and how long you spend at each location. Travelling by public bus is considerably cheaper, but you will bypass a lot of amazing photo opportunities at the side of the road, and you have to rely on the bus schedules and locations that they travel to. As it's such a popular option for travelling around the country, you are likely to meet other people following similar routes who may even want to travel with you for a while. There is a real sense of adventure and adrenaline which you would not experience if you were travelling using public transport, and overcoming mechanical problems add to a general sense of satisfaction when you arrive at your destination. As the old cliche goes; it's all about the journey, not the destination. And for any of those really long trips that you don't want to complete on the back of the bike, it is actually quite common to take your bike on the train with you.

Vietnam has thousands of kilometres of coastal highways, steep and winding mountain roads, and rainforests to explore. Riding by motorcycle is a really excellent way to connect with the landscapes around you and for a once in a lifetime experience. If you are planning a backpacking trip around Vietnam or South East Asia, it is worth considering travelling this way, and the stories you will be able to tell afterwards are bound to make all of your friends and family very jealous.