Trails and trials of the writer who walks
Tours from Hanoi are very cheap, and there’s a lot of competition between tour operators, with several booking offices in every street. When you see that they are all called ‘Sinh Café’, and sport the same flying bird logo, it’s easy to assume that this is one huge company with rather too many branches. This is exactly what I think until my hotel room internet research reveals that there is no protection of trade names in Vietnam. After the success, and good reputation, of the original Sinh Café agency in the nineties, every new operator began to trade under the same name. This explains the wildly diverse Tripadvisor reviews from Sinh Café customers. One helpful reviewer, however, leads me to believe that the real Sinh Café tour operator trades from 114 Hang Bac, so off I go to find it. The office I walk into, bearing the same name and logo, is actually number 112 but when I ask if I’m in the right place, a smiling young man assures me that the ‘real Sinh Café’ address is 112/114. He shows me pictures, but has nothing printed to give me, and when he writes down my details on a cheap notepad, my suspicions are aroused. I leave without booking anything, and realise, as soon as I’m outside, that no. 114 is actually a completely separate, although identical, office next door. The young woman in 114 has itineraries to hand, proper invoices, and can take payment by card for a very fair exchange rate. I book a day trip, to give the company a try, before committing myself to any longer ones.
My ‘trial run’ trip is to the Perfume Pagoda: a two hour comfortable bus drive into the countryside followed by tranquil river journeys (in a rowing boat but no requirement to share the rowing, I’m glad to say), to visit the temple in the cavern at one site, and the mountaintop pagoda (by cable car) at another. An extensive hot buffet lunch is included. To give you an idea of value, the entire trip including lunch and all transport door to door from hotel, is $39. The next day I’m back at 114 booking an overnight Halong Bay cruise and a four day trekking trip into the Sapa Mountains in the north.
(Postscript: I went on four different excursions with this company. All were exceptional value and efficiently organised.)