Central and Southern Vietnam

There is no stopping us. The whirlwind tour of Vietnam must continue! There are just too many places to get to and things to see and do. And clothes to be tailored!

The stops that we made on the way to Ho Chi Minh City were: Hue- the old imperial city, Hoi An- where clothes are made, Dalat- where you abseil down waterfalls and the Mekong Delta- where you get slightly disappointed. Read on to find out more about each of our stops!

If you look at a map of Vietnam, you will realise that we had a lot of ground to cover, so even though we had roughly two weeks, it was going to be a lot to get to. And we also needed time to recover from the whirlwind that we had just emerged from. We were pretty exhausted!

HUE

We decided to spend only one night in Hue, but because we were taking a series of over-night buses (so bad, but so good- more on this later!) this still gave us 2 full days.

The old Imperial capital of Vietnam is a must-see in my opinion, and all of us were glad that we decided to stop here. After an extremely long bus ride (always add at least 2 to 3 hours extra onto the arrival time!) we decided that we would rent bicycles to explore the city. I highly recommend doing this because you can cycle all around the walls of the old palace, something you couldn’t easily do by walking. The palace complex is rather run down and over-grown, but I still felt myself comparing it to the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Inside the old palace grounds in Hue.

Inside the old palace grounds in Hue.

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One of the entrances into the palace grounds.

We also had our first night out since Hanoi here. Watch out for Vietnamese rum- it is dangerously good and deliciously cheap and meant we were bed ridden for most of the following morning!

HOI AN

Hoi An was the spot where we decided we would spend a couple of nights so that we could take a much needed break from sleeper buses and dirty clothes.  And we did just that and didn’t even feel bad about doing nothing because it was rainy! Conveniently it is also the place to be if you want to get tailor made clothes.

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Chose your style and your fabric, get measured and pick up your tailor made garments 24hrs later.

As well as getting a couple of suits and dresses made we also managed to do a day trip to the My Son Hindi temple site which was heavily bombed during the Vietnamese war. It was strange to come face to face with the war like this. Our guide aggressively pointed out the destruction and I for one was glad that I was not an American that day.

Some of the bomb craters and debris that the Americans left behind.

Some of the bomb craters and debris that the Americans left behind.

The town of Hoi An is really lovely to walk, or bike, around and there are lots of shops and tailors and excellent restaurants to spend time in.

Downtown Hoi An.

Downtown Hoi An.

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VERY cheap beer. And fresh!

DALAT

Dalat has been one of my favourite stops in Vietnam because it is so different. I don’t know what it is- the manicured lawns? The flower garden? The style the houses are built in? The pine trees? The fact that it is sometimes referred to as ‘le petite Paris’? Whatever it was, it was nice!

Aside from being known as a mini- Paris, Dalat is also known for the numerous waterfalls that surround it. So one of our days there was spent motorcycling through the country in search of the ‘Elephant Falls’. Although we got lost, ended up at a water sanitation farm, found our way, ran out of petrol, refilled the offending tank and then got stuck in a heavy downpour, we finally made it to the falls. After such an eventful day the falls did seem rather anti-climatic, but we were happy that we had actually made it and that we actually got to stand behind the falls.

A very civil picnic in Vietnams's mini-Paris. Wine and Baguettes, yes please!

A very civil picnic in Vietnams’s mini-Paris. Wine and Baguettes, yes please!

But the main activity we did in Dalat, which is a must, was waterfall abseiling. It has been one of the most fun days of the trip so far! We spent the day in the company of very capable and well equipped waterfall-abseiling experts, who even managed to save my life after I slipped in a 25 meter waterfall. I cheated death! The day involves a couple of dry runs- getting the technique down before adding water into the mix, and then a series of descents into the river, a picnic lunch, a rock slide, the 25 meter through the water abseil (which nearly got me) and then a mini cliff jump into a murky pool. All very safe! It was truly a wonderful experience (even the part where I got stuck in the middle of a waterfall).

Waterfall abseiling!

Waterfall abseiling!

More on Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and Vietnamese bus rides in the next post!

Northern Vietnam

In the space of a week we have explored the chaos of Hanoi’s old quarter, visited the rural town of Nihn Bihn, done the whole Halong Bay thing, been back to Hanoi to catch a bus to Sapa to trek and have ended up back in Hanoi waiting for another bus. Thank goodness for organised and determined friends.

HANOI

The capital of Vietnam is a twisting mass of narrow roads, cluttered sidewalks, tiny plastic chairs, bicycle merchants, rubbish and midnight curfews.

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There is no visible logic to the streets of Hanoi!

Some cool things to do are explore the different streets in the old quarter. They are all trade or merchandise specific! Go for an early run around the Hoan Kiem Lake and take in the morning tai chi classes. Eat Pho at a impromptu side walk restaurant- remember Pho is a breakfast food, so look for the mobile restaurants in the mornings. Drink thick, sweet Vietnamese coffee. At any time of the day.

A view of Hoan Kiem Lake

A view of Hoan Kiem Lake

NIHN BIHN

The town of Nihn Bihn is small and rural and has not yet been over-run with tourists. The 2 hour trip turned into a 3 hour one along bumpy roads with the driver making full use of his hooter. These are all things we are slowly getting used to, traveling through Vietnam!

But getting to Nihn Bihn was worth it. We spent our first afternoon there on tiny little canoes, rowed by leathery men and woman well into their old age, on the Ngo-Dong river. This is one of the most popular things to do while visiting Nihn Bihn and there were indeed other tourists around. The river winds through towering limestone karsts and apple-green rice paddies and ploughs its way through 3 main cave systems. The there-and-back-again trip takes around 2 hours.

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Tour boats on the Ngo Dong river with towering krasts in the background.

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One rickety canoe. One strong rower. One Determined saleswoman. Two oblivious tourists!

The following morning we took a taxi out to the Bai Dinh temple complex, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. The temple complex is built up on a hill. The outer walls are lined with hundreds of stone Buddhas all sporting worn out knees from the hands of the pilgrims that flock here. Inside the temple complex you will see gigantic gold statues, a soaring pagoda, an enormous bronze bell, a pond and many pilgrims. It is a peaceful place. if you are thinking of visiting Bai Dinh you should allow at least 40 minutes to get there from Nihn Bihn and at least 90 minutes to look around.

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The worn out knees of the statues on the way up to the top of the Bai Dinh temple complex.

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Pilgrims making their way up to the Buddha at the top most end of the Bai Dinh temple.

HALONG BAY

Halong Bay was the complete opposite to where we had just come from. Full of tourists, touts and options for where we wanted to spend the night. Because we were on such a tight schedule we decided that we wouldn’t do the whole 3 days/ 2 nights out on the bay and rather just do a day trip. If I ever get the chance to go back to Halong Bay I would do the overnight tour. The Bay was beautiful and we only just scratched the surface.

Fishing boats with the islands of Halong Bay in the background.

Fishing boats with the islands of Halong Bay in the background.

SAPA

Our last stop on the tour of the North was Sapa. My favourite stop! We were here to do a trek into the hills with some of the locals. Sapa is a mountain town that is home to a number of minority tribes, most of whom offer treks up into the mountains and their villages. The way that these treks are offered is comical. Women flock around arriving buses, most of which are overnight from Hanoi, and hound you until you agree to trek with them. And then they hound you all day, with smiles and giggles and ‘Remember me?’ “Buy from me!’ They are relentless but amusing.

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The group of young H’Mong women who followed us around, relentlessly, all day.

The trek we decided to go on was with a woman form the Black H’Mong tribe. It is the biggest tribe in the area and the woman are easily identifiable by their indigo outfits and colourful head scarves. We were doing a 2 day trek which involved hiking up to the village, and by village I mean 2 houses, spending the afternoon at the village looking around, hanging out and eating and drinking with the family, sleeping on a wooden platform about the kitchen fire and hiking out of the mountains the following day. It was an amazing experience to talk to our guide, who has learnt English only from talking with tourists, and seeing how the H’Mong live in the hills in a wooden hut with a mud floor, a couple of horses, pigs and chickens and a few terraces of rice paddies. I would highly recommend the experience if you ever find yourself in Sapa.

Green tea fields up in the mountains around Sapa.

Green tea fields up in the mountains around Sapa.

Northern Vietnam was cold and grey and chaotic and a whirlwind.

Our humble lodgings for the night , high in the mountains around Sapa.

Our humble lodgings for the night , high in the mountains around Sapa.

And with that our whirlwind tour of Northern Vietnam came to an end.

Hanoi Reunions

I had an early flight out of Bangkok, I was up at 4am to get to the airport on time. But it was so worth it because I was going to be reunited with my wonderful friends in Hanoi, Vietnam. Double whammy!

Thailand had made travel so easy. It was a good place to start in. Hanoi on the other hand is a different story. There was nobody at the airport rushing up to me with a colour-coded sticker, ushering me to a bus, predicting my desired move. Hanoi hit me with some realities of travel.

This person looked at me with hungry eyes, ‘jump in my taxi’ they said. That person, much more official looking, looked at me with weary eyes, ‘my taxi is more expensive, but I’m much more reliable’ they said. ‘Where is the bus?’ I asked. They warned, ‘don’t take that bus, it’s very slow.’ Then they were all around me at once. I was the deer in the headlights. The clueless tourist. That was my own fault. I hadn’t checked my options, I hadn’t planned my moves, I hadn’t written down the address of the hostel where I wanted to go. The taxi driver assured me that he knew where ‘Hanoi Hostel’ was. I believed him. I jumped in. The other eyes followed me. I was on my way into Hanoi.

It was an interesting drive. Vietnam seemed a world apart from Thailand in terms of development. It also didn’t help that the sky was hanging low and grey, cold. Bicycles, scooters, cars, buses and pedestrians swarmed the highway in certain areas. I blinked my eyes shut as we squeezed past them. Houses stood like tightly packed matchboxes, their contents overflowing, bursting out of the front windows.

Every inch of space is used in Hanoi.

Every inch of space is used in Hanoi.

As we sped into downtown Hanoi my mouth couldn’t help turning into a smile. It is just like in the pictures, just the way people describe it. Narrow, chaotic, full, colourful and dirty. I loved it. And then the taxi driver started his funny business. He all of a sudden didn’t know where the hostel was. He could only deposit me at the doorstep of a different place, where he would obviously then get a cut. All of a sudden the 4am start, the chaos, the hustle and the confusion of Hanoi didn’t seem so good. I am terrible at finding my way. I was not looking forward to shouldering my backpack and wondering the curving streets of Hanoi trying to find a matchbox shaped building in among all of the other identical matchboxes.

Trying to navigate the streets of Hanoi.

Trying to navigate the streets of Hanoi.

But I did it! And I was reunited with two very special friends, who are, thankfully, way better at following maps and getting their bearings than I am. They are generally also way more prepared and have a plan for our 3 weeks in Vietnam. Luckily they had also figured out how to cross the streets of Hanoi, which is no easy feat for a first timer- it pretty much involves a slow and steady pace, and no fear. Just go. Join in the hustle.

Freinds, Hanoi, mini plastic tables, beer and street food!

Freinds, Hanoi, mini plastic tables, beer and street food!

Gallery

Bangkok in pictures

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Bangkok is everything that everybody says it is. It’s hot and alive and dirty and full of temples, misleading information, cheap foot massages, aggressive tuk tuk drivers, cheap beer, delicious food and vests covered with beer logos. I’ll let the pictures tell … Continue reading