Category Archives: Things to do

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!

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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.

Four alternative things to do in Cape Town.

“This cape is the most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.”
Sir Francis Drake, 1580

So said Sir Frances Drake, an Englishman, a captain, a politician and everything in between, when he first laid eyes on the Cape back in 1580.

Although I cannot, yet, claim to having seen the ‘whole circumference of the earth’, I do tend to agree with this esteemed fellow. Cape Town is truly a spectacular place, and I can see how Francis would have been moved to utter such sentiments.

Francis is not alone in his love of the Fairest Cape. In 2010 Cape Town made it onto the Forbes.com list of ‘World’s Most Beautiful Cities’  This year Cape Town was featured in TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Destinations. At position number 1, I might add.

So what’s the big deal about this Cape Town place? Well there’s Table Mountain, the V&A Waterfront and Robben Island, beautiful beaches from Cliffton all the way around to Kalk Bay, Cape Point, Champan’s Peak and a lot more in between. These things, time and again, make it onto lists of ‘Must Do’ things in the Cape, and for good reason. See here and here for some such lists.

But how about doing something a little different? Seeing something equally as beautiful, but just slightly off the beaten track? If you’re interested read on and you’ll find out 4 alternative things you may like to experience in “the fairest cape (you shall see) in the whole circumference of the earth”.

1.  Wake up on a Saturday morning and go and grab brunch in Woodstock at the Old Biscuit Mill‘s Neighbourhood Goods Market.

The market has gained enormous popularity in the last few years, and for good reason. What you can expect to find is a community of people who are passionate about food, clothes, jewelry, art and design.  The food will make your mouth water and leave you unsure of if you should choose to eat from the steaming pots of seafood paella, the wood fired pizza, the mouth- watering steak burgers, the endless array of dips, spreads and breads. Go to the market hungry, very hungry. See here for details.

2. Of course you simply have to go up Table Mountain, but why not try something a little different and go for a hike at Silvermine?

Hiking in Silvermine, taken by the folks over at Pepper Gap Year.

Silvermine is located in the Table Mountain National Park, on the way out to Cape Point. There are many hiking trails that you can choose from, ranging from easy to more strenuous, but they are all spectacular and offer great views of the peninsular. Here is a little more insider information.

3. On your way back to the city centre from your hike you could, or should, stop off in Newlands at one of Cape Town’s oldest pubs, The Foresters Arms, fondly known to all the locals as Forries.

Forries is a great place to sample endless draughts of South Africa’s finest beers in their tree-covered courtyard. You may also like to try out the crispy wood-fired pizza or a juicy hamburger while you are surrounded by hordes of die-hard rugby or cricket supporters. You’ll be in the festive spirit of national sport loving camaraderie in no time, I can guarantee it.

4. I bet ‘Signal Hill for a sunset’ is on your list? Well it should be! But if you want to watch the sun set from an even more magnificent place I suggest that you get on over to Ocean View Drive.

Ocean View Drive is all that its name suggests- a road that winds along the contours of Signal Hill that has a, well, view of the ocean. But go to the end of that road and you may wish to change that name to ‘Ocean- Mountain-Bay-Amazing-View Drive’. Just saying. Although you might need a map, or GPS, for this one it is worth it. Park at the end of the road, amongst the houses of the rich and famous (I’m assuming they are rich and/ or famous with houses like that!) and scramble through the bushes and out onto the rocks. It’s not dangerous, I promise. It is spectacular to see the rock face of the 12 Apostles bathed in the pink light and the twinkling lights of the houses down in Camps Bay. The other tourists will be supremely jealous when they see your photos.

And that’s it. Well not really, but I can’t give away all the secrets of the fairest Cape too quickly or too easily or I might take away all the fun that you’ll no doubt have discovering it for yourself.