Awake at 4am for the interesting 12 hour bus in to Vietnam. When I get used to the travel system in each country my journeys become slightly less daunting but leaving one country to cross the border to another always sets the nerves on edge a little; so being collected late by the tuktuk taxi didn’t initially instil me with confidence. The bus had these odd reclining seats but helped make the long journey a little more comfortable. We made lots of stops for toilet breaks, to bribe police officers and for one man to burn incense and pray which was very interesting. At border control you leave the bus to pass through security and re-enter further on. I was relieved to get through security without any problems but then as I exited the building there was no bus to be seen. Trying to subdue my fear I frantically walked down the road past more security and being pestered by other bus services; only to find my bus re-fueling. Phew! The 12 hour journey ended with us being dropped off just outside Hue at a random petrol station where with an older German couple I managed to get a taxi.
A bit more tension as many of the ATMs weren’t working but eventually managed to access money and find a hostel off the beaten track making it quite lonely.
There are plenty of places to interest a tourist in Hue but I decided to make my way to the Citadel via a great local market. The place had the typical features of Vietnam and was jammed to the rafters. Shop keepers wedged in between and then popping out like a jack-in-a-box trying to sell their wares; I bought a belt – think I’ve lost some weight!
Within this huge Imperial City, surrounded by an impressive moat and stone walls you can feel the history and culture of a bygone era. Despite its sprawling site it has an air of tranquillity and harmony especially around the lake and pagoda. There are many hidden corners to avoid the crowds and take great pictures. Beautiful buildings sit next to ruins after being destroyed in wars. A huge restoration project is under way but makes it really interesting to view the before and after. Many of the buildings require you to remove your shoes before entering but I love the respect that this portrays.
From here I took the night train to Hanoi meeting up with Mile from Sydney and Alison from the USA. We stayed together to find a hostel then split to follow our own interests. I got incredibly lost in the chaos of the place with every street looking the same as the last. I did manage to find a lake to relax by though and found some home comforts in the way of chips, toasties and hot chocolate. Not knowing what your next meal will be and where you will get it has provided some wonderful experiences having recently tried sugar cane and fruit drink! The following day along with Mile and Alison we went off on a very long hunt to find food, ending up in the back alley of all back allies and eating deep fried pancakes with veg along with the locals – when will I learn ??? I won’t give you the details but I was ill for 3 days afterwards!!! Due to being so ill I moved in to a cheap hotel to ensure I had en-suite facilities – that was about the only positive I can say about it. No toilet roll or hot water, disturbed by a water pump umpteen times a day, cockroaches everywhere and to top it all I came away with my legs scratched to pieces as the rats had eaten the bed mattress and left the springs exposed. A long three days as didn’t feel confident to leave my room for long!! Enough of that though.
Allegedly one of the seven wonders of the world – although I’m not sure I believe all I read anymore! However it was one of the places I had highlighted to visit and was really looking forward to, so it seemed quite appropriate to visit here on my birthday.
The city of Halong is not spectacular and quite a disappointing contrast, with its high-rise buildings, to the bay.
Halong Bay is made up of tiny islets in emerald water surrounded by towering limestone pillars and lush rainforest. Its ethereal beauty makes it a tourist hot spot but not so in March so in that respect it was quite pleasant. The reason that March makes the area less populated though is the weather, tending to be cool and drizzly. So during my time there it was quite misty and although I would have loved to see it at its best the mist added to the atmosphere.
According to research “Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’ and legend tells that this mystical seascape was created when a great mountain dragon charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouging out valleys and crevasses. As the creature plunged into the sea, the area filled with water leaving only the pinnacles visible. The geological explanation of karst erosion may be more prosaic, but doesn’t make this seascape any less poetic.”
Arriving at the harbour I booked a boat tour with a guy from California. I chilled on the top of the boat till we stopped off to do some kayaking. The double kayaks were more difficult to manoeuvre than the singles I have been used to but I managed to get to Surprise Cave which was huge and lit up in colour. The surprise is that as you first enter the cave down some steps it appears quite narrow but then opens up to an immense space.
Back on the boat I enjoyed wine and fruit, watched it go dark then tea and some free beers before fishing for squid. Bill (the older Californian) and I enjoyed some time quality time having an in-depth conversation about life!!
Next day we had an early breakfast then got another boat for Cat ba Island, one of the largest islands; a rugged, craggy jungle space with lakes and waterfalls. We climbed a hill for great views, almost like the purple mountains in the Philippines. Good job I’ve become quite self-sufficient – the crazy guide left us!!! Luckily found a hostel and I had tried Cuban Black Bean soup for tea which was nice and a great change from rice and noodles!!!
Bill and myself got the bus back to Hanoi, enjoyed a meal of tofu and egg coffee – like eggnog on top of espresso. I helped Bill to purchase a phone and then we spent our last evening in Hanoi at a jazz bar, just loved ‘Cry Me a River’. What a great evening!!
Next stop Tam Coc, I rented a scooter to some caves, one with a temple inside. Caves had great names like ‘Heaven and Hell’ and ‘Mermaid’ where you walked on floating boats lit up and really impressive. I went to the bird-watching area and got lost again trekking through the jungle and around a lake. I did see a crocodile though and found a path to a tree claimed to be 1000 years old.
A great train ride with amazing views of Hai Van Pass and the coast took me to Da Nang where I bumped in to Bill again; we shared a meal at a non-English speaking place that turned out to be a very funny experience. Then I decided to walk by the river to Green Island thinking it sounded nice. It turned out to be just a rich part of the city, so I got in the staff elevator of a posh hotel to the top floor and rich quarters to look down on the amazing views.
Later I met Christine in the hostel we went to the beach with the idea of getting bicycles but she had forgotten her passport so we wandered around then chilled before doing a Couchsurfing meet up, with like 30 people, a lot of them Vietnamese wanting to practice English which made it slightly awkward. Then we met up with another group from the hostel; we had heard about a bridge designed like a dragon that breathes fire and water at weekends. We only managed to spot it from a distance though as we had left it too late.
We then got a free shuttle to Hoi An, famous for its old town and of course suit sales, which I stayed well away from after my Bangkok mishap!!!!
On the bus I met up with a Brazilian lady Noila, a Dutch guy Far and an Aussy Joseph; I am loving meeting all these nationalities and finding out how our cultures are similar or different as the case may be. Christine and I took a bike ride towards the beach, the long way round, taking in the rice paddies and fishing. We approached a local boat and got a 30 min plus ride around the river to view the fishing boats and huge nets they used.
A few of us later spent the evening playing pool, games and drinks.
Christine and myself spent the following day wandering around the old town to the Japanese Bridge and after discovering there were no night trains out that night we shared some fantastic cheap and filling street food. On exiting I saw an old man crash in to a motorcycle, it was really sad I helped pick up his bike and others came to help but not a word was said by anyone – it was really strange!
Next the train to Nha Trang – during the day – this time on a seat!!!
Today saw another long 12 hour train journey whilst experiencing some local travel customs; along with views of amazing rice paddy fields and mountains in the distance. Some hours before arriving I sat with a deaf woman which was interesting and I think I got more conversation out of her than most people I sit next to which was lovely! I arrived late, had a longer walk to the hostel than expected and was so tired and hungry I ate the first thing I saw. Then a little wander on the beach in the dark, bare foot in the cold sand! I woke had the free breakfast and another walk down to the beach – it was so odd being in Vietnam but with so many Russians and even the signs were in Russian. This place turned out to be a true touristy, beach holiday resort; not for me at all so I jumped on another bus with more great scenery for 4 hour journey to Dalat.
Off the bus and straight into a nice new hostel with a very warm welcome. Normally I stay away from these places where they drop you off but it was getting late and it turned out to be a great deal. The beds slightly hard but a beautiful husky dog with breakfast and tea included. All good!! I met 2 Swedish guys at tea and we chatted of the travelling life, home and the future!!
The next day the Swedish guys and I rented scooters and made our way over to Pagoda with a great view of a lake and surrounding areas which was mainly greenhouses full of flowers!!! After another pit stop and food we decided to find Tiger Waterfalls; unfortunately after clocking up over 30km and using the whole afternoon we could not find it!! Our ‘lost’ theme continued for the rest of the day! That evening we had planned to follow the hostel owner to ‘100 Roofs Bar’ which is a maze of rooms on different levels, even some underground with steps, tunnels and unusual decoration. I arrived OK and spent a while exploring the amazing set-up… yes and getting lost! This would be such a cool place to play Hide-and-Seek. Unknown to me the Swedish guys had stopped for a broken light; the owner went out to try and find them with no luck. I eventually decided to call it a night and ended up just missing the guys – they found the bar just after I’d left!
Taking the scooters again the day after, we followed a private hire car to aid our navigation and successfully found Elephant Falls.
We followed another private canyoneering tour around the rocks for all the best views of the waterfall!!!
On the way back we stopped off at the Weasel Coffee Café. It had great views but I wasn’t that impressed with the coffee or the condition the weasels were kept in. I first heard of this coffee while watching the film ‘Bucket List’ where it is known by its more popular name of Kopi Luwak. It is the most expensive coffee in the world – and if you can find it in London it could cost you £70 per cup!!!
The coffee is made from beans of coffee berries that have been ingested and excreted by these small cat-like creatures. It is believed that this improves the taste of the coffee. Once excreted the beans are collected and washed and are sold for prices in the region of £700 per kilo. This was once a natural process but this lucrative income now means that intensive farms have sprung up but the condition that some of these animals are kept in and the stories that they are force-fed the beans raises ethical concerns.
On a brighter note while passing the greenhouses again we did manage to locate Tiger Waterfalls. They were quite difficult to access but so worth it being even better than we had expected. The sun setting behind as we swam in the fall of the water left us with lasting treasured memories. Arriving back at the hostel we realised we had earlier left behind our room keys; thankfully a local had noticed and kept them safe for us – this we discovered through sign language and dramatic Vietnamese conversation.
The next day I caught the 5 hour bus to Mui Ne for the famous and enormous sand dunes.
In an attempt to find a cheap hostel I ended up being ganged up on by about 6 dogs barking so ferociously I ran off to find a similar priced guesthouse. After all that excitement I enjoyed a dusk stroll followed by a warm orange juice with the backdrop of a crocodile on a spit – just a normal night eh???
The next day after seeing lots of police pulling over scooters and already spending the last 2 days on scooters I booked a jeep tour of the Fairy Stream which was a very nice low level stream walk with great rock and sand formations!! Then a quick stop at a fishing village with colourful picture perfect views!! Then the White Sand dunes with extra automotive tours, very expensive so I ended up walking. It was very difficult in 35 degree heat and sliding in the sand! Not quite the deserted perfect view because of all the vehicles and tourists but still very nice with sea and lake views included!! Then off to the Yellow Dunes for sunset and slides again, beautiful but again not the perfection I had envisaged because of all the rubbish and tourists – although I am one doesn’t mean I like them!
Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC or more commonly known as Saigon
A six hour bus ride took me to Saigon – for the beginning of my first full day in this vibrant city I treated myself to a small box of cereal and carton of milk as I had not had cereal since I left the UK. Funny isn’t it that something you take so much for granted in one place becomes a luxury somewhere else – man did I enjoy that breakfast!! In fact so much so I bought more and for that day I had cereal for each meal.
Saigon is a bustling city full of energy where the French colonial architecture meets neatly with designer malls under sleek skyscrapers and dotted with incense infused allies but my interests took me to the famous War Remnants Museum that was really interesting. Saigon was pivotal for its role in the Vietnamese War and the museum gives a frightening insight in to how it was for the Vietnamese – we so often only hear about it in films usually from an American perspective. The graphic images and descriptions doesn’t make for a comfortable day out but I feel is important to learn from what happened.
From there I went in to the park where this guy insisted on cleaning and fixing my shoes; he tried and I argued; the end result being I came away with a bigger hole!
Leaving England I had never managed to acquire a taste for coffee so I was quite surprised at myself that this was beginning to change. Some cups have been bearable and some not so, as previously mentioned, however my last cup of Vietnamese coffee was probably my best. The first problem was trying to find hot coffee on a hot day but once that was done I sat down to savour it – as thick as treacle, a perfect amount of sugar and condensed milk – with all these calories if I had stayed in Vietnam much longer I may not have needed the new belt!
That afternoon I went along to the Cu Chi Tunnels – the guide had a very thick accent but described every aspect of how during the war the Vietnamese lived in the miles upon miles of tunnels, hiding from the Americans. One of the people on our tour came across a scorpion but this seemed nothing compared to the terror these people had lived in. They had lived in these tunnels, cooked in there and hid their weapons; it shows how resourceful and desperate these people were and the lengths they had to go to in order to survive. Some American and Australian soldiers were employed as tunnel rats; their job was to go down in to these underground systems to search and destroy the enemy. I can’t imagine the fear they must have felt on both sides; that of being found or those coming up against booby traps and the like in their quest for victory. The horrors of war!!!