Vietnam was unbelievable, it became our favourite very quickly. I honestly feel like we didn't waste a single minute here. We packed even more into our already tight itinerary and not even a moment felt like a chore. The contrast between the hectic cities and slow pace of the country was incredible. We went from calm to busy and back again, so never felt burnt out. We felt euphoric for a month. Even before we had got off the plane we'd been befriended by a Vietnamese lady and when we got lost in Hanoi we were helped immediately without them wanting anything in return. It was refreshing to feel so looked after and because I felt so comfortable, I pushed myself to do things I never thought I could. We were lucky to be able to share lots of this country with Sinéad and Barry who we met on the Halong Bay boat trip. The only downside for me was the food. I really struggled to get anything tasty and vegetarian because vegetarianism is almost unheard of in Vietnamese culture. Pretty much if it moves, they eat it. Mat loved beautiful Hoi An the most, with its charming, crumbly buildings and winding streets. Cycling around on our battered, old bicycles in the sunshine, I felt like we should have been in a holiday brochure. Sapa in North Vietnam was my favourite. What I thought I would like the most before I came travelling was being on a beach, having the sun on my face, palm trees swaying around me, a swanky hotel. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely do like those things, but for some reason Sapa just touched my heart. It rained constantly for the whole time we were there, I was freezing and we were in a hostel. Maybe it was because it was such a stark contrast to the previous four months and I was ready for something different. Maybe it was because it hadn't originally been on our itinerary, I didn't know what to expect and it took me by surprise. I used to hate surprises until this trip!
Monday 23rd March - Day 101 - Sapa
Sapa, WOW! Chess got us a room with an amazing view at the hostel, it's unbelievable. You can watch the mist clear and then creep in again, swallowing up the valley and the mountains. The weather's pretty rubbish, it's like rainy England but it's nice to be able to breathe for a while and I've dug out my favourite snuggly joggers from the depths of my backpack. The hostel's ace, I feel like we're at a ski lodge. The flight from Laos was fine, it was only 40 minutes but it was either that or a 24 hour bus ride which is commonly known throughout South East Asia as 'the bus journey from hell.' We got a bus from the airport to Hanoi which is MENTAL, then hung around the hostel where we were getting our sleeper bus to Sapa from. The seats weren't allocated on this sleeper, so there were a tense few moments where everyone pretended not to be bothered about that and we all put on our nonchalant face. Then came the mad stampede as soon as the door opened. We managed to get beds next to each other and I slept fine although they were very different to what we'd been used to in Laos. We awoke in a bus station at 6am to find lots of local *Hmong ladies peering in at us which was a bit unnerving but pretty comical! As we got off the bus they tried to get us to commit to going to their village with them but there was no chance I was going to do that without speaking to Chess first.
- Hmong are an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Hmong are also one of the sub-groups of the Miao ethnicity in southern China. Hmong groups began a gradual southward migration in the 18th century due to political unrest and to find more arable land. Vietnamese Hmong women continuing to wear 'traditional' clothing tend to source much of their clothing as 'ready to wear' cotton (as against traditional hemp) from markets, though some add embroidery as a personal touch. In Sapa, now with a 'standardised' clothing look, Black Hmong sub-groups have differentiated themselves by adopting different headwear; those with a large comb embedded in their long hair (but without a hat) call themselves Tao, those with a pillbox hat name themselves Giay, and those with a checked headscarf are Yao. For many, such as Flower Hmong, the heavily beaded skirts and jackets are manufactured in China.
The sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sapa. Three rows of two high bunk beds with nowhere to put your daypack, far too short for most Westerners and doesn't recline enough at all. Still, I can sleep anywhere!
Chess pretending to be busy
The view from our room
Tuesday 24th March - Day 102 - Sapa
Just got back from a day trek with the Hmong. We were going to go with the hostel which was about $75 dollars each but there was no one else booked on it and I wasn't convinced about staying over at their house, especially as the weather was so bad. The only good thing about the Sapa weather was that it was so cold our drinking water stayed at a great temperature. Chess had a Hmong lady friend called Susu who she arranged to collect us from the hostel. We could walk to her village which Chess told us was five minutes away and then spend the day with them, experiencing their village life and sampling their food all for $10 each. When we met Susu, she told us 'Susu too many poo poo' (diarrhoea!) and that we would be well looked after by her sister Summi instead. Summi was a sweet little thing that spoke excellent English. They improve their English through conversing with tourists as a large part of their income comes from us. Turns out their village wasn't five minutes away, it was a four hour trek. Thanks Chess. I couldn't have been any more inappropriately dressed in trainer socks, my vans, leggings and a small hoody. Luckily we'd bought thin, plastic ponchos half an hour earlier because the rain was borderline torrential for most of the four hours. We trekked up a mountain, around it and then down for a while, passing three villages before we got to Summi's house. We were soaked and freezing and upon reflection I am definitely glad we didn't stay the night! Summi's family cooked us a lovely lunch of tofu curry, rice, noodles and veggie spring rolls and then we looked at some photo's from around the village as it was too wet and slippy to be traipsing around any longer. We looked at some of their homemade handicrafts and I bought two little bags and a purse because I'm fed up of carrying our money around in a plastic bag. There's always that moment in situations like this where you worry that you will be pressured or feel obliged to buy some of their things, politely decline and then the mood will be soured. Luckily they were things I wanted. After lunch, Summi walked us further down the mountain to wait for our motorbike taxi's to take us back to our hostel. Now there have been some hairy moments travelling up until now, reckless drivers, dangerous mountain roads etc. But if I'd have known that the next 20 minutes would be spent thinking I was going to die, I would have insisted she got us a taxi, no matter the cost. 20 minutes is a long time to think you are going to die. The bike sped off with me on the back clinging on for dear life. Think about a road you have seen in really bad condition. Times that by about a million and you're not even close to what he was driving us over. I'd have had a hard time walking along it in walking boots. Add some torrential rain, a foot of mud, hairpin bends with no barriers, a drop of 1000 feet to the left, on coming traffic with no lights, fog so thick you can barely see your hand in front of your face and your motorbike taxi driver driving at a gazillion mph. I was so scared I couldn't even squeak out a protest. When we reached Sapa, I got off the bike and I could barely stand. I was almost positive I'd filled my pants. The moment that I saw Mat's little face, frozen with terror appear over the hill on the back of the other bike, was the happiest day of my life so far.
Teeeeeeny Summi our Hmong guide
Summi's house. There wasn't much furniture but it was so clean
Mat drinking Vietnamese Green Tea in Summi's indoor sandals
Delicious lunch of tofu and noodles in broth, steamed rice and veggie spring rolls. Probably some of the best Vietnamese food we had
Mat's soggy little face about 3 hours into our trek
Monday 30th March - Day 108 - Hanoi/Halong Bay/Hué
Love Hanoi. It's absolutely crazy. Bikes and scooters everywhere, we're getting better at crossing roads though. Well Mat is, I just let him drag me around. Don't think I could have spent longer than three nights here though, it's exhausting! We visited the Women's Museum, Hoa Lo Prison, Hoan Kiem Lake and just wandered around on the first day. The next day we did a Hanoi Street Food Tour which was pretty good. For Mat anyway, I mostly ended up with egg done every which way. Yawn. Then we went to the Water Puppet Theatre show which was good to experience but I couldn't have watched anymore than 50 minutes. You can tell that the performers get bored of doing it every single night cos they'll just have a chat between themselves mid performance.
The next day we set off on our overnight trip to *Halong Bay. This was the trip we were advised to spend a bit more on or we could end up on a rat infested ship with a cockroach infested room. We decided on A Class Cruises and weren't disappointed. The room was great and the scenery breathtaking and we met a lovely couple called Sinéad and Barry from Ireland.
We're in Hué now after getting the 14 hour sleeper bus from Hanoi. At about 6am the flush on the toilet broke and so the toilet overflowed, flooding the toilet floor and filling the bus with an almighty stench. I couldn't believe people were still using it and then walking back down the bus with their pissy socks. 12 hours is a long time to go without using the facilities but somehow I managed.
Our hotel room for the night is a bit like a prison cell, it doesn't even have a window but tomorrow the owner said we can change rooms tomorrow to one with a window AND a double bed, score! It's only £6 a night though and the owner is so lovely.
- Hạ Long Bay (literally: "descending dragon bay") is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a popular travel destination, in Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. The geo-diversity of the environment in the area has created biodiversity, including a tropical evergreen biosystem, oceanic and sea shore biosystem. Hạ Long Bay is home to 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic faunal species.
Hanoi. I could have spent hours wandering around the streets in the old quarter
At night, everyone sits outside on the streets on little plastic chairs drinking locally brewed beer
Locally brewed beer, Beer HOI. You have to say the the word 'hoi' with a rising intonation (think Jools Holland introducing bands... Radio.....HEAD!) If you say it wrong, we were told it would mean smelly beer. The beer is brewed fresh every day and contains no chemicals or preservatives and costs the equivalent of 15p for a glass
The Women's Museum. This Museum is dedicated to the Vietnamese Women. More than 1000 materials, photos and objects displayed in the permanent exhibition show the role the Vietnamese women played in the History and currently play in Arts and in the Family life. The museum also organizes thematic exhibitions to show changes and development of the contemporary society
Hoa Lo Prison. Hỏa Lò Prison was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The prison was demolished during the 1990s, though the gatehouse remains as a museum
Miss Moon our Hanoi Steet Food Tour Guide. She was SO cute
Some of the food we sampled
Nothing too crazy. No water bugs or owt. Mostly just oodles of noodles
This is a Vietnamese coffee with raw egg. You know what, it's probably not even that bad but I just couldn't get over the fact it had raw egg in it. Plus the cup smelt a bit funny so I couldn't manage it
Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. Today's Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique variation on the ancient Asian puppet tradition. The puppets are made out of wood and then lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play
The dining room
Beautiful Halong Bay
Kayaking around the floating village
Sunset at Halong Bay
Thursday 2nd April - Day 110 - Hué/Hoi An
Had an unbelievable couple of days. We met up with Sinéad and Barry in Hué who we met on the cruise in Halong Bay. Over dinner one night we discussed all the options for scootering to Hoi An via the *Hai Van Pass. Would we ride ourselves or on the back of an Easy a Ride guide? Would I even be able to ride a scooter after my little incident in Pai? Had Uncle Tom prepared me enough? My cautious, sensible side came out straight away when we discussed not doing it through a tour. What if there was an accident? How would we get to hospital? WHAT IF WE GOT LOST??? We decided that we would take some scooters out to a coastal road so we could practice then decide what to do. I was absolutely blown away by Sinéad's confidence and ability to ride a scooter immediately. I shouldn't have been really, sometimes I forget that not everyone is as useless as me. I felt ok practicing on the back roads but still hadn't felt confident enough to ride on a main road with traffic. In the end we decided to do it ourselves, 4 scooters, no guide, 200km of unknown terrain. I dunno what's happened to me as I've got older, I've become less willing to take risks and put myself out of my comfort zone, quite sad really. I hate that things that wouldn't have fazed me at 18 now scare the life out of me. I woke up at 6am on the day of travel and burst into tears and dry wretched for a while. I even considered riding all the way on the back of Mat's scooter but pulled myself together at the last minute. Riding out of the city at 7:30am was hard. It was a busy main road and very intense but once we'd navigated out of the city and onto the coastal road I loosened up a bit and even started to enjoy myself. The other guys were absolutely fine which made me even more determined not be a wet lettuce. We saw some unbelievable scenery and rural Vietnamese life. Villages, graveyards, temples, the greenest rice paddies I have ever seen. The ride along the Hai Van Pass was pretty quiet and at that point I felt absolute, total contentment. However that soon gave way to absolute, total panic as we entered the city of Da Nang. If I'd have known beforehand what we would be riding through there is no way I'd have had the guts to do it, so it's a good job we didn't know. Most crossings and junctions aren't traffic lighted in Vietnam so you have about 1000 vehicles from 4 directions all coming at each other. Trying to keep together as a group was impossible, plus they drive on the right over here so there was that to think about too. We all adopted the 'beep & go' mentality like everyone else and somehow we all made it to Hoi An alive.
Within five minutes of being in Hoi An, we've decided that we should extend our stay. I am so excited to be here, our homestay is gorgeous and I can't wait to get out and explore. Mat's eager to rent scooters as soon as possible but I need to recover first!
- The Hải Vân Pass crosses over a spur of the Trường Sơn (Annamite) Range that emerges from the west and juts into the South China Sea, forming the Hải Vân Peninsula and the adjoining Son Tra Island. The pass, which once formed the boundary between the kingdoms of Đại Việt and Champa, also forms a boundary between the climates of northern and southern Vietnam, sheltering the city of Da Nang from the "Chinese winds" that blow in from the northwest. During the winter months (November–March), for instance, weather on the north side of the pass might be wet and cold, while the south side might be warm and dry. The pass is renowned for its scenic beauty. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, featured the pass during the show's 2008 Vietnam Special, calling the road "a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world.
Rice paddies and villages on the coastal road out of Hué
House made out of straw
A beautiful village temple
A beach we stopped off at for breakfast on the way to the pass
The Hai Van Pass
This is when I actually started to enjoy myself a bit and stopped being so scared of my scooter
'Everybody smile like I just told a hilarious joke'
Tuesday 7th April - Day 115 - Hoi An/Nha Trang
Spent a fantastic 5 nights in Hoi An. It's very touristy, reminded me of Galle in Sri Lanka in that respect but a lovely little town nonetheless. An Bang beach was nice and one day we visited Marble Mountain with Sinéad and Barry. Other than that we mostly relaxed and spent time eating in the old quarter. Mat had a suit made. I was dubious at first, especially as it was $200 but he looks so amazing I almost shed a tear.
We got the sleeper bus to Nha Trang last night. I'd changed my mind about coming here because I'd heard bad things but we've had to use it as a stop off on the way to Dalat. It seems ok, we've got a beach but no culture and it caters predominantly for Russian holiday makers. The temp in Dalat at the moment is 22 degrees which will be a nice break from the heat and humidity of the coast.
Thu Bon River in Hoi An
Japanese Pagoda Bridge built by Japanese craftsmen who were part of a large community of Japanese merchants in Hoi An in the 17th Century
There were lanterns everywhere and when it was dark the streets looked beautiful
One of many gorgeous little shops
Mat putting a lantern into the river for good luck and probably killing some fish too
The cave at Marble Mountain
Marble Mountain is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located in Ngu Hanh Son ward, south of Da Nang city in Vietnam. The five 'mountains' are named after the five elements; Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). All of the mountains have cave entrances and numerous tunnels, and it is possible to climb to the summit of one of the peaks. Several buddhist sanctuaries can also be found within the mountains, making this a famous tourist destinatioN
Fishing boats at An Bang beach
Mat's friend at the beach. She absolutely loved him!
Tuesday 16th April - Day 124 - Dalat
I'm writing this at the ferry port in Rach Gia. Mat thinks it's one of the most brutal places he's been so far. I don't think its so bad although some guy has just tried to scam us. We're pretty wise to it now though so he gave up fairly quickly.
In Dalat we had the best time canyoning. This involved trekking through the jungle , abseiling down waterfalls, jumping off cliffs and swimming fully clothed down rivers. It was pretty scary but loads of fun. We tried to hire scooters here but apparently the Police have tightened up on foreigners riding them because of accidents. Supposedly you can only ride a motorised vehicle if you have a Vietnamese driving licence. You can only apply for one of these if you have a minimum of 3 months Visa. As a British passport holder I'm pretty sure you can only get a 30 day a tourist visa. Stupid. Instead we did a 1 day car tour with an Easy Rider who promised to show us 'the real Vietnam." He was a bit weird and we'd seen more of the real Vietnam riding about ourselves.
Our Canyoning instructors from Highland Sport Travel in Dalat. These guys were amazing!
Hằng Nga guesthouse, popularly known as the “Crazy House" is an unconventional building designed and constructed by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga. Described as a “fairy tale house”, the building’s overall design resembles a giant tree, incorporating sculptured design elements representing natural forms such as animals, mushrooms, spider webs and caves
Everybody tucking into their delicious meat dishes on the tour and I got brought a plate of stir fried cabbage. Seriously, it's like they punish you for not eating meat or fish out here
But it was ok because I'd just been put off eating any kind of food for the rest of my life after seeing this. Snakes are widely believed to possess medicinal qualities and the wine is often advertised to cure everything from farsightedness to hair loss, as well as to increase sexual performance. In Vietnam, snake wine is widely believed by some individuals to improve health and virility. A similar drink is made with geckos or sea horses rather than snakes. Snake wine, due to its high alcohol percentage, is traditionally drunk in short glasses. Braver drinkers may eat certain parts of the snake such as the gall bladder, the eyeballs and stomach. There's also a bird, feathers and all in the one on the left. The shop owner told me they are put in alive. DISGUSTING
A lady making scarves and sarongs. I was straight in and out of this shop with a brusque 'no thank you' whereas Sinéad is really nice and got talked into buying more stuff. Often it works in my favour to have such a scowly face and frosty demeanour
A villagers house
With its year-round cool weather, Da Lat supplies temperate agriculture products for all over Vietnam, for example: cabbage and cauliflower. Its flower industry produces two typical flowers: hydrangea and golden everlasting. The confectionery industry offers a wide range of mứt, a kind of fruit preserve made from strawberry, mulberry, sweet potato, and rose
Construction worker breaking down rocks with a hammer. They do this all day in the hot sun
Fish stall. Gets a bit whiffy when it's sat there in the heat all day
Wednesday 17th April - Day 125 - Ho Chi Minh City/Can Tho
After Dalat we took a bus to Ho Chi Minh City. For me it was too busy to be overly enjoyable. I was exhausted with having to think about not getting killed by people riding on the pavement or worrying about having my bag snatched (Saigon is notorious for this) We visited the War Remnants Museum. It was insightful and brutal but I'm never sure how much is fact or propaganda in any museum I've visited anywhere. There were tourists posing next to the tanks and planes. Sticking their tongues out, grinning and giving thumbs up and peace signs. It just didn't sit right with me... 'Look how much fun I'm having with these machines that killed thousands of Vietnamese people...' After that we went to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. At best this was an average trip. Our guide talked us through in explicit detail all the traps the Viet Cong used to 'kill American Soldier,' his face full of glee. After that treat, there was a shooting range for tourists which continued to glamourise the war and showed us how cool and exciting it was to fire a gun. I sat down and ate my ice cream with the sound of gunfire ringing in my ears.
I was glad to be out of HCMC but as we drove into Can Tho, it looked like another scruffy, busy town. I was wrong, and we've spent a nice two nights there with Sinéad and Barry. One morning we did a trip along the Mekong to see the sunrise and the floating markets. It was really interesting and our guide was adorable. I asked her a few questions about communism and the North/South divide which she assured me was still there. I'd been wanting to get a locals opinion about the politics of the country since we arrived in Vietnam, but this was the first time anyone's English had been good enough, because I'm a lazy Brit that doesn't speak Vietnamese.
Last night we had leaving drinks with Sinéad and Barry as we've parted ways today. It's ben so much fun travelling with them and we're already planning our trip to Ireland in the summer. I'm excited to be spending our last days in Vietnam on Phu Quoc Island. I'm expecting big things. Deserted beaches of fine white sand and turquoise waters. I've been known to be wrong though.
A chopper at The War Remnants Museum
A tank at The War Remnants Museum
The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort
I was ambushed by the guide with a camera coming out of the tunnels here
Tried to get a picture of the scooter madness in Ho Chi Minh City but it doesn't do it justice at all. This city is best experienced yourself to fully understand how insane it is
Caught in a torrential downpour. I love rain, Mat's not convinced
Floating Villages in Can Tho
This is how the markets advertise their goods so that everyone can see them
The market starts in the early hours of the morning so it was winding down by the time we got there at 6am
Our boat and wonderful guide
Barry, Sinéad and me
Monday 20th April - Day 128 - Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc was mostly beautiful. Our hotel was on the east of the island so away from the busy town of Duong Dong. But close to Sao beach. We'd heard about rubbish being all over the beaches of Phu Quoc so we had low expectations. However, the sand was white and powdery and the sea the clearest, most beautiful turquoise colour. There was very little rubbish and the worst thing we had to contend with were the local builders staring every time they had a break. No biggie, we're used to being blatantly stared at and ridiculed by Vietnamese locals by now! Our hotel was only 2 months old and they were constructing a resort behind it. Mat got electrocuted on the bathroom light on the day we arrived, so they let us use the resort pool which they had barely finished. I reckon they they felt guilty. Again, local builders gawping, but whatever. We got a scooter and headed along the western coastal road one day. We passed lovely little villages with ramshackle houses along deserted beaches. Then we got to the thing that will ultimately spoil this little island. Development. Miles and miles of monstrous resorts being built on top of people's homes. There will be nothing charming and traditional about Phu Quoc in 10 years I guarantee it. Absolute tragedy.
Behind our hotel there was a country road leading to a pagoda and a small beach. One morning we got up to watch the sunrise. It was a bit cloudy but the beach was deserted and it was so calm, I loved it
Phu Quoc Prison was built in 1949-1950 by the French colonists and then later by the U.S. led Southern Vietnamese puppet regime. to jail those considered especially dangerous to the colonist government. Many of the high ranking leaders of Vietnam were detained here. It is ranked a special historical relic of national importance by the government of Vietnam. The prison was closed after the country united and just opened for visitors later
Red Cross team visited Phu Quoc Prison in 1969 and 1972. They found that there had been savage and systematic torture of prisoners of war for a long time. They found traces of corporal punishments against prisoners of war like electrical shock and food deprivation
Beautiful Sao Beach. This was probably our favourite beach in all our travels
The water was the clearest I have ever seen
Pool area at Kinh Bac Hotel
Ride along the dusty back roads looking for somewhere to have a beer and watch the sunset
This is one of the things I will miss the most
Alas, we didn't get one of these
I love you too
You're not a real traveller unless you've got loads of douchey bracelets
This is Mat eating noodles
This is a guy in Hué who is deaf and can't speak and who communicates by sign language to all his customers. He owns a restaurant and cooks awesome food and gives everyone a free bottle opener. Si and Vicki got one when they went to Vietnam so Mat dragged us a million miles across the city for one
Vietnam/Cambodia border crossing
Egg Mud Bath in Nha Trang