We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City armed with a guide from my brother (who used to live in Vietnam) that could rival Lonely Planet. In this, he wrote of sights/glamorous destinations of which he advised we should ‘saunter’ around. Keen to begin the sauntering, we hit his old favourite bar the same evening and blew our daily budget on cocktails. Ho Chi Minh was far more crazy than I expected and I had a new found respect for James for living in a place where the prospect of crossing the road filled me with dread! The next day we left the coffee/book shop we were staying in and headed out for a day of sight seeing. We visited the War Remnants Museum, the Post Office, Notre Dame and the Imperial Palace, where the heavens opened and for a while we just sat and watched staff run around sweeping the water back outside that was rapidly flooding under the windows. I couldn’t help thinking that for a palace it wasn’t very watertight.
We had booked a day excursion to the Mekong Delta the next day, and after watching Sue Perkins on the Mekong prior to the trip I had high and completely unrealistic expectations of seeing everyday family life on the river. The tour turned out to be little more than visiting a sequence of shops on a Mekong Island near Ho Chi Minh, including a honey shop and coconut candy shop. We were then taken to listen to some ‘traditional music’ but our suspicions were roused when they began singing to the tune of ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’. After sitting out of the horse riding exercise, that the tour guide happily admitted half of their customers did not want to partake in (obviously because the horses were so tiny and depressed looking they were not fit for purpose) and being served a dish of plain cold rice and a couple of grey carrot sticks, we felt quite disappointed in the overall day. We had planned to visit the chu chi tunnels but opted out of this and instead visited another of James’s favourite old hangouts, a sophisticated coffee shop which provided me with one of the best meals of our trip so far. On the last evening we watched Liverpool play and they won (in fact every match we have watched while on holiday they have won!) so Matt was happy. We had both really enjoyed Ho Chi Minh and could see why James liked it so much!
We flew to Dalat which is a small mountain top town near the capital. It is a lot cooler than the rest of Vietnam and for this reason popular with Vietnamese honeymooners. We spent the first day going on a cable car up to a monastery then walking to a nearby waterfall. The waterfall itself was average but you can access it by going on a self controlled rollercoaster, which was really fun! After that we went to a mosaic covered pagoda which was pretty random and weird: At first glance it seemed really pretty and spiritual but on closer inspection it also had a dark underground labyrinth that depicted various hellish scenes of torture and horror. It went on for just a fraction too long!
The next day we went on a trek up the Lang Biang Mountain range close to Dalat. The first peak was extremely difficult after our few days of indulgence in Ho Chi Minh but we were rewarded with awesome views from the top. We enjoyed a picnic lunch there before heading on to the next two peaks. The second wasn’t that spectacular but did involve some adventurous rock climbing to get to what’s known as ‘death rock’, a bit of stone jutting out of the hillside. The final peak was a built up tourist attraction, featuring music blaring out of a speaker stuck in the side of the hill. The day was a good physical challenge and we enjoyed chatting to our guide about everyday life in Vietnam.
After Dalat we flew to Da Nang and took a taxi to Hoi An. We were staying in a homestay outside of the city centre which meant we had to cycle into town. This was a less daunting place to cycle than the likes of Ho Chi Minh, but still not exactly stress-free. However, the occasionally hairy ride was rewarded by the beauty of the town at the other end. Pretty much everyone we’ve spoken to who has visited Hoi An has loved it, and we can see why. The crumbling, ancient old town is decked in pretty, colourful lanterns, at night the river has glowing paper encased candles floating down it which (if you convinced yourself are recycled and not ending up as litter in the sea…) truly were a beautiful sight.
We spent the next few days wandering around Hoi An, Matt got a suit made in a tailor and I got a dress for an upcoming wedding. We visited a spa and had treatments, sat at the side of the river in the evenings and watched the world go by. I enjoyed my first glass of wine in two months and promptly decided I was in love with the place! One day we cycled to the nearby beach, which wasn’t that great as was so crowded but we enjoyed the calm cycle through the fields with water buffalo and locals fishing.
We reluctantly travelled from Hoi An to Hue on a sleeper bus with beds that you could (nearly for me, impossible for Matt) lie down in. Hue is famous for its Ancient Citadel and extravagant royal tombs, which we attempted to look around and be interested in, but quite honestly it was difficult to even be outside in the stifling heat. The best day was another trek, this time in nearby Bach Ma, the cooler mountainous national park. The day involved a long hike, some sections of which we had to cling onto a wobbly rope and try not to fall into the river next to us, it felt very adventurous! We ended at the top of a huge waterfall which we had the option to climb down 500 steep steps and back up if we wished to see it from the bottom. Matt, myself and another girl decided this would be a good ‘challenge’ and embarked on an extremely difficult 45 minutes of sweaty pain. The view was amazing though!
We took a bus from Hue to Phong Nha, which is famous for its various caves and the expansive national park. We stayed in a farm-stay recommended by James which was lovely, we enjoyed several evenings drinking beer and looking out across the fields and big limestone castes behind. Cows and buffalo roam around the roads in Phong Nha, we cycled into town a couple of times and had to keep stopping so I could take photos of them! We did two trekking tours- one was a jungle adventure tour which had us rock climbing and swimming through caves and the other was an eco conservation tour. The latter we loved- it started at a wildlife rescue centre with animals that had been rescued from traps or confiscated from illegal activities. We were very moved by the story of the man who was running the tour- he was passionate about protecting the wildlife and environment while also helping local people by employing them as porters on the tours. We had an amazing day seeing the animals then trekking through the jungle although it was pretty full on; at one stage we were on our hands and knees crawling through the undergrowth, Matt even got a leech on him! In a moment of panic I convinced myself it was going to bury under his skin and freaked out… I was later informed that leeches are NOT like the beetles in The Mummy. I’ll write about this day in more detail later!
Another day in Phong Nha we visited one of the big caves and shared a boat with a Vietnamese family. They were lovely and at the end of the day bought two photos of us all together as a gift to us. We do look like an odd bunch of people in the photo!
Next destination was Sapa, and we arrived exhausted after two extremely long bus journeys spanning around 14 hours. Unfortunately Matt got sick, so we postponed our scheduled trek for a day in order for him to recover. I amused myself by walking around the town, which had been described to us prior to arriving as a ‘festering f**king dump’ which we soon realised was entirely accurate. Building work was going on everywhere, piles of rubbish and discarded building materials lined the streets, it rained constantly and the street vendors are indiscriminate with what meat they sell on the side of the roads (luckily I only heard reports of and did not see a dogs head!!) Then on the morning of our postponed trek I got sick too, but determined not to let the town get the better of us we set out. Once out of the town the rice terraces were pretty amazing, we had lunch in our local guide’s house which was a really interesting insight into tribal village life and culture. However the day was very difficult for me after being ill so we called the second day off and headed back to the terrible town center. The next day we finally both felt better so we decided to go up Mt Fansipan, which is the highest mountain in Indochina and now also has the world’s largest three rope cable car system attached to it. We cheated and took the easy option to the top! Would love to say there was a great view, but there wasn’t, the cable car dumps you in a weirdly placed mall and when you go outside all you can see is fog.
Finally we left Sapa and went to Hanoi, highlights being the Women’s Museum and walking down a street where the train runs right next to the houses. I loved the hustle and bustle of the city; people sit on the pavement eating noodle soup, street vendors push HUGE carts of produce around and women walk along with the traditional ‘carrying pole’ over their shoulder.
The next two days were spent in Bai Tu Long Bay (near Halong Bay, but quieter) on an organised tour. After a long journey we arrived at the boat to spend the day kayaking and swimming among the dramatic limestone caste landscape. We then stayed overnight on an island in a pretty shabby guesthouse that had beds as hard as wooden boards, but in the end we had a great evening making our own spring rolls and singing karaoke with the owners of the hotel. It was a bizarre moment but very fun! The next day we cycled across the island, stopping off at a dirty and jellyfish strewn beach and kayaked (arguments ensuing over steering techniques) once back on the boat.
After a long journey back to Hanoi, another night spent there, two flights and a ten hour stopover in Manila we finally arrived in Puerto Princess in the Philippines.
I must admit I found it difficult at times to get my head around the treatment of animals there. On the one hand they seem to have much better lives than in Europe, after all they seem to be able to roam around large fields and are not factory farmed (as far as I know!) to the same extent as Europe. On the other hand we heard a lot about the effect extentive poaching has had on the wildlife and I found it difficult (I’m vegetarian) to get my head around eating ALL animals, even dogs, crocodiles, turtles, monkeys etc. I guess this is an entirely different debate (whether if you eat one animal you should eat them all) but that my personal experience was that it was hard to stomach.
I loved Vietnam- it has such a varied and rich culture and the people are proud, respectful and always friendly. The landscape is beautiful and the history moving. I couldn’t wait to get to a beach though, with all the trekking and travelling we were exhausted! We finally arrived in the Philippines ready for a more laid back couple of weeks.
What was your experience of Vietnam??