[NOTE: Click on pictures to enlarge]
Winter vacation in Korea means nice tropical vacation for us somewhere else in S.E. Asia! Next on the cards for us was Vietnam. It’s a place we’ve read about and have seen some tv shows about, and we know a little about some big western country that had a war against them long ago, but that is about it. It sounded exciting and mysterious, so the planning started…
We chose a ‘north-south’ route; our reasoning being to start in the ‘cold’ and to travel down to the ‘warmer’ areas (at that time of travel). We flew into the south (Saigon), spent two days, flew up to Hanoi, and then made our way down, eventually finishing up at Saigon again. We had 3 glorious weeks to spend – 12 January to 2 February.
Trying not to bore any of you (or myself), I’m going to jot down the highlights and best memories that we took away from all the places we’ve stayed.
Saigon is one crazy, hectic place. A lot of people, a lot of activity, motorbikes around every corner, touts selling their stuff, it’s noisy, and everything moves at a frenetic pace, ALWAYS! We had a great time in Saigon though; it feels like you have more space to move in compared to other places…
We spent 4 days in total in Saigon, and we felt it was enough for us. Day’s were spent walking around, seeing the sights (also took a day trip to the Mekong Delta) and nights were spent on (sometimes IN) the streets, beer in hand on small plastic stools, people watching and fending off touts…
Just walking around and taking in the surroundings and buildings and everything that happens on the streets was good enough for us. We went to the War Remnants Museum (sad!), Notre Dam Cathedral, Old Post Office, and we walked past the Opera House. The other sites didn’t really interest us.
MEKONG RIVER DELTA CRUISE:
We were very excited about this – the MIGHTY Mekong! We shopped around a bit and decided to rather go with a reputable tour company, so that we know what we get without any surprises. We booked through Sinh Tourist for like $14 per person – this included all entrance fees, transportation and also lunch. The Mekong is so big, and it is amazing to think that some people’s livelihoods depend entirely on it…
We took a boat on the Mekong and visited various islands; on the one island we visited they showed us how rice paper is made, which was quite interesting. We also had lunch there. We moved on to a bee farm, where we had some honey tea (they tried hard to sell us the honey and other products). We went to a place where they process coconuts and make candy, oils, and other souvenirs. We bought a nice cold, refreshing coconut which they cut open for us to drink (it’s surprising how much juice there is in one!). M bought some coconut oil and we sampled the various candies… On our last stop we had a horse-cart ride (more like ponies…) to an outdoors restaurant where we had some fresh fruit and listened to some traditional Vietnamese music. The final part of the trip included a boat ride (more like a big wooden canoe) propelled by a women with a big wooden ‘oar’ (the Vietnamese modified version though!).
Although everything felt very touristy, for that price, it was all good. We got a glimpse of the Mekong, and it was nice. Next time though I’d try for a 2day/1night package, and do a home stay on the Mekong. I’ve read good things about that.
I kind of have mixed feelings about Hanoi. My negative feelings I think sprouts from the freakin idiot taxi driver that scammed us (still heavily peeved off about this) and the lousy weather we had in general… It’s not such a bad place actually. It just feels like you can’t breathe or move sometimes, because everything is so ‘compact’ and on-top of each other, and the streets are very narrow in general.
We stayed at Central Backpackers Hostel, which was only $5 a night! That includes breakfast and free beer EVERY NIGHT from 7-8! We had a good time staying there and the staff were great.
We went to a water-puppet show the one day which was quite interesting. Then in general we just strolled around to take in the city,walking around the Hoan Kim Lake and just did some people watching. Other sites we visited: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Presidential Palace, One Pillar Pagoda, Lenin Park, Museum of Fine Arts and the Army Museum.
The day we arrived in Hanoi at our hostel we immediately double-checked our booking for the Halong Bay cruise: a 3 day/2 night package ($110 per person). This was all-inclusive (not drinks though…); we stayed one night on the boat and another night on an island (Nam Cat Island) at a little beach resort which was absolutely amazing!
This is maybe the thing that we were the most excited about to see in Vietnam, and even though the weather wasn’t the best (cloudy, windy), it is still a spectacular thing to see and experience.
Once we set sail from the harbour we settled into our rooms, and after that had a delicious lunch. We then proceeded to the first ‘activity’ on the tour – Hung Sung Sot cave. What can I say, kitschy neon coloured lights highlights the most noteworthy rock formations, and the tour guide points out all the ‘animal rocks’; “look, there is monkey rock, lion head, heart rock, buddha rock” and the list goes on… It is quite cool though, you wouldn’t expect this size cave if you look at it from the outside. We also had some nice views from the topmost ‘viewing platforms’ – got some nice pictures from up there.
Next stop was where it seemed like the whole world goes for kayaking in Halong. We took our kayak and explored some secluded areas and some fishing villages which was nice to see.
The next day we set off to Cat Ba island where we did some cycling (which was awesome!) and hiking. We cycled along a coastal path, passed a few farms with rice paddies, went through a tunnel in a mountain, the road fringed with jungle-like vegetation, and finally arriving at the local village. We stopped, and had a short lecture about the island and what you can see and encounter whilst hiking on Cat Ba island. Our timing was impeccable as a local wedding was in full swing… We were actually told that we can go and have a look (but for me it felt like we were intruding). After that the hike through the jungle started. It was nice (for me at least), but many people underestimated the trail we’d take! Their footwear wasn’t good enough for the terrain we undertook: we literally ‘climbed’ up and down a mountain, with the top part having a lot of jagged rocks. Well, they made it, barely.
After the bicycle ride and hiking we proceeded to the island resort where we would spend the night. On arrival we were just like: WOW! It had a small beach, a nice wooden pier and some wooden bungalows among these HUGE limestone mountains/cliffs. We took our bags and we were assigned rooms and we settled in. Absolute bliss – the view from our bungalow’s porch is something that I can’t describe in words. It was surreal. We sat there, and I asked M, ‘you know where we are now?’ (VERY far from home, at an awesome place) – we reflected a bit and just took it in.
We then went to Monkey Island. It apparently has a lot of monkeys, although we didn’t see any, so the jury is still out on that one 😉 What we DID see though (after some treacherous hiking up a mountain trail AGAIN) was some incredible views of the surrounding limestone karsts and beaches. It was a great photo-op, and I let loose. Arriving back at the resort we took the kayaks and goofed around a bit in the bay, exploring smaller beaches and cliffs. The day ended with a nice barbecue buffet dinner and a bonfire on the beach. It was a GOOOOD day!
The next day en route back to the harbour we had a ‘cooking’ class (more like a demonstration). They showed us how they make Vietnamese spring rolls. Later on, we eventually got on a minibus that took us back to our hostel where we spent our last night in Hanoi before moving on.
TAM COC/HOA LU (NINH BINH):
Again through our hostel we booked a tour to Tam Coc (‘Halong on land’) and the ancient capital, Hoa Lu. We packed up everything, because after the tour we stayed behind in Ninh Binh, to hop on the overnight bus to Hue. We visited the ancient capital and explored the various monuments and listened to the history, which is rather rich and interesting. We proceeded to Tam Coc, where we had an amazingly big buffet lunch, where we got the chance to eat the regional favourite – goat meat…
It was time for the highlight of the day. We didn’t go at a time that the whole Tam Coc was at its prettiest – it was winter and therefore the winding waterway or river wasn’t really surrounded by lush green rice paddies (as seen in most pictures). It was still unbelievable when we got out there though; the limestone karsts are enormous, and kind of look out-of-place, but it is really beautiful. You get on a little rowing boat and the (mostly) women paddle you all along between the karsts and through the 3 caves. Again, very touristy and people everywhere on the boats around you, but it is so quiet and peaceful once you get out there, you almost forget about everything and everyone and you just get mesmerised by the epic scenery around you! The trip takes about 1 hour, depending on the speed of your rower. The trademark move out there is the ability they have to row using their feet! Quite funny looking but they make it work.
After the day’s activities we were dropped in Ninh Binh, where we waited at a hotel for our overnight bus to pick us up. We got a little bit stressed, because we realised the bus company is actually one with a really bad reputation (Camel Tours), and it was an hour late to pick us up. Luckily we had some people that had to get on the same bus; a French guy and two friendly sisters from Switzerland.
The overnight bus lived up to its reputation; locals sleeping in the isles (extra money in their pockets?), unfriendly and rude staff and a crazy-reckless speeding bus driver – this was going to be fun (it wasn’t). We’ll, luckily we arrived safely in Hue.
We arrived rather early in the morning, got off the bus in a still dazed state, and what do you encounter first – what seems like the whole of Hue’s taxi and xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers. Everybody wants your business. We meet up with our Alaskan friends that we met in Hanoi; we didn’t even know we were taking the same bus (they were way at the back in the ‘cave’ bed area).
We arrived in the ‘backpacker’s street’ and started looking for accommodation. The (only) backpackers asks $6 a bed in a dorm room. We asked around and compared some prices at adjacent hotels, and guess what, we found an awesome place, for $10 (instead of $12 for 2 people in the backpackers…) a room, with your own big room and bathroom – bargain!
Anyway, we settled into our rooms, rested up for a short while, and went out for some breakfast. We then went out on foot to explore what Hue has on offer. We went to the Citadel, but when we heard the price, we said no way are we paying that to see yet ANOTHER temple site… We walked to the market area where we walked around to shop for some bargains – intense… Anything your heart desires you’ll most probably find here.
The rest of the day was very laid back; later that evening we had some happy hour beers and then we went for dinner where we had very delicious food at Shira Shakti, an Indian restaurant.
The following day we hired a scooter with big plans of exploring the more outer reaches of the city. Needless to say, we are still looking for the ‘tombs’… Oh well it was still nice. We firstly bought our train tickets for the next day to Danang and then went around and did some general exploring. We later felt that we’ve seen as much as we could’ve (or wanted) and went to the supermarket to stock up on some supplies; we bought some snacks, fruit and some vodka and mix – yes sirrr… We had a nice balcony on our floor that overlooked the backpacker street, so we settled down on our chairs, drinks in hand with some fruits (I think mangosteens are my new favourite fruit) and watched the activity on the street for the rest of the afternoon. It was quite a relaxing day, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The coastal railway from Hue to Da Nang is a 2 hour train ride. We were spoiled with breathtaking views, high cliffs and white beaches. On our arrival at Da Nang train station we decided to go by foot to look for a place to sleep. We walked through the town, with 15kg backpacks, just taking everything in. The traffic here is just as crazy as Hanoi or any of the big cities. We got a cozy little hotel in an alley (tip: it’s always cheaper in the alleys, you have to compromise on the view though) next to the central market. Looking in our guide for a place to eat, we made our way all along the river to a small restaurant, called Bread for Life (they employ people who are mute). They have quite an extensive menu, and we decided on some very delicious hamburgers.
Breakfast on the street is an experience in itself. Small tables and chairs, a couple of customers and a kitchen area where they serve the most delicious Pho Bo (breakfast of champions!). We sat down next to a Vietnamese guy who is a French tour guide. He gave us info on taking the early morning bus to Hoi An.
We got on a local bus, and we were on our way to Hoi An. We passed the Marble Mountains with temples high up in the limestone karst mountain. Our hotel was kind enough to pick us up at a small café, and we were off to Sunflower Hotel. We eventually stayed here for 5days/4nights, and there was never a dull moment!
We hired some bicycles and we were off exploring the city. Hoi An has so much architectural history, Japanese, French and Vietnamese influences. Old Town, where the Central Market is located, is a mixture of colours, bicycles and people. From 7pm, no one is allowed to ride motorbikes (and bicycles I think) through the narrow streets and alleys. We ate lunch and dinner river side, road our bicycles through the city and had a beer or two whenever we felt like it.
Hiring a scooter in Vietnam is one of the easiest ways to get around. The next day we decided to visit An Bang beach en route to the Marble Mountains. There are temples high up in the mountain, and for those who don’t want to climb the stairs, there is actually a lift. Caves and pagodas decorate these Marble Mountains and in the streets beneath the mountain, you can have your choice of various marble carvings.
As Hoi An is the place to get tailored suits, dresses or whatever you want, Marené wanted something special. She showed them a picture of a leather handbag that she liked. They made the handbag in 2 days and it was perfect, exactly what she had in mind.
On one very rainy day we went to the Cham Islands (ticket was booked 2 days earlier…). A beautiful island, with a fishing village and a small market. We walked through the small town, bought some fruit and we were on our way to a beach lunch. We had the whole beach almost to ourselves, it was really pretty. We set off to the site where we’ll be snorkelling. Not the best site ever; the visibility was bad (not best time of the year) and the snorkelling gear really sucked! At least we saw some beautiful nudibranchs that I captured on the GoPro.
Every month when it’s full moon Hoi An Old Town switches off its electricity, and big and small lanterns lit up the sidewalks and restaurants. It’s quite a pretty sight when you look at the buildings with its lit-up lanterns across the river.
While eating at The Seafood restaurant one night, a short, very friendly man came up to us and started talking with us. He showed us some books with ‘feedback’ from other customers that has undertaken his ‘trip’. He organizes a half-day trip to his fishing village; you take bikes and ride it to his village, he shows you the local market, you have a pottery class, and just before lunch you try your luck at fishing in the river. We had no luck with the fishing… Mr. Trung then took us to his house, to help prepare a traditional Vietnamese lunch. Spring-rolls, fish in banana leaves, fried noodles, we had a feast. He then accompanied us on our way back to town too. He is such a kind man (his wife also), and we’d recommend his tour to anyone. Truly authentic!
Before check out time on our last day, we rented a motorbike to do some more exploring. We visited Cua Dai beach for the last time and had a seafood lunch on the beach. One of our favourite ‘chill spots’ was a little ‘bamboo’ bar that is built on stilts on the river. You’ll see it to your right as you head to Cua Dai beach from the Old Town. The beers are cold, the lounging chairs comfy and the view (sunset!) is amazing.
Hoi An was our favourite place on our trip. It is just so unique architecturally, you have so many choices for dining and shopping, and you also have two beaches to choose from! We really enjoyed our time here.
Nha Trang was basically just a rest stop, so that we didn’t have to travel for too long consecutively. It is also a place I’ve read many contrasting opinions about, so we decided we’ll go, have a look around and decide for ourselves what’s what.
Another overnight bus; this one – MUCH better. And you may ask why, and I’ll tell you: Sinh Tourist Company; the people are friendly, there’s nobody sleeping in the isles, your bags are handled with care and stored underneath the bus (not in the isles!) and the toilet is clean and in working condition.
We arrived early the next morning, and set off to find accommodation – we had a few options and settled on Thang Bom Hotel. It’s a very clean, rather new little hotel, and for $16 a night, it’s a steal (our room was amazing!). We went for breakfast, and then proceeded to the beach to see what the fuss is all about.I came in with a lot of preconceived ideas about the beach and city in general (read a lot of negative stuff online), but I was pleasantly surprised by what we encountered. The beach (in my honest opinion) was amazing; pure white sand, clean and enough space so that it didn’t feel like all the Russians are lying on top of you! And seriously, I think this is where all the Russians go on holiday – they were everywhere! We swam, we sunbathed and had the perfect beach day. Not wanting to burn and look like crayfish, we headed back to the hotel to clean up. We hired a scooter for the rest of the afternoon to explore. We just stuck to the main road after filling the tank with gas, and while driving over this huge bridge spanning the water we saw a temple sight of sorts on a hill which looked really interesting. We went there, had a look around and realised that this is actually one of the sights to be seen when in Nha Trang. Po Nagar Cham Towers is the place’s name. We met some Koreans (go figure), spoke to an interesting Vietnamese man on his honeymoon (he’s actually from the U.S.) and took some beautiful pictures of the harbour with the fishing boats at anchor. We kept driving along the coast, and stumbled upon a little cafe with an awesome view of a nice palm fringed beach and the sea (it was kinda perched on a hill, so we were nicely elevated to have a great view); a couple of cold beers were on the cards…
Later that evening we took a ride to the cable car that takes people to Vinpearl Resort Island. We found out that is actually the longest cable car ride in the world. In the evening we visited the night market, with all the Russians, and also had dinner there.
All in all we had a really good time in Nha Trang. We didn’t do too many things, but we actually enjoyed the beach vibe and city in general (as much as you can in one day).
So we hopped on the 8am bus from Sinh Tourist in Nha Trang headed for Dalat for 2 nights. This was (for me at least) one of the nicest bus rides in Vietnam. All the way we basically drove through forested areas and winding mountain roads with spectacular views of the valleys down below.
We walked around a bit in search of a place to sleep, and settled on a nice centrally located hotel off of the main roads – Dong Phuong. We hired a bike at the hotel and explored the area. We especially wanted to see the ‘holiday-houses’ (which are apparently abandoned now) of the French. They are quite ostentatious and big (for holiday-houses at least!). We decided to try the local wine, and bought a bottle of Dalat Export white – but it’s nothing to write home about…
The next day we booked a canyoning trip. We did some abseiling down cliffs and waterfalls and we also had the chance to jump down a 12m cliff into a river pool. I’m so proud of Marené for doing this the whole day. It was her first time ever abseiling, but she did everything with a smile and she couldn’t get enough! Definitely one of our best memories of our trip. We highly recommend this day trip to anyone. We booked through Green Horizon Tours and had an awesome day meeting cool people from different countries and the staff were also really funny and entertaining (they really know what they are doing though).
We met up with our Alaskan friends (who were also in the area) again and caught up to what they had done since we’ve last seen them. The next day it was off on another bus to the beach again – Mui Ne.
Did someone say kitesurfing capital?
This is the place if you’re an enthusiast of the sport. This is THE one thing on top of my TO DO list.
Unfortunately my budget didn’t leave any space for the ‘beginner’ or ‘introduction’ course to kitesurfing that they promote there. I think it was like $90… Some might say that it isn’t that much, I’ll tell you this: in S.E. Asia, 90 bucks goes a LONG way.
It wasn’t just this though; most of the other things in Mui Ne seemed to have an inflated price tag (which might have added to our ‘not so great experience’ here). Firstly, accommodation was hard to find (partly our fault for just pitching up, thinking we’d easily find a place) and rather expensive compared to all the other places we’ve stayed thus far. The cherry on the cake was the prices they asked to hire a scooter though; it was at least 2 or 3 times the average price of elsewhere in Vietnam. I asked around, and it seems like they rely on ‘the Russians’, who ‘apparently’ don’t mind paying that prices. I didn’t appreciate this attitude they had, and this soured my mood that day. I told them to stick it where…
Aiiit, rant over.
We spent some time on the beach, got our tan on and watched the action on the water. Marené counted from one side and I did from the other; that day we counted more than 100 kites on the water! We walked around, explored the immediate area a bit – not everything we wanted to see though, due to the high asking price and the fact that more than half of the day was already finished. We decided to walk to the central market, which initially we thought was rather close (within walking distance). Uhmmm, big surprise – much further than we anticipated! I think we walked about 4km’s, when we finally arrived, and guess what? It was flippen closed already?!
To say we were ‘disappointed’ would be the understatement of the year! We were so over it – we waited at a local bus stop, and hopped on the next bus back to our place. Got off, bought some ice cold beers and Pringles (the wife…), and watched the sunset. The cold beer (well, and maybe also the sunset) was the highlight of the day!
Deciding whether to go to Mui Ne or not? Ask yourself: do you kite surf? Do you like constant wind? At the end of the day, one day (actually half a day) was enough for us in Mui Ne. Let’s move on…
The final stop for our amazing trip down Vietnam was Saigon again for the second time. We arrived there after a 5 hour bus ride from Mui Ne. We checked in at Thien Hong ($18p/n – double room) where we felt very welcome – the owners are so friendly and they can speak English really well. This being our second time in Saigon, we knew the general layout of District 1 (backpacker’s area), so we chose a place that was centrally located to mostly everything (in an alley, nice and close to Bui Vien street, where you drink your drinks on the street on the small plastic chairs).
We walked to the central market, to see if we can find some bargains and burn some left-over cash. And did we hit the bargain-jackpot! I bought a small travel backpack (‘Deuter’), for like $7, and Marené and I bought 2 Puma caps for $6 total. We then walked to Notre Dam Cathedral and the old Post Office (right next to cathedral) to take some pictures.
This was our last night in Saigon, so we wanted to make the most of it… We met up with our one friend from Alaska, Tamara, and spent the night throwing back a ‘few’ drinks on the sidewalk of our favourite street in Saigon: Bui Vien. It was a fun night, and we met some interesting people. We were having such a good time, the next time we looked at a watch it was 3am. It was a good night, but time to hit the sack…
The last day (we fly out at 11pm) arrived, and we planned some final sight-seeing. We went to the War Remnants Museum, and wow, what a sad history. I couldn’t believe what I saw in the pictures and the impact that the war had on the people (and also the environment due to the chemical attacks)… It’s all history, and I can’t put the emotions and feelings that runs through you, while walking through that museum, into words.
Close to the hostel we stayed at, was a small place where you can get various treatments, including massages. This sounded like a good idea after all of the day’s walking, and only $5 for a 45min massage, why not? We met our friends for a final (kinda farewell) dinner, and we said our goodbyes. We took a final shower, and then it was time to head to the airport for our flight back home (Korea).
This has been our longest vacation yet. Although we didn’t go everywhere we initially planned to go (weather…), Vietnam in general still surpassed our greatest expectations. We have many great memories from this vacation that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives!