Planes, Trains and Automobiles

So, I’ll admit I’ve been slacking. But welcome back at last to another instalment of our epic adventure across the globe. It’s been a long-old stretch and I can’t believe that we’re almost at the end of it now (M: this may have been started in January, but it’s July at the time of proof-reading!). It feels like just last week I was being dropped off at Heathrow by a tearful mother. BUT ANYWAY, the last piece of this rambling took you through our week in Cambodia. This time I will endeavour to give you as much as I can about the next stop: Vietnam.

Waiting in No Man’s Land
Much like the beginning of the previous story, this one starts with us on a bus, crossing from Cambodia into Vietnam on our way through to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC from here on). This was about as eventful too, with not much going on but a lot to see whizzing past us. My highlight though would have to be the large duty-free shopping centre that has been built in the dead space between the two countries. A shopping centre in which you have to spend 45 minutes waiting for the paperwork to be done before you can get into Vietnam at all. Needless to say that we bought nothing as even though it was duty free, we decided we didn’t really need a litre of tequila or fifty cartons of cigarettes.

Once our time in purgatory was complete we bundled back onto the bus and were deposited a few hundred metres down the road where we would need to have our luggage scanned to get through the border. This meant a long queue… which it transpires we didn’t need to stand in as it was mostly for visa applications and we were exempt due to our short stay in the country. So we eventually skipped that, had the all-clear from some disinterested border control gentlemen and hopped back on the bus again.

After all of this excitement we finally made it to the bus depot in HCMC, batting back the usual horde of eager taxi drivers as we opted for the short walk to our next lodging, City Backpackers Hostel. The first thing we noticed about HCMC or Vietnam in general is that they drive a lot like the Cambodians do, which is to say, in any way they please. Road signs seem to be there just for decoration and as long as you’re leaning on your horn you can do pretty much anything, including mounting the pavement to get past all of that lousy traffic.

We were greeted by a lovely, friendly local as we checked in and received a bit of information overload as she pulled out a map and proceeded to give us points of interest, opening times, prices, bars, restaurants, markets etc. I was nodding along with a vacant smile on my face, hoping Megan was taking it all in (M: nope). After handing us the key to our room we were directed to the top floor and found what could be described as a healthy medium for our shared sleeping habits; the room was in the middle of the building, with more hotel on all sides, so it was nice and dark for me, but it did have a window into the well-lit hallway, which kept Meg happy as well. It also had an abundance of Ikea-style, flat-pack furniture. As we had found previously, being on a bus all day can really take it out of you so we bunked down for a power nap and a recharge before scouting out some dinner. Being a pretty major city it has any kind of delicacy you’d be willing to find, and after a quick Google I decided on Al Fresco’s, right around the corner.

The next day we had a one of our famed ‘Lazy days’ with a catch up on budgeting and various bookings for the near future, as well as looking at what we wanted to do for the rest of our time in HCMC. This meant we got to try out something we noticed the evening before on our short walk: VIETNAMESE STARBUCKS. I’ll confirm for you that this was exactly like any other Starbucks (which is how franchises are meant to work, I’m led to believe) and gave us the opportunity to fill up on caffeine, cake and WiFi (yes, the hostel had WiFi but we needed another excuse). This meant we also got to experience the six-exit roundabout in front of our hostel which, as I’ve previously mentioned, is treated as more of a suggestion by the local population with traffic heading in every which direction.

The day was topped off by a short walk to the Five Oysters restaurant suggested to us by our lovely receptionist, which had some of the best spring rolls I’ve ever tasted and a true Vietnamese ambience as we were seated about two feet from the main road – perfect for spectating the near-bedlam brought by evening rush hour.

Our second day in the city was dedicated to sightseeing and now that we were finally back in a place that had skyscrapers, I demanded to be taken up the nearby Bitexco Tower (by nearby I mean a decent walk but it was close enough!). The receptionist at the hostel had warned us that the Vietnamese U-23 football team had made it to the final of the Asian Cup, and that the entire city was in celebration mode as, apparently, they’re not actually a very good team. The final happened to coincide with our exploration day and at every corner there were all manner of vendors trying to pawn off flags, headbands, air-horns and any other trinket you can think of.  And, right outside the Bitexco tower, there was a very large LED screen erected for the public to watch the match (M: which resulted in hundreds of scooter-riders simply parking up in the middle of the road to get the best view). This meant that getting into and out of the building was a bit of a daunting task, but once we were up 49 of the 68 floors it was pretty empty. We had a 360-degree view of the sprawling city from a number of binoculars placed around the floor and mostly what we learnt was that Asia, or at least this part of it, is pretty smoggy.

Once we had our fill of the second tallest building in the city we headed back out to find the huge Ben Thanh Market, a must-do for any souvenir hunters. We didn’t find all that much that we would easily be able to cart around in our backpacks but we did manage to get a couple of red headbands and mini Vietnam flags so we could blend in with every other person on the pavement (M: ha). After these were applied to our heads (flag included in Megan’s case, hair can be useful sometimes) we got a lot more random laughs and compliments (at least, I think they were compliments – I don’t speak Vietnamese but they were laughing so it couldn’t have been bad, right?).

From the market we made our way back to the hostel and were greeted even more enthusiastically than last time! Of course, neither of us are actually interested in football at all so we settled for keeping up with the game through the cheers and/or moans coming from outside the building. If you had to guess, you would have thought that the honking and cheering until 3am was because it went well for the Vietnamese. But apparently, it did not. They lost their match, but despite this everyone was so happy that they’d got so far in the first place that it was bedlam in the streets. We almost got hit several times on the three-minute walk to and from dinner as motorists decided that the pavement would make a quicker route through all of the rest of the traffic.

The next day was our last in the wonderful city but we had time for a little more exploration before our flight onwards. We decided to fill this time finding out some more about the violent history between this country and the US of A, so we headed to the War Remnants Museum to learn more about ‘The American War’. My childish appreciation and wonder at the large tanks and artillery pieces outside was harshly cut down as we learnt more about the French/American initiation of the conflict, including their liberal use of the ‘Agent Orange’ chemical, the fallout of which can still be seen in unfortunate residents generations after its first use.

After a couple of quite emotionally heavy hours here it was time for our flight onto the next location – Da Nang.

Right Place, Wrong Time
A few weeks previously I had been set a task. Something to help out with the booking and planning of this adventure, and it involved a decision (which I’m so good at, obviously).

Da Nang and Hoi An are two cities on the coastline of Vietnam, about half way up between HCMC and Hanoi. My task was simple: although both places were relatively close to each other, I needed to decide which one we stayed in and which one we had a day visit to. After a lot of research of online reviews, nearby attractions and hotels, I settled on Da Nang.

This was the wrong choice. Da Nang will be a beach resort city. For now though, most of the city is covered with construction sites and every other building seems to be a massage parlour or another empty hotel – there is not a lot to see in the city itself and since we managed to arrive in off-season there were hardly any other tourists either.

The hotel came with pretty good reviews that I wish I could confirm here, but they decided to put us in a small back room that looked nothing like the pictures we had booked for. After moving us to a slightly larger room with actual windows we found more almost-solid-wood mattresses that Southeast Asia seems to love so much. Later that night we were to make the happy discovery that some nearby establishment played repetitive and bass-y music throughout the night (M: literally, it stopped right before the morning school run brought the sounds of screaming kids), but for now we’d had enough disappointment, it was time for lunch!

We walked for a little bit down some of the streets trying to find a nice-looking restaurant, but as previously mentioned found only construction sites and massage parlours. Finally, we hit the main dual carriageway and followed it until we stumbled upon a hotel with a restaurant in the lobby. A quick Google of ‘Sophia Boutique’ told us that it would suit our needs. One other small group came into the building for lunch whilst we were there but apart from that, the place felt mostly deserted (the food was really good, and I highly recommend you eat there if you also accidentally end up in the wrong town).

After lunch we were both a bit disheartened and thought it necessary to grab some snacks and head back to the room for the remainder of the day, allowing us to catch up on some admin and continue planning.

Where We Should Have Been
The next day we awoke in somewhat of a foul mood, what with the aforementioned drum & bass bar keeping us up for most of the night. The next fun update on the hotel was that the restaurant area was undergoing renovation (because you would do that during off-season if you owned the hotel) which meant that the breakfast part of our booking wasn’t available. Now don’t you worry, we (Meg) managed to get some money back on the booking because of this, but it still meant we were annoyed first thing. We did the only thing you can do when in an abandoned Vietnamese beach resort town: find an Australian Burger Bar that was open for breakfast and chow down.

We um’d and ah’d about how best to get out of the town and before we knew it, it was time for our afternoon in Hoi An. We ordered an Uber and around an hour later were deposited just outside the main market street of the town.

Hoi An is a wonderful, aged city, steeped in culture and architecture from ages past and oozing with character and warmth. And now you’re wondering why I ever chose Da Nang, and to be honest with you, I thought the same every single time I remembered what I’d done (M: bless, it really wasn’t that bad!).

Following the other tourists, we meandered up and down the market streets looking at every kind of art and craft and collectible and ‘definitely genuine’ designer clothing stalls you can think of. Keen readers will remember that over Christmas we spent time with another couple, Lindsey and Simon. They’d since got engaged (many congratulations!) and since Simon’s first gift to Lindsey all that time ago had been a colourful silk lantern from Hoi An, we had been given a mission. Whilst I made my way around the town trying to find an ATM, Megan set about tracking down as many variations of silk lanterns as she could. Once she had located a couple of stores chock-full with different colours, styles and shapes, we had a brief window to contact the happy couple and find out which one topped the bunch. And once confirmation had been given, we walked back to our favourite vendor and stuffed 22 differently coloured lanterns into whatever space we could.

With our mission complete and the sun slowly setting, we wandered down to the river that runs through the town with our huge bag of lanterns in tow and found some dinner. Once the sun set, a large chunk of the populace started releasing small floating candles from a couple of the bridges in the middle of the town. Hopefully you’ve seen our pictures of this incredibly cute and pretty mini-event, but if not, take it from me, it was incredibly cute and pretty.

That was pretty much it for our day in this lovely town but I had one last stop, a fried ice cream vendor. For those of you that haven’t heard of fried ice-cream, it’s simply an ingredient of your choosing, placed on a freezing plate, covered in cream and then smashed for a few minutes by what are essentially two wallpaper scrapers and curled into a pot for you to enjoy.

The next morni-WAIT, ONE MORE THING. If I had ‘wait for longer than expected for an Uber and then walk around the corner to find a woman beating your driver’s car’ on my bucket list? Then it would be ticked off. We’ve no idea what happened but we ordered an Uber, he got stuck in what seemed like a traffic-heavy area, so we started walking toward the car only to find a woman screaming and shouting and punching his window. She got on the phone sharpish to what I can only assume was the authorities and Meg hastily dragged me away, cancelled the Uber and wandered a few hundred metres down the road before ordering the next one. Hilarious.

The next morning, after another restless night of unscheduled D&B and steel girder mattresses, we decided that we should explore more of the town we were in. Da Nang is home to the Marble Mountains – two rather large rock formations that, you guessed it, could be mined for marble – that sit atop Am Phu Cave, a sprawling subterranean structure that, through some pretty interesting sculptures, paintings and LED lights, depict a soul’s journey into the not-so-wonderful side of the afterlife.

This meant another day of Uber-ordering (it’s so cheap outside of London) as we hopped from location to location, rebuffing the driver’s attempt at staying and waiting for us outside of each attraction.

First stop, the Marble Mountains. As described above, these are a pair of small mountains on the outskirts of town, giving a wonderful view back in on the myriad of construction sites but also out onto the sea. If you’re not all that into stairs, I would advise against the Marble Mountains as there are very few flat areas of ground – as we meandered around a few small temples and shrines, my knees began to rudely remind me of my weight, and I decided to punish them further by going up to the second highest peak, scrabbling over rocks and slanted steps that were probably flat a long time ago but had seen since a million pairs of curious feet.

Once we had had enough of the high altitude exploration (M: a whopping 500 metres above sea level) we made our way back down to fulfil a promise Megan had made – when we had first arrived we weren’t sure which way to go and helpfully, a lovely local lady pointed us in the right direction (once she had elicited a promise that we stop in her marble statue shop on the way out). Once inside the trap we were shown what felt like the entire shop’s inventory, with only a few prices mentioned. Despite their insistence we managed to get out with only a small elephant figurine and even smaller turtle. This was after one of the assistants led me to another shop so I could pay by card and tried to add a few bob, but for once I actually put my foot down and refused to pay the addition.

With our newly acquired carvings tucked into a bag, our next stop was Am Phu Cave. The entrance to the cave sets the tone quite well, with a small bridge over a pond full of carved hands reaching out for help. We descended into the dark and the dank, feeling slightly more unnerved than is usual in a cave. Almost every turn we took had another grotesque caricature of a devil or demon or tortured soul, the impact of which was lessened somewhat by the addition of random multicoloured LED strips and disco lights, giving everything a kind of a smoky 80’s Top of the Pops feel. There were a surprising amount of people in the cave complex making navigating the already curled and cramped corridors quite tricky. I’m pretty sure there were a few more small rooms that we didn’t make it to before I was done with the metaphorical subterranean suffering – caves freak me out at the best of times, even when they don’t have hidden grins and glowing eyes everywhere.

After Am Phu Cave it was time to hop back in a car and travel to the other side of the city to see the Lady Buddha. A 30-storey statue facing out to sea from her mountain perch, she was an impressive sight. As the tallest Buddha statue in the whole of Vietnam, she can be seen from most parts of the city and gives you a grand look back over the bay even without climbing the interior platforms. Also stood in one of the largest pagodas in Da Nang, the statue is surrounded by bonsai trees and quite a few smaller Buddha statues, bringing an understandably serene feel to the area. We felt quite out of place being one of the few not in the area for religious reasons, so we took our photos and then headed on back to the hotel.

A Bit Far To Go For a Cave

The next day it was time to leave Da Nang and head onto our next stop; Phong Nha National Park via Dong Hoi. We turned up at the train station unsure of what to do when or where but, as our train arrived a helpful bloke took our bags, strode out across the tracks and showed us which berth was ours. It was a small room with two bunk beds (as these trains run during the night as well), each with a thin foam mattress, single pillow and sheet. We had stocked up on snacks before boarding and there was a small in-transit meal service but other than that, we sat and watched some more of whatever we had downloaded on our myriad of devices.

By the time we got to Dong Hoi the sun had set and we still needed to get to our hostel from the train station. The population was a little thin out in the sticks so no Uber for us here – instead we had to talk to someone (M: the horror) and negotiate a price. And by ‘we’ I obviously mean Megan. Through the pitch black and over roads that reminded me of those in Borneo that left us with bruises, we headed into the national park and to a small strip of buildings comprising hostels, hotels and tour shops. We’d been recommended the Gecko Hostel by Megan’s younger sister who’d done this exact journey a few months previously, and I can now thoroughly recommend the hot chocolate they serve in the lobby – I forgot to mention, the temperature had now plummeted to a brisk 16 degrees (which sounds great for a British spring day but we hadn’t experienced anything this low for a long time!). Even with a thick hoodie on and sat by a fire, I don’t think I would have survived if it wasn’t for that hot chocolate.

Aside from the sugary beverages, we were in Phong Nha to check out ‘Paradise Cave’, the longest dry cave in Asia. The surrounding area is full of cave systems and beautiful scenery, but we had again fallen into a bit of an issue with being there during off-season. A lot of the tours had jacked up their prices to make the trip worth it, and as a result we decided to ask for a driver to take us up to the cave.

Once we reached the base of the mountain we were shepherded onto an elongated electric golf-cart and driven at a terrifying pace to the beginning of a kilometre-long footpath up to the entrance of the cave. And, once we’d made it all the way up, we then had to descend into the bowels of the mountain. Passing stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations of every kind, we followed the lit boardwalk path all the way to the end, which took about 45 minutes (with photo stops for the particularly impressive formations). As I’ve mentioned before, I get a bit freaked out by caves – something about standing under a huge amount of solid, person-crushing stone doesn’t really do it for me. I managed to make it through the whole cave by not thinking about how much of me would or wouldn’t be left if any part of the ceiling decided it wanted to become the floor section instead, but was quite relieved for the fresh air when we finally got back outside.

Midnight Train to Nowhere Ha Noi

Most of you will know that I do not sleep a lot. Some of you will also know that I sleep not-at-all on night flights and regular readers will know that I’ve now found out I can’t sleep on night buses either. The next lesson in ‘how to keep your sleep pattern guessing’ comes in the form of a night-time train up the coast of Vietnam from Dong Hoi to Ha Noi. And, as it turns, I also can’t sleep on those either. What a surprise.

After what felt like an incredibly long time, we finally arrived in Ha Noi at 5am. Sleep deprived, starving and still dragging 21 silk lanterns around, we found an early morning McDonalds that would accept us. We weren’t booked into any lodging for the day as we were to continue onto Cat Ba Island, so I sat with some hash browns and water as Megan fumbled her way through the Vietnamese post office across the road (M: it took me an hour in the end, half of which I was in entirely wrong building).

Luckily it wasn’t long until our bus was due to leave for Cat Ba Island, the largest of 367 islands that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago. There are some spectacular beaches and sights to see sailing around these islands – such as the famous Ha Long Bay – but first we had to check in to another hotel of my choosing (for better or worse), Sea Dragon Hotel. Upgraded to a ‘sea-view’ room, we were immediately in high hopes. These hopes were to be dashboard however, as we realised that although you could indeed see the sea it was beyond what seemed to be the town’s only rubbish tip. The room had no electricity until I went back down to reception and watched them turn on a huge breaker switch behind the reception desk, and, the room had no hot water until I again went back down and watched them press a smaller button next to the aforementioned breaker switch.

We booked ourselves onto a boat tour of the bay for the next day from reception and then went in search of an early dinner (a quick Google gave us a location which had ‘24/7 happy hour’, so that worked out).

I highly recommend somehow finding yourself on a boat in the Cat Ba Archipelago. We spent a pretty sweet day sailing around the famous limestone islands, including a stop at Monkey Island. As you can probably guess by the name, the small island is inhabited by beer-loving monkeys who are constantly poised to steal from unsuspecting tourists. It also has a hiking trail leads up to some incredible views of the surrounding bay. I use them term ‘hiking trail’ only because that’s how they referred to it, but I would actually call it a light exercise in bouldering and rock climbing without any of the associated safety equipment. The ‘trail’ section lasted for about 50 yards and from then on we got sore hands and feet from scrambling up the side of rocky outcrops. Still, very cool.

Once we’d somehow made it to the top and back again without any lasting damage, we sat on the beach waiting for our boat to come back… which meant that we could enjoy the schadenfreude of watching other tourists clambering back onto their boats from shore. Unless you’re about 6’3”, turns out this is a bit tricky. None of the small skiffs had a dropped front, so you either have to make the four-foot leap in a single bound or climb up the front while the waves move the boat forward and back. Needless to say, we both left with some bruises after that day.

After the day of adventure it was time to grab some dinner back at our now favourite Happy Hour bar and turn in for the night, as it was another early departure the next day back to Ha Noi.

Beginning Of The End

There’s not much for me to say about Ha Noi. It’s a lot like any other city we had been to by this point and although it is the country’s capital city, we didn’t do all that much exploring. We stayed in a lovely hotel with soft beds for once and, after the last few days, we both needed to do a whole lot of nothing. On our second day in the city we wandered through some of the markets nearby, looking for souvenirs and gifts, but with a few more weeks still to go it was hard to prioritise bag space.

As a whole, I loved Vietnam. We seemed to do so much in our short time and yet there’s still tonnes and tonnes more that could be done if you had the time. I think our trip to the country suffered somewhat from our now chronic travel fatigue. It’s such an incredible experience to be able to travel for that long but it does mean that you can’t treat every moment like a holiday without burning out. As Megan and I want to revisit Borneo and Bali for what we missed, I would like to add Vietnam to that list as well. I’m going to end this post here as we only have two countries left: Laos and Thailand. The former we only spent a few days in, and the latter had us meeting up with some friends for the majority.

Thanks for reading!

 

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