Category Archives: Vietnam

Posts made in Vietnam!

Vietnam – Sapa, Halong Bay, and on to Laos

We have spent our last week in Vietnam in the north of this fantastic country, which has continued to impress us. We spent the first half of the week in the northern highlands at the town of Sapa, which lies near the Chinese border. To get to there we took an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai and from there it was a windy 40 minute bus ride up into the mountains to the town. Ascending through valleys of cascading rice terraces we had some glorious views.

Sapa was founded as a French hill station in 1909 and is a quaint place with some grand colonial architecture and a spectacular setting. The town is also a great place from which to visit some of the hill-tribe communities, such as the Black H’Mong and Red Dzao tribes, which inhabit some of the surrounding hills. To get out to these remote villages you have to do some trekking and we had pre-booked a tour with a homestay through the Sapa Summit Hotel. It was handy booking through the hotel as we could have a shower and breakfast before setting off on our trek. We were pleased that our friendly guide, Xing, was from one of the communities – the Black H’Mong. Xing’s spoke good and dressed in the traditional way for her tribe. She also carried her baby on her back, wrapped in a basic sling, throughout our tour.

As we walked through Sapa we were joined by many friendly, a bit of a sales ploy, ladies from the Black H’Mong community. All were dressed in the same way with an indigo blue long gown (embroidered with colourful patterns to distinguish age and skill), leggings, a tall hat, and if they are married large heavy earrings.

Owing to the altitude of 1650m it is no surprise that Sapa is regularly shrouded in cloud, and it was misty and damp as we walked along the trails of the Muong Hoa Valley. We passed through several villages along the way, which given their setting and colourfully dressed residents were very picturesque.

With the damp conditions the trails were muddy and slippery, despite us wearing trekking shoes, however the locals in their sandals they seemed to have no problem and regularly had to give us a hand!

To get to our lunch stop at the Lao Chai village we had to cross a river on a rickety old suspension bridge, it didn’t feel particularly safe but it made for a good photo opportunity!

Our homestay was in the Ta Van Village, which is inhabited by the Dzay people. Five of us (Lisa and I, Lawrence from the UK, Naja from Canada, and Jay from Korea) stayed with a lovely family in their wooden house in the centre of the village. The villagers seemed to be used to tourists (there were lots of homestays and even a tourist pub!) and very friendly. It was raining so we relaxed with muddy and sweet Vietnamese coffee overlooking the rice terraces – you don’t get this at Starbucks!

Whilst our hosts couldn’t speak much English we could have a basic conversation and they seemed to like having us around. They cooked us a banquet of a meal, food is very important to the Vietnamese, that we all sat down and ate together. After the meal our hosts insisted on sharing a bottle of rice wine with us, which whilst tasting a bit like paint thinner our hosts seems rather partial to!

It was the homestay experience we were hoping for and we had a lot of fun and really enjoyed the small insight we had into their lives. Here’s a photo of us with the family, on the left, and our guide Xing at the front – the photos wonky as I don’t think the H’Mong lady who took it had ever used a camera before!

After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and coffee we trekked out through the rice terraces where workers were laboriously tending to their crops. After crossing another dodgy suspension bridge we stopped at a waterfall for another photo opportunity.

Further up the mountain we had lunch at a H’Mong village where we were harangued one last time by the savvy (sales) ladies – “buy something from me?”cheap price”. Their sales pitches were quite humorous and with many of their souvenirs the result of their own handy work we happily bought a few things from them – once we had negotiated a sensible price!

After lunch we took a bus back up the windy road to Sapa. It had been a really great couple of days, trekking through the fantastic scenery and meeting the tribes is one of our favourite Vietnam experiences. We had the rest of the day to ourselves in Sapa so we had a walk around the town, which has a small catholic church at its centre.

By now our legs were feeling a little tired so we relaxed a while in a nice French cafe that sold good coffee and cake! Dinner was included at our hotel and we were served up pumpkin soup, spring rolls, and chicken curry. Unfortunately, we think, something in this meal gave us food poisoning as we spent most of the night and next day running to the toilet 🙁

We had planned our tour around a visit to the vibrant weekly Bac Ha market, which is a gathering for people from the various communities every Sunday. Sadly we were in no condition to visit the market so we had to miss out – it gives us a reason to come back!

Instead we stayed at the hotel most of the day, whose manager wasn’t too sympathetic and made us pay a fee to stay longer in our room! It wasn’t a great day but thankfully we felt well enough to take the overnight sleeper train back to Hanoi in the evening. We slept like logs for the whole journey and arrived in Hanoi feeling much better.

After a lazy morning in Hanoi we decided we had had enough of being in hotel rooms so visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is a holy site for many Vietnamese as his embalmed corpse is on display here. We didn’t go in as it is closed in the afternoons but its grand dimensions make it a very imposing sight from the outside.

Also in the complex is HCM’s former stilt house residence, the presidential palace, and the icon of Hanoi the ‘One Pillar Pagoda’, which was built to represent a lotus blossom, which to the Vietnamese is a symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.

By this time we hadn’t eaten much for nearly 36 hours and our bellies were rumbling. Noodle soup is good when you’re ill, and as luck would have it the staple meal of Vietnam is beef noodle soup – Pho Bo. The Vietnamese eat Pho Bo for Breakfast, and despite initial reservations we actually enjoyed having it for breakfast once or twice.

The noodles must have helped as we felt back to normal again the next morning, which was good as we set off early on a three day tour to one of Vietnam’s most famous sights – Halong Bay. This majestic and mysterious natural spectacle is a World Heritage listed site that features thousands of limestone pillars/islands formed over 20 million years into various shapes and sizes.

There are lots of tour companies who will take you to Halong Bay all seemingly offering a similar experience, so after a bit of research and recommendation from fellow travellers we plumped for ‘Christina Cruises’. They picked us up at our Hanoi hotel in their minibus for the four hour journey to Halong City. We then boarded a traditional wooden Junk that would take us on a cruise around the bay. In recent years tourists have drowned as a result of poorly maintained boats sinking so I was relieved that ours looked in a seaworthy condition!

There were about twenty of us in the group, which included Vietnamese as well as Western tourists – notably a large group of friendly Israelis. Firstly we had lunch, which was a bit of a feast with fish, squid, chicken, spring rolls, and some battered deep fried sweet corn that was surprisingly nice!

As we ate lunch we cruised out to into the bay and from a distance it looks like the pillars are all one but as you get closer you realise they are all individual rocks jutting out of the sea. Our first stop was at the Thien Cung grotto that is a gigantic cave hollowed out of one of the pillars. We were told we were visiting a cave but we didn’t expect it to be so impressive, it took quite a while to walk through all the chambers and it was so expansive I wondered how the rock above us was supported.

After the cave we went out in a kayak, Lisa in the front and me ‘the engine’ in the back, which allowed us to get up close to some of the formations and explore some of the hidden lagoons. It was good fun, although we had to be careful to avoid the numerous cruise boats that either didn’t notice us or didn’t care if they hit us! We paddled around a floating fishing village where the residents cheerfully waved at us and took in the views of the formations towering above us.

Our tour guide was quite disappointing as he didn’t give us any info except telling us quite aggressively what time we should be where. We visited what he described as a beach but it was more of a mud bath, thankfully we didn’t have to hang out on ‘the beach’ as we found a staircase up to a lookout point at the top of the pillar. Whilst a bit of an effort to get up there the views overlooking the bay were spectacular.

We slept over night on the junk, which was anchored in a calm lagoon between several pillars and in our cabin it was hard to tell we were even on a boat. It was scenic spot to spend the night and we watched a glorious sunset from the top deck.

When darkness fell we tried our hand at squid fishing, a bright light at the front of the boat was used to attract the squid to the lures we dangled from our cane rods. We gave it a go for an hour or so but didn’t get a bite, but nevertheless it was a relaxing and fun way to spend the evening.

We slept well on the Junk and next morning as we ate breakfast we cruised through the bay past countless pillars to the large island of Cat Ba where we disembarked. Jungle clad Cat Ba is the only populated island in the bay and has surprisingly large town at its southern tip. We did a trek up to a high point on the island which gave us a view across it. It was a steep and slippery trail to the top and we were soon sweaty profusely and attacked by swarms of mossies as we trekked through the jungle. When we reached the top the view was OK but I wouldn’t do it again!

After lunch at a restaurant in Cat Ba town we had the afternoon to ourselves and whilst most of the tourists stayed in a hotel there we were glad we had opted to pay more to stay in a bungalow on remote Nam Cat Island. To get there we took a bouncy little boat, piloted by a kindly old man, about 30 minutes along the bay. As soon as we arrived we loved the tranquillity of the place and the view from our bungalow, which stood on 3m stilts above the water, gave us one of the best bedroom views we have had in 14 months of travelling.

It was a great place to relax and enjoy some peace (not easy to find in Vietnam!), and when we got too hot we jumped into the appealing water to cool off.

In the evening we enjoyed a nice BBQ dinner and went to sleep listening to the water lapping at the legs of our bungalow. If you do a tour to Halong, it is well worth the extra cost to stay at these bungalows.

Next morning we took the same boat back to Cat Ba and then after picking up the other tourists from the town took a bus back to the port where we boarded our Junk. We then cruised back out through the ever impressive formations back to the mainland.

Then it was a four hour bus ride back to Hanoi, which was slightly ruined when our guide handed out review forms and then didn’t like the feedback we gave him – not very professional! But nevertheless we had thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Halong Bay, it is a lovely place.

Back in Hanoi we enjoyed some more Bun Bo Nam Bo (see the previous post) for dinner, and took it easy. Whilst we enjoyed the buzz of the city we found it a Hanoi’ng (pardon the pun) place to walk around as it’s a constant battle to weave your way through small streets full of scooters.

Yesterday, after one last Pho Bo we boarded a sleeper bus for a gruelling 20 hour journey to Vientiane in Laos. We had debated whether to fly (1 hour but $190) or take the bus ($25), and in the end opted for the cheaper option and actually it wasn’t that bad.

We slept much of the way and when not sleeping I found the Stieg Larsson ‘Millenium’ book I am reading very engrossing. There wasn’t a toilet on board so the bus stopped every few hours, including a few hours for the border formalities, which meant we could stretch our legs.

We arrived in Vientiane, which is Laos capital city, around 15:00 this afternoon and we were immediately struck by how quiet it is compared to a Hanoi – it looks like Laos is much more chilled that bustling ‘Nam!

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vietnam, a place where anything is possible, and you can see some of the photos from our time there here.

Vietnam – Hoi An to Hanoi

After four relaxed days in Hoi An it was time to get back on the road again and continue our journey north. Vietnam is a country that gets about on two wheels and if you don’t have at least a scooter you’re considered a nobody. Scooters and Motorbikes are used not only to transport people (often whole families are seen on one bike) but are also used like vans to carry large amounts of goods.

Therefore we thought it only right to do part of our journey through Vietnam on two wheels. The chaotic roads in Vietnam, where the only rule is small yields to big (pedestrians are the lowest of the low!), are not the place for amateur riders to fool about. Therefore, after some avid recommendations, we decided to join up with the Hoi An arm of the ‘Easy Riders’ for a 2 day motor biking tour to the ancient capital of Hué via the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail. This meant we could leave the driving to these experience bikers/guides whilst taking in the amazing scenery along the way.

We were picked up from our Hoi An hotel early morning by tour leader and ‘Hells Angels’ wannabie Leo and his band of ‘Easy Riders’, but before leaving town we went for a Vietnam style coffee – bitter sweet, thick, and muddy – where we met up with an Aussie couple who also were on our tour, Chris and Jackie. Chris is an experience rider so he rode on his own, but the rest of us were passengers – our backpacks strapped on the back of the bikes. Lisa rode with a quiet young lad called Chao, whilst I was driven by the cheerful Mr Binh – who I though looked a bit like Ho Chi Minh!

The guys rode 250cc Honda motorbikes (with Harley Davidson stickers), which were surprisingly comfortable – I’ve been on a few scooters but this was my first time on a proper motorbike! Where possible we took country roads away from the main Highway 1 that runs the length of the country and soon after leaving Hoi An we found ourselves riding through scenic rice fields where workers were Communistically tending their crops – a common sight in rural Vietnam.

After passing through the large city of Danang we made a brief stop at the Marble Mountains – five marble outcrops one of which has a pretty pagoda on top. Once past Danang we turned off onto country roads that were almost deserted and rode through some very picturesque villages up into the mountains of the Central Highlands. Whilst we were off the ‘tourist trail’ the kids were obviously used to these bikes carrying tourists as they rushed to cheerfully wave and shout “hello, hello, hello!’ at us. We stopped at several villages where the residents live in simple pointy roofed bamboo huts.

We were always enthusiastically greeted by the village’s kids who swarmed around us, they particularly enjoyed having their photos taken and seeing themselves on our digital camera screens.

We stayed overnight at a small guesthouse in the small town of Prao, about 125km from Hoi An, where we had a few beers with our new biker friends and enjoyed a no frills but delicious meal – they always took us to places where the locals eat. Next morning we joined the HCM trail, which during the war was a vital supply route for communist forces running from North to South Vietnam, with some sections through neighbouring Laos and Cambodia.

In the war the trail was little more than a track through the jungle, today, in honour of HCM, it has been tarmaced to become the perfect biker road! As most traffic uses the quicker main highway it often seemed like we were the only ones on the road. We passed pigs, buffalos, goats, and lots of smiling people along the way.

The scenery was breathtaking, I had never imagined that Vietnam was a mountainous country with lush green valleys and gushing rivers. Sadly we also saw that the affects of the use of the Agent Orange defoliant in the war still affect the land nearly 40 years later – there are large barren areas where nothing will grow. We stopped at some more villages where the kids happy received the small Koala toys that the Aussies handed out.

It was pretty hot, even on the bikes with a breeze in your face, so we made a stop at a waterfall where the pools made for a refreshing break.

At the end of the HCM trail we joined up with the main highway and I was thankful we didn’t have to ride on it for too long. There was lots of traffic that we had to dodge in between, including some really big trucks!

We did about 200km of riding on our second day and our bums were getting a bit saddle sore as we arrived in Hué in the late afternoon! We were glad to get off the bike but nevertheless we had really enjoyed the tour, it is a great way to see the amazing scenery of rural Vietnam, which we would never have seen on a bus on the main highway. Whilst it is expensive compared to the bus the experience doesn’t even compare, I would throughly recommend a tour with the Easy Riders.

Ancient Hué served as the capital of Vietnam when it was under Chinese influence from 1802 to 1945. It is a nice enough city with plenty of historical sights to see, including Pagodas, Tombs for Emperors, Temples, and a World Heritage listed Citadel.

On our first day in Hué we took a tour on a (tacky) Dragon Boat along the Song Huong River where we stopped at some of the ancient sights. The impressive Thien Mu Pagoda, built in 1601, is one of the oldest buildings in Vietnam with obvious Chinese styling.

We visited a couple of Tombs for Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty and were amazed by the size and grandeur of them. Firstly we visited the Tomb of Minh Mang, emperor from 1820 to 1840, which has expansive gardens and temples surrounded by a moat. The second tomb, built relatively recently for Emperor Khai Dinh who served only nine years from 1916 to 1925 was just as impressive. With its stone figures reminded me of the Terracota Warrior tombs of Xian in China.

The mosaic and golden statue of the Emperor inside the tomb were amazingly detailed and majestic.

When you’ve had enough of the old stuff there’s a vibrant backpackers area packed with bars and cafes on the south side of the river. We found a French restaurant where much to Lisa’s delight they had (real) Cheese and to mine good Coffee and chocolate cake!

We spent our second day in Hué wandering around the mighty Citadel. To get to the gates of the Citadel we took a scenic ‘Cyclo’ – a tricycle with a comfy seat on the front – ride through the small alleys of the Old Town. I did feel a bit sorry for the driver in the baking heat but it was a fun experience nevertheless!

The Citadel was constructed in the 19th century and is huge! It was the scene of some fierce battles in the wars with the French and Americans and much of it was destroyed – bullet holes are visible on many of the walls.

Since the war there has been some painstaking restoration work and the Citadel is again showing something of its former glory. It is pleasant to walk around the buildings and gardens and it is easy to spend hours here.

Probably most impressive is the Forbidden Purple City (Tu Cam Thanh), which was reserved for the private life of the Emperor.

After all that walking we needed some refreshment, which we found at the friendly Mandarin Cafe in the form of Beef Noodle Soup (Pho Bo), which is a staple meal in Vietnam. After two days in Hué we continued our journey north to the modern capital Hanoi. As this was a 700km (15 hour) journey we decided to treat ourselves and take the much more comfortable ‘Reunification Express’ sleeper train rather than the bus – its double the price but well worth it!

Whilst we left in the dark the morning sun revealed an impressive landscape of rice fields and distant mountains – Vietnam never ceases to impress.

We slept really well and arrived at Hanoi’s central station feeling fresh (unlike with the bus!) 15 minutes ahead of schedule just before 11am.

Straight away we entered the madness of the city as we were ripped off by a taxi driver with a dodgy meter – be careful. We stayed at the nice Tung Trang guesthouse in the city’s ‘Old Quarter’, a bustling district of commerce in a historic setting. As in Saigon there’s a bit cathedral, St Josephs, right in the middle of it.

Hanoi is more about soaking up the atmosphere than sightseeing but we did have a walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake, which sits in the centre of the city and offers plenty of photo opportunities. The small Ngoc Son Temple sits on an island in the middle of the lake and is a relaxing retreat from the city.

We also visited the notorious Hoa Lo prison, aka. The Hanoi Hilton, which is now a museum. Built by the French to imprison political enemies it was where captured US pilots were brutally interrogated during the war. The exhibits were had a propaganda tone but it was an interesting place to visit.

We have really enjoyed walking around the cities streets and we found some really nice cafes in which to sit and watch the world go by. A real favourite place to eat is the small ‘Bun Bo Nam Bo’ cafe on the ‘Ly Quoc Su’ street. This simple cafe has only four dishes, one of which, and our favourite, gives the cafe its name – rice noodles with beef, salad, and peanuts. One can eat like a king here for a pound, if you come to Hanoi check it out!

Last night we watched a Water Puppetry show, which is a North Vietnam tradition. With a good live band, skilled puppeteers (hidden behind a screen), and humorous stories it was surprisingly good and we really enjoyed it.

Afterwards we went to the Bia Hoi junction on hectic Hang Bac street, north of the lake, where beer is cheap and you sit on small plastic chairs on the street – a fantastic place to people watch and see how the locals socialise.

Today we are taking it easy as tonight we take a sleeper train to the Northern Highlands of Vietnam, we’ll be back in Hanoi in a few days, and the town of Sapa – it is supposedly a very scenic place and we hope to do some trekking to visit some of the hill tribe communities in the area. Vietnam just keeps getting better and better and time seems to be flying by – less than 5 weeks of our trip left!

There are a load of photos from our Vietnam trip here – check out the Easy Rider photos!

Vietnam – Mekong Delta, Siagon, Nha Trang, & Hoi An

We are now in the vibrant Vietnam having crossed the border from Cambodia on May 15th. To get into Vietnam we booked a 2 day 1 night tour through the Mekong Delta to Saigon (officially now known as Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. Our trip started with a short minibus ride from the Cambodian town of Kampot to the border post. It was a bit of a sketchy border post as it seemed only foreign tourists were required to stop, locals casually ducked under the barrier without acknowledging the border guards who barely noticed them.

Security was a tighter on the Vietnam side and we had to wait ages whilst our passports were checked. We also had our temperatures measured to check, I guess as it wasn’t clear, that we weren’t harbouring some sort of disease/virus. Measurements were taken with a handheld scanner placed on our necks which gave an instant reading, and the guy looked surprised when he saw Lisa’s temperature but waved her through anyway!

Once through the border it was a short drive to the Vietnamese town of Ha Tien and from there we changed to another cramped mini bus (the Vietnamese cam as many in as they can regardless of passenger comfort) and arrived in Can Tho in the early evening. We had booked to stay at a nearby homestay in one of the villages along the Mekong Delta, but we were a bit late and no one was waiting for us at the bus station. After a bit of phoning around and some help from the friendly staff at the bus station we finally got hold of the family we were staying with and they kindly came and picked us up on their scooters – the best ride of the day!

The homestay turned out to be a simple guesthouse ran by a family and used daily tour companies, and with 15 or so other tourists also staying there it wasn’t quite what we had hoped for. Sadly, interaction with the family was limited, but they did serve us up a lovely meal of DIY spring rolls and steamed fish from the river.

Most of our tourist companions were really nice, including a nice couple from Cumbria, but unbelievably one Aussie guy (an alcoholic in his 40’s) was so stupidly drunk that he managed to offend the family and most of the tourists. The evening coming to an abrupt end when he became needlessly aggressive towards us, all in all it was an interesting day but not the start to Vietnam we were hoping for!

Thankfully the next day was better, despite the Aussie guy opening his first beer at 7am, and our Vietnam trip has been fantastic since. We were up really early for a little tour of the village where, after crossing the river standing up on a tiny rowing boat, we visited a small market.

Later in a bigger motorised boat we cruised through the floating markets at Cai Rang – a mass of boats trading their wares in the middle of the mighty Mekong River. Each boat seemed to specialise in a particular item, such as this boat crammed full of pineapples.

Soon energetic traders in small boats pulled up alongside us and were offering us coffee, fruit, bread, as well as the usual array of souvenirs.

The Mekong Delta is known as the rice bowl that feeds the nation and with masses of rice fields it’s easy to see why. We visited a rice processing factory along the river where we watched rice being sifted, bagged, and made into rice noodles. Later we got a chance to cross one of the many ‘Monkey Bridges’ that provide important crossing points over the river, a lot more stable than it looks!

For lunch we stopped at a restaurant where we were told the speciality was Rat, although it seemed no one fancied it! Maybe the 60’000 price tag put people off, although with the Pound to Dong exchange rate being roughly 1 to 32’000 it seems unlikely.

To be honest, whilst the markets were interesting, we found the Mekong Delta to be a bit of a tacky tourist experience (I had a similar experience here 6 years ago) so we were happy that we only quickly passed through it on our way to Saigon, which was a 3 hour bus ride north.

We really liked Saigon, it is a buzzing place with streets thronged with scooters, hectic markets, and millions of entrepreneurs. Whilst Vietnam may officially be a communist country Saigon is probably one of the most capitalist cities in the world! Anything and everything can be bought here, all for “Cheap Price!”. The city has a lot of charm with French colonial architecture, ancient alleys, and of course an evocative history. We stayed in the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao, a pulsating place that didn’t seem to sleep.

Saigon is a big city but most of its main sights are clustered within walking distance of the city centre, although crossing the road was not the easiest thing to do! Pedestrian crossings are ignored, and after building up a bit of courage you simply step out into the road and slowly walk across hoping you won’t become a bug on a windscreen!

We wandered through the central market, which is a fun place to barter with the traders – although their arm grabbing “look in my shop” sales technique is a little aggressive! We also admired the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built in 1883 by the French.

The Reunification Palace is just round the corner from the cathedral, which was built in 1966 to serve as the South Vietnam Presidential Palace. Here the Vietnam War was brought to a close on 30th April 1975 when the first communist tanks crashed through its gates. The building remains as it was on that day and the tanks are on display in the grand gardens.

Later we visited the War Remnants Museum, which showcases the brutal impact the war had on Vietnam. On display are relics from the war and many photos of its victims including many children affected by the use of the Agent Orange defoliant, which is still affecting people nearly 40 years since the war ended. Whilst there was a propagandist tone to the exhibits it was an eye opening and interesting experience, albeit a sombre one.

Saigon really comes alive at night as locals and tourists alike throng the cities neon lit bars. The cheapest beer we found was on Bui Vien Street where the savvy traders were selling Siagon Beer (a nice one worth trying) from a cool box to the thirsty backpackers for about 30p a bottle. We all sat on tiny plastic seats outside the front of the shop, the place was packed and it was a nice social atmosphere. We found many of the guys we had met on the Mekong Delta trip here and had a nice evening with them. On the same street there’s a restaurant called ‘Lam’, which means ‘many’ in Vietnamese and as the name suggests you get big portions of really nice food, try the jungle curry! It’s popular so when it gets full they seat people in their overflow restaurant over the street and carry the food over to you!

Whilst in Saigon we also took a half day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels, which are about an hour’s bus ride from the city. During the war the communist guerrilla forces known as the Viet Cong (VC) dug this expansive network of tunnels as a hidden base from which to launch attacks against the American troops. At their peak the tunnels stretched about 200km all the way to the Cambodian border and were an important supply and communication route right under the noses of the Americans. The tunnels served as bomb shelters, hospitals, food and ammo stores, and were dug under the American bases so that attacks, such as the famous Tet Offensive, could be launched within their perimeter. The VC used ingenious methods to conceal the tunnel entrances, which were barely big enough for a person to crawl into – as we found out!

The Americans heavy bombed this area with B-52 strikes (more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than on Nazi Germany) but the tunnels were dug deep enough for the VC to stay safe, and they often lived underground for months on end. We crawled through only a short section of the dark and unbearably hot tunnel, 5 minutes were more than enough, so I can only imagine how hard life must have been down here with a full on war raging outside.

The Vietnamese are incredibly hard working and patriotic people, enduring working conditions without complaint that would be unimaginable in the west, and I can imagine there would be very determined force to fight against. Around the tunnels the VC created traps to injure and maim enemy troops with some very creative methods – this didn’t look very inviting.

After two days in Saigon we took an overnight sleeper bus about 500km north to the city of Nha Trang. The sleeper bus was an interesting experience with ‘beds’ instead of seats, although they were sized to Asian proportions meaning a cramped night for us Westerners!

Despite the bumpy roads and lots of random stops we actually slept most of the journey and felt surprisingly refreshed when we arrive in Nha Trang at 6:30am. The city is set on a long beach, which we wandered along until we found a reasonably priced guest house with a sea view – no surprise that it was called the Sea View Hotel!

Nha Trang reminded me of Mallorca with lots of bars and restaurants catering to the tourists with a focus on relaxing on the beach, which we found to be quite enjoyable. It’s a popular place with Russian tourists and many hotels and restaurants had signs and menus in Russian, I guess that’s where a lot of the investment in the shiny hotels comes from. After getting bored on the beach we found a bit of culture at the picturesque Buddhist Long Son Pagoda a few kilometres from the city centre.

Stupidly we visited in the heat of the midday sun and after climbing the 152 steps up to the Big Buddha statue we were drenched in sweat. However, the reclining Buddha statue was pretty impressive and worth the effort!

The nightlife in Nha Trang was good and we tried to stay up to watch the Champions League final, which started at 2:30am Vietnam time, but Lisa was asleep well before kick-off and I barely made it to half-time!

Two days were enough for us in Nha Trang and we took another overnight sleeper bus 550km north to the historic town of Hoi An. This bus was more uncomfortable than the previous one as five us were crammed in at the back of the bus above the hot engine but nevertheless we somehow slept reasonably well and for the price, about £5, you can’t knock it!

Hoi An is a lovely place, you can really feel a sense of history here and it’s a nice place to just hang out and soak up the atmosphere. Back in the 17th century Hoi An was a large trading port on the Thu Bon River that flows through it, and influences from Chinese, Japenese, and European cultures are easy to see in its architecture and easy going people.

The town is peaceful and quiet, and we enjoyed lazily cycling around the narrow lanes and stopping at the nice cafes and shops. The food here is the best we have had in Vietnam so far including squid stuffed with pork and vegetables, Vietnamese crispy pancakes, and our favourite ‘Cao Lau’ which the locals eat for breakfast, lunch , and dinner – doughy noodles in a savoury broth with bean sprouts and greens topped off with roast pork slices and a few bits of crackling. There are a lot of great restaurants but a place called ‘Cafe 43’, conveniently next door to our guesthouse (which was also really nice), had consistently good dishes for bargain prices.

There are some museums in Hoi An but we didn’t visit any of them, the Museum of Trading Ceramics isn’t really our thing, but we did check out the towns icon – a covered Japanese bridge built in 1593.

There are also a couple of beaches within cycling distance of the town and we opted for a day at the An Bang beach about 4km north of the town. It was a nice cycle ride (borrowed for free from the guesthouse) down a country lane to the beach which we pretty much had to ourselves.

Well until the locals turn up around 4pm when the sun is less intense – they all want pale skin and cover themselves up during the day. We also took an early morning tour out to the UNESCO World Heritage listed ruins at My Son, a hour’s drive from Hoi An, which are part of the remains of the ancient Cham Empire. These Hindu temples were built over a thousand years ago are set under in the shadow of the Cat Tooth Mountain. Sadly the ruins were ruined even more during the war (there are lots of bomb craters around the site) but were nevertheless interesting to see.

Hoi An is also famous for its tailors and one can have a good quality custom made garment (suit, jacket, dress, etc) made up within 24 hours for a bargain price. There are masses of tailor shops all keen to take your measurements, and of course we got sucked in when we realise how cheap it was. Despite the sweltering heat, which I think made us crazy, we both had a smart winter jacket tailored for us.

As well as tailored garments there are colourful paper lanterns, which prettily light up the town at night and are sold for bargain prices.

The towns bustling market is a great place to watch the locals (mainly women) buying and selling food, clothes, and trinkets – it’s a good place to buy some cheap souvenirs.

With all the shopping we needed to send a parcel home so we asked at our hotel where the post office was only to be told the post office could come to us! The hotel called the post office and five minutes later two friendly girls arrived complete with boxes, scales, and tape and soon packaged up our 6kg of stuff and took it away on their scooter, now that’s service – only in Vietnam!

We liked Hoi An and have stayed here for four days, but times going fast and tomorrow we need to move on further north as we head to the city of Hue. We are really enjoying Vietnam and with a lot of exciting places to come further north we are really looking forward to exploring this amazing country further.

There are loads of photos from our first week in Vietnam here.

Life of a Solo Traveller

Not done too much today, slept till 10am, which was brilliant needed to catch up on some sleep!  Was feeling a bit hungover to be honest – had a few beers with some lads I met on my Mekong Tour.  It was a guy from England, Lewis, last night of a one month holiday in Vietnam – so ended up being a boozy one till the early hours!  Beer here is between 25p to 75p, the best I’ve found is ‘Saigon’ sold in a 500ml bottle, at 5% its pretty powerful too!

Lewis works in his Dads bakery in Bideford, Devon – he says if I’m ever passing I can pop in for a free pasty!  I said I’d give the bakery a plug, so if your ever in Bideford go to the Country Cottage Bakery for any bread product needs you may have!

Travelling alone is cool, strangely (sadly?) enjoying it!  But your not really on your own, I’m in a 7 bed dorm here and there’s at least 5 other solo travellers – it’s dead easy to get talking to folk.  I’ve met people from all over the world Australians, Brits, Scots, Irish, Swedes, Germans, French, Canadians, and even a few ‘decent’ yanks!  Most folks I’ve met in Cambodia and Vietnam are doing similar trips to me, seems everyone is headed for Sydney at Christmas!  I’ve seen people here I met in Cambodia.  Of course some people can be irritating, met an American today who was very arrogant and self-righteous – “USA, USA, USA” – but you just move away quickly!

When I’m on my own I also pay more attention to what’s going on around me, and I notice that locals are keener to talk to me, which is good.  It’s also good to be able to do what I want and at a pace I want.  Of course there’s disadvantages – rooms cost more in guesthouses (no one to split the cost with) although I usually go for a dorm if available, also the frequent table for 1 can be a bit boring but I’m not the only one doing it!  In England I was a little apprehensive about going alone, but I’m really enjoying it – getting really good at small talk now!  Also developed a good knack of sleeping on bus’s, trains, planes, and boats – as soon as we start moving I seem to start dozing off, all good as it makes the journey go quicker!

Today went to a market where they sold pretty much anything you could ever want.  Had a bit of fun bartering with the vendors, they basically grab your arm as you go past and don’t let go!  Or they say “handsome man, you buy t-shirt” all amusing.  Got myself a Vietnam footie top for about a pound – don’t think there’ll be many of those back home!  After the market I walked round Siagon a bit, passing the Notre Dam cathedral complete with statue of Mary on route – didnt realise but a lot of the Southern Vietnamese are Catholics.  I also went back to the Reunification Palace for a tour round the inside – some interesting photos of the day the Americans left from the roof by helicopter and the North Vietnamese tanks stormed the gates – in fact the tanks still there as a monument.  Lots of Anti-American war crime stuff too, will Iraq be the same about us in 30 years time?

Had some photos developed off a disposable camera (quality not great unfortunatley) I was using, some in the Cambodia gallery here, Vietnam here.   Will upload the Vietnam ones from my ‘new’ digi camera soon.

Heres me on the ferry from Siem Reap to Phnom Phen last week (got sunburnt and my ears were ringing from the loud engine noise!):\

Phnom Phen Express

And here I am at the War Museum in Saigon getting my war fix:

Huey

Last night in Vietnam, really enjoyed it and I’ll deffo be back!  Shame I haven’t got time to do more here, but you cant do it all!  Tomorrow I’m flying back to Thailand (2 hour flight compared to 3 days overland travel!) to meet Tom for a few beach days R&R, should be good – haven’t actually seen a beach yet on my travels!!!

Mekong Delta

Got back from a two day tour of the Mekong Delta this afternoon, was ok – but a well stomped tourist trail.  Was supposed to do 3 days but cut it short as it was not the experience I was wanting!  We got took to lots of markets (some floating) which were pretty similar and sold the same stuff.  Also everywhere we stopped there were tons of tourists – and they produced food and sang for us – but all a bit fake really.  Did a homestay with a Vietnamese family – well me and 9 other people.  It was ok, we drank rice wine and ate a nice meal, but again a bit fake.  Sleeping in a bamboo huton stilts above the river with the noise of the jungle was cool though – cept for the Cockrell that started calling at 4am!  The trek we did in Chaing Mai was much better.

Glad to be back in Saigon, there’s a good buzz about this city and its nice to be doing my own thing instead of being herded about like sheep!  Anyway just a quick post meeting up with some folks I met on the tour, so not all bad, for a few beers.  Will try and post up some photos tomorrow (finally found somewhere to buy my camera again!) – no need to get up early tomorrow, bliss!