Phu Quoc

Phu Quoc island is my last stop in Vietnam! I’ve spent 5 days on this island. I came here without any expectations as I had heard mixed reviews about this place. Some people loved it, some hated it, some thought it was so-so. I realized I’d have to come here and find out for myself. I am certainly glad I did. The major part of this island is still a forest, a lot of areas still have just dirt roads and there are so many beaches, some good but some really dirty. Phu Quoc has real potential to be a stunning island. If the smaller beaches were cleaned up, if the national park had some hiking trails and if there was a road by the coast throughout the island it would be perfect. As it stands, there’s more focus on building resorts which means that more trees/forests will be felled. This is obviously needed for the island to grow but it has to be contained, I just hope somebody who matters knows when to stop.

So anyways, of the 5 days on the island, I spent about 3 days just relaxing. I stayed in a really good hostel with loads of hammocks and a beach just 2 minute walk away and I made the most of both these arrangements.

On other days, I took a tour for the south part of the islands. We visited pearl farms, fish sauce factory (which smelled disgusting but I managed not to throw up!), pepper farm (where we tasted delicious mangoes sprinkled with fresh ground peppers mixed with different spices), coconut prison (where the US army used to hold and torture the Viet Cong), a pagoda and the beautiful Sao beach. Each stop was short but it was still interesting to learn a little about each.

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Sao Beach
Sao Beach

Another day I went with some Canadians on a bike ride to the northern part of the island. This was so much fun! The path we took didn’t have much of a road a lot of the times, it was mostly just dirt roads and then we hit some really tricky spots where it felt like an off-roading experience but on a scooter! It was just incredible. I had to hold on to the bike with both hands, trying my best not to fly off my bike and somehow I found it super funny and I could not stop laughing, may be it was just the nerves. lol Bits of it were scary too, like when we had to ride our bike on a bridge made of bamboos and a couple of these came loose! Stephan coined this ride as ‘Tandem Off-roading’ 😀

Dirt roads along the north east coast of the island
Dirt roads along the north east coast of the island

 

I decided to walk the first bridge as we didn't think the bridge could handle all the weight!
I decided to walk the first bridge as we didn’t think the bridge could handle 2 people on a bike! 

One (other) thing I really I really liked about this island is the people. They were very friendly. One evening I went to a restaurant (it was just tables put up on a massive patio and the family cooking for customers) and I was sitting by myself waiting for my food and this group of locals on another table asked me to join them. We had a nice conversation and they insisted on buying me dinner and drinks! I’ve had a local man walking up to me in a restaurant simply to say hi and to welcome me to his country. It’s always very comforting to know that there are people who are genuinely nice without wanting anything in return. I’m glad I visited Phu Quoc!

Beautiful sunset at Rory's Bar
Beautiful sunset at Rory’s Bar

Can Tho – Mekong Delta

I didn’t spend more than 1.5days in the Mekong Delta. I guess I was let down by my expectations, my bad. The city that I stayed in is called Can Tho, it’s the biggest city in the delta and it felt like any other riverside town/city. What I had in mind is tiny towns surrounded by rice paddies and small rivers surrounded by coconut trees and mangroves. I’m sure this is what the real Delta looks like but these are more off the beaten path and hence more expensive for accommodation and not that safe if you are traveling alone (based on what the locals told me). So I gave these a skip.

I did the only other thing I was keen on, visit the floating markets. This was a real treat despite having to wake up at 5am. Even that early the city was awake. People were busy preparing their food carts, loading fruit onto their stands or sitting in cafes enjoying their morning coffee. We took a boat to Cai Rang which is the biggest floating market in the delta and is about 7kms from Can Tho. It was a very pretty and peaceful boat ride to the market especially coz we set off just before sunrise.

Sunrise in the Mekong Delta
Sunrise in the Mekong Delta

On the way there we enjoyed watching people living on houses on the river, hanging up their laundry or eating their morning meal or brushing their teeth.

Locals going about their early morning routine.
Locals going about their early morning routine.

By the time we got to Cai Rang market, it was in full flow. We didn’t buy anything here coz it was a wholesale market. We then made our way to the Phong Dien market, another 10kms away. This is a retail market and we spent some time here, trying a lot of fresh seasonal fruit and fried vegetable crisps. I bought 3 mangoes for 10,000VND whereas I’d been buying 1 for 7,000 elsewhere in Vietnam! I was so happy!

Tourists taking a break and sampling the various fresh produce
Tourists, sampling the various fresh produce, resulting in a gridlock, ha!

Even though the markets were great fun there was something missing. These are called the biggest floating markets in the Mekong Delta and we were there at what is said to be the ‘best’ time in the morning, it didn’t feel that busy or that big. May be it was an off day or perhaps the size of the market is hyped up, I’ll never know.

Boat ride through the canals
Boat ride through the canals

Anyways, from the markets the boat took us through tiny canals, we took a walk in the plantations and then stopped for coffee/snacks in a shack by the river. After 5 hours on the boat it was time to head back to Can Tho. By then I was super tired and the boat was soooo slow so that the 2hrs boat ride back got a bit too much. Especially seeing that most of the boats were faster than ours! Lol but it was a good day anyways.

I would have loved to spend more time in the delta, but I wanted to take the locals advice about safety seriously and I wasn’t willing to spend $25 for a tour (It doesn’t sound much but a good meal costs $1!)

So after being up at 5am on 2 days in a row I was ready to chill on the beach in Phu Quo, my next and final stop in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh has completely shattered my stand of “I don’t like cities”. I cannot pin point what it is about this place but I love it here. There are so many contrasts in the city, from fancy-ish restaurants to street food stalls, from the glittering high rise buildings to the tiny shacks, from Starbucks to coffee carts, from dessert cafes to hand pulled sweet carts, HCM has got the best of both worlds.

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The high rise buildings of Ho Chi Minh
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Alleyway with my hostel. This street looks tiny but has everything from hostels, guesthouses, street food stalls, fresh smoothie stalls, convenient stores, salons to houses.

There are more motorbikes here than I have ever seen in my life (coming from an Indian, this counts for something). In the evenings, when you are at a big intersection and all you will see is heads covered with helmets as far as the eye can see. And of course, there are cars and busses and bicycles. But you can see the systematic way in which people ride/drive, you can see the order (unlike in India where the order can only be seen/followed by locals but not by outsiders) and this makes it easier to walk around the city.

And the food, oh the glorious food! I made a list of everything I’ve eaten in the city but decided against putting it on here because you’ll either get bored reading the names or hate me for eating delicious food. But if you know me, then trust me when I say, it’s worth coming to Ho Chi Minh just for the food.

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Com Tam Suon, broken rice with sticky sweet pork chops
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Delicious Bun Thit Nuong, with grilled meat, minced meat, fried spring rolls and fresh vermicelli with roasted peanuts, fresh spring onions and fish sauce.
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Bun bo Hue. Lots of meat, delicious broth and noodles.
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Needs no words…

As if all the above wasn’t enough to have a pleasant stay I was fortunate to have amazing company. It was Sev’s last few days in the country so I got to spend that time with him. I also met a fabulous group of Indians who were staying in my hostel. They were the non-stereotypical types and funny, intelligent and really nice bunch of guys, with whom I spent a some 3-4days exploring the city and having long conversations about anything and everything from photography, law, war, to life, food, treks, etc. I am really grateful to have met them and if things work out, m hoping to see them again in India.

Tourists come to HCM for a few days but to really experience this city, you need at least a week. I was lucky to have 10days.

In terms of the sights in the city, there’s quite a bit to see and do.

I spent 1 day visiting the Reunification Palace, Post office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Phap Hoa pagoda, and the War Remnants Museum.

The palace didn’t even look like a palace, just a big museum sort of building so we gave that a skip. The War Remnants museum was amazing. There are displays of jets, helicopters and tanks, a whole floor dedicated to war history and then 2 floors that are dedicated to photographs, some taken during the war and a lot of them were of people who were affected by the chemicals used during the war. After seeing the pictures on one floor I could not take it anymore, it was too horrific, too sad, too graphic. But no visitor/tourist should miss this museum, it shows how low humanity can stoop to prove themselves right when they are utterly wrong. This war, like many others, is something people should not forget and not repeat in the future.

I enjoyed the river side Phap Hoa pagoda as well, it’s not on any tourist map and we just happened to come across it while walking around. Wanting to get some respite from the heat I walked into the 3 storeyed building, which was very quiet with may be 2 people in there but there was a good breeze flowing from the river and I just dozed off on the floor for like an hour or so. When I woke up there were a few monks there, going about doing their job. But they were very good natured about me sleeping there and just grinned when they saw me wake up!

Cu Chi Tunnels – This 120km network of underground tunnels, spread over 3 levels are the tunnels which the Vietnamese used as hiding spots and also where they lived for 25yrs during the war with the USA. Even though it was 2hr drive and most of it was very touristy and the mosquitoes were relentless, I enjoyed going into the tunnels. These were low enough that you had to stoop really freaking low and narrow enough that my shoulders were rubbing the walls on both sides. Definitely not for the claustrophobic!

China Town – I didn’t find china town very different to any other place in Ho Chi Minh, if anything it was a bit dirtier, but I went there for the pagodas and it was definitely worth it. The Chinese pagodas are very different to the Vietnamese Buddhist ones, they have stronger colours with lots of bold red, gold and black, definitely worth visiting.

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Chinese pagoda in China Town
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Colourful, multi-layered entrance to the pagoda

These were sort of the highlights of the attractions. Rest of my time was spent eating, drinking fresh fruit smoothies, having delicious iced coffees, getting full body massage, etc.

Oh, I am going to miss this city.

Dalat

Dalat is a city in the southern part of central highlands of Vietnam. It is close to 5000ft above sea level and is much cooler than the rest of the places I’ve visited so far. In fact, Da Lat means “City of eternal spring” as the valleys are covered in mist all year round.

Da Lat streets and markets, which resemble a small French town, spread out around the big Xuan Huong lake, are dotted with vendors selling fruit and flowers and homemade strawberry and mulberry jams.

I am here during the wet season so it rains pretty much everyday but unlike the monsoons in India the time of the rains is very predictable. The days usually starts with a lot of sunshine which gives me time to be enjoy the city before noon when it starts getting cloudy. It continues to get darker while the rain gods tease me with thunder and then an hour later the heavens open up for a couple of hours. This too passes for the sun to come out again. Unlike the rest of Vietnam where it’s hot and humid all day long, Da Lat enjoys much cooler mornings and evenings which has provided me with much needed respite from the heat of the last few weeks.

There’s quite a bit to do around Da Lat which led me to extend my stay here by a day or two. I spent one looong day on the motorbike, riding 120kms through twisting roads on pinewood covered hills, visiting Truc Lam Pagoda pagoda, the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lang Bianc village and the Elephant waterfalls.

 

A "village" made with mud @ the Lang Biang mountains
A “village” made with mud @ the Lang Biang mountains
Lady at the end of her "journey" on a mud train!
Lady at the end of her “journey” on a mud train!
Beautiful, vibrant and  mosaic pagoda
Beautiful, vibrant and mosaic pagoda @ Linh Phuoc Pagoda

There’s also the Crazy House which is listed as one of the worlds most bizarre houses. The house resembles a giant tree and has multiple rooms on a few levels all interconnected by stairs that feel like a maze. Definitely an interesting experience and worth going to.

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The “house” looks scared @ The Crazy House

 

Stairs leading to multiple rooms on different levels at The Crazy House
Stairs leading to multiple rooms on different levels at The Crazy House

Another day was dedicated to simply walking around the town (and the massive night market) to sample street food. This day was super fun coz as it turns out Sev is as much of a foodie as me so by sharing dishes we were able to eat Mi Quang noodles, cookies smeared with fresh strawberry jam, steamed pancakes, rice pancakes, bahn mi, chicken vermicelli, fried sweet buns with sesame seeds and fried dough sticks dipped in ice cream all in one day! Even though this was spread out over lunch and dinner we were surprised at how much food we could gobble down! But I think we burned a lot of it off by walking around the town (I am pretty good at deluding myself sometimes).

All in all, a wonderful stay in a beautiful city, something that should not to be missed on a trip to Vietnam!

Nha Trang

Welcome to Russia! Erm, I mean Nha Trang!

I had heard about the number of Russians in Nha Trang but you have to see it to believe it. Vietnam’s wartime alliance with Russia and a direct flight between Russia and Nha Trang means that you see more Russians than Vietnamese in this city (okay, m exaggerating but there are a lot of white faces here!). The street signs, the menus in restaurants, shop names etc all have Russian translations. In fact, Sev and I passed an outdoor cinema that was showing Ice Age in Russian! Lol. I was told that you frequently get stopped by Russian tourists (to ask for directions for eg) but they speak to you in Russian and when they realize you don’t speak their language they get confused, like they don’t get it how you don’t speak Russian in Nha Trang. LOL!

The city itself feels like beach side resorts in Tenerife for eg, you have really big hotels along the beach and lots of cafes & restaurants along the promenade. The sights within the city aren’t very many. There is a cathedral, the Long Son Pagoda and the Cham Towers, all of which can be done in half a day.

Sleeping Buddha at Long Son Pagoda
Sleeping Buddha at Long Son Pagoda
Nha Trang cathedral
Nha Trang cathedral

The lure for me are sights just outside the city and of course, the street food. I’ve tried delicious sea food pancakes for 10,000VND that’s a little under $0.5 and the best beef pho yet for just $1.5!

 

Sea food pancakes!
Sea food pancakes!
Delicious Beef Pho
Delicious Beef Pho

 

Outside the city there is the Chua Suoi Do Pagoda which is around 17kms to the west of Nha Trang and is set in the mountains. I’ve seen better pagodas but the bike ride to the countryside and then the walk up the mountains was definitely worth it.

Riding to Chau Suoi Du Pagoda, nestled in the mountains.
Riding to Chau Suoi Du Pagoda, nestled in the mountains.
View from the top of the mountain at Chua Suoi du Pagoda
View from the top of the mountain at Chua Suoi du Pagoda

On the same day I decided to go to the Ba Ho waterfalls which is around 27kms north of Nha Trang. There were 3 sets of waterfalls that you can swim in, I decided to stop after the first one coz I had no incentive to go further. But I’ve realized that the more time I spend around a water body the more I crave to learn how to swim (something I really want to do this trip!). The ride from the pagoda to the waterfalls there was pretty shit as most of the road was under construction AND it was the start of Vietnamese public holidays so the traffic and pollution was terrible. At the end of the 90km ride, when I reached the hostel I saw that my face was caked black with dust, yuck! Of course, I had been walking around the town without realizing what my face looks like! No wonder people were looking at me funny! 😀 But the return trip from the waterfalls to the city, along the coast was pretty good!

Fishing village on the way from Ba Ho waterfalls to Nha Trang
Fishing village on the way from Ba Ho waterfalls to Nha Trang

Thinking back, my favourite things to see/do in Vietnam have been when I was on the bike, regardless of who was riding. It’s just the best way to get to some away from all the noise and get off the beaten tracks. Some people buy bikes and ride the whole length of the country, for me it would be too much, I prefer renting bikes for the day.

Another day I decided to go to Long Beach which is deemed as the best beach in Nha Trang and it is around 27kms south of the city. Long Beach was pretty $hit. I overshot the beach by 10kms (coz places are not sign posted very well) and I had to ride back that additional distance but I just couldn’t find the beach. When I finally found it (I had ridden 40+kms by then), it was FULL of Vietnamese people (I chose a public holiday of all days to go there, silly me) so it was cramped, noisy and dirty, to say the least. I managed to find a lounge chair for myself but as soon as I sat down I was asked to leave coz it was for locals only! When I finally found a seat, I put my headphones on and played Sudoku on my phone while sipping on my favourite fresh mango juice. 45mins later I decided to head back to Nha Trang. On the ride back I told myself that my day could have been worse (at least I had mango juice and the snicker bar to salvage my day) and (unfortunately) I was right! I found out that day that there’s been some fraud (of 9000pounds!!) on my credit card (which is my only travel card). After calling my bank they cancelled my card but said they could only send me a new card to my UK address (which is thankfully my friend’s address) which means I have to ask my friend to send that card to an address in Vietnam. Not so straightforward as it means that I have to plan the next 2 weeks of my trip which is a pain coz I’ve been planning max 2 days in advance. And also, I need to figure out how to keep going on the cash I have left without incurring heavy fees by using my debit card. So this was easily the shittiest day of my trip but hey, it seriously could have been even worse! In hindsight, I reckon if I had gone to Long Beach on a quieter day I would have enjoyed it! For now, I am ready for Da Lat.

 

Hoi An

Hoi An, where do I begin? Let’s just say that I L.O.V.E Hoi An.

Located in central Vietnam, this pretty town has everything going for it. From it’s Old Town which is recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO (where the streets are for walking & cycling only), to beautiful houses & buildings, to quaint cafes and riverside restaurants to a beach only about 3kms away. Hoi An has it all and still manages to retain a very peaceful atmosphere. “Hoi An” correctly translates into “peaceful meeting place” in English.

I stayed in this town for 5 days and enjoyed every bit of it. It was great luck that that my hostel was fabulous as well. Well, it was actually a villa which had one dorm but there was no bunk beds, just single beds so it was a very comfortable 5 nights.

I fell ill on the way to Hoi An. I was running a fever, had an upset stomach and a terrible headache. But once I recovered, most of my days were spent cycling around the town (with my travel buddy from Hue), riding at the same slow pace as life moves in this town, visiting some beautiful historical houses, relaxing at riverside cafes (or chilling in a hammock in a restaurant at the end of the town where there were no tourists at all) to sunbathing on the beach to eating delicious food.

One of the old buildings in Hoi An
One of the old buildings in Hoi An
Hoi An by day
Hoi An by day
Hoi An by night
Hoi An by night

I’ve noticed that the more south you go in Vietnam, the better the food gets. In the north, in Hanoi for eg, I did not have the courage to eat street food. It was partly coz I wasn’t ready for it and partly coz the stalls looked so dirty. But it gets better as you move down the country. In Hoi An itself, I’ve eaten delicious chicken pho, white rose dumplings, fried wantons, fresh spring rolls with shrimps and the delicious bahn mi ever!

Beef noodles
Beef noodles
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Bahn Mi at Bahn Mi Phuong, rated by Anthony Bourdain as the best Bahn Mi in Vietnam!

 

White rose dumplings
White rose dumplings
Delicious duck pho!
Delicious duck pho!

We took a day trip to ride the Hai Van pass which is the highest pass in Vietnam (500m above sea level). It is a 21km stretch of mountainous winding roads and hair pin curves offering stunning views and forms a boundary between North and South Vietnam.

View from Hai Van Pass
View from Hai Van Pass
Stunning colours there and I assure you, it's even better in reality.
Stunning colours there and I assure you, it’s even better in reality.
Terrifying winding roads on the Hai Van Pass
Terrifying winding roads on the Hai Van Pass

The roads sometimes pass through heavy mists that rise from the sea, giving it the name “Hai Van” which “Sea Clouds”. This isn’t a destination, just 21km of beauty at it’s best, of lush greenery against the stunning blue sea and well worth a trip from Hoi An -> Danang -> Hai Van. The day was loooong as we rode a total of 150km but I was lucky that Sev (my travel buddy) didn’t mind riding the whole way as I wasn’t well enough to ride at all. On the way to Hai Van pass we stopped in Danang for a coffee and let me tell you, I had the best iced coffee ever! I’ve never enjoyed coffee more (or never missed green tea less). The little I saw of Danang I wasn’t sad that I skipped it in my itinerary, it’s just a big, well developed city, with a lot of resorts and shopping centers, worth it if you want to be in a city but there are more beautiful places in Vietnam.

One (more) thing that Hoi An is really famous for is cheap tailoring. You can get anything made from suits to leather handbags to shoes to leather jackets (for as little as $50!!) and god knows what else. A shopper’s paradise. Me? I avoided all this coz I can’t stand shopping unless it’s absolutely necessary.

A sad thing about Vietnam though can be the money mindedness of people. It’s very much about the money they can get from you. The sheer number of people trying (more like harassing) to sell you things or trying to charge sometimes twice or 3 times the actual cost is a bit sad. For me, it’s got to a stage where if a local asks me the usual opening question of “where are u from?” my first thought is “I wonder what are they going to try and sell to me now”. Having said that, I still believe that the Vietnamese are really friendly and nice and with some luck you’ll meet some genuinely nice people who want nothing more than to know a bit about you.

Hue

Hue, located along the Perfume river in central Vietnam, is the country’s former imperial capital. It is also the city where the famous Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh comes from.

My 2.5days in Hue went by in a blur. 4 people, including me, in my dorm arrived in Hue on the same day and we were staying for around the same time so we ended up seeing the town together which was fab! Hue is the most developed city I have across since the start of my trip and there is quite a bit to see. It was sweltering hot the day I got there (40degrees C with a feel of 48!!) but we braved going out for lunch (which was one of the most uncomfortable afternoons ever!). The humidity was maddening, walking in the intense heat, with sweat pouring and dripping off me was hard work! Somehow, the French and the Dutch in my group were fine which was embarrassing coz I should be more accustomed to the heat than them right? Anyways, after lunch we head out to the Imperial City which is a walled fortress and palace in the city of Hue. We chose the main bits we wanted to see like the Imperial enclosure which is a citadel-within-a-citadel, housing the emperor’s residence, temples and palaces and the main buildings of state. Too much of it was in ruins and without any guide/map it was all about wandering around the ruins and trying to make sense of it (which we obviously couldn’t).

Beautiful corridor in Imperial Enclosure
Beautiful corridor in Imperial Enclosure

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We also saw the To Mieu Temple Complex which has been restored and is pretty impressive in my opinion. There was lots more to the citadel but after 2hrs in the heat we’d had enough and decided to head back to the hostel.

Temple Complex in Imperial City
To Mieu Temple Complex in Imperial City
Inside the temple, To Mieu Temple
Inside the temple, To Mieu Temple

The next day we went to see the royal tombs, around 12-16kms the city, which is a must see if you are in Hue. We rented motorbikes for the day and started our day with a ride along the Perfume river to visit the Thien Mu pagoda.

Thien Mu Pagoda
Thien Mu Pagoda

From there it was another 20kms to Tomb of Tu Duc. This tomb was designed by the emperor himself. There are areas of this complex that were used for hunting, some buildings that were used as temples, some where the emperor’s concubines used to live, etc and finally his tomb.

Inside the Tomb of Tu Duc Mausoleum
Inside the Tomb of Tu Duc Mausoleum
Tomb of Tu Duc
Tomb of Tu Duc

It was a pretty big complex and still in good condition but still not as impressive as described by Lonely Planet. We did get to see a live Vietnamese singing performance which I thought was pretty cool.

The other tomb we went to, Tomb of Khai Dinh, was my favourite.

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Tomb of Khai Dinh

 

This tomb’s exterior gives it a gothic air, which clashes well with the colourful mosaic interior, and is set amidst green mountains. This tomb, though not as big, was more impressive than the former.

There are 7 tombs in total but we decided to stop at 2 and head for lunch at a local restaurant. The menu wasn’t in English but luckily one of the customers was sweet enough to help us with ordering food. After lunch, it was time to head to the beach which was around 30kms away. It wasn’t the best time to go there as it was a very misty and cloudy day and the beach wasn’t that spectacular. Saying that, we managed to find a secluded part of the beach used solely for fishing boats. We climbed into one of the (parked) boats and just relaxed for the next hour or with the sound of waves in the background!

On the last day in Hue we only had a few hours before we took the bus to Hoi An so we simply walked around the massive Dong Ba market, ate delicious fish and rice for lunch and took the bus, ready for the next stop.

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Having spoken to a lot of people about things to do and places to see in Vietnam, a few of them talk about the Phong Nha Caves near the town of Dong Hoi but not many people recommended going to Phong Nha Ke Bang (PNKB) National Park itself, which is where the caves are located. I decided to stay at the park to save the hassle of taking a day trip from Dong Hoi.

PNKB national park is a UNESCO world heritage site and was created to protect the worlds 2 largest karst regions with over 300 caves (and not just one cave as I thought)!

After taking an 8hr sleeper bus and arriving at the park at 5am I decided to get some sleep before I could do sight seeing. Once I was well rested, I was recommended to ride around the national park and then see the caves later in the day. I’ve been wanting to ride a bike since I got to Vietnam and I decided to give it a go. I did the short loop (around 60k) around the park and was blown away by the beauty of the karsts, it just doesn’t stop surprising me!

View from the bridge at the entrance of the national park
View from the bridge at the entrance of the national park

A lot of the roads I rode on weaved in and out of these rock formations but there are times when you are riding on the roads made on the karsts themselves. The 2hr bike ride was made up of non existent traffic, stunning beauty, lots and lots of butterflies fluttering past, and most of the times all I could hear is my bike and the loud noise made by the insects.

Riding through the karst riddled roads
Riding through the karst riddled roads

 

Phong Nha Cave

Phong Nha Caves
Phong Nha Caves

Phong Nha Caves is the second largest cave in Vietnam and holds the record for the longest underground river. It is Viet Nam’s longest underground cave network, has the tallest cave entrance, the most beautiful underground beach, the most stalagmites and stalactites, and the deepest dry cave. These caves are also rich in history as sites that harbored those loyal to the King during the first resistance to French as well as a preparation site for those going to the south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the War of Resistance Against the United States. The journey to the caves began with an amazing 25min boat ride. Once at the mouth of the cave, the motor boat was turned off and the boat was rowed by 2 tiny women for the next 45mins-1hr. The cave is HUGE and minimally lit so as to not spoil the natural effect. The cave is known for the stalactite and stalagmite formations. Limestone stalactites take a 1000yrs to grow under 10cms and some formations in the caves were at least 25ft high!

God knows how long that took to form!
God knows how long that took to form!

It was an amazing experience to see the caves while imagining how people must have lived there (or rather hid there) during the resistance against the French and later the US. Towards the end of the boat ride, we were let off onto one of the beaches within the cave from where we could see some more stalactites and stalagmites before walking out and taking the return journey by boat.

Paradise caves

Paradise Caves
Paradise Caves

This cave is very different to the Phong Nha (PN) cave. The roof of the PN cave is higher, the cave is minimally lit, in a lot of places the lighting is natural, it is located at the foot of the mountain and the cave can only be viewed while on the boat. Paradise cave on the other hand bigger, wider, is ‘in’ the mountain (we first had to climb up the mountain and then climb down the cave), and the size of the cave is simply staggering. The cave is lit by a lot of lights (but without which it would be pitch black) and a walkway has been created right from the start to the end of the caves. The stalactites and the stalagmite formations was even more spectacular, some as high as 40ft!

I am glad I toured both caves as they are totally different but equally fabulous! So basically, the beautiful caves along with the stunning national park has so far been a hightlight of my trip

Around Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh itself has nothing much to offer. But there are a few attractions very close by that I wanted to see. What I was most interested in was Tam Coc which is referred to as Ha Long on land. Ha Long Bay has thousands of karsts that stud the bay, Tam Coc has karsts in the middle of the rice paddies.

Tam Coc

I initially decided to rent a bicycle to do this trip, it would be around 9km to Tam Coc, another 4km to Mua Cave and then back. I was not sure if I could make it given I that I haven’t been exercising for over 8 months and I wasn’t really feeling to well but I thought of giving it a shot. Bad idea. 1 km into the ride I realized that there was no way I could bike almost 28km. Another hindrance was that I wasn’t sure I would be back before dark as it was already around 2pm. I went back to the hotel, called for a motorbike taxi and took the easy way instead.

Peaceful boat ride at Tam Coc
Peaceful boat ride at Tam Coc

Once at Tam Coc, I took an amazingly peaceful boat ride through a narrow stream surrounded by karsts. Tam Coc is notoriously famous for the extremely persistent vendors trying to force you to buy stuff off them but I saw perhaps 1 or 2 vendors and none of them were pushy. Now, was it because I was there at 3pm and most of the vendors had left for home or because my taxi rider took me to another boat entrance at Tam Coc, I am not sure. All I know is that the ride was fun and I wasn’t hounded by vendors (like in Sapa). The boat ride was scary in places especially when we had to go through caves so low that I had to duck and other times, the cave was so dark that I could see nothing (except when I flashed my torch on the roof of the caves). But this was also my favourite part coz you could turn off the lights and just listen to the water being sloshed around by the oars in complete darkness. (For Harry Potter fans, it reminded me of Dumbledore and Harry when they go looking for Voldemort’s horcrux (the pendant) in the cave!)

After the boat ride, my taxi rider drove me around the town and took me through some really quite streets that I don’t think I would have found by myself. The roads were so blissfully empty and that I could enjoy the view without anyone honking or talking or screaming around me. That ride is one of my favourites so far!

Beautiful Tam Coc, the picture doesn't do it justice.
Riding around Tam Coc

Then there was the climb to the Thai Vi temple which was 800m high. The steps got really narrow and steep closer to the top which was pretty terrifying but luckily, I had done the Sapa trek which was way worse than this climb so I know I could do it. But I had to employ serious “walking meditation” to get through the climb and the descent. The view while climbing was worth it I’d say.

View from atop the Thai Vi Temple
View from atop the Thai Vi Temple

All in all, a really amazing half day tour. And m so glad I did took a motorbike taxi as I got back to the hotel only around 5pm! There was no way I would have reached the hotel before nightfall and trust me, riding a bicycle in Vietnam after dark is not fun!

Bai Ding Pagoda

This is considered to be the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam. It is situated about 27kms from the center of Ninh Binh. Part of the complex is newly built and part is the old temple, I don’t know which one was which. The complex itself is pretty impressive. There is a long corridor ( I think I read somewhere that its 3400m) and it is lined on one side with Arhat statues (Arhat is someone who has attained nirvana).

Arhat statues in Bai Dinh Pagoda
Arhat statues in Bai Dinh Pagoda

It was a pretty interesting to see the local tourists offer quick prayers to ALL the statues. I followed someone who did this for around 10-15 times and then gave up, may be they did as well at some point? The corridor eventually leads to a temple which houses a gigantic Buddha statue.

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Even though the complex is impressive it has a hollow feeling to it as it is not in function. You won’t see any monks there, only vietnamese tourists along with a few foreign tourists. But the bike ride, like the day before, was a highlight.

Hoa Lu Temples

After the pagoda it was time for Hoa Lu temples. Hoa Lu, at one point was the capital of Vietnam. Most of the citadel is now in ruins except the 2 temples. The temples themselves were nothing fancy, and frankly, I was a bit disappointed. May be it was one of those sights where a guide was needed to really appreciate it.

All in all, I think I could have done all these in one day (if I’d had better information from the hotel). I ended up doing these on 2 separate days renting a bike (with a rider) for 2 days which was unnecessary. Oh well.

Sapa

Sapa Valley, with it’s high mountains, lush greenery and terraced rice paddies, is just so beautiful.

View at the start of the trek
View at the start of the trek

Even before I reached Vietnam I knew I wanted to visit Sapa. So I booked a 3 day/2 night trip with the hostel, left from Hanoi on a sleeper bus at 10pm and arrived in Sapa at 6am the next day. The bus wasn’t that comfortable to sleep in and it had been raining for the last couple of days so I was a bit worried about the 12km trek (starting 9am on the same day) especially since I hadn’t slept very well on the bus. But even so, I was pretty excited. By the time we started trekking it had thankfully stopped raining coz what would be worse than trekking in the rain right? Well, as it turns out, trekking right after it has rained is equally bad. When I signed up for the trek what I had in mind was a hike through a beautiful valley, similar to what I did in the Lake District (UK) or Switzerland. What we got instead was a treacherous trek where the only view we could afford was our feet coz if you dared to look anywhere else you would slip, as I experienced one too many times. Very often, there was not much of a path to walk on and the rain left behind a lot of muck which meant our shoes had no good grip. All 15people in our group had individual guides and I basically held my guides hand for 80% of the trek. It was terrifying to think that a slip could result in falling off the cliff. I hadn’t signed up for this! A couple of times we were made to walk along the edge of a rice terrace and the path was so tiny that if I put my foot on it sideways, my toes and heels were left dangling. On one side of this was the next level of the rice terrace perhaps 10ft below and on the other side was a mucky/watery terrace and well, a lot of us, including me, landed in the water which wasn’t as bad as falling 10ft or down the cliff. It is so surprising that we weren’t warned of this earlier. It caught everyone by surprise. But luckily, none of us were harmed during the 12km trek (which lasted for 7hrs!). A lot of the group loved the trek and the adrenaline. Me, I was just glad it was over.

Towards the end of the trek, walking to the homestay
Towards the end of the trek, walking to the homestay

The thing I did love was that when I wasn’t slipping or skidding or worrying about falling (basically every time we took a break) Sapa offered a beautiful view. And the group I was trekking with was absolutely marvelous. All 10-12 of us got along really well, had amazing conversations during and after the trek. After the first day’s trek we were all battered and dirty but that didn’t stop us from chatting and drinking and eating for 4-5hrs. Also, the homestay (staying with a local family) was an amazing experience. The dinner cooked by the family was fresh and delicious and it included rice, cabbage stir fry, spring rolls, chicken and mushroom stir fry, chicken and veg stir fry, tofu and tomato stir fry and some “happy water” (which is another name for rice wine) to end the dinner. By 9pm though we were all tucked into bed. We didn’t have bedrooms but the loft had 15 odd mattresses which was good enough for a tired and aching body.

Chatting with the locals (before they started hounding us to buy things from them)
Chatting with the locals (before they started hounding us to buy things from them)

The trek with local guides gave us a chance to learn more about the local culture of Sapa. A lot of the people don’t speak Vietnamese but speak another language (or dialect?) and many of them are fluent in English and French. We also learnt (from our female guides) that most of the men in their village are very lazy and often stay home and look after the house and kids whereas the women go out and earn money!! This is something I haven’t seen before, at least not at this large a scale.

Would I do this trek again? Probably not. I love a hike and beautiful scenery but if the cost of it is breaking an arm or a leg or falling down a cliff? No, thank you very much. I would much rather take a motorbike taxi into the local villages.

But all’s well that ends well. We all slipped multiple times but no one had an accident, no one broke a limb and we came away having seen a beautiful sight and having met truly amazing people.