Tam Coc, Ninh Binh district

Having spent almost a week in Hanoi, Mike was getting a bit restless. We were flying out of Hanoi later in the week, so we didn’t want to travel too far away from town. The solution was taking the bus a couple of hours down to Ninh Binh, an area known for it’s natural beauty.

Trang An boat trip

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Rowing under the mountains

One of the main attractions of the area is a boat trip down the river. The boats are tiny, with room for no more than five people, and rowed by small Vietnamese women. The scenery is spectacular, with bright green rice fields and towering limestone mountains, but it is the caves that are the coolest part. The lakes and the river are connected by a seemingly endless number of caves going under the mountains. The caves are barely big enough to accommodate the boats. When you get out on the other side you’re on a lake in the middle of the mountains, seemingly with no connection to anywhere else, and when you think you’ve reached the end of the lake you go through another small crack in the mountain, and the whole thing happens again. Truly spectacular.

Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, Cuc Phoung national park

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Poor little monkey

Cuc Phoung national park lies about 1 1/2 hours from Tam Coc by scooter. When we were almost there we ran out of petrol, but luckily there was a petrol pump 10 minutes walk away! The main reason I wanted to visit the park was for the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. There’s also a centre for turtles – I’ve never seen so many species of turtles in one place.

The primate centre houses 150 individual apes and monkeys, (gibbons and langours mostly) that have been rescued from smugglers or private owners. The goal is to release the animals back into the wild, but the guide said that this is quite difficult, since there’s a lack of safe natural habitats left for them to be released into. It was wonderful to see the animals, many of whom had babies, but it’s also quite sad to see them in cages, knowing that many have to spend years or decades in captivity. The tour of the centre is quite quick, which I think is better for the animals, but I wish we could have stayed longer to watch the animals.

Bai Dinh temple complex

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Biggest temple complex in Vietnam

We’ve visited a fair few temples during our time in Southeast Asia, from temples in jungles and caves, in the big cites, and of course the temples of Angkor. However the modern Bai Dinh temple complex is by far one of my favorites.

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Buddhas

The complex was built from 2003 to 2010, and there’s also an ancient temple on the site. It is built on a hillside, there are three main temples, and the further up you get, the bigger and more impressive the temples get, and the more stunning the views. The three temples are fenced in by corridors lined with Buddhas.

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We almost had the whole place to ourselves

We were there quite late in the day, and there were almost no other visitors. This contributed to the peaceful and serene atmosphere of the place, which was also enhanced by the surrounding natural beauty. From the third temple on the hillside we had a view over the whole valley and the lake below, and the surrounding mountains. We also went into the stupa on the side of the complex, and the view was amazing.

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The 12 storey stupa

The vibe is probably quite different during busy religious holidays, but as the whole complex is so big it’s quite easy to feel like it’s empty. I thought it was a wonderful experience to almost have the whole place to ourselves.

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Lots of gold and snacks

Hanoi

The first thing most guide books mention about Hanoi is the manic scooter traffic in the Old Quarter, where the pavements along the narrow streets are blocked by parked scooters, and you constantly have to duck and weave your way through the traffic no matter where you are going. Add to this street peddlers, confused tourists, and determined locals, and the chaos is complete.

When we first arrived off the night bus at 6 in the morning, in the rain, the overall effect was quite overwhelming. But as we spent almost a week in Hanoi, and the sun eventually came out, I grew to like the city (although I never really learned to find my way through the maze like streets of the Old Quarter).

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Hoan Kiem lake

Hoan Kiem lake

Hoan Kiem lake lies in the centre of the Old Qarter. Legend has it that while the emperor was boating on the lake one day the Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked for the magic sword to be returned, which the emperor had been granted by another god during his revolt against China.

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A famous previous inhibitor of the lake

On weekeends the streets around the lake are closed for traffic, and taken over by locals walking their tiny dogs, children playing, and various kinds of live music. The lake looks very pretty when all the buildings around are lit up at night, and it was nice to get a break from dodging scooters all the time.

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Manic Hanoi street

Street life and food

At night in certain streets the plastic chairs come out, and locals and tourists crowd the streets drinking fresh beer and eating wonderful Vietnamese food. One of my favourite things about Vietnam is the food, in particular Bun Cha (rice noodles and pork) and Banh Mi (baguettes, preferably with BBQ pork). I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as many spring rolls, or as much pork. The fresh beer is quite flat and watery which I really liked. It’s also very cheap, which of course is a great novelty.

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In the rain with our Irish musician friends on St Paddy’s day

Water puppet show

Water puppet shows are a traditional Vietnamese art, originally played by farmers in the rice fields. We went to a show one night at one of the theatres along the lake. The venue was packed with tourists. To get around the language barrier, the show didn’t have a traditional narrative, but consisted of 13 tableaux portraying traditional Vietnamese life. It was quite fun, if quite random – and the music was great.

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Not the greatest picture from the show but you get the idea
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Mike getting a Vietnamese haircut

Ha Long Bay

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Halong Bay selfie

World famous Ha Long Bay is a must see for all visitors to North Vietnam. By the time we reached the north we had one week left of our visas, and the weather was cold and rainy. It didn’t look like it would improve much while we were there, so we decided to just go on a cruise anyway. We were lucky and it almost didn’t rain while we were there. We drove down to the coast on Tuesday and spent one night on the boat, and then drove back up on Wednesday.

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Our cruise ship

We decided to go for one of the nicer cruises – having heard stories of rats on the boats and bad food, I’m very glad we did. We had a very nice cabin with a double bed and a bathroom to ourselves. The days were full of activities from kayaking and swimming to squid fishing and visiting caves. At every meal there were several different courses. There were 11 other people on the boat from different European countries, and we had a really good time hanging out with them, playing jenga and cards and drinking in the evening.

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Kayaking in monkey bay – we saw only one monkey, that was being pelted with bread by Chinese tourists

All in all, although the weather wasn’t perfect, we had a really good time in Ha Long Bay, cruising among the limestone cliffs, and it definitely is an experience we will remember forever.

Phong Nha

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Phong Nha views

Phong Nha is a small, one street town in Phong Nha national park. The park is famous for containing the world’s biggest cave – Son Doong cave. Unfortunately the cave can only be reached by three day trek through the jungle, and the tours normally cost around £2,300 and there’s a one year waiting list to get a place on one. Luckily the park also has several other record-breaking caves that can be visited easily, as well as beautiful views and magnificent limestone mountains.

Phong Nha cave

On our first day we visited the Phong Nha Cave. We took the boat 30 min down the river, and into the cave. Once inside the cave the driver turned off the engine, and rowed us inside. The cave really is gigantic and very stunning. It’s also beautifully lit up. The cave is 7,729 metres long and contains 14 grottoes, as well as a 13,969 metre underground river. The tourist boat goes 1.5 km into the cave, and it’s a very atmospheric and great experience.

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Entrance to the cave

Paradise cave

We weren’t sure if we were going to visit Paradise cave or not, as we’d heard it was not as great and quite crowded, but as we had some extra time we took the trip – and we were very happy that we did it. To get there we had to drive 45 minutes on a motorbike through the national park, which is beautiful and consist of limestone mountains covered in jungle.

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Scootering around in the mountains 

Then we had to walk 2 km before we went down into a small hole. Once you walk down a staircase the cave opens up. It really is gigantic and it keeps getting bigger the further in you get. It’s an amazing experience and it wasn’t crowded at all – it helps that it’s so big. If you’re ever in Vietnam we’d recommend a visit!

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Mike in the world’s longest cave – the picture doesn’t do justice to the size of it 

Hue

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The citadel defense fort in Hue – with Mike posing for scale

Hue was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors, and the city’s biggest attraction is the citadel and the old Imperial City which lies inside its walls. We spent a couple of days here exploring the Imperial City and some of the Tombs in the nearby areas by motorbike.

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Meridian gate

The Imperial City

As one of the main tourist attractions in the city I was expecting the Imperial City to be very crowded – but it really wasn’t. The Royal buildings and ruins are spread out over quite a large area, surrounded by really beautiful gardens. The atmosphere is really nice and peaceful, and it was a lovely change from usually very crowded tourist attractions and from the hectic streets of the city outside the citadel walls.

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Feeding the fish
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Peaceful atmosphere
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Imperial pagoda

Tombs

We rented a scooter in town to explore some of the tombs a few miles from the city centre. We visited two tombs built for some of the last emperors in Vietnam and they really were quite impressive.

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Guarding the tomb
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Tomb raider

Abandoned water park

On our way to the first thomb we took a wrong turn and ended up at an abandoned waterpark. We’d actually heard about the park before we got there, its a bit of a minor tourist attraction among backpackers apparently. Despite the other tourists the overall effects of these big abandoned buildings around a lake and the overgrown park surrounding it was quite creepy!

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Abandoned dragon
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Creepy park

Hoi An and the Hai Van Pass

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Hoi An by night

Hoi An is one of the prettiest, and also one of the most touristy, cities we have been to. The ancient town is also a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s based around a river, and used to be a trading port. The old buildings are colourful and beautiful, the streets are narrow, with no cars, and at night the whole city is lit up with lanterns. It’s really pretty and romantic, and we enjoyed walking and biking around. The town is also known for its tailor shops, but after doing some research Mike decided against having a suit made, as apparently the quality is not always the best.

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Hoi An lanterns
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Biking to the beach

After exploring the old town we biked through the countryside, past ricefields and water buffalo (some of them are absolutely enormous!) and had lunch on the beach. After dark we walked through the old town admiring the lanterns and enjoying the atmosphere.

Hai Van Pass

After having watched Top Gear drive across the Hai Van Pass in their Vietnam episode, Mike was very keen to rent a proper motorbike and drive across the pass from Hoi An to Hue. As the pass is known for being very misty – there’s a great view of the ocean from the mountains – he checked the weather and decided that we had to leave on Tuesday, as it would be sunny.

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Mike finally got a proper bike

We both would have liked to stay in Hoi An longer, but leaving after two days was worth it as the ride over the pass really was amazing. On the way up there’s a fantastic view of Danang’s skyline, the ocean, and the beach, and the view from the other side is also amazing.

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Views

Elephant Springs 

After we crossed the pass we drove for a bit into the woods looking for a place called Elephant Springs where Mike wanted to take a swim. It was pretty hard to find, but after a while we found it. The sping was a little natural pool created by the river, with a big rock that kinda looked like an elephant. Then we drove on to spend the night in Hue.

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Riding the elephant

Nah Trang

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Visiting a temple

We weren’t originally planning on going to Nah Trang, as the high rise beach town doesn’t have the most amazing reputation, but it’s a 14 hour bus ride up the coast to Hoi An so we though we could shorten it down a little and stay a couple of nights.

Bicycles

On our first day we rented bicycles to check out the town, the first to time we’ve really gotten involved in Vietnamese traffic. It wasn’t too bad in the beginning, but it was pretty crazy when we headed back into town in rushour. Especially the roundabouts were mental!

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One of the stops on our bicycle tour

We stayed in a really nice hostel with free beer from 5 to 6, Mike met the cousin of one of his friends from home and went out with him and his girlfriend. He pottered into the dorm at 6 in the morning, without his shoes, wet and covered in sand. We didn’t find his flip-flops again.

Mud bath

The next morning, as Mike became gradually less drunk and more hungover, we decided go and try out the local mud baths. It was a short taxi ride out of town to a really nice little spa/waterpark. There was 7 or 8 different mineral pools, a couple of waterfalls, and lots of mudbaths.

You get into a big circular stone bath, and when you turn the tap on mud comes out. It was warmer and more watery than I expected, but it was really nice! I don’t think it really helped Mike’s hangover though.