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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The honeymoon capital of Vietnam, Dalat is situated in the mountains and it’s significantly colder here than in the cities on the coast. When the sun goes down it can be as low as 15 degrees! Mike had to wear his jeans for the first time on the trip, I put all my layers on. We stayed in a really cute hostel called Santa Claus, where I think the Christmas decorations are up all year!
One of the main activities to do in Dalat is canyoning. Of course Mike really wanted to do do it, whereas I was more sceptical. He woke me up in the morning and said he’d signed us up anyway, and that we were leaving in 45 minutes.
The day started out pretty easy, we were given wetsuits and a lot of gear, and we practiced abseiling. I’ve always liked abseiling and thought that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Our first abseil was pretty easy, but we ended up in the river having to swim to the other side. For the rest of the day we were in and out of the river, consistently dripping wet, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the sun was out but it wasn’t, so we got very cold.
Mike did an 11 meter jump from a cliff into the water which he was very happy about. The last abseil of the day was down a waterfall – at the bottom you had to let go of the rope, drop down in the water, get pushed under by the waterfall and let yourself get flushed back out and down the river. Not my favourite experience, but the relief of getting back to the hostel and under a warm shower was the best feeling ever.
We ended up at the Maze bar by coincidence on our first night when all the other bars closed early. The bar is like the name says a maze, and it’s incredible. It stretches over 6 floors of little tunnels and caves and incredibly small and steep staircases, and it’s decorated in a mix between a fairy castle and a troll’s lair. After just a few minutes it becomes really hard to find your way out again, and you can keep going looking for your friends for an eternity if you loose them! It would be an incredibly confusing place to be drunk!
The Crazy House is designed in a similar style to the Maze Bar. It’s a very impressive collection of several big buildings (the house of the woman who built it, and a hotel) and a huge new part of it was still under construction when we were there. The buildings are connected by lots of spindly little walkways, stairs and bridges – Mike thought the banisters were way to low, and his fear of heights played up a little bit, especially at the top. The view from the top is amazing, and I felt a bit like a child on a playground running around on all the little bridges! The architecture is very random and crazy, and I’d definitely recommend a visit.
Mui Ne is a beach town famous for two things: perfect conditions for kite surfing, and red and white sand dunes. The resort town (popular with Russians apparently – almost all signs were written in Russian) stretches along the beach, with a fishing village at one end. Once you’re down on the beach the sight of hundreds of kite surfers along the shore is truly amazing. Some of them go incredibly fast, and jump many meters up into the air.
Mike booked us into a dorm in a hostel that had access to the 3 pools of the neighbouring hotel. We spent a fair amount of time by the pool on the second day – more pleasant than the beach as the surf is pretty crazy and sand whips your face.
There’s two places to go to see the dunes in Mui Ne, the white sand dunes are a bit further out of town than the red ones. When you start walking up them it really kind of feels like being in a desert. With the strong wind whipping up sand and the sun baking down I was really happy we weren’t far from civilisation though! The red dunes don’t cover such a big area, and there are more people there, but they are also pretty cool.