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
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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 

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.

Dalat

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At the crazy house in Dalat

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!

Canyoning

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Abseiling

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.

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Don’t like water that much

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.

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Waterfall abseil

Maze bar

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!

Crazy house 

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Crazy house is pretty crazy

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

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Kite surfers as far as the eye can see

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.

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Though life of a traveller

Sand dunes

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.

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Red dunes
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White sand
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Fishing village
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Fairy stream

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh

The bus journey from Kampot to Ho Chi Minh City turned out to be 13 hours instead of 8 hours, but what does that matter when HCM is such a wonderful, modern and exotic city! We both loved it at once, and felt that we were back in a great world metropolis. It might even be better than Bangkok! It’s certainly easier to get around, and its got a lovely and busy atmosphere. As expected the traffic is insane, especially in rush hour, but I managed to cross the road with Mike’s help!

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We stayed in a really nice hostel in District 1, which meant that we could walk to all the main tourist attractions in the area.

Independence palace 

The first stop on our first day was the Independence Palace. It’s the old presidential palace which was stormed by the North Vietnamese during the fall of Saigon and marked the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. The palace has been kept the way it was back then, and it feels a bit surreal to walk around this beautiful old building that’s still stuck in the 70ies.

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Independence palace

Notre Dame Basilica & old post office

The Cathedral and the old post office are two architectural remnants of the French colonialists in HCM. The Cathedral marked the first church we’ve seen since being in Southeast Asia. Both buildings are gorgeous and very European looking. Being there feels a bit like being somewhere in Spain in midsummer.

War remnants museum

The war remnants museum offers a terrifying and detailed lesson in the Vietnam War (1955-75) and its consequences that’s still affecting people in both Vietnam and the US. It’s a very graphic way of learning the history of this incredibly bloody and horrifying war, and it certainly makes an impression.

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Nighttime view from the obligatory skybar
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Café building by the walking street