A Travellerspoint blog

Northern Vietnam

Hanoi / Sapa / Halong Bay

semi-overcast 20 °C

We didn't think it would take us this long to update you all on our travels but we haven't had (and still don't have) free computer use in any of our accommodation so we have caved in and paid! We are now in Northern Thailand as we meander down to Singapore for our flight to Australia at the start of May. No pictures yet as the internet cafe we are in won't let us upload. But you can find all of our pics (be warned there are 100's!) on Flickr if you are interested.

Hanoi (1st March - 2nd March)

We arrived in Hanoi from an overnight bus but thankfully we were able to get into our room at 8am in the morning after a complimentary breakfast so we slept in the morning before checking out Hanoi in the afternoon. We visited some museums about the war and the Hoa Lo prison (aka Hilton Hotel) where American pow pilots were held hostage during the war (including ex US presidential candidate John McCain). Museums in Vietnam have lots of interesting artefacts but lack a narrative to them so we didn't spend long looking at them as Alice's appetite for war related museums has been exhausted!

On our second day we ate breakfast in the restaurant and spoke to some other travellers who made us jealous of their travel stories and made us want to change our plans! We wandered round the old town in Hanoi including the small Hoan Kiem lake which is in the centre of the city. The old quarter was quaint and full of narrow streets which were interesting to walk round. That evening we were on the move again with an overnight train to Lao Cai, a town in the northwest of Vietnam near the Chinese border. As we were only able to book our train the day before we had to take hard seats. This was the most uncomfortable form of transport we have taken so far and it was 9 long hours on the church pew like bench from 2200 to 0700 the next morning. The train started off in Hanoi very quiet and Alice and I thought we might get a bench each but we weren't so lucky. The seats layout was two benches (enough for two people) facing each other with a small by the window. Within an hour the train was packed. There was another travelling couple on the train who we spoke to who were travelling on a budget and hard seats was their preferred choice but they found it difficult to buy said tickets - they were told they could only buy the more expensive ones. Anyway, their plan for the night was to drink through it which in hindsight might have been a good idea. Alice tried to sleep by resting her head on the bag on top of the table and had little success while I didn't even bother trying to sleep - the train was incredibly noisy, we were (un)lucky enough to have the bench beside the toilet and the carriage door so people were continuously walking past going for a smoke. It was quite an experience watching the other people in the carriage, especially the old couple who got on and the man took the bench to sleep on while the lady pulled out a plastic sheet, lay it on the ground and slept under two benches facing each other.

Sapa (3rd March - 6th March)

From Lao Cai we took a taxi to Sapa which was about an hour away along a steep and winding road into the hills. Again we got lucky because at 0930 we were able to get into our room after buying some breakfast. We had a nap in the morning and then ventured out in the afternoon. The area around Sapa is famous for its range of ethnic tribes and mountain views so the majority of people come to do some trekking. On our first day we wandered down into the valley to Cat Cat village, an ethnic village only a couple of kms away. We had to pay to get in which I thought was cheeky as there wasn't a lot to do or see.

For the next two days we splashed out a bit and hired a private guide to take us on a two day trek with a homestay included. She met us at a hotel in the morning and she was from a Black Hmong tribe. She spoke very good English despite only learning it from tourists. We walked out the town and into the mountains and another tribe lady with two kids quickly tagged onto us. As we climbed up into the hills, it started to get a bit muddier and stickier so we were relieved we weren't climbing in rainy season. As we climbed up the valley, the mist began to clear and the impressive views visible. Lee, our guide, explained to us about the way of life of the tribes people and was very informative. We stopped for lunch at a local house (if you can call it that) and then continued to a village where we would stay the night. When we got to our accommodation the woman and two girls who had followed us all day asked us to buy some of their handmade products. I hate this form of tourism as they were trying to make us feel guilty given they had followed us all day. I wouldn't have bought anything if it was me but Alice gave in to their sales pitch and bought a bag (which in fairness she has used a lot). We gave the two little girls a packet of sweets we had carried but the lady then gave the two girls some money so we think it wasn't even a mother and her daughters which was even sadder. It was labelled as a homestay but it was really the equivalent of a barn with beds upstairs and a plain communal area downstairs. There was a Spanish couple also staying so we stayed in and played cards as we had been warned about the local dogs who can smell foreigners and will go for you so there was no way I was leaving the four walls of the room. The owner's son watched us play cards and then proceeded to win almost every game of Uno we played which was very impressive.

On the second day of the hike we didn't walk as far. After breakfast, we walked towards a waterfall which was impressive but had little water. We had to walk through a bamboo forest which was really slippy and not much fun to walk through. From the waterfall we walked to our lunch spot and then it was a short stroll to where we were picked up. Today some ladies tried to follow us but I quickly made sure they realised we weren't buying anything. To compensate for our horrendous journey to Lao Cai we had soft sleeper beds back to Hanoi. That was a much more pleasant experience!

Halong Bay (7th March - 9th March)

From the train we stopped off quickly at our hotel to change our day bag and then went to the tour office to be picked up for our Halong Bay tour. From Hanoi it is a 4hour journey to the port which we both spent trying to sleep. At the port we quickly boarded our boat along with 7 others and set off to the Bay. The boat was really nice and massive for only 9 guests. We had decided to pay a bit more for this tour as we have heard horror stories about the cheap tours and we were glad we did. As we sailed out of port we were served a lovely seafood meal and then had time to relax before we kayaked to an island which we could climb to give amazing views of the Bay and swim on the beach. For "big attractions" we sometimes feel disappointed when we see them for real but Halong Bay definitely met our expectations! At night we ate on the boat and had an early night as we were still recovering from our overnight train.

On the second day we visited the (unimaginatively named) Amazing Cave along with most of the other tour boats in the bay (there are something like 150 of them and 500 day boats). We then sailed to Cat Ba island where we would spend our second night and cycled around to see some of the island. In the afternoon we kayaked and swam again. At night we stayed in a plush hotel and went to a local bar with the rest of our group who were good company.

Our last day entailed an early start at 0700 and travelling most of the day back to Hanoi where we arrived at 1700. In the evening we had a fresh beer (less than 20p a glass - can't go wrong) when a young boy of 12 approached us and asked to practise his English while his dad also had a beer. He had only been learning for 3 years but was incredibly good and it was a nice way to spend our last night in Vietnam before I went to watch the rugby while Alice had an early night.

Hanoi (10th March)

On our last day in Vietnam, we got up early to go and see the area around West Lake which we had deliberately left for today. We had thought about going to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but the endless queue put us off so we had a look in the museum beside it and went for a wander around the lake before taking the bus to the airport where we will fly to Laos.

Posted by duncan-alice 06:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hue

sunny 32 °C

Our travel to Hue did not start well. We were up and ready to leave at 7.30am...but we never got picked up. After an angry conversation with the travel agents, who said they had come but we weren't there, we finally got booked onto the bus leaving early in the afternoon. So we spent the morning playing pool, reading and generally lazing around the hostel. Thankfully the driver did turn up in the afternoon, and we arrived in Hue by the evening. We had a little wander round, and then went for Indian food, needing a change from South East Asian cuisine after almost a month.

The next day we were up early again for our Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour. This was a 12 hour trip around the area North of Hue which marked the border between North and South Vietnam during the American war. We were picked up at 6am on the back of a motorbike and taken to a cafe for breakfast until 7.30am. This was a little frustrating as it was only a 2 minute walk from out hotel and we would both have preferred the time in bed! Eventually we were on the road heading North, in a very full bus. The tour included highlights of the Khe Sanh combat base and the Vinh Moc tunnels. Both of these were interesting, but on the whole we were a little disappointed by the tour as there was a lot of travelling (~9hrs on the bus) with not many sights to see along the way, and only 5 minutes stops at each to take photos. I'm sure even just being in the DMZ and at these places would have had more resonance for the members of our tour who were slightly older...one man on our tour was a US Vietnam veteran, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the day.

Our second day in Hue was spent exploring the citadel, across the river from the main part of town. This included the Imperial City, where the Emperor used to rule from. The citadel reminded us of the Forbidden City in Beijing, but was far more run down - largely due to bombing in the war - with restoration work currently being carried out. Nevertheless it was interesting to walk round the remaining buildings. It was a particularly hot day though (around 34oC) so were suffering a little, but treated ourselves to our new favourite beverage, ice cold fresh sugar cane juice, and then had a big lunch, opting for Western food again.

At the end of the afternoon we hopped on to an overnight bus to travel North to Hanoi where we are now. We are off to the far North tonight to do some trekking and then onto Halong Bay after, so will update you on those adventures and Hanoi when we return. Sorry for the lack of photos (i.e. anything interesting to look at!), the camera cable is in Duncan's ruck sack which we have stored at the hotel in Hanoi for the week.

Posted by duncan-alice 02:42 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An

semi-overcast 27 °C

After a short flight we arrived at Da Nâng airport, in the pouring rain. Thankfully our hostel had sent a car to pick us up so we drove through the down pour along eerily quiet streets- I guess moped drivers don't go out in this weather.

The next morning the weather had not improved, but being used to thís from home I put on my raincoat and Duncan threw on a poncho and we headed out into Hoi An to explore. I was soaked from the waist down in about 10 minutes, and realised a poncho was the way to go as it would have covered a lot mỏre of me. We bought a town ticket which gave us access to certain buildings around Hoi An and wandered around the streets going into merchants houses and Chinese assembly halls. It was amazing how many tailors were in Hoi An, and so of course I had to buy something and in the afternoon I ordered myself a pretty dress...I think Duncan thought it was a waste of money, but it was very cheap compared to the UK, exactly what I wanted, and now I can say I have a tailor made item from Vietnam!

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The rain finally stopped later in the afternoon so we went out again for dinner. The meal was fantastic, classic Vietnamese dishes in a family run restaurant, but it did take 90 minutes to arrive after we had ordered as it was all cooked from fresh. We finished eating in time to make the second half of the rugby, and Duncan was thrilled to watch Scotland beat Ireland...just!

The next morning we had signed up to a cooking class at the restaurant from the previous night, thinking it would be a fun way to avoid the rain. There was no rain today, but still glad we did the class as we made some fantastic dishes and had a lot of fun. Starting with a cycle to the local market to get ingredients, and then a 2 on 1 class where we made spring rolls, chicken with lemongrass, fish clay-pot and shrinp with sugảr cane. We were both stuffed after eating all our culinary creations.

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As the sun was still out we hired bikes in the afternoon and pedalled down to the beach, about 5km out of town. It was very quiet with miles of white sand. Had a lot of fun playing in the crashing waves, then relaxed in the sun for a while. Headed back into town for another fantastic meal at a local restaurant, then wandered round town looking at all the pretty lanterns which light up every street at night.

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On our final day in Hoi An we were feeling adventurous, so after having fun on the back of a motorbike we decided to hire our own. After a shaky start and some practice on a quiet back road, we were off, with me in charge and Dunc riding pillion...nothing changes, I am still driving him around even here! We cruised around the countryside with some beautiful scenery, swapping driver every so often (don't worry though parents we were cautious and were probably the slowest bike on the road, even some push-bikes overtook ús at one point!).

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The novelty wore of after a couple of hours so we went back into Hoi An, ariving back with no accidents or injury - unlike many of the people in our hostel sporting motorbike scars. Then spent a lazy afternoon with me by the pool and Duncan hiding from the sun inside.

We both really like Hoi An, it was a very relãxing few day spent here.

Posted by duncan-alice 06:31 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh City

semi-overcast 26 °C

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from the Mekong Delta and the first thing that struck us was the quantity of mopeds and scooters on the road! It was incredible to see so many bikes and I really wouldn't want to drive with them weaving all over the place, even on the wrong side of the road.

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On our first full day in the city we had a look around the place, stopping at several museums / places of interest, including the City Museum which chartered the city's rise over the past century. This gave us an insight into the fascinating history of Vietnam and showed our ignorance of what had happened here. From the museum we went to the riverside which was a little disappointing and not great views / promenade to walk along. In the afternoon we saw the impressive Notre Dame cathedral and Independence Palace where the end of the Vietnam War was signified with a tank ploughing through the gates.

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To round of our day we visited the War Remnants museum to better understand the effect of the war on the Vietnamese people. It was very sad to see the devastating effects of how people had been affected by "agent orange" which the US splattered over the country. It also made me wonder if I'll be able to visit Iraq and Afghanistan in 40 years as a welcome tourist?

On our second day we took the bus out to see the Cu Chi tunnels, the underground tunnels used by the Vietnamese in times of war. There are 250kms of tunnels, all dug by hand and it was amazing to see how normal life was able to be conducted 5-25m underground with kitchens, movie rooms, schools, medical rooms etc etc. We went to the Ben Duoc tunnels which are apparently favoured by the Vietnamese tourists as they are less crowded and not recreated to accommodate the Western waistline! We were joined by a Japanese tour group which worked in our favour as the women were dressed like they were in a fashion show in 5 inch heels and the men scared they would get stuck so Alice and I were able to follow the guides straight into the tunnels while the Japanese mostly waited above ground. The tunnels were about 80cm high so being on all fours was more comfortable than trying to walk upright!

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The tour took about an hour which was a little disappointing and there was a lack of visitor centre / museum to put everything into context. On the way back to HCMC on the bus, a friendly old man spoke to me. He quickly offered Alice and I to stay at his house and for him to cook us dinner. After politely refusing he came and sat beside me and started asking what information I had about the US bombing Thailand and what other information I had I could share with him. He stressed we were the people and we must stick together. I felt a little uncomfortable, and was professing I was NOT American, while Alice sat on the seat opposite napping, completely unaware of what this guy was saying.

Our last day in the city was a lazy one; we started with breakfast at a bakery (one good thing the French left in Vietnam were baking skills!). We took a bus to the Cho Lon, the Chinese influenced area of the city. There was a massive bustling market which seemed to cater a lot more for wholesale rather than retail customers. By this point we are a bit market-ed out, so we didn't spend long there before trying to find some pagodas in the area which we had no joy with finding. In the afternoon, we went to the Jade Emperor pagoda on the other side of the city, built by the Chinese about a century ago. The huge fish and turtle ponds amused us - we think people must buy small animals from the stalls outside and leave them at the pagoda for good luck - although several of the gold fish were now dead! In early evening we took the bus to the airport for our flight to Da Nang.

Posted by duncan-alice 07:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Mekong Delta

sunny 30 °C

We have now headed on from Cambodia into Vietnam via the border crossing into the Mekong Delta. This has been the easiest border crossing yet. We arrived by mini-van and got our passports stamped with no queues on the Cambodia side, then walked down a dirt track and into the Vietnam passport control on the side of the Mekong River, where we sat down for 30 minutes in a cafe as they were stamped.

The rest of the trip down to Chau Doc was by boat, a very relaxing journey down the Mekong with some great scenes of river life. Arriving in Chau Doc we set of immediately to the nearby Sam mountain to see the sun set. We jumped in a Xe Dap Loi to get to the mountain, 5km out of town. This is basically a push bike with a pram on the back, which didn't look like it could hold one, let alone 2 large people. The driver must have had legs of steel to get us both to the mountain, up a slight hill, although he did get some help when his friend on a moped gave us a push from the back on the steepest section of road! Only just got to the mountain before sunset and had a very quick and sweaty climb to get to the top in time, but nice views once we were up there.

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The next day we were up early to see more of Chau Doc before heading on to Can Tho. The market by the water was bustling and we picked up some breakfast. Then we hired a man with a rowing boat who took us on a tour of the local floating villages, fish farm and the Cham Islamic stilt house villages. This was really fun, very peaceful on the water and some fantastic sights.

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Another slow bus journey (with the obligatory 2 hour break in the middle for no reason) brought us to Can Tho, and yet another form of transport checked off...motorbikes! This was the only form of public transport in Can Tho so we jumped on the back of one with our rucksacks for the short drive to our hostel....it was so much fun! The part of Can Tho we stayed in was not particularly exciting, but ok to stay for one night. However, our dawn boat ride into the Delta was brill. We visited 2 floating markets, one wholesale, one retail, a rice noodle factory, and cruised down the quieter canals. The trip was great, but by the end of our 7 hours we both had sore bums and the noisy engine driving the propeller on the boat was starting to get irritating, maybe a shorter version would have been better.

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From Can Tho we took a bus to Ben Tre, our final Delta stop. Ben Tre was a lovely little town, not a lot going on but it had a really nice feel to the place and not many tourists. We went on a cycle around the rice paddies and coconut groves by the river. This was very pleasant, but I was a little disappointed that we didn't find the rice wine factory or coconut candy factories which were meant to be on our route. Not sure if we passed them without realising or just took the wrong route.

From here we left the delta and moved on to Ho Chi Min City, on the nicest bus of the trip yet, clean with AC and comfy leather seats!

Posted by duncan-alice 07:05 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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