Man down, changed plans and no more Ha Long Bay

So we’d all had a great time in Phong Nha National Park and as planned we had booked a night bus to get us up to Hanoi and then to Halong Bay for our last remaining days in Vietnam. However, a few hours before our bus was due to leave disaster stuck(!) as I suddenly felt really ill and ended up throwing up… Safe to say I wasn’t getting on a night bus!  Luckily the woman in the hostel was lovely and looked after us as soon as she took one look at me. She gave us a discounted private twin room for the night and had my bag taken to the room for me as well as managing to move our bus tickets to the following night for no extra charge. I really didn’t want to be in a dorm room when I was unwell so this was a blessing, and we were running out of time to get to Hanoi so unfortunately this meant I had to skip out Halong Bay.

Katie however did go on the night bus to Hanoi with Bianca and Tom as she really really wanted to see Halong Bay, and Rhianna kindly stayed behind with me. Although I didn’t have the best night for obvious reasons, checkout the next day was at 12 so I was able to have a lie in and not worry about disturbing other people too. 

Thankfully the next day I felt much better and managed some jam and toast for breakfast (despite being very jealous of Rhianna’s huge stack of pancakes I did restrain myself). We wondered what to do with our day as most places you need a motorbike or car to see but we decided to rent bikes and go for a leisurely bike ride. This turned out to be a great idea and we cycled along the river through the national park towards the Botanical Gardens. Here’s a snap from a sun cream and water stop:

Visiting Marble Mountains and the beautiful Phong Nha National Park

Our original plan was to go from Hoi An to Hue and then up again to Hanoi but we decided to go with  Rico, Bianca and Tom to the Phong Nha national park – home to the world’s largest cave that has its own ecosystem in and Asia’s longest cave! The discovery of these cave systems are relatively recent so who knows what else is in there somewhere? 

Anyway, back to Hoi An for a minute. The five of us got the 
bus to Danag together. Getting on was much easier than getting off as the conductor essentially threw  people on and off the bus! On our arrival we looked at a map for a nearby hostel and headed there with the intention of leave our heavy bags there for the day before our train that night. We had a quick stop for a drink before the others rented motorbikes and went for a drive and the three of us went to the marble mountians.


The Marble Mountains themselves were really cool, and as you might be able to guess they were mountains made of marble. You could get a lift up to the top of the mountain before exploring pagodas and caves with huge Buddhas. So we were looking around and the three of us got effectively ambushed by a whole class of Vietnamese students who wanted photos with us and to interview us for their project on foreigners! Questions ranged from what do you think of the weather here to what are your dreams! They left us very bemused and confused. We felt like the attraction instead!

We headed back to the city for dinner at an average vegetarian restaurant before meeting the others back at the hostel, collecting our bags and heading to the train station.

After negotiating the busy train station and almost boarding the wrong train, we were on our way to Phong Nha. Unfortunately the train was probably the worst train I have ever been on: it was smelly and dirty, with rags instead of curtains. Lush. Thankfully it wasn’t a long journey so going to sleep made it better. At least we had soft seats rather than hard seats.

We arrived from Danang at 5:30am and we walked very sleepily across the town to the bus station to get transport into the national park. The six of us lay across the bus station waiting room seats waiting for the first bus. When it was finally time to go the bus took another hour to get to our final destination. We jumped off, got to our hostel and ordered big breakfasts all round.

Rico was catching a flight the next morning from Danag (where we’d just come from) so it turned out he could only spend half a day with us before he had to leave 😧 we tried to make the most of it by exploring the small town and trying to see the Phong Nha cave. Unfortunately the trip would take too long so we had to skip that for the moment, and just went for lunch/smoothies instead in a great cafe called Bamboo.

Soon it came time to say bye to Rico and we waved him off onto his bus. The remaining five of us then went back to the cave and did the boat tour through the cave. It was awesome to see inside though we were getting super tired on the boat as we had basically not slept the night before. Here’s a snap of the boat and caves :

Nha Trang then onto Hoi An (rhyming unintentional!)

Waking up in Nha Trang we had breakfast on the rooftop looking across the town. Unfortunately  everything seemed to have eggs in it so I had tofu with tomatoes and green beans for breakfast – unexpected but better than I thought! We went to the beach and lay under a palm tree for the day. It was nice but it was so hot and it was pretty sad to see lots of plastic in the sea. Later on, to get a break from the heat we got some pizza between us for lunch and I had a tiramisu flavour ice cream too which was incredible!


Later in the day we headed back to the hostel to de-sand and shower before our night bus. I sadly had to leave my converse behind as they had come to the end of their life and smelt awfully of the lake we went canyoning in. Not a pretty smell so it had to be 😦 
—- Hoi An —-

The night bus we took from Nha Trang was a bit of a mixed experience for the three of us. It seemed fine to me as I went to sleep straight away and didn’t really wake up much. However, Katie and Rhianna were slightly concerned when the bus kept stopping every few minutes. The driver would get off, make some banging noises and get back on the bus wiping oil from his hands – eek! I think the phrase ignorance is bliss comes into play here as I had no clue this was going on!

Anyway, we eventually arrived in Hoi An safe and sound early in the morning around half 6. Bleary-eyed we found an open cafe for some tea and to search for a hostel as we didn’t have one booked for that evening. In hindsight I have to say we lucked out as we stayed in Tribee Kin which turned out to be one of my favourite hostels on the trip so far. It was the right balance of chilled and sociable, with clean rooms, no bunk beds and they had some super cute puppies too. If you’re ever in Hoi An I’d thoroughly recommend. 

So we now had a hostel, next it was time to explore what the place is known for, its Old Town. We walked down passed loads of tailor shops and old buildings to the river.


That evening we dined in the market, eating super tasty and super cheap noodles as pictured below. We were crammed round this lady’s food stall on tiny chairs as she cooked the food in front of us whilst also trying to fit in as many customers as possible.

We spent quite a few days in Hoi An which was lovely as it’s such a nice town. I’m our hostel we bumped into Bianca and Tom again who we’d met in Dalat, and Rico who we’d met in Saigon and again in Dalat also joined us the day after. 

We rented bikes for the dayfrom our hostel and braved the roads to get to the hidden beach. This tuned out to be not so hidden but it was lush all the same πŸ™ˆ


As you can see there were sun umbrellas and loungers so Rhianna and I in particular were pretty happy in the heat! We also stopped on the way back into town in this amazing bakery where I had an incredible sandwich (sausage, caramelised onions, tomato and mustard on ciabatta bread: YUM) 

As well as the beautiful lanterns, Hoi An is also known for its tailor shops, and after a lot of consideration I decided to get a playsuit made and Katie got a jumpsuit made too. After choosing the fabric, the shape and getting measured, the tailors set to work. I had to go back a couple of times over the next few days to get adjustments but this is the finished result:


Overall I really loved Hoi An and I would definitely recommend a visit! 

Canyoning out of my comfort zoneΒ 

All things considered our bus to Dalat wasn’t actually too bad. This was our first night bus so it seems like an adventure. Coaches in South East Asia allocate you certain seats when you book so you don’t have a choice where you sit, much to my delight after being told we were right at the very back (woo travel sickness). But in reality once I was asleep this made no difference thank goodness! We had three out of five red seats at the back which were pretty packed in and reclined to your chosen degree (my seat did get a little stuck but we got there in the end). I put my headphones in and eye mask on and was ready for the journey. 

The only thing that wasn’t so great was how early we arrived: there’s not much open at 4:30am! We found some wifi to get our hostel address as well as using the brilliant offline map app Maps.Me that has come in handy countless times on this trip. We started walking towards our destination in the dark and by the time we arrived it was light because it gets light so quickly. We did have a bit of a navigation issue and Rhianna hurt her foot tripping over a metal pipe sticking out of the ground, but we got there eventually! It’s now 6am and we’re greeted with Vietanmese tea and biscuits and sleepily got shown to our room. Safe to say we clambered straight into bed and fell straight to sleep.

We had a gloriously long nap before heading out to explore and see the Crazy House, a Gaudi-esque creation. On our way we realised we should probably eat so found a restaurant  busy with locals and filled up on delicious beef noodles and chicken fried rice before continuing on to the crazy house. In my guidebook it was described as ‘if Gaudi and Tolkien dropped acid together’ and I can see why! 


That evening we had a family dinner with the other two people in our hostel. It was a proper spread of Spring rolls and rice with noodle broth. Here’s a snap of the food :


Went to get ready and meet our friend Rico that we’d met in Saigon but we got temporarily locked in the hostel(!)  So had to email the manager to let us out – more of a palava than we planned. Awkwardly we had to do the same when we came back as were then locked out! Not the best when you advertise yourself as a hostel without a curfew, not that we were out too late anyway. We met Rico and some other people from his hostel and went to this place called Maze bar with which is indescribable. It really was like a maze with stairs and ladders going up and down leading anywhere and everywhere, it was so cool! You really had to make sure you didn’t lose your friends though because you definitely wouldn’t find them again. We had a fun evening exploring the maze and on the way back we shared some cake from the bakery on the way back to the hostel, top end to an evening πŸ‘

Dalat is famous for its adventure trips – canyoning, cycling, hiking – and in a mad moment I agreed to go canyoning the next day. So we got up early, along with the other two people in our hostel who had booked on too, and had a bleary eyed breakfast of warm bread and homemade strawberry jam before getting picked up in a mini van and taken to our destination. We were bundled out of the van at the side of the road (not as bad as it sounds!) and given all the equipment we needed: an oversized wetsuit, harness, knee pads, life jacket and helmet πŸ‘Œ They briefed us on what was going to happen that morning and set us up to practice abseiling going down a slope in the woods. Whilst apprehensive at first we each had a couple of goes to get to grips with the ropes which made me feel better about what was happening next! 
Throughout the day we abseiled down one dry cliff, one wet cliff and another, shorter wet cliff nicknamed ‘the washing machine’. I was absolutely terrified during all of them, particularly the last one for fear of losing my glasses at the bottom(!) but I’m so proud of myself for completing all three πŸ’πŸ»πŸ’ͺπŸŽ‰ The first abseil was dry so we kept our shoes on for this, holding onto a rope as we clambered over rocks to the top. The guide clipped us onto the ropes and helped guide us as we walked slowly backwards down the cliff. The strangest thing to wrap my head around was that the more you lean back the more stable you are, this seemed alien to me! Here’s a picture of me feeling terrified as the guide held my ropes:

Much to my delight walking down (most of) the dry cliff was manageable (I did slip slightly and scrape my elbow at the bottom) and the sense of achievement I felt when I got the bottom was so high! Looking up at the others at the top who were so far away seemed crazy. Not naturally an adrenaline junkie I was pretty proud. 

The next abseil was down a wet cliff around the same height as the first one. I was much more apprehensive about slipping on this one, even though they made us take our shoes off for grip, as the rock had a lip it meaning you couldn’t see the whole way down from the drop. I was scared but okay going down this one until the stream of water hit my face and I couldn’t see a thing let alone where my feet were landing. The guide holding the ropes at the bottom helped a lot by pulling on the rope to help me jump down, so I got there in the end! I think this cliff was around 30m so to look up from the bottom was pretty amazing. 

Once we were all down we headed to the final abseil. To get there we had a mini trek along the riverbank through the woodland, which felt strangely alpine. I don’t know what I expected from Vietnam but it wasn’t that! The landscape opened up to reveal the river running down a waterfall and into a beautiful lake, with another group of people ziplining into it. The last abseil of the day was straight down into the waterfall, you had to walk only for the first bit before hanging upright and easing yourself down into the water and then swimming to the other side of the lake. As I said before I was worried about losing my glasses in the so called ‘washing machine’ so this was the one I was most nervous for. Luckily I clung onto them and it was all fine despite plunging into the waterfall at the bottom! 


After everyone of the group had completed the abseil there was opportunity to do cliff jumps which I’m sorry to disappoint but I did not do any higher than 3m which was enough for me! However I did do a zip line into the lake which was pretty fun. After this we all got changed and headed back into town in the minivan where Katie and I were told Vietnamese ghost stories by one of the guides as we were sat at the front. πŸ˜‚ We were driven to someone’s house and given a huge spread for lunch. There were spring rolls, veggie broth, rice, a surprisingly nice tofu in tomato sauce dish, and lots of other bits and pieces. There was so much food that the 10 people in our group couldn’t finish it all! It was super tasty though! Tired and ill we got dropped back off at the hostel with enough time to shower, change and recover slightly before our second family dinner at the hostel, for which we were still fairly full from dinner. Dinner this time was however particularly delicious as we had fresh pancake rolls. They provided us with the rice paper, salad, and shrimp pancakes (small fried pancake type things with shrimp and beansprouts) with a delicious dipping sauce that looked spicy but wasn’t. The hostel manager was a nice enough Vietnamese guy and had bought rice wine aka ‘happy water’ that he insisted we try. We were skeptical because it was in a plastic bag not a bottle but this kind of made sense given it was homemade by someone in the town and bottles cost more than the drink takes to make. It seemed to me a cross between a spirit and a wine, and I found the smell particularly vile! Safe to say I wasn’t a fan but I did try it. When in Vietnam ey? 

The next morning we were up early again to get our coach from the other side of town from The Sinh Tourist again at 7:30am to Nha Trang. Driving down through the mountains to the coast was beautiful with all the roadside waterfalls and far reaching views. The only thing was that it was super twisty and Vietnamese driving isn’t the smoothest in the world, meaning I didn’t exactly feel great. Luckily the journey was only 5 hours so I took some travel sickness tablets and pushed through. We made a stop halfway and coincidentally ran into Rico, Bianca and Tom so we said hello to them too.

When we arrived in the coastal town on Nha Trang we were undecided whether we would stay a night or push through and continue to travel north. However, as I still felt bad from the coach, we made the decision to find a hostel, stay the night and have some beach time. We had a refreshing shake in a nearby cafe and found a hostel round the corner so headed there. Min hostel had room for us – success! So we checked in and I went straight for a nap whilst Kate and Rhianna went to explore and visit the beach. Later on we went for dinner to a place called Lantern which our hostel recommended and was lovely. There was a queue outside so you knew it was good. Here I had arguably the best meal of the trip so far, a chicken coconut curry served in a banana leaf  – yum!

(Sorry for the delay in post and for the lack of photos , the wifi has been a bit ropey recently!)

Saigon’s rooftops and the Cu Chi tunnels

We arrived in the Vietnamese capital after a fairly odd bus journey. I say odd because crossing the border was strange. We were stamped out by Cambodian customs and we walked through a disused shopping centre to get to Vietnamese customs. We kept having to get on and off the bus and there was no explanation about what was happening! It all worked out for us anyway as we just followed the rest of the people on our bus! Reaching the bus station in Saigon our challenge was to now find a hostel (shock horror we were winging it) and to find a cash point to get some Vietnamese Dong. Luckily Rhianna already had some currency so we dived into a tiny cafe with tiny tables and chairs with our huge backpacks to have a drink and look up accommodation. It turned out we were really close to the backpacker area so there were loads nearby.

We headed round the corner to Vietnam Inn and hooray they had space for us. All checked in and bags dumped, we headed out for some dinner and to explore. We stumbled across some kind of festival in the park; there was a stage with performers and lots of people watching surrounded by dessert stalls. As tempting as it was to buy a doughnut ice cream sandwich, we pressed on in search of dinner! Not really grasping how much we would be expected to pay for dinner, as we hadnt wrapped our heads around the currency yet (10,000 dong is worth around 36p) we picked a random restaurant which turned out to be alright. However our evening got better when we spotted a rooftop bar covered in fairy lights and lanterns and decided to walk towards it. As we got closer we got accosted by the staff working there who gave us a rose each in celebration of International Women’s Day and the promise of a free glass of champagne and entry into a raffle if we went up to the bar. Surprised but intrigued we walked through the hotel lobby and got the lift up to the pretty rooftop. We sat with our bubbly looking at beautiful views across the city, so pretty!

Lanterns at The View rooftop bar

The view from The View
After our bubbly we headed back to the hostel as they also had a nice rooftop with free beer for guests at a certain time. Even though I’m not a beer fan it drew people to the rooftop and made the atmosphere vibrant and sociable. The activity of the evening was limbo followed by a pub crawl with luminous, neon yellow tshirts. 

The three us wearing said luminous tshirts
View from one of the crawl pit stops
 

The next day we got up and had breakfast on the sunny rooftop – I had a lush pancake with pineapple jam. (As a side note, I am struggling with breakfast slightly as I don’t eat eggs or bananas, which seem to be breakfast staples on menus in south east Asia πŸ™ˆ ). That day’s plan was to visit the Cu Chi tunnels which we booked through our hostel.

A bus picked us up from the hostel for the two hour drive to the tunnels, including a stop at a shop where beautiful art is made by the ‘unlucky’ ones affected by the legacy of the Vietnam war. Our tour guide, who nicknamed himself John Wayne(!) explained their circumstances and how although he can’t help them directly, he feels he is now by bringing tourists to buy their art. After a quick marvel at their artistry we piled back in the bus and on to the tunnels. 

John Wayne took us round the tunnel complex, showing us different types of traps the Vietnamese used against the Americans. What amazed me is how much they did with such few resources – he told us about how they would make mines from unexploded American bombs (so dangerous). The tunnels themselves were tiny! And that’s when they’d even made them 30% bigger for tourists! You had to crawl or really crouch and walk. I can’t believe whole villages lived underground in such small spaces. We were also showed an original entrance to the tunnels which was even smaller. I really didn’t think my hips would be able to fit if I tried, the hole in the ground was so small! It was really interesting to visit the tunnels, but I felt prior knowledge was presumed for some parts, of which I didn’t really have.

Once we braved rush hour traffic we were back in Saigon and by this point it was 8pm so we headed straight out for dinner. It was then that I tried pho, traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, which was delicious! 

In order to fill in the gaps, the next day we headed to the War Remnants Museum. We got up early and booked a night bus to Dalat for that evening, had breakfast again on the rooftop, checked out of the hostel and visited a nearby market that morning before heading over to the museum. As museums go it was pretty good, telling all about the Vietnam War and the devastating Agent Orange. There was a particularly moving exhibit showing international photographers’ images of the war who died before they could be published. What was interesting were the statistics comparing American investment, bombs dropped etc, to World War Two. Though not tackling a light topic, I’d definitely recommend this museum a visit.

That evening we also got our first night bus to Dalat, a small mountain town north of Saigon. We booked with Sinh Tourist and overall it was a decent experience, though we did end up arriving early at 4:30am πŸ™ƒπŸ™ƒπŸ™ƒ so we were pretty dazed and confused when we got off the bus in the dark. 

More of that to follow on my next post. Thank for reading! xo