A predictable title for this post but that’s how it felt waking up there. Having spent a weekend in Hong Kong it was time to get back to travelling. My adventures began in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it was in days gone by.
Here are my day-by-day adventures from the South to the North.
Tuesday 31st January
Having spent the past 6 weeks moving swiftly, I was desperate to chill out and catch some privacy: it was time to book myself into a proper hotel. The day was spent running errands and moving from my hostel to my new slice of moderate luxury – after all, I was still on a backpacker’s budget. After getting my phone screen repaired, a new SIM card and a portable charger I put my feet up, watched a film and basked in a quiet evening. Relaxation achieved.
Wednesday 1st February
Free breakfast in the hotel was an enjoyable treat. It has surprised me where you get breakfast included: it often comes down to which country you’re in and the quality varies wildly.
The Tunnels Underground
I ventured out to catch a local bus to Củ Chi and its underground tunnels. During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese fought viciously from hidden complexes such as these. Getting the bus there was great and at 7000 Dong (~£0.24) it was a steal. Getting into the tunnels, however, was not.
From Saigon, Ben Duoc is the place to visit the tunnels – the majority of tours go to its bigger brother, Ben Dinh, close by. For a more peaceful, sombre and rewarding experience, Ben Duoc and its original tunnels are worth tripping to. Unfortunately, Ben Dinh’s are reconstructions.
Anyone that’s been to Củ Chi will attest to their awe at the size of the underground passages. Squeezing into the foot-and-a-half wide entrances was an experience many declined. It’s hard to believe that people lived days in such cripplingly dark places where infection was rife and life treacherous. Afterwards we were informed that the entrances and tunnels been widened for foreigners: a rather sad and sobering thought on the state of western obesity.
Climbing into the tunnels - not for heavyweights
Thursday 2nd February
It was time to move on and head north. With very little time on my visa, my movements North had to be unfortunately swift. Having booked a bus, I spent the morning venturing off Phạm Ngũ Lão Street. Named after a national hero, it is unequivocally the heart of backpacker life in the city. Away from the main strip there were all sorts of sights to be seen and wending my way through the narrow alleyways I delighted in the curious smiles and knowing looks of those living there. It’s a place to get lost and then found.
I caught the early afternoon bus to Dalat and arrived in the night at Smiley Backpackers.
Friday 3rd February
This thing to do in Dalat is canyoning. For those that don’t know, according to Wikipedia, canyoning is traversing gorges by scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling/rappelling and swimming. Rather pleasingly, it’s also called kloofing in South Africa, torrentismo in Italian and canyoneering in the US. Having discovered the hostel offered it the night before and with a line-up of activities like that plus the bonus of some ziplines, I threw myself the whole way in. Quite literally I threw myself off an 11m high rock face. It was amazing.
Unfortunately due to the water based nature of the enterprise you’ll have to wait for me to put my GoPro videos together to appreciate what it was like. In the meantime, let me assure you that if you’re in Dalat, it’s a must-do.
That evening my fellow canyoneers and I spent the evening frolicking in one of the greatest bars I’ve ever been to. Duong Len Trang (aka Cafe Tram Mai, 100 rooftops/rooms or The Maze Bar) is a convoluted magnificence of intricately woven pockets, each decorated in their own elaborate way. Once you’ve entered you have many ways to reach the slightly more open rooftop bar but you may never make it. Even if the drinks were somewhat above usual prices, I loved it in there and would recommend it to anyone. We even taught a couple of local lads how to shotgun cans of beer – they were impressed too.
Outside Duong Len Trang (Cafe Tram Mai) - it was too dark and mysterious inside for any photos to do it justice
Beers with the locals
Saturday 4th February
With a less-than-wholesome evening behind me and a midday bus to catch, I arose somewhat jaded at an early hour to make the most of my morning. I journeyed across Dalat to the Crazy House. If I thought the bar, the previous night, was magnificent, this place was beyond belief. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I discovered the architect who designed The Maze Bar had studied under the man who conceived the Crazy House.
The buildings were a bewildering arrangement of passages, roof climbing bridges and astounding sculptures delicately wreathed into some semblance of a hotel. Built almost entirely out of concrete, it isn’t the most environmental of constructions but with each different piece a hand-sculpted painted beauty, you have to go see it. Best thing is it’s not finished yet; each year they just add some more!
Sunday 5th February
Arrival at the Da Nang bus station wasn’t my finest landing – at 4am, it was too early and I was too disorientated. My taxi took me to a hostel where even the staff were asleep so I dumped my bag and walked the streets as dawn surfaced.
In a curious travelling moment, the first place I found open was a makeshift coffee stand complete with its own TV. I watched Everton destroy Bournemouth 6-3 from the other side of the world propped up by a foot-high plastic stool. Just another place you find Premier League football across the world.
In the afternoon, I sunned myself wandering up and down Da Nang’s city beach.
Monday 6th February
Monday morning was Sunday night in America and this meant the Superbowl. I’d scouted a place that opened early and had great internet the previous day: it was off to the Retro Kitchen. Being able to watch in daylight, I was a jolly man – it was an amazing game and the first ever with extra time. Plus, I’d spotted on Facebook that two friends from my time teaching English in Poland happened to be living in Da Nang – bonus!
During the day, I rented a motorbike and cruised along the coast to Hoi An and its painstakingly-preserved old town. On the way I happened to make a stop on the beach for a swim and while applying sun cream, I met a wonderful man. Deaf and dumb from an early age due to his proximity to a detonating bomb he explained his life to me through a series of photos and showed me around his local area. It was a very special moment and I spent a good couple of hours with him.
The greatest life story I've ever enjoyed
Hoi An was nice – many call it the best spot in Vietnam. I wasn’t as impressed as that; probably because many had called it so! The neat streets were pretty and it harkened back to a traditional way. Yet it all seemed to be a façade, literally. Each and every shop-front only seemed to stock tourist-ready produce. I did get some nice pictures though.
Over the river from the old town
That evening I met up with Hilaria and Tony, two Canadians who spend 3 months teaching at Da Nang’s university each year. They bought their friends, Greame and Victoria who were also ex-Angloville and we had a pleasant dinner overlooking the water that splits the city centre from its beachy island.
Tuesday 7th February
To be honest, this day was a bit of a non-starter. I’d tried to book a bus for the next day through my hostel: they didn’t book it. I tried to write my blog for a day: I ended up reading my book. I tried to find some good local food for the evening: I ate a burger at the Retro Kitchen. Such days happen sometimes when you’re travelling.
Wednesday 8th February
I spent the morning in the Retro Kitchen. I’d gone there again to use their fast Wifi and finish my blog on Thailand. During the time I was there, I became a firm favourite and received free coffees served with advice on what to buy for Valentine’s Day. It was a good place and their set menus were delicious, well organised and cost effective.
Having updated the blog, I scrambled onto a bus. Despite eventually booking one through my hostel, I actually caught an earlier, cheaper bus. It usually pays to head to the bus station by yourself. I was off to Hanoi.
Thursday 9th February
It was yet another pre-dawn arrival; so early that the hostel I’d booked wouldn’t let me check in for 5 hours and sent me round the corner for a coffee and croissant. This gave me enough time to plan my touristing attack on Hanoi and without checking-in I set off round the city.
My parents, among many others, rave about the food in Vietnam. I must have got unlucky because while I did have some good bowls of Pho (noodle soup) and enjoyed a Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich), I wasn’t astounded. Much of it was good but not great. Anyway, on that day, I had my best bowl of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup).
Amid my excursion, I visited the Temple of Literature – it’s a wonderful name for an ancient university. I went round the Ho Chi Minh museum and particularly enjoyed their current exhibition on one of Ho Chi Minh’s generals. I gazed up at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Later on I took a turn round Hoàn Kiếm Lake (aka the Green Lake after its apple water) and the Jade Island where I watched men play games of Chinese chess sprawled over concrete benches. I even visited the St Joseph’s Cathedral, which was an unexpected enormity outside my hostel.
Ho Chi Minh museum
Vietnam soldiers on the move - Inside the museum's exhibition
Ho Chi Min's Mausoleum
Hoàn Kiếm Lake (aka the Green Lake) and the bridge to Jade Island
Chinese chess at work
That evening I had a great time enjoying the 3 x 15-minute free beer sessions offered by Chien, my hostel. Every night was the same and if you’re clever, as many people were, you could spend your whole night visiting the different hostels for entirely cost-free drinking. Instead, I chose to discuss the nuances of drum and bass with a Dutch fanatic named Eric.
Friday 10th February
Having just said that I wasn’t too in awe of Vietnamese food, I did have one amazing meal. The bun cha I had at Bún Chả Hàng Mành was incredible. It’s a dish that is local to Hanoi and its mixture of grilled pork balls, achingly thin noodles and accompanying fresh herbs, dipping sauces, salad and spring rolls, blew me away. I loved it.
The afternoon was spent conversing with other hostellers, updating my journal and playing house tracks in the hostel bar. The evening bought more free beer and an enchanting chat with a fellow named Terrell. He may have been from Atlanta but he was a serial traveller who, over a couple of years, had walked the majority of South America’s Andes mountains and was in Hanoi to start a new South East Asian adventure.
Saturday 11th February
I was hungover. All day. The free beer had taken its toll but maybe it was the 6am bus start that bought the pain. Still, where better to spend such a day than napping on a bus.
Early afternoon, I arrived in Sa Pa to be greeted by fog. Endless fog. Nesting in the North Vietnamese highlands, I was mightily near the Chinese border and close to completing the loop I’d started a couple of months before. Compared to the coast, Sa Pa has a totally different climate making it damp and cool.
After a brief wander to get a Laos bus ticket and my mits on some US dollars for the visa on entry, I set off to hike the 8 kilometres out-of-town to my homestay. It would have been a lovely stroll to Tavan if the fog hadn’t crept closer. So, with nothing to look at I flagged down a passing motorbike and hitched a lift to Tavan and my homestay with a view.
Although Sa Pa is a small transport hub and quite nice in its own right, it’s definitely better to get straight out into the countryside and the photographic rows of rice terraces. Certainly, Sa Pa’s tourist influence has spilled down the valley but the villages have retained their integrity with smiling locals: even if they are keen to sell you their ‘handmade’ wares. That evening I found a small shack of bar to grab a restorative evening beer and watch the sun tumble down the vale.
Sunday 12th February
The morning bought a strange wakeup: I was a little sad for some reason. Having worked towards Thailand and my family/Alis for Christmas and then on to Ben in Hong Kong, Vietnam had felt a little flat. I’d always found it useful to have an objective during this long-term travel and without one, that morning caught up with me.
What saved me was a wonderful hike through the rice paddies. There are many tours to Sa Pa but from my experience I’d highly recommend doing it yourself. Getting there was easy, getting into the countryside even easier and then in terms of hiking about, DIY was far more fun. You couldn’t really go wrong by following the river downstream on one side and then coming back on the other. Naturally, it took you slightly off the beaten path and stumbling into some chance encounters with locals. The fresh air, the physical exercise and the magnificent fields carved out of the landscape bought a warm glow to my body and wide smile to my face. By the end, it was a great day, even if I did fall in a paddy up to my elbows while dancing on a ridge.
Just having a great day
Looking down on the rice paddies
My escorts back into Tavan village
Having made it to Su Pan village and back, it was time to head into town and catch my bus to Laos. Climbing aboard, I glanced a bearded Frenchman near the back: it was Denis from the Cambodian Jungle. What a beautiful coincidence! Sharing stories and meeting Jgor, a tattooed Italian heading to Laos, started a very special series of events. All that and more next time out.
Tuesday 31st January – Green Suites Hotel, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Wednesday 1st February – Green Suites Hotel, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Thursday 2nd February – Smiley Backpackers, Dalat, Vietnam
Friday 3rd February – Smiley Backpackers, Dalat, Vietnam
Saturday 4th February – overnight bus to Da Nang, Vietnam
Sunday 5th February – Dee Dee Danang hostel, Da Nang, Vietnam
Monday 6th February – Dee Dee Danang hostel, Da Nang, Vietnam
Tuesday 7th February – Dee Dee Danang hostel, Da Nang, Vietnam
Wednesday 8th February – overnight bus to Hanoi, Vietnam
Thursday 9th February – Chien Hostel, Hanoi, Vietnam
Friday 10th February – Chien Hostel, Hanoi, Vietnam
Saturday 11th February – Tavan Homestay Ecologic, Sapa, Vietnam
Sunday 12th February – overnight bus to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam