I arrived in Hanoi, the northern capital city of Vietnam and instantly fell in love with the place. I stayed in the “Old Quarter” which is situated by the side of a lake, and when I arrived it looked eerie and ethereal with a low-laying mist hovering over the top of the polluted green murky water. Hanoi is what I would describe as an authentic representation of Vietnam, I can imagine little has changed over the past 100 years in the way the locals go about their daily lives and apart from a few new hotels dotted around the place, I would imagine it looks much the same as well. Like Kuta in Bali, the streets are jam packed with motorbikes, defying the odds of colliding with each other at every intersection and crossing the road is a true test of faith and a skill which was essential to learn if I was to ever leave the hostel. Advice which I picked up from fellow travellers was to just go for it, “cross the road and the traffic will flow around you”, at first I thought this advice was insane and bordering on suicidal, but after observing local pedestrians and other travellers, it seemed that this was common practice. To my amazement, I tried this technique and it actually worked, I adapted quickly but will confess to holding my breath on a number of occasions when a motorbike came flying towards me at speed.
During my stay I visited the Hanoi prison, now disused, but full of history as it once held Vietnamese rebels during the French colonial years and was then used to detain American prisoners of war decades later. The prison’s Death Row includes the original guillotine used to behead the prisoners all those years back under the rule of the French, and to be left in a room alone with this imposing instrument of execution was pretty scary. I also paid a visit to the Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum; here you can still see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh himself during set visiting hours. The former Vietnamese emperor has a truly legendary status throughout Vietnam and I learnt that as soon as you are old enough to talk, you are taught to sing the “Ho Chi Minh Song” in his honour.
Ha Long Bay
After Hanoi I made my way to Ha Long Bay, for this part of the trip I was joined by Gadis, a girl I became close to during my time in Singapore and I was pleasantly surprised that she agreed to meet me in Vietnam after having recently quit her job. We made our way to Ha Long Bay, having had a two night boat trip arranged for us by the incredibly helpful staff at our hotel in Hanoi. Something I was to learn throughout South-East Asia is that the basic level of customer service is truly exceptional and puts most of the Western world to shame, the staff genuinely want to help you and they take pride in the work they do. The boat we stayed on was amazing in its own right, we had a room with a balcony, where we sat for hours drinking wine and watching the incredible landscape change as the boat meandered its way through the mountains. Ha Long Bay is naturally stunning, we were slightly unlucky with the weather which meant visibility wasn’t great, but it done little to take away from the experience. On board we were joined exclusively by couples either honeymooning or celebrating a significant anniversary, but when the cruise manager congratulated us on our recent wedding we were rather shocked, we had only known each other a week, but with the offer of free drinks and cake we decided to play along. We later found out the company we had booked through had requested the “Honeymoon Package” so we would get the best value for our money.
After Ha Long Bay, I made my way north to the Chinese border and the small mountain village of Sapa. During my stay I planned a two day hike and overnight stay with a local family. The hike down through the rice paddies and the mountain valley was fairly challenging but great fun, we made our way through farms full of cattle, a bamboo forest, and a river full of rocks just large enough to be able to hop across to escape getting wet, before ending up at the homestay where we would be spending the night. The local family we had arranged to stay with lived solely off the land so the chickens which greeted us upon arrival would soon provide lunch, dinner, and breakfast the following morning! The night of our stay just so happened to coincide with Vietnamese New Year, so we were encouraged to join in the celebrations by toasting to good health with a glass of locally brewed rice wine at every possible moment, our tour guide was completely hammered after a few shots and had to call it an early night, as for myself I managed to go round for round with my host and then lived to regret it the following morning!
My next stop in Vietnam was Hoi An, this small riverside town has a very relaxed vibe and is full of shops to purchase authentic Vietnamese artwork and various handmade items, it is also renowned for being a hub for world class tailors who can make almost any item of clothing to the highest quality for a fraction of the normal retail price. Although I decided against a tailor-made suit, I couldn’t resist the temptation of purchasing a few paintings as they made for perfect presents for family back home. I enjoyed my time in Hoi An so much that I extended my stay by a few extra days, this gave me an opportunity to hire out a motorbike and ride to the nearby temple of My Son despite the warnings from hotel reception about how dangerous the roads are for the less experienced rider. The gamble paid off and the temple was well worth a visit, plus the roads were no where near as bad as they were made out to be, the ride along the river was stunning and I only managed to get slightly lost on my way home.
From Hoi An I caught a coach up to the old capital city of Hue, I spent a few nights here and it was enough to explore the ancient citadel or “The Forbidden Imperial City”, a rather extravagant name, but a very impressive set of buildings and structures built over centuries for the Emperors of Vietnam. However, much of the Imperial City is left as rubble as many of the buildings were destroyed in the Vietnam war by the Americans who were clearly trying to prove a point to the Vietnamese, this is a real shame as the scale of the area is enormous and with all of the buildings left standing it would of made for a truly incredible sight. Hue is also full of temples constructed in memory of Vietnam’s previous emperors, I paid a taxi driver to escort me for the day and I managed to see 5 of them. The temples were built to reflect the personality of the emperor and each structure was completely unique in design, my only regret here was that I should have paid the extra cost for a fully guided tour as my Taxi drivers knowledge was very limited.
Continuing my journey south I made it to another town up in the Mountains, Dalat. Dalat was probably the least favourite town I visited in Vietnam, aesthetically it isn’t particularly easy on the eye and my only noteworthy experience of my stay there was Canyoning. This however, was incredible, jumping off the edge of a cliff, swimming down the rapids, navigating our way through the forest, and abseiling down a waterfall, made for an exhilarating day out. There were moments when I truly feared for my life, but the adrenaline rush was incredible, what a day!
Ho Chi Minh City
My final stop in ‘Nam was Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it was known a few decades back. One thing I noticed in Vietnam is the stark contrast from North to South, this probably has something to do with the Vietnam war with the Americans offering their support in the South vs the communist allies in the North, the effects of this are clearly visible to this day. Hanoi was the authentic Vietnam and was a true cultural experience, I can’t imagine much has changed there in the past 30-40 years apart from the numbers of tourists, compare this with HCMC and the contrast between the two is unbelievable, it is much more Westernised, the roads are wide and the buildings are sky high. My personal preference was the North. HCMC has a lot to offer and 3 or 4 days here is a good amount of time to see a great deal of it. I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of underground tunnels built to gain tactical positions and evade capture during the war against the Americans, I was shocked at how claustrophobic they were with barely enough room to squeeze into let alone crawl for miles in complete darkness. There were sections of the tunnels which have been made bigger to allow visitors to go some way towards experiencing what it would have been like to navigate your way through, I decided to give it a go myself and joined a group of eager (and not so eager) tourists who made their way in one by one. Halfway through the tunnel the girl in front of me decided now would be a good time to realise just how claustrophobic she was and after a mini panic attack she began to reverse back out of the tunnel, it was so tight down there it meant we had no choice but to crawl backwards on our hands and knees, not easy and not comfortable, but this experience put things into perspective, as the group of tourists groaned at the minor inconvenience, I couldn’t help but think, imagine doing this if you were confronted with an enemy at the other end firing rounds from his M16, terrifying but that is the reality. The National War Museum is also in HCMC and my visit there was a sobering experience, the room with the biggest impact was the one based around chemical warfare and in particular “Agent Orange”, the pictures on display showed evidence of the aftermath of this chemical which was used to break down supply lines and destroy crops, resulting in genetic mutations and deformities, the pictures were disturbing and upsetting, but it’s a significant part of the Vietnam’s history and it would be wrong to forget about the atrocities that occurred only a few decades back.
It’s also worth mentioning that HCMC has a vibrant nightlife and the hostel I picked was in the heart of the backpacking district, packed with entertainment and no end of places to eat and drink, it set me back all of £4 a night and this pretty much sums up why Vietnam is such a perfect country to travel through.
Highlights of Vietnam
Canyoning in Dalat – This was such a good day out, led by our charismatic group leaders “Tony” and “Tiger”, we abseiled down some epic cliff faces, a waterfall (which is probably one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever attempted), and launched ourselves off a cliff into a pool of water below. Then realising the company didn’t have a licence for us to be there, we had to make our way back through an overgrown forest which was apparently full of snakes.
Trekking in Sapa – There were certain moments on my trip where everything came together and the feeling was just incredible, this happened in Sapa. Sat on the balcony drinking the best coffee I’ve ever experienced, eating Pho, gazing out across the mountains above the low-lying clouds, a beautiful moment. The two day trek through the valley ending in an overnight stay with a wonderful Vietnamese family was amazing and was a complete culture shock, staying with these wonderful people who are completely self-sufficient and as happy as anyone could wish for.
Chilling in Hoi An – Hoi An is a small town with lots of character, the laid back vibe is perfect for a relaxing couple of days and the artsy feel of the place inspired me to draw some pictures which is something I haven’t done since art class at school. I enjoyed my stay here so much that I booked an extra few days.
Ha Long Bay – “Where the dragon descends into the sea”, it’s easy to see where the mythical stories of dragons came from, the area is like a scene from Avatar or some far away planet. Our two night cruise was a little too formulaic and we weren’t given the chance to go off and explore ourselves, but I was more than happy to just take in the natural beauty of it all.
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