The capital city Hanoi in north Vietnam was a shock to the senses after 5 days in sleepy Laos: crossing the road requires 360 degree peripheral vision and nerves of steel as you make eye contact with cars and scooters revving towards you, said cars and scooters beep their horn for seemingly every movement, and the streets are packed with food vendors and parked motorbikes, leaving you forced to risk the roads if you want to get anywhere. It’s an exciting place to be to experience real Vietnamese city life, as the tourist attractions are limited to a handful of museums (notably the city’s former prison, built by French colonials during a reign of terror in the late 1800s that I previously knew nothing about) and an entertaining water puppet show with traditional music and costumes.
We took a well trodden tourist route from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, and spent 2 nights on a cruise around the majestic limestone ‘dragons’ emerging from the water. I admit this wasn’t the highlight of our trip, but the scenery was really beautiful. In hindsight I would say one day (even one morning..) might have been enough to appreciate it. The bay is full of boats, and each boat seems to arrange the same mass excursion to a cave, where we had to walk in a painfully slow single file, a further mass excursion to a beach and a walk to a viewpoint- cue more single file and a view only of the backs of people’s heads. I had anticipated the area being busy, but this was another level! However, I’m still glad we did this trip. The area is iconic, with postcard perfect views, and we had fun playing cards and getting to know our fellow passengers. Our extremely smiley tour guide Tui even organised a birthday cake for Adrien when she found out his birthday was 2 days away!
*heart eyes emoji*
The monkeys of Monkey Island
After the cruise it was indeed Adrien’s birthday and so to celebrate we went all out on the hotel choice and allowed ourselves an evening of luxury! They also provided a cake (and free mini bar access – win!) as a birthday gesture, as did the restaurant where we ate that evening. Three birthday cakes when you’re thousands of miles from home isn’t bad going! Of course the payment for the third cake was the humiliation of the dimmed lights and ‘Happy Birthday’ music as every member of the restaurant staff sang to Adrien- he loved this as much as anyone else who hates being the centre of attention in a public place would.
Happy birthday indeed, Mr Chazaux!
Next stop in Vietnam was Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, famous for its caves and stunning hills. This includes the world’s biggest cave, which is unfortunately inaccessible to those not willing to fork out $3000 for the privilege of visiting it. We stayed in a friendly homestay on the banks of a river, hired a scooter and explored the park in the pouring rain- thankfully it was the kind of dramatic scenery which lends itself beautifully to a rainy day! We began with a fun walk through the jungle which involved pulling ourselves up with ropes through a gushing waterfall (my trainers took a good 4 days to dry).
Didn’t quite manage to jump to the rock…
The rain doesn’t always mean a less beautiful view!
Next up was ‘Paradise Cave’, 31km long and up to 72m high, discovered only 12 years ago and protected from its hundreds of daily visitors by a 1km-long boardwalk. It was a spectacular sight, and although I probably prefer smaller caves that can be explored in their entirety, the immense size of this one was very impressive.
We finished the day of exploring with ‘Dark Cave’. This was a really fun one: we entered the cave via a zip line across the river, swam into the mouth (it was NOT warm!) and then started investigating. Our guide led us through waist-deep water to a mud pool, past bats, crickets, and a couple of pretty big spiders. When we returned into daylight we kayaked back across the river and the whole group spent the next half hour on the (very old and rickety) obstacle course the centre had built above the river, it was so much fun! However after a while we started to feel like we would never feel dry again, so hopped back on the scooter and sped home for a hot shower.
The final stop in Vietnam was Hoi An, a beautiful historic town which comes highly recommended from all Vietnam travellers! It really lived up to expectations, particularly at night when the town is illuminated by coloured lanterns strung up across the old streets. We only spent an afternoon and evening here, but it was enough to take in the beauty of the town and enjoy a meal overlooking the river.
Hoi An by day
Hoi An by night
And that’s all for Vietnam! It was a truly fascinating place, and I feel like we managed to see a big chunk of its amazing variety in just 10 days: from the chaos that is crossing the road in Hanoi, to the tourist hot spot of Ha Long Bay, via the rural peacefulness of the relatively unvisited Phong Nha Ke Bang, and finished off with the quaint and historical Hoi An.
Our final stop before home is back in Thailand. Vietnam, you’ve been great, but I am definitely looking forward to taking in some of that Thai sunshine!