Travelling South East Asia - Vietnam
I had done quite a bit of research regarding where to go in Vietnam, and in the end decided that with only 2 weeks, we would have to either stick to the north or south. So we planned to travel the coast, starting from the centre of Vietnam and travelling all the way up to Hanoi, making stops along the way.
Our first destination was Hoi An, a small ancient city known for its architecture and lantern lit streets at night. It really felt like you had stepped into the past. The city was so well maintained, the buildings all built in the same style with a small river running through the centre, creating an island on the other side. We stayed at an Airbnb 15 minutes outside of the centre for 300,000 VND a night (11€). We could instantly see the quality price difference compared to Thailand. Our room was massive with a private bathroom and we felt very welcomed. Over the days that we spent here, we rented bicycles and rode along the rice fields taking in the scenic views. We observed how the locals worked the fields and admired the landscape scattered with ox's, cows and hundreds of white herons framed by tropical palm trees. We walked around the ancient town and ate incredible food at a little cafe called Karma Waters, a sustainable plant based restaurant which also feeds the homeless. We walked the lantern lit streets at night and drank Saigon beer by the river.
Our next stop was Dong Hoi city. We took a 5 hour train, admired the views as we went through the Hai Van pass, through mountains and streams, small villages and miles of rice fields. Dong hoi was an interesting city, it was the most authentic stop yet. The city was quite large yet eerily empty at the same time. We explored the city by bicycle, which has become my favourite way to see a new place as it allows you to really take your surroundings in. Dong Hoi had been devastated by the war with America years ago but has recently started developing after it has been placed back on the tourist map. This is because of Phong Nha National park - a rich landscape home to 298 caves including the largest one in the world, only discovered 10 years ago.
This was our next stop. We rented a bike from our hotel and made the 1 hour drive to Phong Nha. The moment we arrived we wondered why we had spent more than 1 day in Dong Hoi city when this paradise was so close by. We ended up missing our train the next morning so we could stay another day. We explored the national park by motorbike, trekked through the lush landscape, visited a waterfall where there were lots of butterflies and monkeys, explored 'Paradise Cave' and soaked up the nature. One of the highlights of Phong Nha was meeting a sweet family who run Phong Nha Vegan, without a doubt the best food in Vietnam so far. They maintained the authenticity of the local cuisine with plants as their only ingredients. On top of this, the prices were really cheap and the family were so kind to us and ridiculously hilarious, they made perfect company.
Ninh Binh was our next destination, an 8 hour train ride away. Aside from the awesome views, we also got to enjoy the smells of the passengers feet behind us leaning on our chairs, no air conditioning and the loud mechanical sound of the old train wheels spinning. On arrival, we rented a motorbike and stayed in Tam Coc, a small town 15 minutes away from the City. Looking back, I would have to say that this was my favourite spot in Vietnam, the landscapes were out of this world! We checked out a pagoda by a lake which looked like you'd gone back 100 years, drove along cliff lined rice fields and went on a boat tour along the Trang Ang river complex. We were rowed by a woman in a small wooden boat though the epic cliffs, through winding caves which led to peaceful lakes, stopped at a few temples and checked out the Island where 'Kong: Skull island' was filmed. Sadly I dropped my Mamiya lens cap into the water, an example of my never ending clumsiness! Luckily, it wasn't the camera that fell to an unfortunate fate. That same evening we walked up 500 stairs to a small temple on top of a cliff and watched the sun set over Tam Coc's rice fields and mountains.
Next stop was Cat Ba, an island just east of the northern Coast of Vietnam. I have to say, it wasn't as nice as I had expected. The island itself was beautiful, but the town was totally over developed, some buildings even reaching 20 stories tall. There was way too much construction going on, everywhere you walked you had to dodge building workers and equipment. It was however interesting to see that there were equal amounts of female and male construction workers, I assume this has something to do with the fact that Vietnam is a Communist country. Another observation was that I didn't see as much poverty as I had done in Thailand, I didn't see one homeless person on the streets nor had anyone begged for money which is something very present in places like Bangkok, Spain and the Uk.
In the end, Cat Ba was still worth the visit! After all, we had come especially to see Ha Long Bay. The island is known for offering tours at more affordable prices than Hanoi, and for taking you through a less touristic route, meaning we could admire the bay without the overflow of people. It really was a breathtaking day out on the boat even though the sun was hidden away. We kayaked through caves which led to secluded bays and visited a fish farm which was an insightful look into the life of the local fishermen, but it was also sad to see these sentient beings confined into small spaces and knowing that they had a short future ahead of them. We also relaxed as we saw countless isolated beaches and hundreds of towering cliffs. Ha Long Bay, along with the two neighbouring bays, is home to 1969 Islands! The Vietnamese easily remember this number because it is also the year that revolutionary communist leader Ho Chi Minh passed away.
Our last stop was Hanoi. I didn't really know what to expect, in my mind and from what I had heard, I thought it might be something like Bangkok. But I was massively surprised at how beautiful the city was! It is really well kept, barely any rubbish on the streets, the centre is built around a tranquil lake and at the weekends they block off all the roads around the centre. I can't believe we don't follow up on this idea back home! It created such an amazing atmosphere, there was a sense of community which was refreshing to find in a big city. Locals would come out and play games on the streets, dance, sing and simply enjoy the lively atmosphere. We checked out a few landmarks and ate tons of food. I couldn't believe how many vegan restaurants there were, we were spoilt for choice! It was the perfect way to end our 2 weeks on Vietnam.
It had been amazing. The hospitality of the Vietnamese was heartwarming, they were genuinely kind and keen to help. There were many times when we were approached by a local and assumed they wanted something from us, but 9/10 times we were proven wrong. We even felt silly for being overly worried about getting scammed when all they offered were smiles, friendly conversations and plenty of jokes. I have really grown to admire the people and the small glimpse into the simple lifestyle that many of them lead.