V I E T N A M

T I M E

4th July – 3rd August 2018

4 weeks

V I S A

One week before we were due to fly (note – fly. We weren’t going through the trauma of another 20 odd hour night bus – the bus is an option if you are really minimising costs) we applied for our Vietnamese visa on www.vietnam-evisa.org. Costing a grand total of £9.99 – doing this online beforehand secured a months travel time instead of the 15-day on arrival limit, and reduced the stress of getting it on the border. Would very much recommend being organised – it should be approved on the same day.

S P E N D I N G

Besides the flight that cost $60.00 & visa – $10.00, my estimated spending was £950.00 over four weeks in Vietnam. Writing that out actually makes me laugh out loud at how FAR that amount of money can get you! Just under a thousand pounds paid for 11 hostels, a trip to Sapa, a hideaway tour to Halong Bay, flight to Phu Quoc & many other additional fun tours and excursions.

R O U T E

A little like Thailand, you’ll either choose North to South, or South to North. I don’t know if its just me, but it felt like every person you met & clicked really well with was travelling in the other direction during travelling. I always wished we had gone in the other direction at the time. Coming from Laos though, it made more sense to go North to South so we flew from Vientiane (Laos) into Hanoi (Vietnam), travelled down the coast and ended with a spontaneous trip to a little island off the south called Phu Quoc.

  1. Hanoi 2. Sapa 3. Halong Bay 4. Ninh Binh 5. Phong Nha 6. Hue 7. Hai Van Pass to Hoi An 8. Nha Trang 9. Dalat 10. Mui Ne 11. Ho Chi Minh 12. Phu Quoc

H A N O I

Day 1 – 3

Our hostel, ‘The Signature Inn’ turned out to be really nice & modern – and right in the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. They had free daily walking tours if that’s something you wanted to get involved in, but we only used them to book our Sapa & Halong Bay trips. It would be good to note here that any tour/bus we took, we more than likely booked it with the reception at the hostel we were staying in. The location was perfect as we were walking distance of all the touristy things we wanted to see. If you’ve ever been to Vietnam, you will know what I mean when I say death by motorbike. It is actually mental. I had never seen anything like it in my life! We took ourselves for a little walk to get some dinner on our first night after dumping our bags, and I got so stressed out we sat ourselves at the nearest restaurant to us at the time & dreaded walking back the whole meal. After a day, you’re used to it. But my God it’s some shock initially.

We set off on a walk on our second day, which took us to the Women’s Museum (I am not the biggest fan of museums but Vietnam changed that for me – the history of this country is beyond fascinating & I would urge you to get to as many as possible for your own mental growth). We walked past the prison used by French Colonists (Hoa Lo), the Opera House, through the National Museum of History and onto Hoan Kiem Lake. From here, we found ourselves getting tickets to ‘Thang Long Water Puppet’ show, which was actually a really cool experience and although not in English, the show ventures through Vietnamese culture & history. Following the puppet show, we went to find the famous Insta spot, Train Street, to see an actual train pass through houses in the middle of the city. I believe this happens twice a day & it’s quite the experience. All the locals rush to get their market stalls back inside their houses and tourists flatten themselves to the walls. The train quite literally just fits in between two blocks of houses. For dinner, we went to ‘Pizza 4p’s’ which was a recommendation from a friend who had messaged when she saw I was in Hanoi. Unfortunately, as much as I was DYING for a pizza at this point – there was not any gluten free options at this time. However, the food was beautiful and would really recommend eating here if you are looking for a sit down, nicer quality meal. We spent our final day in Hanoi at the Ho Chi Minh museum, a wonderful exhibition of Vietnams war remnants & a memorial for Ho Chi Minh himself. We had a stroll through the Theatre of Literature, which was extremely peaceful place to sit & take in your surroundings and finally grabbed dinner at the ‘Hanoi Social Club’ before getting the night bus to Sapa. Again, I would really recommend the Hanoi Social Club, we had an amazing dinner in this quirky, creative three story restaurant in a quieter part of town – and there is a great selection of gluten free options.

Hanoi is amazing and FULL to the brim of culture & history. It is also extremely hot and humid. Be prepared with lots of water if you are walking to the extent we did, and bring out those comfy trainers. Take lots of breaks & get in the air con as much as possible. Its also extremely busy, as I said with motorbikes. So be careful when walking out and about!! Look left & right & then both again!

We left for Sapa at 11pm for a 5-6 hour bus journey.

S A P A

Day 4 – 5 + additional night back in Hanoi

For those who have never heard of Sapa, it is a beautiful array of Vietnamese rice terraces in the north-west of Vietnam, close to the border of China. People head here to trek through the colourful rice terraces & hill-tribe villages that are worlds apart from how we live. We arrived in Sapa around 5am and after a breakfast supplied by a local hotel, we set off on our first trek. We had no idea what to expect & limited knowledge of where we were to end up, and as our tour guide spoke limited English we put full trust in her to get us there in one piece. The 12.8km trek was not for the faint hearted, a lot of ups and downs, through muddy patches. What was unbelievable was our tour guide, walking bare feet with a new born wrapped to her chest and her youngest girl running along side her. The trek took you through some gorgeous scenery as you will see through all of the pictures and then through authentic rural villages. It is incredible to see how they live in the mountains, a family of 6 in one hut, owning not much more than a fire & a pot to cook in. When we first arrived, it was extremely foggy and we couldn’t even see the rice terraces. You can imagine how amazing it was when the mist cleared & these gorgeous, bright green fields appeared. At the end of the first day, we arrived at our homestay, where we would sleep for the evening. The family hosting our stay cooked us a home cooked dinner, and fed us home brewed rice wine (deadly) before hitting the hay (floor) under little individual mosquito nets. This experience of course is very adventurous and outdoorsy, but it is literally just for one evening. Even if this sounds like your idea of hell – I couldn’t recommend this trip more. It is so rewarding and fills you with a sense of gratitude for how lucky we are. When we awoke in the morning, we did a shorter 5km trek to a small village where we stopped for lunch and a bus collected us to take us back to Sapa- where we got another bus back to Hanoi.

A couple of things to be careful of – firstly, Sapa has become a huge tourist spot which means the villagers have learnt how to make their money. They are extremely persistent at trying to sell you things and they don’t shy of using their children to do so. If you do want to buy something, then of course do. However, as we all learnt the hard way, when you do – the word spreads fast and you will be swarmed with children also trying to make a sale. Secondly, when we were waiting for the bus home, it was very quickly filled with locals who weren’t ‘booked’ on the bus. They weren’t bothered at all that we needed to get back to Hanoi. A lot of our group nearly had to stay another night, but made a huge fuss to get on to the bus. In true Vietnam fashion, they squeezed them on, of course. But just be careful to find your bus right away and ask the driver lots of questions!!

Once back in Hanoi, we stayed one night in ‘Central Backpackers’ as it was part of our package for the Hideaway tour, Halong Bay. This is the hostel you want to stay in if you’re mad for partying. It has a cool roof top bar & walking bar tour across Hanoi.

H A L O N G B A Y

Day 6 – 9

We met down in the hotel reception at 8am and took a bus with 2 tour guides to the scenic Cat Ba island, where we jumped on a party boat to start our tour of Halong Bay. Our first stop was a chance to jump off the boat into the crystal clear water & have a swim. After lunch (and a lot to drink) on the boats, we sailed past the sleepy Floating Village, where the fisherman spend their whole lives on the water & then onto the Hideaway Island where we stayed for two nights. There were two options for this trip – 3 days, 2 nights (which is what we chose) or 2 days, 1 night. Most people who chose the latter option, attempted to stay an extra night – but they cannot guarantee availability. After dinner, we all headed to the bar on the island and the rest is history. The second day, those who braved the hangover went back out on the boat and sailed through the KingKong film set and onto a remote village, where we cycled around the island and did a mini trek through a jungle (and up some very steep rock faces). On the way back to the island, we stopped off for a swim before heading back to the Island for a BBQ & sunset party late into the night. Do NOT be tempted to have a night time dip to see the bioluminescent plankton, you will come out with bad injuries from the extremely sharp coral. On our final morning, we took the kayaks out for a paddle around the peaceful islands. Peaceful, until your hangover hits in the middle of the water in the direct sunlight and you throw up into the kayak. I don’t think I have kayaked since to be honest. As beautiful as it was, I think I still need a few more years to recover. After lunch, we headed back via boat & bus (a lot quieter and zero drinking) to Hanoi and stayed a final night in Central Backpackers (we were actually feeling so rough we booked into a private room for the night!) before heading to Ninh Binh the following morning.

N I N H B I N H

Day 9 – 11

To get to Ninh Binh, you could either get the bus or train. The train was slightly more expensive, but we figured it would be a cool experience to get a train in Vietnam. The train was surprisingly modern considering! Following yet another recommendation from a friend, we chose to stay at ‘Quoc Khan Bamboo Homestay’ in Twangan. Wow, this homestay was so beautiful – situated in the middle of the mountains and surrounded by a river – we literally spent the next couple of days recharging our batteries ready to go again. After a good sleep, we took bikes out provided by the homestay and cycled into Trangan to catch a rowing boat around the Tam Coc Caves (aka the Inland Halong Bay). You must must do this tour if you visit Ninh Binh, it is truly beautiful. We cycled back to our home stay, and I decided to go for a run (looking back, I must have been crazy in that humidity). On my running route, I came across a man working out with his handmade barbell, looking like something out of the Flintstones. The beauty of travelling, is that I stopped and asked if I could join him. I never have felt so weak, yet he was blown away by my strength. I guess this would be quite a rare sight in Vietnamese culture – I don’t know?! As the homestay is quite rural, we decided to get dinner there that evening. Feeling adventurous, I decided to try Vietnamese cuisine – ‘Pho’ – a Vietnamese soup constituting of broth, vegetables & rice noodles. I was so blown away, I completely underestimated the sheer quantity of soup in the bowl & ate it all. I still to this day talk about how I have NEVER been so full in my life. I had to take myself to bed, and slept like a baby.

The following morning, we took a taxi to the bottom of Hang Mua Mountain & walked the 500 steps to the top to take in the view over Tam Coc. The climb was tough in the heat, but the reward at the top was worth it! We took another taxi into Ninh Binh city (not recommended – there is nothing here except a chemist we desperately needed) & then back to the hostel to get ready for the overnight bus to Phong Nha.

P H O N G N H A

Day 12 – 14

We arrived very early to Phong Nha bus stop & our hostel, ‘Easy Tiger’, was just across the road. The thing you will get used to when travelling is dropping you bag and sleeping anywhere. The overnight buses tend to arrive between 5am & 6am, and to check in to the hostels can be anything between 11am & 2pm. Luckily, Easy Tiger had a large garden area in the back with lots of hammocks, bean bags etc. where you were allowed to rest your head for a few hours. The mad people we are, we borrowed some more bikes & cycled our way to ‘The Duck Stop’ – you have to go here! But also make sure you plan your route to get there if you do choose to cycle, we took some sort of highway and some awfully muddy hills to get there!! I don’t even know how to explain this experience, but you will leave with sore cheeks and tummy from laughing so much. You start by feeding the ducks in some wild games, sit down and enjoy a ‘relaxing’ duck foot massage (which actually felt good) and finish your day off by riding a wild buffalo, called Donald Trump through a rice terrace. And yep, this really happened – I wasn’t high! We cycled the correct way home (much easier!) and got dinner at Bamboo Café, which once again, is a must! The fun thing about Easy Tiger, is the nightly social events – so if you want a quiet hostel, maybe don’t choose to stay here. That evening, they were hosting the World Cup & we ended up getting very merry and ended up joining some likeminded travellers to a club they had been to the night before. I can’t remember the name however, it looks slightly dodgy from the outside – a literal hole in the wall. If you have been to Vietnam, you’ll be used to seeing Nitrous Oxide balloons the size of a hot air balloon everywhere. I decided, in my drunk mind, that it would be good to give one a go and of course, fell backwards off a stall – hitting my head, elbow and shoulder hard on the way down. Well – that was the end of my night! The following morning, I woke up very hungover and emotional. As I rang home to speak with my mum (my savior even when I was the other side of the world), an email came through with my, long-awaited, Masters results! I was an emotional wreck, but thankfully I passed and celebrated by taking my little, exhausted body back to my bunk bed for a nap. In the afternoon, we took a taxi to Paradise Caves. The walk up to the cave was again quite tough, but luckily it was raining lightly to keep us nice and refreshed. The caves themselves were absolutely beautiful, and there was a lot of activities you could have done in other caves in the area should you wish. We had a lovely little dinner at Capture Café before going back to the hostel to get some rest.

H U E

Day 14 – 16

Another early 7am bus took us 3 hours South to a place called Hue. I remember clearly that there wasn’t much choice of hostels here, so we settled for a hostel called Amy Hostel, which actually turned out to be a little blessing, as we made friends with the young Vietnamese boy on the front desk – who not only wanted to learn some English, but also wanted to show us around. On the first day, we took a long walk around the Imperial City & got a Vietnamese equivalent of tuk-tuk back to near our hostel for dinner at a little Mexican restaurant called Jalapenos. The following day, we arranged with our little buddy at the front desk for him & his friend to take us out for the day on the back of their scooters. First, they took us to the Tu Duc Royal Tomb. We also ventured to the abandoned waterpark, which you may have heard of or more than likely seen really cool pictures of on Instagram. To get in and tour around, you either need to arrive there when the ‘guards’ aren’t there, or you need to speak sweetly (aka pay) the guards to let you in. Unfortunately for us, the guards were there and they were not having any of it, or our cash. So we got on our way. Before our kind tour guides dropped us back to the hostel, they wanted to take us to a local vegetarian restaurant for dinner. The whole experience was just crazy, and our restaurants would be shut down if we held the same hygiene standards back in the UK. Any unwanted food, leaves, bones etc. get thrown on the floor & these are swept away only at the end of the serving day. The Vietnamese culture like to share, so the main course was a type of fondue broth that we all tucked into, partnered with a lovely corn milkshake (never again).

H A I V A N P A S S —> H O I A N

Day 16 – 20

As neither me or Emma had driven a bike before, and after hearing some of the horror stories of people getting killed, we decided it probably wouldn’t be the best road to drive on for the first time. We arranged at the reception of our hostel for a couple of locals to pick us up on the morning and take us to Hoi An, via the Hai Van Pass. That sounds dodgy, but this is many locals way of living and making money and you know what, I absolutely loved it. I felt safe, my driver said little to nothing but he did stop at some beautiful places where you wouldn’t know to stop at if you were not with a local. If you are going to take bikes out and do it yourself, just be careful! The roads are stunning, but extremely windy & a lot of tourist traffic, along with normal wide load traffic that swing round the corners very fast. Two of my favourite stops were the ‘Largest Lagoon in Asia’ – I have no idea if this had a name, and the Marble Mountains. The marble mountains were basically, a weird claustrophobic shrine, but there was something cool about them. Our lovely tour guides dropped us off at our hostel, Tribee Cotu in Hoi An. This hostel was SO nice! I think there were two Tribees, we opted for this one due to its location. They put on walking tours, cooking classes, bar crawls etc. We walked through the beautiful night market to get some dinner, and ended up meeting with some friends we had made back in Phong Nha for some drinks. The following morning, as you do in Hoi An, we went to a store called Shine, to get some clothes made. A lot of people go to Hoi An, with something specific in mind as it is extremely cheap, but I didn’t really have anything I needed being made. I opted for a black A-line skirt & some shorts (which I never wore) purely for the experience of being measured up and going back later on to collect my hand-made items! I remember it being such a hot day, so we went to the other Tribee a little further out of town as they had a pool, and we just relaxed for the day. Our friends from the night before had told us we HAD to go to Samurai Kitchen, a gorgeous Japanese restaurant for dinner, so we treated ourselves and did just that. Walking along the river, you can pay a couple of dollars to light a lantern and put it onto the river whilst making a wish. I remember being so happy and content this evening! Hoi An is so special; the lights, the people – it is just beautiful. On our third day, once again, we took bicycles and cycled to the beach for the day, followed by another evening at the night market – there are these Vietnamese pancakes that I just had to keep going back for! You will see them being sold up and down the street and you MUST try them (along with the swirly seasoned potato chips on a stick – yum). On our final day, we cycled again out to the nearby Coconut Village, where you can get these little, what look like half coconut boats up and down the river. You will see videos of people all over the internet in these, getting spun around in the water by crazy locals! We actually opted for cycling a little further where you can find locals who do their own tours, instead of the touristy ones. Seeing this little man get so excited to have a tour, was definitely worth every penny! He gave us a great tour up and down the river, and made us some beautiful reed jewelry on our departure. Before jumping on yet another (all travel seemed to be at night in Vietnam) sleeper bus to Nha Trang, we filled our bellies at Bamboo & Wood restaurant & stopped at the shop to stock up on snacks to get us through the night.

N H A T R A N G

Day 20 – 21

Now, everyone actually warned us not to bother with Nha Trang, but we were curious so we decided to put a night in and see what it had to offer. To be honest, I wish we hadn’t! Nothing about the place felt like Vietnam, it felt very unsafe and dirty. We later in our travels found out that there was a lot of Mafia here. Not sure how true that is, but that’s how I would have best described it. We did however get two lovely meals here, one at lunch at the Rainforest Café, which was like eating in a treehouse & then dinner at an Indian (of all places) for dinner at Yashoda–  but that was about that. Listen to people when they say don’t bother with Nha Trang! We stayed at a hotel called Blue Star, wouldn’t recommend!

D A L A T

Day 21 – 23

We were ever so happy be picked up by a mini van who drove us another 3 hours South to Da Lat. Again, maybe this wasn’t a hugely popular place for back packers to stop off at as we found it very difficult to get somewhere to stay. We found a little hostel, or more of a homestay called ‘Tiny Tiger Hostel’, which was just around the corner from the things we wanted to see. After dumping our bags, we walked a short distance to the must see Crazy House, an unconventional house designed by a Vietnamese architect. It really was just that – crazy. My favourite memory here was Emma (6ft) getting absolutely swarmed by Vietnamese women (4ft), asking for a picture. After the Crazy House, we walked through the markets – which weren’t on the same scale of the other night markets we had been to throughout Vietnam. Our final stop of the day, was to the Maze Bar, which was quite literally, a five-story maze. The whole building is small stairs leading to different nooks and crannies. The final part of the maze was to the roof top. We went very early, so there was very little people in the bar with us, yet it was still so hard to get around – I have no idea what it would have been like full of people (and full of alcohol)! We had heard very good things about Mr Rots Secret Tour, but of course being secret, very little about it. So we booked on for the following day to see for ourselves what it was all about! I shouldn’t say what is involved throughout the day, but I’m glad we listened to the recommendations & paid for the tour (around £30.00). I will say, you get a huge insight to how Vietnamese women make their money, how VERY rural villagers live & you will try some interesting things, all with the CRAZIEST tour guide ever.

A nice thing about our hostel, they did put on a ‘family dinner’, where you could pay a small fee to be cooked for and eat with the owners of the hostel & their family. I can’t remember exactly what we had, bar the fresh Vietnamese rolls which were beautiful! Another note about the hostel, the rooms were private rooms – which I think was great to do every couple of weeks to have your own space and spread out your things! Everything about Da Lat was just strange & quirky, but that’s what I like! I loved the change from beautiful scenery to doing a few more touristy things for a couple of days.

M U I N E

Day 25 – 27

After a lazy morning, we got the 1pm bus to Mui Ne (about a 3 hour trip – another reason why we stopped at more places in Vietnam, was to break down the travel time in to shorter trips). We checked into Mui Ne Backpacker Village, the go to (and only?!) hostel in Mui Ne – and a part of the chain ‘Vietnam Backpackers’, whereby you can buy a package & stay in all the hostels situated across Vietnam. Again, like all the Vietnam Backpackers hostels – this is a party hostel. So if this isn’t your scene, it is probably best to steer clear of here. We spent the afternoon drinking and chilling around the pool & ate dinner at the cool Mexican next door called El Latino. We were awoke around 4.30am the following day for a Sunrise Tour to the white & red sand dunes, where we got quad bikes to the top of the dunes to see the craziest, most amazing sunrise! On the tour we also stopped at the Fairy Streams (a walk through a colourful stream) & an extremely smelly fish market!! Other than these tourist destinations, there isn’t really anything else to do or see in Mui Ne, especially in the area where the hostel is. So with that in mind, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the hostel pool & ate at their restaurant.

H O C H I M I N H C I T Y [S A I G O N]

Day 27 – 30

Ahhhhh the famous Saigon. I was so excited to get here, and in reality, it was just a built up Hanoi. Extremely busy & bloody thousands of scooters. It took about 5 hours on a bus to get here from Mui Ne, and we chose a really nice little hostel tucked away off the busy streets called Toi’s Travel Home Central. We didn’t do much on our first day other than walking down to Walking Street (mental) & got drinks at a beautiful rooftop bar called The View.

The following morning we took a day tour to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels – the 200km tunnel used by the Viet Cong in the Vietnamese war – which of course is another must see when visiting Vietnam. You can even shoot a gun used in the war (I was too chicken), and venture through a snippet of the tunnels themselves. I did go in the tunnels and although, extremely scary & claustrophobic, I would really recommended doing it to experience just exactly what the Vietnamese actually lived in during the war. On our final day in Saigon, we did another day trip out to the Mekong Delta River – again another must if you have time!! The trip included so much from the creation of coconut candies & rice paper. We went to a local village for lunch/ watched beautiful Vietnamese live music & floated down the Mekong on a Sampan, which is sort of a flat bottomed boat. Another really cool, culture filled day.

P H U Q U O C

Day 30 – 33

Our final, extremely spontaneous, last minute stop to Phu Quoc!! I had never even heard of it until a week before – when I saw a girl I know Instagram a picture with a starfish and honestly, I was like I need to go here. And I am SO glad we did! The flight takes about 40 minutes from Saigon and our hostel, 9stations, was just a short drive from the airport. Our hostel was honestly, the nicest hostel I have ever stayed in! So modern, fresh and cool. We took a stroll to the famous Long Beach to laze on the whitest sand all day. This beach was literally a tropical paradise! White sand, clear water, palm trees and hardly a person in sight. This was exactly what we wanted coming from hectic Saigon. Another night came by and another night market was visited! The second day on the island, we visited another beach called Sao Beach – which was even more beautiful than the day before. Absolutely 10/10 for luxury. In true island vibes, we visited the night markets again for dinner and then back to the hostel for some sort of opening party with the manager – imagine Chow from Hangover – messy. On our final day in Phu Quoc, the heavens decided to open and I mean OPEN. So we spent the day having a bit of a pamper, to prepare for our next destination. We went to a salon and tried to explain we wanted our eyebrows, nails & toenails done – which was some challenge. You can tell my eye brows must have been bad at this stage as I would normally never let anyone touch them!! Let alone someone where English wasn’t their first language. After a chilled morning, we went back to the hostel where we had dinner and a few drinks before getting our stuff together to say goodbye to beautiful Vietnam, and hello CAMBODIA.