As the incessant horns from the undisciplined traffic of Vietnam become background noise to our ears, we continue our journey further south for our remaining two weeks in Vietnam. While still navigating the country’s shutdown for Vietnamese New Year, we venture to lands home to some of the world’s largest caves, the ancient city of Hue, miles of golden beaches and finally to the capital of the south, Ho Chi Minh!
We arrived in the dusty town of Phong Nha via a night bus, which had involved some bus-driver bribing to get us onboard. Following stroke of luck, we were able to check-in to our hostel at 4am when we arrived, and living off little sleep, we didn’t feel too bad when we rested our heads for essentially a free night’s stay. We had planned to spend 2 days in Phong Nha; one day to explore the area and another to join a cave exploring tour.
Walking around Phong Nha in 42 degree heat was pleasant for around 5 seconds, but after an hour, we were in need of some shelter. We found a restuarant on the riverside which had great reviews for food, and while feeling weak, sitting in the shade trying to dry out our clothes from sweat, we ordered our first bottle of wine in 8 weeks – a cold, crisp South African white… Wine has never tasted so good. To top it off, after a delicious lunch, we were given access to their infinity pool with a view of the mountains.
Our second day was far more productive, joining a tour group at 8am sharp (unbelievably the bus turned up on time), for which we were scheduled to visit botanical gardens, two caves and do some ziplining.
Kicking off with the botanical gardens, we visited a stunning waterfall and even saw a few peacocks (which stirred up a discussion on whether we could raise Peacocks on our future dream-farm; turns out it’s a bit unrealistic).
The first cave we saw was “Paradise Cave”, and although packed with Chinese tourists, was spectacular, given the sheer size of it! According to our tour guide, you could drive a Boeing-747 through the first kilometre of the cave, with a further 31km which can be explored. We walked through the cave for about 45 minutes, dodging selfie sticks and admiring the incredible rock formations as we went deep underground.
Our second cave, was Dark Cave. Fairly nerve racking for Josh who has recently found out he isn’t that fond of small or dark spaces buried inside mountians. Either way, there wasn’t much getting out of it, and to top it off, after lunch we would zipline 400ft across the river from a relatively high starting point (Josh also has a slight fear of hights). Fears aside, this has been one of our highlights of Vietnam! Ziplining across a turqoise river, then exploring a dark cave to reach a mud pool where we slipped, fell over and drench ourselves in mud.
We washed off in the clear water of the cave and kayaked to some ziplines across the river. We felt like kids at Camp America, ziplining and jumping into the river, swimming back and doing it again! It was so much fun!!
Another night bus, less sleep and a ridiculously early arrival meant we arrived in Hue feeling a little worse-for-wear. We had a homestay booked, who could clearly see we were running out of steam on arrival, and so gave us a free breakfast of omlette and pancakes. Fueled for another few hours, we hired a moped, and went to explore an abandoned waterpark we’d been recommended to visit.
Opened when part-complete in 2004 following a $3m investment, the park didn’t remain open for long, and other than having the crocodiles (mostly) removed a couple of years ago, has been left as-is. Greeted by an unofficial ‘official’ demanding some money at the entrance, we were able to bike around the park. It was a creepy, post-apocolypse experience! Dodging a few cows along the weed covered pavements, we walked around an eerie performance arena we presumed was for dolphin or crocodile shows. The park is set on a lake, and there is a huge dragon coming out of the water which you can access via a bridge. Inside the dragon we found a broken up aquarium, restuarant area and abandoned kitchens. Amazingly weird experience!
After a heavy nights sleep, we spent our second day exploring Hue a bit more, mostly visiting the ancient citadel which, although was part-destroyed in the Vietnam war, has been restored in places to provide a sense of scale and grandness.
Our journey further south gave us our first Vietnamese train ride experience. Similar to Thailand, the train runs on tracks level with the platform, so after successfully not being hit by the train itself, we found our 4-bed cabin. The journey was only a couple hours, and we shared it with some Vietnamese locals a few years younger than us, who immediately gave us some traditional Vietnamese treats. Although neither of us spoke much of the other’s language, we used Google Translate to conversate and thank them for being so friendly. The scenery travelling from Hue to Hoi An is stunning; a combination of green rice fields, dense forest, dusty towns and empty golden beaches.
We had planned to stay 4 days in Hoi An but after the first day, we decided on doubling our stay to 8 days! So many people had recommended Hoi An to us, and we could see why. Our accomodation was a homestay in a quiet village on the beach, a 20 minute cycle outside of the Hoi An town and only a 2 minute walk to the beach, which had warm sands and rolling waves as far as we could see in either direction. It had been a while since we’d been on a beach, and immediately set to reading our books while bathing in the 38 degree heat. Bliss.
Hoi An is famous for tailored made clothes, and even though we are on a budget, we thought we might as well check it out while we’re here. We found a tailor recommended by our homestay, and showed them some Pinterest photos of what we might be interested in. It didn’t take much temptation, and so we were measured, selected materials and haggled on price. They got to work on making Josh a suit and shirt, as well as a seperate jacket and waistcoat, and for Lu, a deep turqoise jacket. We visited again over the next 2 days for fittings and adjustments, then posted our goods to New Zealand to await wearing, for when we inevitably start work again.
Hoi An town is made up of beautifully yellow buildings, with a river running through it. In the evenings, toursists and locals light lanterns and float them on the river. With the added colourful lanterns, it provides a magical spectical!
During our time here, we ate some of the best food we’ve had in all of our travels: crab cooked in lemongrass, curried fish in claypots, fresh mango pancakes, Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with veg, pork and shrimp, fried wontons covered in vegetable marinades, garlic and chilli aubergine… not to mention the coffee, which is probably the best and strongest coffee we’ve ever had (both hot or iced coffee). One coffee even came with a verbal warning from a waitress when Josh ordered a second, saying that there is a risk of getting the shakes if you drink more than one at a time. Josh was fine, but he did cycle a lot faster that day.
It was a relaxing week living on the beach, which may have even left us with a tan.
HO CHI MINH
We flew south to Ho Chi Minh for our last 24 hours in Vietnam. Staying in a hostel amongst a maze of backalleys, we used our limited time to visit the Vietnam War Museum to learn more about the Vietnam War. It was a sobering, shocking and moving experience. One of the exhibitions was photographs captured by both sides of the war which illustrate the gruesome and unfair impact war has on civilians.
Ho Chi Minh felt a lot more relaxed than Hanoi; we could comfortably walk around the city without the likelihood of being hit by a moped. In the evening, we met a cousin of Josh’s family who lives in Vietnam, for some delicious Vietnamese tapas.
And so our 4 weeks in Vietnam are over. We write this upon our arrival in Cambodia to start another adventure!