Ho Chi Minh City
The bus journey and border crossing from Cambodia were pretty uneventful but the site of Ho Chi Minh City with its high rise buildings, clean parks and friendly faces excited us. We found accommodation right in the middle of District 1, down an alleyway crammed with guest houses, small restaurants, family homes, street carts of food, and of course motorbikes and people! The alleyways seemed like a city within itself and they were great to explore.
On one of the days we went to both the Cu Chi Tunnels (a 200km network of tunnels dug and used by the Viet Cong during the war to transport weapons, medication, food and soldiers – around 1.5 hrs from Ho Chi Minh) and the War Museum. The tunnels, although set up to churn through groups of tourists, were really interesting and gave a great insight into the resourcefulness and determination of the Viet Cong. We walked through a 40 metre section of the original tunnels which was awesome (although Danielle was pretty keen to get out!) The war museum, also interesting, was eager to show the atrocities committed by the USA on the Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War, and emphasised how their determination eventually defeated the US. One thing is for sure; the Agent Orange chemicals sprayed over the land by the US is horrible stuff and is hopefully never again used in this way.
We enjoyed some great fresh fruit smoothies sold on the streets, and especially good food, including an Indian restaurant called Mumtaz that we would happily recommend to anyone.
Mekong Home Stay
We were both really keen before we left Oz to do some sort of homestay with a local family on the Mekong Delta. The one we ended up doing, couldn’t have been better. The family home was on one of the Mekong islands near Vinh Long. We stayed there with another couple, Susan and Koen from Holland who were fantastic company. At the homestay the family cooked an awesome traditional Vietnamese meal for us which we helped to prepare – starting with spring rolls, and we also watched/learnt how they cook the local delicacy ‘Elephant fish’ (deep fried, over an open fire), as well as soup, marinated pork, rice and fruit. All washed down with a local beer of course! The family of on older couple and their daughter made us feel so welcome, and it was fun trying to communicate as they could speak no English, and us no Vietnamese.
Part of the experience on the Mekong was a visit to some floating markets, a place making coconut candy by hand, we also tasted many local fruits whilst listening to traditional singing from the villages where Ian tried some ‘snake wine’ which was rice wine soaking in a jar that literally had dead snakes coiled up in it. After relaxing in some hammocks , we hired some bikes and went on a short bike ride before then being taken on some paddle boats through some beautiful estuaries.
This two day tour was a definite highlight of our trip so far.
A 12 hour bus ride bought us to Nah Trang; a beachside town with a backdrop of Mountains – which also had a large number of Russian tourists! (apparently there are direct flights between Russia and Nah Trang). It also has some of the best value accommodation we have had so far – US$9 for a clean private double room with ensuite and air-con!
I (Ian) went on a dive trip, doing two dives off an Island called Mon Hun. The fish and coral were really impressive, although safety regulations overly relaxed! As they were pushing me off the boat, I bought to their attention that we didn’t have a depth gauge/computers, their reply was “no worry, you follow guide, he probably has one…” The water was warm, visibility great and marine life so much better than I expected!Danielle meanwhile spent the morning relaxing on the beautiful beach lined with palm trees. Unfortunately however, it turned out she missed some critical patches on her body with the old sunscreen…Ooops.
More great food to be had here and another recommendation – Veranda Bar that served up a 5 star, 4 course set menu for around US$7 which even included a glass of wine.
We arrived in Hoi An at 6.00am in the morning after a 10 hour journey on sleeper-bus from Nah Trang. We both really loved Hoi An, the Unesco World Heritage Old Town is charming and is full of character. We explored the old town and vibrant markets by bicycle, as well as the nearby beach.
Whilst in Hoi An we did a cooking course with a lovely lady called Nguyen, at her family run restaurant called Baby Mustard located in a quiet village about 15 minutes out of town. Once there we were welcomed with a cool traditional drink, whilst we soaked up the beautiful surroundings. The restaurant was set within huge vegetable and herb gardens, all tended for by the local villages. It was so quiet and really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.
Nguyen took us for a tour around the gardens, and as we walked we stopped to taste and learn about the different herbs, and about life for the village people. Once we had picked all of our fresh produce we then headed back to the restaurant to our cooking stations.
With Nguyen’s guidance we cooked (and then ate!) three outstanding dishes. We absolutely loved this cooking class – it was another highlight of our trip.
We stayed at Sunflower Hotel which had some of the friendliest staff we have met and the luxury of a swimming pool and buffet breakfast at a price of $20 per night which catered for those of us on a budget.
We got up early one morning to photograph the markets, here is a selection:
We spent much of our time in Hanoi looking into and comparing Halong Bay trips, and the Motorbike tours on offer. We stayed in the old quarter at a nice guesthouse called Jasmine Hotel which was great value again. We loved the street food, making the most of the delicious offerings as well as the ‘Bia Hoi’ (fresh, locally brewed beer) which costs about 25 cents for a glass!
One morning we got up at sunrise as we had heard about the locals’ exercise routines which take place each morning around Hoan Kiem Lake. Picture hundreds of people power walking in the same direction around the lake, groups doing Thai Chi, free-for-all aerobics classes, and randoms doing peculiar stretching and shouting exercises. All quite amusing really!
We were lucky (for Halong Bay anyway) to have clear skies for our two day trip. Our ‘junk’ boat was a lot more luxurious than we were expecting, with just 10 other people on board from Spain, Uruguay, Holland, America and India. The views were sensational as we drifted around the limestone karsts which seemed to go on forever. We visited huge naturally formed caves and explored secluded lagoons on Kayaks as the sun set. At night, we had a cooking class to learn how to make fresh spring rolls, which was followed by a beautifully presented feast of seafood and local dishes. We then had fun watching the Vietnamese crew show us how to party to tunes blaring out to the max, which also included some pretty painful Vietnamese karaoke! The next morning, we were up not long after sunrise to climb to the top of Ti Top Island for amazing views of that part of the bay. Fantastic place, and fantastic trip!
Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu on Motorbikes
After meeting our guide, Quyen on the first morning in Hanoi, we were really happy to hear that we would be joined by Hung, who was training to be a guide. So after packing our bags onto the bikes, a quick instruction on the bike, and a practice run up the street and back, at 9.30am the 4 of us set off on 3 bikes (Ian a Honda GL125, Quyen a Honda HL150, Hung a Kawasaki 250) with Danielle on the back of Quyen’s bike. The traffic out of Hanoi was intense, but soon enough we were on the back roads heading towards our first night’s destination of Vu Linh (160kms), a homestay beside a huge lake. The first day ended up being much longer than intended and we didn’t arrive until 6.30pm. This was due to a few incidents. Firstly, Ian fell from his bike after coming around a corner to find the road was covered in sand about 15 cms thick which resulted in flying side to side before coming off – luckily just some bruises and minor bike damage resulted. Next Ian’s back tyre blew which nearly sent him off again. As the inner-tube had to be replaced, the whole wheel had to come off, much to the amusement of the locals who gathered around admiring Danielle’s blonde hair. To add to the excitement of the day a snake also slithered infront of Ian while riding on a back road beside some crops.
Upon arrival at our homestay and after a much needed shower, the lovely family of Dzao ethnic prepared a feast which was washed down by shots of homemade rice wine – initiated by a call of “boozo”, and concluded by shaking hands with each person and wishing them “Howmedo” (good health).
The next morning, we set of for a shorter 90kms ride to our next homestay at Luc Yen. We decided it would be wise for Danielle to stay on Quyen’s bike given yesterdays mishaps… We arrived around lunchtime after visiting an art shop where we watched the amazing skills of the artists. In the afternoon we went trekking up to some Red Dzao ethnic villages calling in for many cups of green tea along the way! Another huge feast for dinner sent us to bed early.
On the third day we rode about 150kms to Sapa via Lao Cai, a town on the Chinese border where we stopped for lunch, a Vietnamese picnic of sticky rice wrapped banana leaves, meat and watermelon as we looked across the river into China. The scenery of course got more and more spectacular as we headed into the mountains.
Sapa – a small town in the middle of the mountains, was amazing! We spent three nights there. During the days we rode around the area taking in the spectacular views, visiting waterfalls, short treks and looking around Sapa itself. The area is just amazing, as are the people and will be a huge highlight out of all of our time in Vietnam. The pictures hopefully do the talking for us!
After Sapa we rode around 190kms through Vietnam’s highest pass over 2300m, via a small town called Sin Ho after visting local markets in Lai Chau. This road had around 50kms worth of repairs through mountain passes, which meant 50kms of very rough dirt road and slow going. The views, however, were unbelievable. We stayed the night in Muong Lay which is a town being totally rebuilt higher up the hill after a dam was built for a hydro electricity scheme, flooding the old town.
Our last day was a short 100kms to Dien Bien Phu where we visited the battlefields from the war with the French, going in the old tunnels and bunkers. We also visited the war museum and had our last meal and beer with our new friends Quyen and Hung who helped us sort out the bus for the morning into Laos!
We couldn’t reduce the amount of pictures so we have made a slide show gallery below of the motorbike trip.
See next: Laos