It’s been a while since we’ve posted, so here is 2 weeks in Vietnam all in one post!
We flew in to Hanoi and fortunately didn’t need a visa as we weren’t staying longer than 15 days in the country. Hanoi was insanely busy, though a different type of busy to what we’ve experienced before. Hanoi just has THOUSANDS of motorbikes and right of way seemed to be determined by how loud/frequently one beeped. We didn’t do very much exploring in Hanoi really, just a few strolls round the Old quarter as I was quite ill (surprise surprise). We discovered an amazing sandwich cart (in Vietnamese they’re called Bhan Mi) and ate there about 4 times, it was also only 70p, so a good cheap and safe eat for us.
We booked our cruise for Ha Long Bay through our hotel. Though you can get a boat and just choose somewhere to stay, most tourists book a cruise. The youngsters book ‘booze cruises’ and the rest opt for better dining (obviously because I’m a 94 year old trapped in a 24 year old’s body, we opted for the better dining and no booze). Our cruise company was Apricot cruise (though I wouldn’t recommend them) and we went for 3 days and 2 nights, one night on the boat and one night in a bungalow on an island. We were picked up from the hotel by bus and we drove 4 hours to the Ha Long Bay marina. A smaller motorised boat then took our group on to the cruise ship. It slept about 30 people and had a dining room and then a nice deck at the top with sun loungers. Ha Long Bay was jaw droppingly beautiful. Right from the start, the water was a beautiful emerald colour and there were islands everywhere. We had sort of anticipated that we’d see all the islands together at the start and then they would be more sporadic, if any, as we got further out. Absolutely not true, we were in awe of just how many there were, apparently over 1600 (mostly uninhabited)! Definitely the most spectacular seascape either of us had ever seen!
There was quite a mix of people on the boat, we got on especially well with a really inspirational Swedish lady. She was a teacher in Sweden but for the last few years had set up entry education for child refugees coming to Sweden so before they were thrown in to school, they had an 8 week programme where they had language lessons and had time to adapt to their surroundings. On our first day we went to the “surprise cave”. This was a much better cave than the terrifying one in Laos, well lit and full of stalagmites and stalactites. We then went to Titop Island which has a sandy beach but also the best place to get a view of the bay from above. We climbed the steep stone staircase to the top of the island to look over Ha Long Bay. Though it was absolutely rammed with tourists, it was still an impressive sight. Bizarrely there was also the biggest swarm (not sure what the technical term is?) of dragonflies! I mean we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of them. It sort of looks like black dots on the photos but I think you can tell they’re dragon flies if you zoom in a little. The climb took a while and we didn’t have much time before we were due to head back to the boat, Dave still managed to squeeze a cheeky dip in the sea. Back at the boat, we had a nice dinner (huge quantities and good food) and then they had a ‘sunset party’. We came for the free Sangria (well Dave had mine) and then headed back to our cabin soon after. People were also squid fishing from the back of the boat but neither of us wanted to catch them as we felt mean to the poor baby squiddies.
The next day, we got up early but unfortunately it was too cloudy for a good sunrise. Dave joined in a Tai Chi class at 6.30am (it wasn’t a proper one, it was just the tour guide waving his arms telling them all to breathe). Afterwards, as we had breakfast in the dining room, we watched all the other cruise ships move on whilst we stayed stationary and we were then told that our boat had ‘broken’. This is one of the reasons this tour company was shite, they just said the boat broke and then basically walked off. We still have no idea why or the implications of it. The miscommunication was terrible. So because of this, it was all a bit rushed and they changed our plans so that we would disembark to the smaller boat earlier. We had 15 minutes to pack our bag and check out before heading to the Pearl Farm. We were all feeling quite sassy at this point, especially as there wasn’t anywhere to keep our bags safely, so we weren’t too invested in the pearl tour. It was still interesting to hear what they were saying, and I also now understand why pearls are so expensive. The farm had one million oysters growing pearls and we saw workers cracking open the oysters and implanting membranes to help growth. Apparently only 30% actually have a pearl inside when its time to harvest, and only 10% of them are usable in jewellery. Some oysters are left to grow the pearl for up to 8 years and there’s a 70% chance there is nothing inside it!
We were transferred to yet another boat and then we headed towards the island where we’d be staying. We stopped off along the way where everyone was allowed to get off and go kayaking! Dave and I very very rarely argue, but put us in a kayak and we’re at each other’s throats, blaming each other for going the wrong way haha. It was still good fun kayaking with this incredible seascape backdrop. We kayaked to a little island with a tiny beach for a little swim. We headed back to the boat and were then taken to yet another idyllic beach. The water was still this luscious blue and really clean. We also were walking along collecting seashells (one of my fave actives). Around 3pm we were dropped off at Monkey Island where we were to stay the night. Online, it seemed monkey island was riot with monkeys out to steal your things but we didn’t see a single one (I was disappointed, obvs). I have never stayed on such a tiny island. We had a little bungalow with gaps between the walls and the thatched roof (thankfully we sussed out how to use the mosquito net in the evening). We spent the afternoon just chilling by the sea and then we had a buffet dinner. They had the BEST sea food I’d ever tried; I thought I was eating muscles but apparently they were oysters! (Jakie, if you’re reading this, I had my first oyster and loved it!).
The next day, we woke up to a torrential down pour, which didn’t make clambering on and off these slippy boats with rucksacks any easier. We’d been so lucky with the weather for the first few days. We headed back to the big cruise boat and back to Ha Long Bay marina. On the way back, they did a cooking class where they taught us how to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls (i.e not fried but wrapped in rice paper). Around 12pm, we got back on land and hopped on the 4 hour bus back to the hotel we stayed at in Hanoi and picked up one of the rucksacks we left. We were bricking it a little bit because we had already booked our next overnight bus onwards to Hoi An to save us accommodation for that night. The bus was due to depart an hour after we were meant to be back but we weren’t sure if we’d get back in time. Fortunately we did, with an hour to spare, so we were able to have a little break and brush teeth etc. I am usually never one to complain. If a waiter brought me something under-cooked to the point it was raw, I’m the type of person who’d still just smile and say it was lovely. So, to Dave’s utter disbelief, when our hotel asked us about the cruise, I was honest and said whilst Ha Long Bay was indisputably beautiful, the cruise company themselves were a bit of shambles. I ended up getting us a $20USD refund though! On the boat, loads of people left negative feedback (we didn’t get a form) and were offered a beer as compensation to “forget the bad”. Winning!
The bus arrived and though we’d already been travelling (boat and bus) all day, we then embarked on our 20 hour bus ride Hoi An. It was pretty brutal. Our bus had seats in permanent reclined position, we were able to get a bit of sleep but it was still quite uncomfortable. We were so happy to finally arrive in Hoi An and get to a really nice hotel. We were offered to upgrade to a fancy room for a few extra dollars so we did and we had the nicest room we’ve had yet! Inevitably the germ infested bus ride gave me the flu so I was very happy to have a nice room as I spent most of the time in Hoi An in bed. The hotel had a pool so Dave was still able to enjoy the time there lounging by the pool (even though it turned our swim stuff bright green! Chlorine levels were definitely off). Dave did much more exploring than me and took out the free bikes from the hostel to cycle through the rice paddy fields and round the town. In Hoi An’s old centre, it is pedestrianised which makes a nice change to Vietnam’s madness of motorbikes. I was happy I managed to make it to the old town on our last day. The old town is a UNESCO heritage site with lovely little meandering streets and colourful lanterns hanging everywhere. There was an art gallery and I bought a little oil painting of Ha Long Bay (Dave sat outside the shop with the pet dog in a strop haha). Apparently in Vietnam, if you’re the first customer of the day in any shop, you should always buy even a little something as the people believe it brings luck for a good day of trade. The lady was thrilled I bought the picture and kept holding my hand which was sweet.
When we looked at booking our transport on to Ho Chi Minh city, the bus, train and internal flight were all pretty much the same price. I couldn’t face another 24 hour bus ride so we decided to fly down instead. As we were in a taxi to Da Nang airport, Dave realised he’d left his swim shorts drying outside behind, and was devastated haha. Fortunately that’s the only thing we’ve lost this trip (touch wood!!!!). Our flight was delayed by an hour but there was an amusing sign on the check in desk which read “Status: Delayed. Reason: None”.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, many Vietnamese people still refer to the city as its former name; Saigon. We were staying in a hostel in the backpacker area (a narrow street through the back of a market with loads of hostels). Our first full day was on Friday 28th April which was the day of my Grandma’s funeral back in England. I was sad not to have been back with my family but I think my Grandma would have wanted me to stay out here. We decided to go to the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (a replica of sorts of Paris’) so I could say my goodbye. Though I’m not religious, my Grandma was and I think she would have really liked this Cathedral, it had beautiful stained glass windows and it was just really interesting to see it in the middle of a busy Vietnamese city!
As far as big, busy cities go, I actually really liked Ho Chi Minh. Of course, I got heart palpitations every time we tried to cross a road, but the city itself had a great balance of nature and parks within the hustle and bustle. I have a new favourite flower but I haven’t been able to find the name of it. It’s sort of a light blue/purple colour and hangs down often from arch ways and buildings. I’ve seen it a few times in Vietnam and there were paintings of it in the art gallery too. There’s a photo below, let me know if you know the name!
We went to the War Remnants Museum. It was a little bizarre because it was focused so much on bashing America. Of course, its understandable. I suppose it is impossible to tell the story of a war without bias from one angle but this was perhaps the most one-sided museum we’d ever been to. We, ourselves, have a Western bias just in the name of the war! I’ve always referred to it as ‘The Vietnam war’ but the museum called it ’The US aggressive war in Vietnam’. Perhaps there’s the opposite museum in America, I don’t know. All I do know, is that it was still horrific to see so many images of the destruction caused by Agent Orange. They also had the photo of “Napalm girl”, apparently the photographer, Nick Ut, presented the photo to the museum in 2013.
The next day we took a day tour to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong spanning 250km. Again, there was so much bias in the story telling, this time from our tour guide who said he was a veteran but fighting on the American side. We couldn’t really tell what was true and what was embellishment and what was altered to what he thought would appease Westerners. The tunnels themselves were really fascinating. They were SO SO SO small. I was umming and erring about whether I could go in the tunnel and not panic, but in the end I decided against it. I met Dave and the rest of the group the end of the tunnel. It was a 250 metre tunnel that had been widened a bit for tourists with three levels. There was an escape route after 20 metres and quite a lot of the group came out after just that! Dave persevered all the way through and came out the end drenched in sweat. He said the tunnels were so small that they were crawling on hands and knees, there was no light and it was unbearably hot. I definitely think I made the right call not going in haha! We were shown ventilation holes that the Vietnamese disguised round the roots of trees and some of the traps with spikes etc they used against the Americans. They also had a shooting range for tourists to fire old guns used in the war. We thought this was disgustingly disrespectful and distasteful. I realised I’d never actually heard a gun go off in real life but there, it was constant and deafening. I absolutely hated it and I have no personal experience to any war. Imagine what that must be like for a veteran or Vietnamese person with PTSD visiting!
Also worth saying – we had amazing Vietnamese food in Ho Chi Minh. I found my new favourite food of the whole trip, and wait for it, it’s a vegetable! Well, technically flower – stir fried Tonkin Jasmin flowers with garlic. So good! We would love to come back to Vietnam again and maybe do a completely different route! There are still lots of places we’d like to visit like Sappa, Na Trang and Dalat. We met a lot of people who were doing the Top Gear experience as well where you get a scooter and do the same route as the top gear special. Maybe save that one for when I actually get a driving license!
Thanks for reading!
Sophie & Dave