Mui Ne is a popular destination for kite surfers due to its 12km coastline and year-round onshore winds. Looking out from the beach you can see hundreds of coloured kites dancing in the wind while the professionals fly up into the air and perform acrobatic tricks. I could sit and watch them for hours!
Our first impressions of the town weren’t great. The area where the bus dropped us and where we had planned to stay looked tacky, had an usual fishy odour and no beach at high tide. We were determined to find a nicer area and thankfully as we walked south it improved. We found a nice cheap guesthouse while Beth checked into a swankier place across the road with a beach front setting and a pool.
James took a full day kite surfing lesson, while Beth and I spent another day relaxing by the pool and beach. On our last night with Beth we met a friendly group of Germans who were generously supplying us with B52 shots throughout the night! It was a great way to end Beth’s 3 week stay with us in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), which is still commonly referred to as Saigon, was the capital of South Vietnam between 1955-75. It is a hectic, bustling city with 6 million motorbikes for a population of 8 million people. After spending a week here I think I finally mastered the art of crossing the road.. a slow, steady pace and hope for the best. The bikes come from all directions and thankfully manage to swerve to avoid hitting you. For the cars though, it’s not so easy.
At night the city comes alive with neon lights and numerous ‘hostess bars’. Instead, we found a nice rooftop bar at Duc Vuong Hotel and watched as the city gradually lit up along the horizon.
Pho Ga (Chicken Noodle Soup)
Notre Dame Cathedral
We visited the War Remnants museum which was upsetting and disturbing with very graphic images of the atrocities that took place. During the war the Americans sprayed Agent Orange (a powerful chemical defoliant) over 4.5 million acres of land. This not only destroyed the forest and jungle, but exposed 4 million people to the deadly herbicide. Half a million children have since suffered serious birth defects.
Chu Chi Tunnels
We also visited Chu Chi tunnels which were instrumental in the Viet Cong’s defeat of the Americans during the Vietnam War. These tunnels are 75 miles long, up to 3 stories deep and form part of a much larger network of tunnels which run underneath the country. In heavily bombed areas whole villages lived underground, only farming at night when they were less likely to be spotted by the American planes. The tunnels were extremely narrow which made it difficult for the American soldiers to get down. Some have now been widened for tourists, but they still feel claustrophobic and stuffy. I certainly can’t imagine how awful it would have been living down there!
Next stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Dalat is known locally as ‘The City of Love’ and is a popular honeymoon destination for the Vietnamese. It is situated in the Central Highlands, around a 4 hour bus ride from Hoi An. The town is centered around a lake and is surrounded by pine forest covered hills, reminiscent of the French Alps.
After a quick lunch we took the 2.3km cable car ride to the Truc Lam Monastery Complex. From the cable car we looked out over the rolling hills in the distance and had a bird’s eye view of the forest beneath us. The monastery and temples have a peaceful hilltop setting and are surrounded by an impressive array of flower beds and gardens.
We also visited Crazy House which is a guesthouse and home designed by a Vietnamese architect, Mrs Dang Viet Nga. The quirky buildings, inspired by both the natural world and the work of Gaudi, have many rabbit runs, cubby holes and staircases; it feels like a big play area for adults and children alike. It has been listed as one of the 10 most bizarre buildings in the world. We loved exploring Crazy House, not knowing where each path would lead and what we would see next!
The following day we went canyoning with Highland Holiday Tours. Canyoning involves abseiling through waterfalls, cliff jumping, swimming and sliding down waterfalls. After a short drive out into the beautiful forest surrounding Dalat we were given a quick demonstration of how to abseil. We started off with a 10m abseil, followed by a more challenging and fun 25m high waterfall. The rocks were slippier and once we were over the cliff edge we could feel the weight of the waterfall pounding down on us. Great fun!
After a short float down the river, we slid down some natural rock slides and jumped off a 7m high cliff. Some of the braver guys went for the 11m cliff jump.. rather them than me! The final abseil of the day was a narrow gully filled with a powerful waterfall, the guide appropriately named it ‘the washing machine’. The waterfall drenched us as we abseiled down, the visibility was minimal and the sheer force of the water meant I almost lost my shoe! Thankfully I managed to grab it before it floated off down river. It was a really enjoyable, action-packed day and it certainly got my adrenaline going.
Next stop: Mui Ne, Vietnam
Hoi An’s Ancient Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a beautiful blend of the styles and influences in Vietnam’s history. The streets are lined with brightly coloured French Colonial buildings which are interspersed with Chinese wooden shops and decorative temples. There is also the iconic Japanese wooden bridge which is featured on the 20,000 Dong banknote and dates back to the 18th century.
Hoi An was once a major trading port, however nowadays it is a popular tourist destination and home to countless Tailor shops. If you want to get any clothes custom made at a reasonable price, this is the place!
We hired bicycles and cycled around the quaint Old Town, stopping off to browse and haggle at the morning markets before continuing on to An Bang beach. The beach is lovely and it was great to finally have some sunshine (Northern Vietnam is quite cool in January). Most people seem to congregate around the main entrance to the beach, but if you walk a few minutes in either direction it’s easy to find a nice quiet spot!
At night the streets are lit by beautiful lanterns hanging from shop fronts and restaurants. We spent the evenings wandering through the night market, playing pool and having a few beers in the bar. It’s rude not to when beer is cheaper than a glass of orange juice!
Next stop: Dalat, Vietnam
Rather than take the 4 hour bus ride from Hue to Hoi An, we decided it would be more of an adventure to hire scooters and drive down the coast ourselves. This way we would be able to ride over Hai Van Pass which has spectacular views, whereas the bus takes the more direct route through a dark tunnel. James and I were on one bike whilst Beth and Claire (who had only driven a scooter once) had a bike each.
After a quick breakfast and giving the bikes a good check over we set off with trepidation and excitement. The roads and drivers in Vietnam are pretty insane; most crossroads don’t have traffic lights or any rules on who has priority.. as far as I can see it seems to be whoever honks their horn the loudest wins. After 2 hours on a long, straight highway we stopped off at a small waterfall, Elephant Springs, for a refreshing dip and slid down the natural rock slide at the bottom of the waterfall. A well deserved rest I thought!
We jumped back onto the bikes and headed towards Hai Van Pass. The views were impressive as we climbed up the mountain and around hair pin bends, however we were soon engulfed in cloud and only able to see a few meters ahead. So much for the views! Luckily the cloud cleared as we descended, we could now see Danang city and its skyscrapers emerging from the sea in the distance. We stopped off at a small cafe and admired the view for a while.
Our final stop of the day was at Marble Mountains, just south of Danang city. As we were coming into the car park, Claire accidentally accelerated and crashed her bike into our tour guide and his bike. Luckily no one was seriously hurt! At the top of the mountains there are several ornate temples, caves and a pagoda.
After another 30 minutes on the bike we arrived in Hoi An. It was a great day and we were all very happy to have made it one piece!
Next stop: Hoi An, Vietnam
Ninh Binh is commonly referred to as ‘Halong Bay on Land’ and it’s easy to see why. We rode out of the city on scooters and were soon on scenic roads surrounded by limestone karsts popping up out of the rice paddies. Our first stop was at Trang An Grottoes where we hopped aboard a rowing boat, glided between the karsts and through several small caves which were up to 700m in length. The lady rowing our boat skillfully guided us through the caves, which were just wide enough for the rowing boat and we often needed to duck to avoid hitting our heads on hanging stalactites.
After a quick lunch we jumped back onto the bikes and headed to Mua Caves. There are a couple of small caves here but the main attraction is the viewpoint which was well worth the climb up hundreds of steps!
Hue was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 until 1945 when the Emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated and a communist government was formed in Hanoi. We visited the Citadel which is a large walled fortress built in the 17th century. Inside the fortress there are many elaborate buildings including temples, royal palaces and a library. Several buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam War and only an outline of these buildings remain, while others are gradually being restored to their former glory. It was interesting to look around the complex and imagine what it would have been like during the Emperor’s reign.
The Mieu Temple
Next stop: Hoi An, Vietnam
Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is a chaotic bustling city; the roads are overflowing with motorbikes and there appear to be no rules of the road. It’s an amazing sight to see so many bikes on a 5 way junction all travelling in different directions and miraculously avoiding collisions. It certainly makes crossing the road an interesting experience!
In Hanoi we met up with our friends from home, Beth and Claire, who have come to join us for 3 weeks in Vietnam. We stayed in the heart of the Old Quarter where each street is named after the product it sells e.g. ‘Shoe Lane’. The local restaurants have child-sized plastic tables and chairs which spill out onto the pavement and street corners. From here it’s great to sit and watch the weird and wonderful sights of the city pass by.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often listed as one of the natural wonders of the world. We booked on to the Golden Sun 3 day 2 night junk cruise which visited both Halong Bay and the less touristy area of Lan Ha Bay. After a 3 hour drive from Hanoi, we boarded our boat and sailed through the bay, soon surrounded by huge limestone karsts protruding out of the blue waters. In the afternoon we visited Hang Sung Sot cave which has 3 chambers, each one larger and more impressive than the previous one.
We also visited Ti Top viewpoint which has 360 degree views of the bay. Unfortunately it had started to drizzle which meant the views weren’t as impressive as we’d hoped, but it did make for a rather atmospheric setting. The evening meal aboard the ship was incredible and included lots of seafood such as shrimp, squid and oysters. The food was abundant and we were all very satisfied by the end of the meal.
The following morning we sailed to Lan Ha Bay which was a much quieter area with only a few other boats. We kayaked around the bay and through arches worn into the karsts before pulling up on a small beach to play frisbee. Tonight was New Years Eve and after another delicious meal we drank and danced the night away. It was a beautiful place to see in the New Year.
On the last day we decided to give the early morning kayaking a miss. Instead, we opted for a lie in and a more relaxed morning as we were all feeling slightly worse for wear after last night’s celebrations.
Next stop: Ninh Binh, Vietnam