I arrived in Saigon, Vietnam on 24th December, just in time for Christmas. I had mixed emotions leaving Taiwan. I had made some very good friends there, but if I stayed any longer I’d never be able to leave.
While here I would pickup my renewed International Drivers License (I applied while in Taiwan and had it posted to pick up in my next destination) and start making my way North to Hanoi, before going to Laos. I had been looking forward to the familiarity of Vietnam, having been there twice before. But actually I felt a bit flat, because I’d become so accustomed to Taiwan. Also it was a real change of pace. In Taiwan as a tourist I was the odd one out, but hanging around Vietnams backpacker districts makes you realise there’s a lot of backpackers who’ve come before and a lot who’ll come after.
In any case, I celebrated Christmas Eve with a few guys from my hostel with a few beers in Bu Vien St, which was crazily busy, motorbikes and cars trying to weave their way through what had become a street party. I stayed in Saigon for about four days. I got stuck with an interesting but incredibly annoying person in my dorm, an insomniac who spent 18 hours of every day lying in bed (surely the cause of the insomnia). I met up with Thu from Couchsurfing who I had also met in Taipei, as well as a few others from Couchsurfing and we all drank some Bia Hoi together (Christian from Norway, Hoa from Vietnam among others).
From Saigon I took a $50 flight to Danang, and bused it down to Hoi An for New Years. The entirety of my stay in Hoi An was raining. Hoi An had been flooding in the weeks prior, and the effects still showed, but the rain made the whole time a bit boring. I did take a bicycle around town for a day and also to Trang An beach, but storms and rain had ruined the beaches (including Cu Dai, which was beautiful when I visited four years earlier). Luckily I made some good friends in my hostel (Tribee Kinh) to spend New Years with (Nora, Michael, Jair, Danielle and others). We rung in the new year in pretty casual fashion across the river at Mr Bean Bar. I will say Hoi An has some excellent Banh Mi. Madam Kanh the Banh Mi Queen is quite famous.
From Hoi An I took a sleeper bus to Phong Nha. For me it was just an afternoon/evening trip, arriving at Phong Nha at 11pm. I was exhausted and checked in to Easy Tigers Backpackers and went to sleep pretty much immediately.
The following day I booked a tour to Three Sisters cave, Paradise cave and Dark Cave, before walking around the town a little (it’s basically just one street). I also booked a sleeper bus to Ninh Binh for the same day (departing after the cave tour).
The cave tour was pretty amazing. The Three sisters cave was nothing special, but has an interesting story as a cave where three locals were trapped after it collapsed. Paradise cave was huge, with stalactites and stalagmites everywhere. It has lighting installed so you can really appreciate the entire thing.
Dark Cave was more fun than anything else. We took a zipline across the river to the entry. Then walked for 15 minutes in darkness across the rock floor and through the river inside the cave, squeezing through narrow passages along the way. Eventually we arrived at the mudpits inside the cave. The mud is dense enough to suspend your body on top of the surface.
All the main caves were discovered by a local guy who used to work as an illegal logger, he was out looking for medicinal plants and discovered one, but couldn’t find it again until years later. The biggest one is Son Doong, which costs $3,000USD for a 6 day trek and is big enough to fit an entire New York City Block, including all buildings. Check out the video of Son Doong below.
After returning from the cave tour, I caught a night bus to Ninh Binh. Arriving at Ninh Binh at 4am, only one other tourist got off the bus, so I followed him (Nick) to his hostel. The hostel was good enoug to let me leave my stuff there for the day, rent a bicycle and book a bus from there to Hanoi in the afternoon. Nick decided to join me, so at 8am we headed off to Tam Coc.
Not wanting to fork out for a touristic boat ride, we continued cycling all through the village. When we got to the end of the line, we climbed the steps up the mountainside, and were overlooking a single farmhouse, with a lake and rice paddies surrounded by mountains on all sides. The farmer led us to a cave in the mountain and in fast vietnamese explained all about the cave. So yeah we didn’t understand any of that.
After Tam Coc we headed to Hang Mua, but Nicks bike lost a pedal on the way. So a local bricklayer found a nut and put a very temporary fix on it (it didn’t last). The view from the top of the mountain of Hang Mua was pretty cool across surrounding Ninh Binh.
I decided to head back to Ninh Binh to get the bus, while Nick continued to another place on his bicycle. The bus to Hanoi as it turned out was VERY local. Another couple and I were the only tourists on board. I barely could fit in the seat, and with picking up every man and his dog, as well as running a parcel delivery/collection service, it took us an hour to get outside Ninh Binh.
The bus arrived in Hanoi and terminated at the South bus station, still 10km from the Old Quarter. As the only non-local (excluding the couple) I was absolutely hounded by taxi drivers and motorbike taxis as I got off the bus. I pushed my way through all of them, went for the corridor I saw which happened to lead to the city bus platform. And that’s how I made it to the Old Quarter, around 7pm that night.
After two nights in Hanoi at Central Backpackers (old quarter) I went to Halong Bay on their ‘Hideaway Tour’. Last time in Hanoi I did the infamous Castaway Booze Cruise, which was fun but not what I wanted this time round. The Hideaway tour was more activities based, with kayaking, hiking and bike riding, and partying in the evening. We actually stayed in a resort, so the food and accommodation was pretty decent. The three day trip was a lot of fun and I made some good friends (mostly dutch) who I would hang out with back in Hanoi as well.
Unfortunately after jumping off the boat on day one, I cut my foot on the ladder to climb back up. The staff had no medical supplies, only some tape, so i taped up my cuts and hoped for the best.
Back in Hanoi after the trip, my foot got worse, harder to walk and swollen and red. I went to the doctor and he immediately diagnosed it as infected, put me on antibiotics and had the nurses clean and dress the wound. The cleaning was INCREDIBLY PAINFUL. They basically just scrubbed it, and even stuck a knife in there to cut a ‘membrane’. But afterwards it was much better.
After a few more days in Hanoi doing nothing due to my painful foot, I flew to Luang Prabang, Laos, to meet two friends from home, Jack and Pat.