A Travellerspoint blog

Sapa, Vietnam

Final blog post!

sunny 26 °C
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DAY SIXTY - Tuesday
Feeling weary after one hour's sleep on the night bus, we wandered like zombies into Sapa town to find a cafe open for breakfast. It was much cooler and fresher here in comparison to other cities in Vietnam; at 6am it was around 20 degrees. It was relatively busy at 6am and we found somewhere pretty quickly to eat. We then ordered a taxi to take us to Sapa Clay House - Mountain Retreat, a 15 minute, slow bumpy drive through the mountains. We were speechless: the views were nothing we had seen before. The luxury homestay was in the best location, just out of town. Wooden bamboo cabins hung on the mountain edge overlooking the best views we had ever seen; we could lie in bed and see the lush green rice fields out of our glass window. The reception area played soft, classical, relaxing music and I already felt much more relaxed here. There was a pond and water feature in the centre of the room filled with large fish. The outside terrace area lay sun loungers and padded arm chairs surrounded by pretty flower beds, to sit and watch the untouched views. They had 3 super cute dogs too that loved our cuddles. Sam was pleased with his birthday present!

Although we were pretty exhausted after only one hour’s sleep, we made the most of the clear blue skies and shining sun and explored nearby attractions at around 9am. The first stop was Tram Ton Pass, also known as Heaven’s Gate, roughly 13km from our hotel, so a Grab taxi (Asia’s version of Uber) drove us here. There were a few steps to reach the magnificent viewpoint at the top. It is Vietnam’s highest path at 1900m and is renown for its picturesque landscapes and magnificence, resembling a gate to Heaven.

The driver waited for us to take us to the beautiful Love Waterfall next, which is one of the best waterfalls in Sapa. It is roughly 100m high and starts from the peak of Fansipan Mountain, the highest peak in Indochinese Peninsula. We walked through the forest, climbed stairs and wooden bridges situated in Hoang Lien National Park before reaching the perfect viewing point of the stunning large waterfall. We walked back on a red dirt road running through the lush and vast bamboo forest (see photos).

The next stop was the Silver Waterfall, which is 200m high and stands on the Ham Rong Mountain. We watched the white water flowing, which appears as silver rushing down from afar. There was stone steps to conquer to reach the viewing point of the Silver Waterfall. After a short 10 minutes ascend, we reached the steel arched bridge. From the bridge, we enjoyed the impressive views of the 200-meter high Thac Bac waterfall as the silver water gushed down from the Ham Rong mountain peak.

The taxi drove us into Sapa town to wander the local shops. Although the town was busy, it was only small so it was nice to take a stroll, unlike the big cities we previously visited. The sun came out and it was a very comfortable temperature; we were able to walk 100m without sweating! We stopped at La Gecko Restaurant for a simple but filling lunch before catching a taxi back to our accommodation.

It was 2pm and after the lack of sleep on the night bus, we were shattered. We checked into our room and relaxed on the luxurious bed for a few hours, dozing off a few times. We awoke from our nap with the fabulous views gushing through the glass window opposite the princess bed. This place had the most incredible duvet and pillows too; my head fell into the perfectly soft cushion. I was in heaven.

We showered and dressed in time for complimentary sunset cocktails whilst enjoying the stunning views at around 5pm. We couldn’t take our eyes off the views; it didn’t look real!

We stayed at our homestay for a delicious, organic evening meal- fresh salmon fillet with noodles. My favourite! It tasted so fresh and the ingredients had clearly been organically sourced the same day. We ordered food 1 hour before our desired meal time, as everything was made from fresh.

After discussing our plans for the next couple of days with the host, we turned in for the night. I fell into a deep sleep pretty much as soon as my head hit the pillow at around 8:30pm.

DAY SIXTY ONE - Wednesday
We fuelled up on a hearty breakfast after a fantastic night’s sleep. Sam couldn’t choose between french toast and pancakes, so he demolished both! I enjoyed delicious poached eggs, bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes.

Just before 9am, we started out on the gravel paths down the valley below our homestay, overlooking beautiful, shiny green rice terraces. We found muddy buffalos munching on the forestry as we descended along the paths. The weather was perfect at this time- the best trekking temperature of approximately 26 degrees.

Forty five minutes into the walk, we crossed a bridge overlooking incredible views and a river trickling down the colourful rocks into a stream. The temperature was warmer as we descended and the views became clearer with less mist from the fluffy white clouds. We captured incredible photos. It was also extremely quiet, with very few tourists and only sounds of nature.

We passed through a small village, Lao Chai, where small huts were situated with local people working in the fields and dogs sleeping outside. There were also many buffalos, ducks, chickens and their adorable babies.

Thirty minutes later, we reached the nicer and more remote Ta Van village and walked past quaint, little restaurants.

We walked further through rice fields, back into the peace and quiet. We could smell fresh green forestry and a hint of rice. We were lucky, as only 10 days later, the fields were to be harvested. We stopped several times at particularly scenic points to take photos of panoramic views of Muong Hoa valley.

We then reached the Bamboo forest of Giang Ta Chai, which the host warned us not to attempt without a guide, as we were likely to get lost. The professional trekkers (US!) made it through the forest, climbing steep inclines through brooks along a narrow, slippery muddy path. It was like trekking through a jungle, clinging onto tough bamboo plants for support. We turned away guides who tried to follow us. We saw only the odd tourist attempting this part of the track and only with a local guide.

We navigated our way out of the forest and reached the top of the silver Giang Ta Chai waterfall. We reached this point only 3 hours from when we started out- not a bad time! We relaxed for 10 minutes here to take photos before descending back through the rice fields. After over 4 hours of trekking, we felt parched and ravenous so quickly found a local homestay for lunch and lots of water in between Lao Chai and Ta Van villages.

After lunch, we walked up the hill to Dao Spa. We enjoyed a revitalising herbal red bath overlooking the beautiful valley and green rice terraces- it was picturesque. The hot water helped soothe our aching muscles and clear our pores after a long hike through fields and forests. After 30 minutes of soaking, we treated ourselves to 45-minute foot reflexology treatments on soft leather chairs overlooking more fabulous views. This is just what I needed to heal the dull ache in my feet and throbbing in calves and hamstrings. After our treatments, we sat in the beautiful gardens and enjoyed iced coffee before ordering a taxi back to our homestay. It was a perfect day.

We sipped complimentary sunset cocktails and nibbled at homemade pate for an appetiser. Dinner was just as delicious as the previous evening- fresh and flavoursome. We also enjoyed a few cheeky beverages this evening and I sipped on the best white wine I’ve tasted throughout my trip.

DAY SIXTY TWO - Thursday
After another fantastic night’s sleep, I awoke early and ran a HIIT and yoga workout in the room, overlooking the mountains, whilst Sam slept.

We ate a late breakfast before packing and checking out for the final time. It was now raining heavily and the views were blocked by grey clouds. We selected two perfect days for trekking: the last two days were glorious.

We caught a taxi into Sapa town, and were surprised to find it was sunny when we arrived. We roamed the shops to find Sam new trainers but we had no luck, again!

We decided to eat lunch at La Gecko cafe, whilst relaxing. I used this time to write up my blog from the last few days.

This was our final day in Sapa before catching the night bus back to Hanoi for the our flight home. In the afternoon, we treated ourselves to 90-minute hot stone and Swedish massages- it was delightful. I had never tried a hot stone massage before and was slightly nervous about what it would entail, but it was the best. My body and mind felt completely relaxed after the treatment.

Having a couple of hours remaining before catching the night bus back to Hanoi, we took advantage of a super happy hour wine and beer deal before we enjoyed a relaxed pub dinner. We also met the cutest kitten here- it made me miss my Tommy even more!

The night bus from our final destination back to Hanoi to catch our flight went pretty smoothly and I managed to catch a couple of hours sleep. Now we were packed up and completed all of the planned activities, I was excited to get home to see my Tommy, family and friends after 9 weeks!

It has truly been the trip of a lifetime; I have the most incredible memories that will stay with me forever. I hope the recollection of events in this blog will help me relive all of these in the future. I cannot believe it is now all over! I wouldn’t change a thing - thank you Asia!

Posted by LBanner1411 13:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hanoi / Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay, Cat Ba Island

semi-overcast 34 °C
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DAY FIFTY SIX - Friday
Hanoi
After another large breakfast served by our homestay, we packed up our bags before catching the transfer to Hanoi at 9:30am. The homestay organised a luxury limousine van to collect us with soft leather recliner chairs. It was a very comfortable 1.5 hour trip and we were very impressed until the driver dropped us randomly in the middle of Hanoi, no where near our hotel, when we were informed it would take us directly there! We walked with our backpacks 30 minutes across the loud, busy streets of Hanoi to our hotel, whilst dodging cars and motorbikes.

After checking into our hotel and leaving our bags in the room, we walked to Hao Lo Prison Memorial. It was extremely fascinating but very sad to learn details of France attacking Vietnam and how they tortured Vietnamese people for many years. We walked around the few remains and the death row cells. These cells were completely isolated to prevent any kind of communication. The interior and exterior were painted in black tar to make people feel gloomy and cold in a space only just big enough to squeeze a small concrete bench. The cell door was only opened twice in one day to bring these prisoners water and food, just enough for survival. Despite the torturous conditions and treatment, the Vietnamese communists retained the will to fight and kept their morale until the bitter end, which often ended in death, but never gave up on their fight for peace. The prisoners continued to use innovative methods to write books, journals and teach lessons in order to contribute to national liberation revolution.

The museum also presented details of the invasion by America and again, the awful treatment of the Vietnamese prisoners. I had no idea Vietnam had such a tragic past.

1964 - start of the American invasion
Previously, the north and south of Vietnam were split into two countries; the north supported communism and the south supported capitalism. The people had different beliefs, rituals and even separate languages.

Before an election was proposed to bind the two parts of the country together, there was a poll conducted. It was revealed that 80% of the people would vote to be reunited again as a communist country. America caught wind of the poll results and were anxious of the result of an election and the countries surrounding Vietnam would follow Vietnam’s decision (Laos, Cambodia and Thailand) and become united with Russia and China. As a result, it invaded the north of Vietnam who were, at that time, the communist part of the country. America supported the southern government who was disliked by the people at this time. He was described as America’s puppet: he set many unwanted policies, such as destroying many temples containing monks, in the attempt to turn the country’s traditional Buddhist religion to catholic.

Ho Chi Minh was the name of the well-praised and famous leader of the north who the country still praise today for leading them to victory. He passed away in 1969.

In 1972, Ho Chi Minh’s plans were implemented and aircraft and weapons, including the B52, were sent to bomb the Americans fighting in the north (everyone had evacuated and only the armies remained). America finally admitted defeat and signed the Perry Agreement, stating Vietnam was independent and withdrew its army. However, America was still providing financial support for leadership and weapons to the evil southern government. It wasn’t until 1975 when the country finally defeated the southern government and Vietnam became united as a single, independent country. The people call it the American Resistance.

We finished at the museum around 2pm and found a small cafe overlooking the famous railway track in Hanoi Old Quarter. We enjoyed a noodle dish and a cold drink; my new favourite drink is a cool passionfruit yoghurt smoothie. We sat people-watching along the busy track from the cafe’s balcony before exploring the special graffiti art painted on the walls along the track (see photos).

We then walked to the indoor market in hope of finding Sam new shoes (obviously he wasn’t organised enough to pack any kind of smart shoes and only brought two pairs for the whole trip!) Unfortunately, we had no luck after roaming the market and the busy streets for over an hour. Hanoi was a typical capital city- hot, busy and smelt of sewers. I was exhausted and needed a break with air conditioning.

After a delicious iced coffee (which was now becoming our daily drink), we managed to find the energy for a tough gym session at Heroes Gym in the evening. Feeling very sweaty and extremely hungry, we headed back for showers before enjoying fresh and flavoursome Vietnamese baguettes at Banh Mi 25 cafe and homemade fruity ice lollies. This cafe was quaint and distant from the busy Hanoi streets. It also sold unique homemade leather goods; I purchased a lovely plaited brown bracelet for £3.

After walking over 25,000 steps, completing over 170 active minutes and a gym session in a single day, we were ready for bed after dinner and the stroll home at around 10pm.

DAY FIFTY SEVEN - Saturday
Halong Bay Cruise

After the busy day yesterday, we both woke up early feeling ravenous, so we demolished breakfast before checking out of the hotel. Today, we started the Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba Island cruise with Venezia Cruises. We didn’t spend all of our budget in Sri Lanka, so we booked a 2-night 3 day luxury cruise to celebrate my LPC results and our wonderful travels; we had less than one week left before we flew home!

Our transfer collected us at 9:30am to transport us to the port in Halong Bay. Around lunch time, we boarded the cruise boat to find the cabin and interior was not as luxurious as we had hoped. It was the minor details we were disappointed with, which we didn’t expect on a 4 star luxury cruise and for the price we paid in comparison to the rest of our trip. The 5-course lunch was well presented but I wasn’t overly impressed with the flavour of the food: the dishes were bland and only slightly warm, bordering cold. The drink prices were also extremely expensive.

We soon realised that this standard is common on these cruises and companies are able to charge so much more as a result of the popularity of the attraction. We couldn’t fault the affectionate and accommodating service on board though. We also found it highly amusing that the crew seemed to believe it was our honeymoon so prepared our cabin with rose petals, love heart balloons and romantic towel swans. Sam’s first words were obviously, “what’s this s**t doing on the bed!?” - what a romantic.

Although we were initially disappointed with the standard of the cruise, we cheered up after cruising through Halong Bay (meaning descending dragon in Vietnamese). It developed its name from being shaped similarly to a dragon and from an old tale that dragons landed on the island to help protect it from invasion. The afternoon activity, kayaking in the beautiful Lan Ha Bay and navigating through different caves, was also fun. We couldn’t help but giggle when the Spanish lady fell through the wood of the platform when we were climbing off the boat.

We then drove to a quiet spot to dive off the boat and swim in the warm sea. Again, it was quiet and peaceful in this particular spot near Cat Ba National Park and it was good fun jumping off the deck. The views of the limestone islands were spectacular.

We arrived back on the cruise boat at 5:45pm for quick showers before heading up to the top sun deck lit up with fairy lights for the sunset party. We didn’t see the sunset, as there were too many clouds, but it was interesting watching large lightening strikes in the distance. The tour guide poured us all coconut rum shots whilst performing a Vietnamese style “cheers” before starting the cooking class. We helped with preparing spring roles before frying and eating them with dipping sauce. It was also happy hour so we enjoyed a few mojitos before sitting down for dinner.

However, we were frustrated again by a poor evening meal and both Sam and I decided to express our disappointment with our tour guide, as this was our special trip and we had used a large proportion of our budget for it. The manager of the company contacted Sam via WhatsApp offering an apology and a small refund, which we finally agreed at 90 USD. Happy with the prompt response from the manager, we agreed to start afresh tomorrow and enjoy the experience.

DAY FIFTY EIGHT - Sunday
We awoke to the spectacular views of Lan Ha Bay through our cabin window before starting a tai chi taster session at 6:15am on the sun deck. It was quite funny watching Sam try it for the first time; I was surprised when he could touch his head with his toe!

After a well-needed stretch, we enjoyed a buffet-style breakfast before quickly transferring onto a beautiful day boat, decorated in dark oak wood. The weather was lovely, so we relaxed on the sun deck and cruised the sea surrounding Cat Ba National Park for the morning. The whole journey was quiet and peaceful with only a few other tourists and boats in sight; we knew this is very rare for a similar Halong Bay attraction. We captured fabulous photos whilst cruising through the different bays.

Around 10:30am, we arrived at a port south east of Cat Ba Island at Viet Hai fishing village. The small village holds only 40 families. In the past, this village was very poor as a result of the inability to make money, particularly as it was unable to grow rice. The Government helped the village 9 years ago by opening the area for tourists to visit and rent bikes, stay in homestays and purchase tickets. The life of the villagers here is now much better. The Government also supported the village by building a primary school and hospital. Previously, there was no hospital, so the people used herbs from the forest and mountains for medicine. The village now produces tropical fruits and vegetables and it also has live stock to help make money.

We cycled around the small village and stopped to view the government primary school for children aged 6-11. Older children attend secondary schools in the main part of the island and the children must stay there away from their families, similar to a boarding school, as it is too far away to commute each day.

We then stopped at a local rice wine producer to taste homemade Vietnamese rice wine. It is believed that different types of wine, made with animal insects, fruit or flowers, help cure different diseases and aching joints.

Rice wines and flavours:
- Scorpion wine - strong like whiskey
- Herb wine - weaker, helps with aches and pains
- Artichoke flower - sour and sweet
- Lychee - distil for one year, sweet and easy to drink, commonly drank by females
- King cobra wine - very strong, men usually drink
- Bee wine - sweet and projects a honey scent, for better skin

The minimum ABV of these wines is 30%, so is more similar to whiskey than wine!

We had a mini tasting session, where I tried the lychee and artichoke wine and Sam was brave and tasted the strongest cobra wine and scorpion wine- apparently he’d tasted worse!

The guide explained the process of making pure rice wine (using sticky rice makes the wine stronger). First, the rice is cooked and then allowed to dry. It is crushed and fermented with a herb and left in water for approximately 9 days. It is then put in a cooking pot with 3 levels. The steam produced from condensation in the pot is used from the hot level in the base and the cold water in the top. The steam/wine then evaporates and travels through a tube into a container.

We then cycled back through the quiet village to the port to transfer back on the boat, taking photos of the scenery as we went. When we were back on board, we cruised to a quiet and peaceful bay after having a large, yummy tapas-style lunch with a variety of different dishes on the deck. We were much happier with the taste and quality of the food here.

In the afternoon, we spent two hours kayaking, swimming and chilling on the sun deck at the top of the cruise boat. Whilst kayaking, we discovered a small private beach area, so we pulled our boat up on the shore and relaxed here for a while. Kayaking is pretty tiring and a killer on your lower back; Sam and I took a few breaks in the sea, lying down on the boat. When we arrived back to the day boat, the crew were laughing at us lying in the middle of the ocean. It was a really peaceful afternoon; we saw no other tourists here. I felt pretty run down today, so it was nice to have a chilled out afternoon to rejuvenate.

After showers back on the cruise boat, we relaxed on the sun deck with iced coffees before the other guests arrived. We captured some great photos before the sun set and the sky turned dark. This evening, we sat in the restaurant playing UNO and drinking wine until we were taken to a private table upstairs on the sun deck. As part of their apology for our disappointment, they created a romantic evening meal set up with roses, fairy lights and a pineapple lantern on the dinner table, with soft music playing in the background. We were served chicken soup for starter, which was followed by a delicious fish dish, beef hot pot with potatoes, pork with noodles, and finally squid with rice. Each dish was brought out on a sizzling stove, so was definitely not cold! It was a really great evening and meal; we couldn’t fault it. We felt much better about the cruise after the effort all the staff clearly made to make our stay more enjoyable.

DAY FIFTY NINE - Monday
We woke up and ate breakfast around 7am before packing our bags and vacating the boat for our final activity at 9am. We explored Trung Trang Cave near Cat Ba Island. Tectonic plates collided to create a large cave in the middle of the mountains. This cave was very narrow and we had to duck under rocks as we walked through. The cave holds a large well, which is evidence that people lived here during the Vietnamese war.

We then boarded the cruise ship again for a huge 5-course lunch before transferring onto a speed boat to transport us back to the port. The sky was clearer today so the spectacular views sailing through the different bays were even more prominent and impressive. Despite the issues we had with the cabin, in the end, we were happy that we booked the cruise. The areas we discovered on the activities were all incredibly scenic and scarce of packs of tourists. We could have sat and watched the views all day! Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba really are as idyllic as they say.

We arrived back in Hanoi around 4pm after taking the bus transfer back to our hotel where we left our bags and collected our tickets for the overnight bus. Having a few hours to spare, we enjoyed an iced coffee before heading back to Heroes Gym for another tough session. For dinner, we returned to Bahn Mi 25 Cafe and were not disappointed; it was just as delicious as our first visit.

After finishing dinner, it was time to collect our bags and catch the overnight bus to Sapa. Although it was a pretty comfortable set-up, I struggled to sleep for the duration of the journey, as I struggled with stomach cramps. It was around 1:30am and I desperately needed the toilet, so the driver pulled up on the side of the motorway for me! I managed to dose off for an hour or so after that.

Once we arrived in Sapa at 3:30am, the company allowed us to sleep on board until 5:30am. We were then woken to collect our bags and vacate the bus.

Posted by LBanner1411 16:30 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh

sunny 37 °C
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DAY FIFTY FIVE - Thursday
We woke up at 8am after an unexpected few hours sleep after arriving in Ninh Binh at 4am. We only had one day here to explore so we woke up early and enjoyed a large breakfast at the homestay whilst planning our route and activities for the day with our host.

We started the day at 9am with cycling roughly 4km to Hang Mua. It was really beautiful here, with a pretty trail passing through small ponds, waterfalls and bridges. We started the 500 steep steps up to the top of the mountain slowly, but almost immediately, we were dripping with sweat in the beaming sun. But wow, it was worth it. The views from the top of the mountain (known as Hang Mua viewpoint) were some of the best I have ever seen. After catching our breath, we sat admiring the different viewpoints for a short while and captured excellent photos. After descending, we sat under a fan in a cafe and ordered a fresh drink to help us cool down after the very sweaty climb before exploring the cave. The weather was fantastic here, not a cloud in the sky, but it was incredibly hot, around 37-39 degrees.

Once we cycled back from Hang Mua, we dropped the bicycles at the homestay and walked roughly 100m to the ticket station before climbing onto a small 2 man canoe-style boat for the Tam Coc boat ride. It was a fabulous ride, lasting 1.5-2 hours, which moved steadily through the lush mountains, twinkling waters and shining sun. The Vietnamese boat drivers paddled the small boat with their feet, similar to riding a bicycle. During the ride, we sailed next to women selling snacks and drinks on small canoe boats. It was so relaxing to soak up the rays and enjoy the idyllic views of Tam Coc.

When we finished the boat ride, we enjoyed Vietnamese dishes and cold drinks at a family-run restaurant near to our homestay for a ridiculously cheap price. They served us complimentary fresh pineapple for desert.

In the afternoon, we cycled to Bich Dong Pagoda. As we entered, we were welcomed by a lake filled with large green lily pads surrounding a beautiful pagoda. Heading along the path and up the steps, we saw beautiful Japanese-style buildings and a large dark cave at the top of the mountain containing squeaking bats. On our way back down, we found an alternative deserted route up more rocky steps to a beautiful lake with mountainous views, lush green trees and pretty plants. There were no tourists here, only us and natural sounds of nature surrounded us. It was quiet and serene and we enjoyed a moment in the peace and quiet, away from the crowds. Walking back to the entrance, we came across a random goat munching leaves on the rocks.

We enjoyed the steady cycle back to the room: it was later, around 6pm, so the temperature was cooler and there was minimal traffic. The views were beautiful too; clear dimmed blue sky overlooked green rice fields where farmers picked their crops, and you could see huge limestone rocks in the distance.

After a busy day, we went to a local restaurant close our homestay for traditional Vietnamese dishes before heading in for the evening.

This was one of our favourite days of our Vietnam trip despite minimal sleep; spending the day cycling to and exploring unique spots and viewpoints. Ninh Binh is beautiful.

Posted by LBanner1411 06:29 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An, Vietnam

semi-overcast 37 °C
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DAY FOURTY SEVEN - Wednesday
The first leg of the journey from Sri Lanka to Vietnam was a 3.5 hour flight to Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia. The airport was chaotic- we had never seen anything like it. The security was insane: everyone was being searched repeatedly and bags were sent through scanners numerous times before being loaded onto the plane. I was told to open my backpack at one security point, underwear flying everywhere, as my dry shampoo raised an alert; I tried to explain the use for my hair and he stared at me blankly (ha ha). He also examined my GoPro stick as if it was an offensive weapon. I showed him the camera and how it works before laughing. Just as we thought the airport queues were over, there were clumps of people waiting to get through immigration. Sam was panicking we were going to miss our flight, it had taken us that long. Running to the gate after waiting 2 hours to get through security, we fortunately managed to catch the flight as it was delayed.

We had a 2.5 hour stopover in Malaysia before catching the next flight to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam; this was a quick 1 hour 45 minute journey. We then made our way to arrivals to catch the final domestic flight to Danang. The flight itself was quick, although, we still ended up queuing at the check-in desk for nearly an hour and the flight was also delayed by nearly an hour!

Overall, it was a pretty disastrous journey. Thankfully, we organised a taxi pick up service with our homestay, who was waiting at the airport for us to take us to our first destination, Hoi An, roughly a 45-minute car journey from Danang airport. We were exhausted and drained so we checked into Vinci Villa, showered and relaxed in our robes provided in the room for the remainder of the afternoon. The room was lovely and stocked a mini bar with different drinks and snacks- just what we needed after nearly 20 hours of travelling.

In the evening, we walked 10 minutes into the beautiful Ancient Town of Hoi An. Wow, we had never seen anything like it. Beautiful coloured lanterns surrounded us and small canoe boats dotted the river under the bridge. It was extremely busy; the largest number tourists we have seen on our trip so far! After crossing the famous Japanese Bridge, we wandered around the cute restaurants and the night market before meeting Sam’s friend and his girlfriend for dinner, followed by a few too many drinks! It was a very very heavy night. Both Sam and I forgot where we were staying so we ended up passing out on the floor in his friend's room (ha ha).

DAY FOURTY EIGHT - Thursday
A combination of lack of sleep from the tiring journey the previous day and a dreadful hangover as a result of the heavy session the night before, left us both in bed all day. I slept for most of the day, waking up around 5pm to take a steady walk to a small cafe nearby for Bahn Mi (a traditional Vietnamese baguette); perfect recovery food.

Later, we managed to shower and walk into the Ancient Town where we tasted rice cakes (Vietnamese pizza) and ice cream rolls from the night market, which were made in front of you. It wasn’t long before we headed back to the room again.

DAY FOURTY NINE - Friday
It was already 30 degrees when I woke up at 7am! I felt much more refreshed after catching up on well-needed sleep yesterday and enjoyed my selection off the breakfast menu before heading to Superfit Gym & Yoga. This was a really great gym, the best one yet, with a variety of different machines. We completed just over an hour of weight training and finished the last 30 minutes with HIIT. After the heavy drinking session the other night and the chilled out day yesterday, this made me feel much better and ready to explore Vietnam!

After quick showers, we went for lunch at the Well Coffee. I tried sautéed pork with Bok Choy along with an iced latte and it was delicious. Sam ordered crispy chicken - it was also so fresh, the breadcrumbs were tasty and crunchy and there wasn’t a single bone in the chicken (a rarity in Sri Lanka). Two main dishes, a vanilla milkshake and an iced coffee totalled just under £7 (194,000 dong).

This afternoon, we went on a private tour to My Son (pronounced “mee sun”) with Eric (our guide); this means beautiful mountain in Vietnamese. My Son is known as the holy land. It is a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often described as the small version of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Eric was fantastic and provided different facts relating to the temple ruins dating back from the 4th century; sadly, much of it was ruined by the Americans bombing. Strangely, the French had removed all heads from statues and are now slowly returning selected parts back to the Vietnamese today as part of a special relationship. We also learnt about Hinduism, rituals and general Vietnamese culture- it was fascinating. The area surrounding My Son was beautiful too, located in a lush jungle alley.

We just missed a heavy downpour of rain when we jumped back in the car for the trip back to our homestay. Soon after, we were picked up on motorbikes at 6:30pm by Vina at Gion Cooking School for a private class. We made four fantastic dishes, selected by us, and made them from start to finish with Vina’s assistance. We also had our own small recipe books printed for us to takeaway. The food was so delicious, with the best flavour. Vina definitely took a liking to Sam- all that time in the kitchen at home with my assistance paid off (I assume!) This was a lovely way to finish our time in Hoi An; it is a fantastic city and we could have easily stayed longer. We returned to the room to pack our bags for the next morning.

Posted by LBanner1411 07:22 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Phong Nha, Vietnam

sunny 35 °C
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DAY FIFTY TWO - Monday
It felt like the middle of the night when the alarm rung at 6am to wake us for the early bus trip to Phong Nha. The journey was much better than we expected: there was a decent amount of legroom, comfortable leather seats, air conditioning and a quick stop for a toilet break and to stretch our legs when we reached half way. Within 4 hours, we arrived in Phong Nha. It was beautiful and quiet; huge green mountains surrounded us. What a contrast to the last few cities we explored in.

We hauled our backpacks onto our backs and walked to Sy’s Homestay, just out of town. This was the most perfect accommodation- definitely my favourite yet. We were allocated the best room on stilts, overlooking the stunning national park and fields. Inside was just as nice with a comfortable bed and wooden interior, and a bathroom with both an outdoor and indoor shower. The homestay itself was beautiful and peaceful with a large swimming pool surrounded by single and double sun beds.

We decided to enjoy the afternoon relaxing around the pool and planned our itinerary for the next two days exploring this beautiful place. Sy was very welcoming and straight away discussed in detail the best tours and what she recommended for us based on our interests. I much prefer the personable ambience of homestays as opposed to hotels: hosts are always so kind and do everything they can to make your stay more enjoyable, arranging your transport, tours and activities at the best price whilst explaining everything in detail.

Whilst we waited for our room, we enjoyed a huge tapas-style, buffet lunch with a mixture of delicious Vietnamese dishes cooked fresh. For tonnes of food, they only charged us £3.50 each.

Feeling full and settled into our new homestay, we relaxed by the pool for the afternoon on the double sun beds; I did some research ready for the next few days, enjoyed my book and took regular dips in the pool to cool down. It was nice having an afternoon to chill and refresh.

After showers in the evening, we used the homestay’s free bicycles to cycle into the town to Bamboo Cafe for an excellent dinner. You could taste the freshness of the bbq meat in both dishes, chicken vegetable noodles and pork kebab. We treated ourselves to a passion fruit mojito, beers and a warm brownie for desert (it was so nice to eat chocolate again).

DAY FIFTY THREE - Tuesday
We were ready for breakfast at 7:30am. I enjoyed muesli, yoghurt and fruit- exactly what I craved for weeks.

We were soon picked up in a mini van by The Jungle Boss tour group at 8am from our homestay and taken to their headquarters for briefing on the busy day ahead; the full day consisted of a 10km trek through the jungle, two cave stops, a swim in the lake and a 600m cave swim. The tour provided large water flasks with unlimited refills all day, towels and even boots (which we took as we were going to get very muddy and wet)! My attire was particularly amusing: I wore my white flight compression socks to cover my shins from bugs, mosquitos and poison ivy, combined with camouflage high top canvas shoes (see photo). They did the job!

The first 20 minutes ascending up through the jungle was tough: we clambered over slippery rocks, slid through mud, with no grip on the ‘hiking shoes’, and climbed up steep and rough terrain. It was good fun though! We finally reached the entrance to the impressive Elephant Cave (formations inside the cave walls are elephant shaped); this cave is 600 meters high and 300 meters long. Our guide, Anna, lead our small group into the depths of the cave, telling us about the war history of it. Locals took cover in the entrance of the cave during the war. She showed us different rock formations, naturally moulded in limestone 3-5 million years ago. It was surprisingly so quiet in the cave and through the jungle; only our tour had permission to enter this cave and jungle trek.

The adventurous Phong Nha hosts the biggest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong, and the third and fourth. Understandably, this part of Vietnam is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, especially those seeking adventure.

We then continued to hike through the tough jungle trail deep into Ma Da Valley. We climbed over huge rocks, balanced across fallen trees, fought against bushy trees, whilst crossing different terrains. After approximately one hour, we waded through a river, coming up to my knees, over slippery rocks, for 10 minutes or so until we reached the heavenly blue waters of Ma Da Crystal Lake (see photos).

I was looking forward to the refreshing swim after the long and sweaty trek. The porters had created small changing rooms for people to change. The water was surprisingly very very cold and it took Sam forever to finally swim in the water. After a refreshing swim, the porters set up camp and we enjoyed a bbq style lunch, making our own jungle style spring roles with cucumber, pork, tofu, rice, salad, peanuts with a homemade coriander, lemon and sugar dipping source. It was yummy!

With full bellies, we were geared up for the second part of the day and continued the tough jungle hike for roughly another hour. After a few kilometres down the trail and several river crossings, we came upon a large bend in the river and a staging area for the swim into Tra Ang Cave. We were well geared up in our swimsuits and shoes with life jackets, helmets with head torches and gloves for the cave. We scrambled up huge limestone boulders for 15/20 minutes, lunging and balancing on our legs and hauling our body weight with our arms- this was very tough, as the rocks were very slippy. We reached the cool waters of Tra Ang Cave and began the 600m swim into the furthest depths of the cave. It was an incredible experience- we got footage on the GoPro whilst swimming in the lighter parts of the cave. The shapes and formations inside were fascinating and the water was sparkly clean and fresh.

After the swim and climb back across the boulders, we were rewarded with delicious coffee and chocolate snacks before finishing the day with a final 30 minute trek to the road. We were cheered by the team with an ice cold beer and magnificent views of the stunning national park to finish the trip; what a day! It was one of my best experiences yet. I was so surprised by how authentic the whole trip was. There were no easy paths made for tourists and all the activities were true jungle style: jumping in lakes; eating lunch on a plastic sheet laid on the ground and climbing difficult paths to reach deserted caves.

We were transported back to our homestay around 6pm and immediately enjoyed well-needed showers. We somehow found the energy to cycle into town that evening to enjoy another large dinner with yummy desert.

DAY FIFTY FOUR - Wednesday
We enjoyed another nice breakfast at the homestay with mine and Sam’s favourite coffee before exploring on the bicycles for the day. After 2km, we stopped at the ticket station to catch a dragon boat along Song River to Phong Nha cave. The views along the river were beautiful.

After around 30 minutes, we reached the mouth of the cave and slowly paddled down the centre. Although this cave was open to the public, it was still untouched and we came across only a few other boats along the way. We then had the opportunity to walk around inside the cave and look at the different formations and colours. Whilst strolling, we were attacked by two groups of Chinese people asking for selfies with us. One family even threw the baby on me for a photo!

The sun had come out when we headed back along the river on the dragon boat and it was beaming- it was very hot today (highs of 37 degrees). The shining sun emphasised the beauty of our surroundings and bounced off the blue water.

Once we arrived back at the boat station, we cycled back to our homestay to finish packing. We locked our bags in a separate room for the day, as we were catching the night bus this evening.

We cycled 10km along a road adjoining Song River, then through the back roads and the rice fields- it was idyllic. We navigated around a large pack of cows lying in the shaded path and over rocky paths before reaching the small village of Bong Lai Valley, one of the poorest areas of Phong Nha, where we found The Duck Stop. The family run business was located on a farm. Whilst waiting for the tour guide, we sat in the shaded seating area with a drink and nuts. The trip was the strangest but funniest experience. We were first greeted with a conical hat, jelly sandals and a refreshing cold drink. We were taken to The Duck Heaven and greeted by a swarm of beautiful ducks, quacking at our feet. We became a ‘duck leader’ by taking them for a walk and feeding the pack of ducks before holding one and allowing it to fly into the pond. We allowed the ducks peck the food from your hands and under your feet; it was so ticklish, I couldn’t handle it! We then met another member of the family, Mister Donald Trump, a huge friendly buffalo and a baby buffalo.

We were treated to delicious traditional farm food, Vietnamese pancake. Before we left, we played and cuddled with the cutest two-week old puppies; my heart melted! They were adorable - see photos.

We cycled back through the rice fields to relax in the pool at our homestay for the remainder of the afternoon whilst reviewing the photos and GoPro videos from the last few days. After showering, our host took us on the back of their motorbike to the bus stop and organised our tickets for the night bus. After enjoying dinner, we caught the bus en route to Ninh Binh (in the north) at 9:30pm. It was surprisingly muchmore comfortable than we expected. We had our own recliner chair that laid down flat like a bed with a blanket and pillow. I wore my eye mask and listened to music on my headphones before dozing off to sleep after an hour or so. We arrived in Tam Coc earlier than expected around 3:45am. Half asleep, we checked the offline maps to thankfully find our homestay was only a 5-minute walk from this point. Our host greeted us with cold water and immediately lead us to our room, which we did not expect at this hour.

Posted by LBanner1411 07:19 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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