North Viet Nam

We took an overbooked sleeper bus from Phong Nha to Hanoi, whilst we were relatively comfortable in our seat/beds some poor guys ended up on the floor of the bus for the 10 hour trip due to lack of space. The day before leaving Phong nha we went to a hostel and booked our Halong Bay tour with them, the tour left the morning we arrived in Hanoi so it was a bit of stress getting from sleeper bus to the hostel where our tour left from but we made it!

We chose to do our Halong bay tour with central backpackers hostel after a bit of research- we settled on these guys because:

  1. It was in our budget- about $100 NZD for boat tour of Halong Bay, one night accommodation on a private island in the bay, and all our food
  2. They had a bit of a party vibe with other young people, but not a crazy one
  3. We saw some positive reviews online
Island we stayed at in halong bay
Fishing Village

The tour started with a three hour bus ride arriving at a dock where we supposed to jump on a speed boat to get to the next bus. Just before jumping on the boat we saw a very ill looking young man who looked like he was about to pass out- his friends, laughing at his misfortune reassured us that he was just seasick- which was good that he wasn’t dying, but not very reassuring for us about to get on to said boat. After all that it was actually fine. Another bus trip for an hour around Cat Ba island we ended at another port where we were greeted by two enthusiastic American boys who were going to be our trip leaders- they fed us lunch then took us around the bay, through a floating fishing village where 2000 people live, reportedly only leaving to get married.

We stopped for swimming and jumping off the boat which was good fun. On the boat it was all drinking games and chatting. Arriving at the island in late afternoon we were very impressed with the set up they had there- dorms set up on bungalows on the beach, volley ball court in the sand, a little beach, and a bar area.

The next day we went on a kayaking trip around the bay which was a good way to see more of the bay and see some of the local floating fishing villages, with their guard dogs at home during business hours. After lunch we made our way back to Hanoi via boat-> bus-> boat-> bus->Hanoi.

Mai Chau

The next day we hired scooters for our journey to Mai Chau (in case you can’t tell we love scooters now, I think its about 50/50 chance we will get one when we get back). Mai Chau is a smallish village of about 50000 nestled in a valley in the north west of the country, about 4 hours from Ha noi.

On the trip which took around 4 hours- we saw some pretty amazing things:

  • Fast paced Hanoi traffic, hundreds of scooters, shoulder to shoulder at the traffic lights, and zooming around on one road weaving in and out of each other
  • Incredible Karst landscape with small mountains surrounded by green rice paddies,
  • A large bowl of Pho, so tasty and very good at curing our impeding  hanger.
  • We drove over a pass that went up into a mountain into and above the clouds and back down again, this pass took us past some small mountain villages, where the inhabitants live year round in the cloud and cold. This pass is a favourite of trucks and buses. On a small scooter, this can cause a little concern. Trucks are slow, and provide warmth when sitting behind them, however this holds up traffic. The bus drivers in Viet Nam seem to be a bold breed, part formula one driver, part chimney, and part efficient people distributor.
  • And finally down into Mai Chau which was a small village in a valley area- green paddies surrounded the town
Issy ready to ride.

We were very lucky with the weather- about 30 minutes after we arrived at our guesthouse it started to rain and thunder and lightning went on lighting up the sky and the rice paddies until we went to sleep that night.

Overlooking Mai Chau

Beautiful weather the next day! We went to a local cave where we were the only people there, there were so many stairs to get to the cave it would put the Huks in Ngawarahia to shame: 

In a Mai Chau cave, 1000 steps.

It was a day of firsts for Chris: He finally broke and bought a banana shirt that day. Tried his first yoghurt coffee (vanilla yoghurt, ice, a shot of espresso on top). And he ate a plate of fried cockroaches, apparently the thing that stands out the most with them was the crunch. 

The next day we mucked about on the scooters and went to see a local waterfall and lake.

Hanoi

And the next day was the most important day- MY BIRTHDAY (6th April, just a date to add to your calendar for next year). That’s right I finally turned 20! We started the day with a yoghurt coffee each and then got on the road to scooter back to Hanoi. Back in Hanoi in late afternoon we treated ourselves to a massage which was actually really good! We stayed in a hostel which did a free beer happy hour so we enjoyed a few drinks then headed out into the old quarter of Hanoi which had closed off its roads and had bands playing in the middle of intersections with makeshift bars (little plastic chairs and plastic tables selling 20 cent beers). It was an excellent night!

The next day Issy was ill (read hungover). We moved to a different hotel that was the cheapest on booking.com we could find, naturally the room had suspicious black spots in the corners of the ceiling (?black mold) and the only window in the room slid open to the wall of the building next door a full 2 centimetres ok.(so no natural light). But hey it was ok. Walking around we found a group of people doing temporary tattoos with henna. I chose a wave and sun pattern for my forearm and felt pretty cool. As soon as she had finished the henna an aggressive police man came up to and confiscated all of the henna pens- we tried to do a bit of research but couldn’t get a definite answer about if and why henna might be banned in Vietnam. It was a weird incident.

That night we went to a water puppet show. This show was a traditional form of entertainment. It involved an impressive performance with a mix of puppets, pyrotechnics, and traditional music.

The next day we walked around and explored a bit of Hanoi. On our 24th day in Vietnam we caught the bus to the airport to fly to China.

Vietnam Part 2- show me the Huế (way)

We heard about the Hai Van Pass whilst in Hoi An- a legendary road between Hoi An and Hue made famous by an episode of Top gear where the crew heads to Vietnam to motorbike through the country. Jeremy Clarkson described this 130km stretch between the two cities as “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coast roads in the world”. Naturally we had to do it so we hired some bikes in Hoi An and set off (our bags being sent ahead to Hue). Our first stop was marble mountain, which was an impressive feat, with several large statues and temple buildings located within in caves of the mountain. It was a hot day and it took all of 5 minutes before we were soaked in sweat. It had proven to be

We got back on the bikes and continued to head north through Da Nang, where towering high skyscrapers meet the white sandy beaches, with only a thin strip of four lane road for the thousands of bikes cars and buses to navigate in between.

One of the highlights of the whole pass was going over the bridge on the north side of Da Nang, the views of both city and bay were incredible as we crossed the bridge. Next came the pass itself, which travels up into the hills. It weaves back and forth through a series of hairpin bends, steep inclines and impressive forest and ocean scenery until you reach its summit.


Summit of the pass, featuring our flash prescription sunnies again! Sadly later that day Chris sat on mine and broke them.

Dodging in and out of the path of buses and trucks tackling the pass on the way down we reached an beach town, famous for its fresh seafood restaurants- wasted unfortunately on us- we just had the noodles, hold the fish. A few hours later on the road we hit Hue city, a little sunburnt, tired, but on a high from an amazing day!

Restaurant literally on the beach!

It turns out the cooling power of winds from speeding along on a Yamaha Nouvo 135 cc is still no match for the sun. We may not have eaten any seafood but Chris was full lobster by the time we got off the bikes.
We made a fun video of our trip through the pass on our go pro!

In Hue, we spent two days hanging out in the city, which used to be the old capital of imperial Vietnam.

This part of the country is littered with temples, citadels, pagodas, and tombs. Unfortunately, due to the bombing during the war a lot of these are no longer standing.

We had kept our bikes from the day before which made for a fun day getting around the busy streets and empty country roads. We made for one of the larger remaining temples, where the Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang (1820-1841) is resting. He has a rather large tomb, but I suppose this is necessary when you have 142 children, 43 wives, and what sounds like a big personality.

Issy in the deserted pavilion courtyard at the tomb of Minh Mang.

The other attraction of note in Hue was the beach. We were told it was a great place to swim and in 30 degree heat we couldn’t pass up the chance to cool off. Man, it was weird. It was what you might picture when you think of a beach in North Korea. A kind of average beach on an overcast day, very few people there, and loud jazz music playing tinnily on big speakers all along the sand line. It was a beach with a weird vibe. A really weird vibe. We didn’t swim that day.

We took a 5 hour bus (with the world’s smallest amount of leg room) to Phong Nha. There was a lightening storm during the ride providing interesting watching whilst listening to podcasts.

Phong Nha is an incredible spot. The surrounding area is filled with steep hills made from limestone, hundreds of cave systems and spectacular underground rivers. Consequently this sleepy little town now has the reputation of being the adventure capital of Vietnam! The vistas! Oh the vistas! This would mean more motorbiking for sure (sorry mum).

The end of the cave we swam through on our tour, wow right?

Ever struggling to fully embrace the poor backpacker lifestyle we splashed out on a one day caving experience ( we paid 1.8 million each! Not sure if we mentioned this but we are millionaires in Vietnam). The day of caving was amazing:

– we got wet (swimming through caves- it was BYO quick drying long pants and unfortunately had only brought his chinos overseas- he was waddling like a duck towards the end those pants were not fast drying)

-we got dirty!

-and we got very paranoid looking out for snakes, leeches, and poison ivy!

More bats and less glow worms than Waitomo caves, we were warned not to look up with our mouths open unless we wanted bat poo for morning tea
This was pre-Chris having to begin his long waddle back home

Stay tuned for our next and final leg of our Vietnam trip were we travel by sleeper bus, more buses, boats, and to mums horror- more bikes around Northern Vietnam…

Vietnam Part 1- So Phở, so good

Cruising down the Thu Bon river in Hoi An (wearing our flash new prescription sunglasses from Hoi An)

Ho chi minh city

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at night (Saigon depending on who you talk to) after more than 24 hours of travel from Auckland. Being on a budget this trip we had enthusiastically booked our first few nights in a 10 bed room in a party hostel. Naturally, we managed to be awkward in more than 3 languages to our new roommates on our first night in the shared quarters.

On our first day in the city we couldn’t believe how hectic is was (apparently there are more motorbikes in this city than people in New Zealand!). We stood for literally 10 minutes on the side of the road waiting for a gap in the traffic whilst elderly women and children crossed with clearly no care for their own mortality. Our favourite motorbiker that day was an amazing gentleman who zoomed past us carrying a tray and two full bowls of pho (noodle soup). Unfortunately he zoomed past too quick for us to get a photo, right is my accurate artistic rendition of this.

We did a walking tour of Ho Chi Mihn seeing the highlights of city (including a big statue of the man himself), and tasting for the first time Vietnamese coffee- which has since started an obsession for us of strong coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk over ice (trust me it’s good, this coming from someone who would normally consider a coffee ruined if any one added sugar to it).

Chris was treated to his first (mini) tourist scam: we met a lovely man carrying some coconuts in a chilly bin across his back about town, he jovially put the stick he was using to carry it on Chris so he would carry it down the road for him. Chris being the polite gentleman he is, awkwardly carried the stick and coconuts for a few hundred metres. The coconut man gave Chris a coconut to drink for his hard work and then asked for 100, 000 dong for this (about 4 times what a coconut was worth we later learned). What could we do but pay this clever man?

I tried to take a picture when we were crouch/walking through the tunnels, basically its a cramped tunnel

The next day we went on a tour to Cu Chi tunnels, just south of the city, which was a pretty crazy place. During the Vietnam war the VietCong (Vietnamese Communists, the ones fighting against the US) were being attacked by the US and had regular carpet bombing of the area- to try and survive they built a secret underground tunnel network of more than 250km where they ate, slept, cooked, had families etc. At this complex they showed you the tunnels and let you walk through them (they are tiny!), if you want you can shoot a gun for a small fee! A Rambo which is a machine gun mounted to the back of a jeep, M16 rifles, etc it was pretty crazy. And the best shot wins a soft toy prize- really.

Our hostel room remained a bit of a weird place while we stayed there- with no windows and half of the inhabitants hung over it was a dark and smelly sleep and the lack of light made it difficult to say if it was 4 pm or 4am waking in my jet lagged state. It was an easy decision that the next stop we were getting our own room.

hoi an

We flew to Hoi An via Da Nang (I know, we should have taken some terrible overnight bus as a rite of passage into our new lives as full-time travellers but whatever it was cheap and those buses are pretty average).

And we stayed in this place for $20/night, with our own air-conditioned room and a pool in this hot weather it was too good to miss!

We spent 6 days of chilling and exploring this little tourist town.

In Hoi An our food adventure really began- we ate so many Bahn Mi (Vietnamese sandwich in a small baguette) I lost count, bun cha, cau lau, pho, rice and vegetables cooked in banana leaves, fresh beer (at 20 cents a glass) and of course more Vietnamese coffee.

Chris enjoying a pot of fresh beer
Hoi An ancient town sits along the river

Since 1999 in Hoi An, when UNESCO status was awarded to the beautiful ancient town on the river, there has been a massive increase in tourism – with the result that most houses that made this place famous have been sold by the community to shop owners to be used to sell trinkets, clothes, art and food. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An- we didn’t go into knowing it would be impossible to carry a newly tailored suit around the world. However we did find a very reasonably price optometrist that we had some prescription “ray bans” made for us (see the first picture of this post to see how flash they are)!

The ancient town at night is lit up with lanterns and markets, and is exceptionally beautiful.

Apparently Hoi An’s obsession with lanterns began in the 16th and 17th century, when the town was home to one of southeast Asias biggest ports. Japanese merchants often hung tube and cage-shaped lanterns along the poles in front of their houses, which lit up the commercial quarters at night. Locals soon began hanging lanterns out as well, with hopes of bringing good luck to the town. Turns out we would become obsessed with lanterns too.

We found out that you could make your own lantern with “The Lantern lady” in a workshop in town. We love arts and crafts so this was right up our alley- we spent more than 2 hours assembling our lanterns with thin bamboo, wire, and silk. This was one of our highlights of our time in Hoi An! Check out the finished product:

We still have our lanterns hanging on the side of our big travel backpacks!

One day was spent at the nearby beach, filled with overweight french men and local fisherman. It was ok, but the beach didn’t hold up against the New Zealand beaches we are used to, I guess we are spoiled there.

We went on a day tour out to Mỹ Sơn.

This is a set of ruins from the ancient Cham Empire in the central coast of Vietnam. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Hindu temple complex built by the Champa who ruled South and Central Vietnam from the 3rd century until 1832. Upon their succession, Champa kings would build temple complexes at Mỹ Sơn. The name Mỹ Sơn means beautiful mountain in Vietnamese. The temple complex is located in a valley, surrounded by mountains, the sides of which are covered in thick jungle.

An old bomb crater at Mỹ Sơn

It was used a base for the VietCong during the war- as a result of the US military bombings during the War, a lot of the temples were destroyed- there were bullet holes in tomb walls and several bomb craters still visible within the complex.

We travelled back from the site along the Hoi An river which was a highlight of the tour.  

Our next leg of our trip will take place on these bad boys, stay tuned for the next adventure…

Larue

A Larue bia, Ho Chi Minh City, French Quarter (Saigon).

Bia Larue vietnam. est 1909.

Victor Laure is one of the principal antagonists in the show’ Walker, Texas Ranger’, a seminal series from the mind of our generation, Chuck Norris. Between 1997 and 1999 the show reached a zenith during its sixth and seventh seasons, seen by an average of 14.4 million spectators per evening, taking Walker Texas Ranger to be one of the most popular series in the USA . This is also the namesake of the Frenchman who first brewed the Larue in the back of the french quarter of Saigon in the middle of May 1909. The parallels between the show and the beer end here.

Heineken (who now manufacture this brew) state that the ingredients are imported from both England and Australia. I am suspicious that they may have ride share set up with the prolific amount of tourists from these areas, in order to keep costs down.

Condensation on a cold can is liberal, akin to the sheen you get after eating a spicy pho in 35 degree heat. It tastes better from a glass bottle, better yet is the second one. The carrying capacity in a session is around 8 -9 Larues, largely due to all cafes reverting the inferior un-chilled version at that point.

Head: Think of Hoi An waves hitting a 55 year old sunburnt Englishman. Overall, a foamy finish, but not something you would call clean. Slightly bigger than what you would prefer and not something you need to spend your time looking at. Golden in colour, with a slight malty aroma, once again reminding us of George from East Sussex. (once he has gotten the sunblock sorted)

Larue has about as much tastes like a still fresh ‘h e a v e n‘ tattoo on the back of the arm of an 18 year old Swedish backpacker (likely named Ana) who will ‘totally not regret it’ after she found herself on a 2 day booze cruise in Ha Long Bay. The flavour duration is highly reminiscent of the degree of attention you get from waiter in the back street bun cha place (short, to non-existent).

Like a lot of South-East Asian beers, this is very much in the traditional lager style which suits hot muggy afternoons, and the smell of a million two stroke engines. The hops have about as much kick as the drums during the first 1:49 of the skream remix of the song by that La roux chick.  At a mild 4.2% you will need a fair few of these to light up the dance floor like a hoi an lantern.

This cold drop goes down faster the price of the ‘genuine’ Ray Bans when you walk away first offer for $20,  both Ray Bans and a 6 pack of these bad boys will set you back  $2. Don’t get scammed, stay safe out there you intrepid souls.

Hangovers are not one to rue, only helped by the ease of access of Cà phê Sài Gòn. Larues are priced cheaper than water and can be found in pretty much every single shop in the country.

If you come to Viet Nam to find yourself, find this beer first. It’ll be more honest with you than you’ll ever be.


9/10, nothing phenomenal in terms of flavour, but perfect for hot afternoons. Aggressive pricing only helps the cause.

Enjoying a Larue on the Thu Bon River.