On the second part of our Vietnamese journey, take a look at the wonderful nature and landscape of northern Vietnam, as well as historical famous cities such as Hoi An up to Hanoi full of colour, life, and beautiful scenes that take your breath away.
In beautiful afternoon sunshine we reached the charmingly quaint city of Hoi An after a long bus ride from Bai Xep. We had made the decision to stay a little further from the centre of the Old City for a cheaper price, but my goodness was it worth it. For around just £4 a night we were treated to hotel style luxury; inclusive breakfast, soft comfortable twin beds, televisions, air con and best of all… A BATH. And an extremely modern and lovely one at that. Bliss.
That afternoon we visited what everyone in Hoi An is there for; A Tailors! We were recommended one right of the hundreds of options in the heart of the gorgeous Old City, and our group quickly set about designing outfits and picking fabrics. I had chosen not to get anything custom made, purely because I didn’t know what I wanted so thought there was no point getting something I’d never wear! It was so much fun looking through the numerous catalogues of ideas though, and once everyone had decided and ordered we headed for dinner and an evening stroll along the river.
The following day we wanted to explore some of the historical attractions, but as the weather was SO hot, we decided to take an easy and calm morning gently wandering the old temples and sites such as the Japanese Bridge and Chinese Assembly Hall, and temples, which are of course beautiful, before heading back to the haven of aircon for everyone to try on their tailored purchases. As they did so, I had stumbled across another one of the hundreds of tailors and noticed an outfit I actually really liked…. Went in and within 20 minutes had a fabric picked and measurements taken! $20 lighter I went back myself and was really pleased with how perfect the fit was!
We had a lot of fun in the tailors actually (some more than others….$$$!) so you can see how people get so wrapped up with the fun of it. Dinner and the most amazing ice cream parlour full of variety meant we were in the city around the time the party life begins. We weren’t fussed by this, so opted for another chilled stroll around before heading back to bed.
Moving on from Hoi An took us to Hue via the most beautiful coastal roads (Top Gear fans would recognise the scenery from a special episode!), a practical and perfectly lovely city where we spent the afternoon enjoying a beautiful sunset at the river, and practising English with a few local students!
There is more to do in Hue, it would have been nice to spend a day or so extra to visit the citadel, but at this point we were really historically saturated and tight for time. Not only that, but because we were visiting in the peak of summer the weather was often unbearably hot to enjoy any activities well into the afternoon. Like Hoi An, Hue is another city with a lively backpacker scene, so evenings are easily spent in bars and restaurants with lots of free alcohol. We enjoyed a brief time at a bar with friends from our bus tour, but once again chose the beauty sleep over spending. A wise choice I think!
Our next destination was Phong Nha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is part of the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. This tiny town is surrounded by incredible rocky mountains towering above, and with just a few places to stay or eat at the real attraction here is the wonderful natural scenery. That night we encountered an almighty thunder storm, which while it was unexpected was also great fun to run around in!
Phong Nha has one particularly popular activity, and that is to go on an adventure tour through the Dark Cave buried deep in the mountains.
There are plenty of caves in the national park, but this one is where it all happens. After a scenic drive to the cave, you’re harnessed up ready to zipline your way to entrance which gives you a fabulous panoramic view of the surroundings, and you less than gracefully plop onto the mud on arrival. A brief swim to the actual cave and you’re away!
We followed along a group of people in the enormous cavern, head torches guiding our way and preventing any slips. After spotting a few fossils in the rock walls, marvelling at the melted ice cream looking stalactites, and wading the chilly waters, we reached the muddy grottos before entering the bizarre mud baths!
The muddy clay has mixed with the water to create waist deep pools of richly coloured mud, the consistency of which is like melted chocolate (it really added to my ice cream imagery!). And it gets EVERYWHERE. We purposefully wore old bikinis and I’m so glad, my poor GoPro couldn’t be cleaned until we were out it was so thick. The coolest thing is that the solution is so dense, you literally can’t sit down and instead have to float, bobbing around and trying not to bump into each other.
Once we’d conquered the mud slide into the icy pools inside the cave, a short swim back to the start and we were free to tackle the ziplines and attempt the high ropes adventure course (it was hard ok?!). The cave is understandably popular for these amazing reasons, but for me it was the otherworldly magic atmosphere that made it so appealing. There were hundreds of butterflies all around and in the entrance to the cave, as if we were entering a fairy kingdom. Once we had experienced it all, I can understand why many movies such as King Kong use the area as a filming location; the untouched landscape makes for a great shot, and the distinctive jagged mountains make it so eye catching and memorable.
Dark Cave and Phong Nha
As we travelled along further up the narrow country, we were nearly at the end of our Vietnamese trip, as sadly we had opted for the non-visa visit to save some money and therefore were limited to two weeks in Vietnam.
It’s been heard that if you’re only looking to stay a little longer than the 15 day minimum then it’s actually worth overstaying the non-visa and paying the fine that getting the evisa. I wouldn’t absolutely recommend it, but it’s good to know a fine won’t break the bank if you find yourself stuck or just unwilling to budge from such a beautiful country.
Another scenic bus journey took us this time to Ninh Binh. Although an unassuming town, beyond the trees and around the corner visitors are greeted with marvellous views of the mountains encompassing the town on every side.
A perfectly lovely little spot, I imagine one could easily enjoy wandering along the waterfront and enjoying dinner at one of the many restaurants, but sadly we had little time to stay. We were really here as a midway point to reach Halong Bay (as many visitors are), so only spent one night in Ninh Binh. I can’t say I feel we missed much, the views were great however I’m unsure there was much to do that we hadn’t already done, but from people that stayed I hear it’s a very pleasant stopping point.
Getting to Halong Bay
My account of a day trip to the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay is possibly one of the more dramatic days of my entire trip, and certainly a different kind of story. So buckle up kids, you’re in for a treat!
After a delayed and long bus ride we finally reached Halong Bay where we were let off at a waiting room full of people awaiting their boat cruise and with a couple of basic fans to cool everyone it was getting rather sweaty. We waited for quite some time, having been assured that we would be told what boat to catch very soon (half an hour they said…)
Three hours later, we were hungry, dehydrated and feeling really concerned by the lack of information. We didn’t want to be stranded! We called our previous bus guide who’d helped us book the boat day trip in a panic, and he was quick to sort it out for us. A few people came to find out our details and go to sort the issue of placing us on a boat, but without much luck. I knew it was a very popular tourist destination, with a huge number of people to coordinate and keep track of but really it was baffling that we were seemingly left behind as everyone began leaving and filling up the many boats waiting to start their trips.
Finally, a taxi drove us to the main harbour nearby, where we were given a free lunch and drink, and told we were boarding at 2pm. It didn’t seem so bad now we had an answer, but we were a little bummed out at how long the waiting had taken. To make matters worse, after I ate some lunch I really started to feel unwell.
Halong Bay Cruise
Once on the boat, is when things got really bad. I was very sick, feverish and generally feeling really unwell. I tried sooo hard to enjoy the majestic, mountainous rocks and glorious views of the scenery and soak up all I could, but sometimes your body knows best! My travel companion was a sweetheart, and took photos for me and made sure I was drinking.
A little while in we were dropped off at Thien Cung Cave, the largest and most beautiful cave in Halong Bay. I felt so out of it at this point, I had resorted to just lying on the ground as it was the only way to not feel sick. Annoyingly, the only way back onto the boat was to walk through the cave, so after some gentle assistance from my friend and a kind local couple, I made it to the stop of the steep steps at the entrance….And promptly threw up (I am so sorry). I can’t believe it happened, it was absolutely awful and I’ve never been more embarrassed, but I did start to feel a little better!
A gentle walk through the beautiful cave saw us out the other side and back on the boat. Thank Goodness. A few more stops included seeing the kissing chicken rocks, and a kayak trip. I didn’t get to enjoy any of this, but I’m told it was good!
Back on dry land and feeling super disappointed, the couple that had helped me insisted they drive us to the hospital. I was genuinely feeling better, so we told them we would catch our bus to Hanoi but they wouldn’t take no for an answer! They spoke with the bus driver (who gave us some money for a new bus ticket?!) and drove us in their beautiful car to a hospital, where I was given a colourful variety of meds to settle whatever it was I had (we’re assuming stomach bug or food poisoning!).
They were so incredible generous to us, insisting on buying us food, paying the hospital and so on. We even missed the last bus, and they let us stay in the most fabulous flat for the night with them. I can’t express how touched I was by such pure kindness, and I couldn’t even communicate my thanks because they didn’t really speak English! They even went so far as to drive us ALL the way to Hanoi the following morning, and arranged a taxi to our new hostel.
I have never seen such out-of-your-way generosity towards a stranger. We wanted so much to pay them back, but their parting message was only that we should help someone out if we see them in trouble like they did for us. Something I often remind myself of, and honestly hope I can be as kind as they were. THANK YOU.
Finally in our last stop in Vietnam, the buzzing capital of Hanoi. Just one night here before our flight, our plan had been to do a range of things. I couldn’t really leave my bed however, and opted for a long and sweaty sleep to ease off the queasiness.
We had a short walk around the city at night, but were really just too exhausted for much sight seeing. We arrived at the airport super early for our flight the following day, because my travel partner was now also starting to feel ill, and it had been a crazy, non stop few weeks and just felt we needed to sit and recharge for a while instead of manically running around trying to cram it all in. It’s a shame our end to Vietnam wasn’t more exciting, but I really really hope to return on a bigger budget, and with more time. It’s absolutely a lovely holiday destination, so watch this space! Thank you Vietnam, you have been one of my favourites and the memories and enlightenments I’ve had there will be with me forever.
A final thought on Vietnam will be that over the course of travelling, one of my favourite things to look at is dappled sunlight on mountains and the landscape, particularly when there’s cloud that causes interesting patterns and shadows on the hills. Seeing it frequently in Vietnam reminds me of why I love nature and the outdoors so much. The growing economy of Vietnam means that it’s important now more than ever to maintain and protect the environment. It goes to show how we as a global community must prioritise nature and help one another with resources, education, and finance so we can continue the privilege or exploring these countries. Our world is so beautiful, let’s keep it that way!
And there we have it! The most beautiful places in Vietnam, from natural landscape to city views across the coastline.
Where is your favourite beautiful spot? Have you been to any of these places in Vietnam? Tell me a story!