We left Bai Xep in the early hours of the morning for a journey up the coast of Vietnam. The day was broken up with a few stops that are absolutely worth noting. About halfway along the journey, we stopped at My Lai and the memorial museum in this quiet, pensive part of the country. This well known village in southern Vietnam is devastatingly famous, as it’s the site of the My Lai Massacre in 1968 where around 500 unarmed civilian villagers including entire families were slaughtered by American soldiers, and has been described as “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War”. We watched a short documentary explaining the events of the massacre, and to better understand what had happened on that tragic day. I won’t go into the details of the massacre, but it was far too barbaric for words, and without reason or rationale I was shocked into silence at the brutality of humans. Trying to understand the mentality of the Americans was complicated, and later we tried to desperately figure out what could have caused their behaviour but there will never really be an answer. Following the film, we went to the museum area to visualise the event, and see important pieces of evidence and items from the village. Much like the War Remnants Museum, there was a lot to take in, and as the entire situation can be analysed it becomes very complex. I felt at this point I could not read or learn any more, so chose to take in the severity and gravitas of what I already knew, and look just at the photographs that so vividly show the event.
The village itself is now of course largely non existent as much of it was burnt down. They have done an amazing job at preserving as much as possible, and replicated some of the homes to give visitors an idea of what the village one was like. Sign posts show where particular families lived, and how they died in the village. As you continue your walk along the paths you notice that they are littered with footprints carefully imprinted into the ground to mirror the footprints of soldiers and villagers. This subtle but constant reminder of the ground you stand on is eery, but I think a beautiful way to add meaning to the now bare landscape. The numerous signs and memorials to families is truly heartbreaking, and knowing that tiny babies less than a year old were killed amongst their siblings, parents, grandparents is just astounding. The stone memorial statue at the end of a paved garden stands out between the fields where houses once stood. The statue represents the resilience and strength of the people, and is really the most important message to pass on. Much of what we know about the war is why the acts were committed by Americans, what they carried out and how. The facts we should really familiarise ourselves with is, “What did the survivors do? How did they cope? Was there any retribution for them?”. Part of the documentary does focus on this, the face to face meeting of a local survivor and the return of an American solider. While the American has blocked most events from memory and in parts denies the severity of his involvement, the victim practices patience, tolerance and serenity with asking appropriate and fair questions. I absolutely admired him!
After a long and reflective drive we finally reached the charmingly quaint city of Hoi An. 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 this amazing one right in the heart of the gorgeous Old City, and everyone 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 numerious 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, which are of course beautiful, before heading back the haven of aircon for everyone to try on their tailors 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 fully of variety meant we were in the city around the time the party life begins. Me and Emily 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 (this is a recurring trend by the way)! 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. 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, but once again chose the beauty sleep over spending. A wise choice I think!
Another day another bus (it’s getting repetitive I know) and the stop off this time was to the fascinating Vinh Moc Tunnels, an impressive underground village developed by Vietnamese people to allow civilians safety in living and working throughout bombings. These tiny narrow passageways were pitch black, it was hard to imagine an entire village down there! Certainly not one for the more claustrophobic type, but interesting nonetheless. Our end 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, headtorches guiding our way and preventing and 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, as sadly we had opted for the non-visa visit to save some money and therefore were limited to two weeks in Vietnam. Top tip, as far as I’m aware, if you’re only looking to stay a little longer than that then it’s actually worth overstaying the non-visa and paying the fine that getting the visa. 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. An uneventful journey took us this time to Ninh Binh. At first we were underwhelmed by the unassuming town, but beyond the trees and around the corner we were greeted with marvellous view of the mountains encompassing the town on every side. An 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, 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.
Our day trip to the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay is possible one of the more dramatic days of the entire trip. So buckle up kids, you’re in for a treat! A bright and early start and we were shoved onto a confusing bus where no one seemed to know what was happening. A few hours in, a random stop at what appeared to be someone’s house (I assume this was breakfast?), and we were really behind the schedule for arriving. I’m normally a pretty relaxed traveller, but I was getting extremely agitated and bizarrely freezing cold on this journey, feeling pretty claustrophobic and generally not having much fun. We FINALLY reached Halong Bay where we were dumped at some kind of waiting room full of people and with a couple of measly fans to cool everyone. 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 starving, dehydrated and feeling really concerned. We called our old guide who’d helped us book the boat day trip in a panic, and he was fuming at the company. Someone came to talk to us and spent some time on the phone, and then ran off again. This happened a few times and we had no clue what was happening! 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 to be honest. Neither of us felt great, and after I ate some lunch I really started to feel unwell.
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 bed however, and opted for a long and sweaty sleep while Em wandered the park. Our last night with Hollie and Tallulah too, 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 Em was 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 better, but I really really hope to return on a bigger budget, and with more time. It seems a lovely family holiday destination, so we shall see! 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 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 NZ and seeing it all over the glorious mountains there. The difference between these two (both beautiful of course) views is that the Vietnamese seems to have each view ever so slightly tarnished with a pylon, a sprinkling of rubbish, or an abandoned house. The NZ landscape is so perfectly untouched and preserved, it goes to show how much more of a priority nature and the environment is for more developed countries, maybe they have the resources and finances to have this privilege, and I truly hope that it’s something we can work towards in other countries too. Our world is so beautiful, let’s keep it that way!
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! Emily 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 Emily and a kind Vietnamese 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 acutally very lovely cave saw us out the otherside and back on the boat. Thank God. A few more stops included seeing the kissing chicken rocks, and a kayak trip. I didn’t get to enjoy any of this, but Em tells me 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 colour 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.