Our Vietnam Route

We spent two weeks in Vietnam – we moved from the capital Hanoi to Cat Ba Island which is close to the (in) famous Ha Long Bay. Afterwards, we took a train to reach the central highlands – Tam Coc, Hue, Bach Ma and Hoi An. We spent our finals days in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon – the old capital of South Vietnam – and we sailed along the Mekong Delta.

In Vietnam we were amazed by stunning, immense sceneries; we have learnt to deal with wild drivers and savage traffic jams, dynamic cities, fierce, determined but generous people, tons of Asians tourists. We understood that only patience could save us when it comes to transportation. Last but not least, our bargaining skills have now reached the TOP level – we could probably run a business at the local market.

Central-North

Since I’ve already told you about Hanoi in my previous post I’ll talk more extensively about Cat Ba Island. Here we spent the worst two days we have had so far during our holiday.

Don’t get me wrong, the island is stunning; however, it is loud, dirty and crowded, full of low-priced and packed boat tours that drive you up and down the bay. Luckily, we decided to paya bit more: totally worth it. We almost got a personal tour, since we shared our boat with only other 7 people. Also, our tour avoided Monkey Island, a popular stop were tourists are encouraged to give beers to monkeys 😢. For the ones planning to visit Vietnam, the tour is organized by Cat Ba Express.

Ha Long Bay – which means “Descending Dragon” from a local legend that tells that dragons came to help Vietnamese to fight invaders
Today, still, some parts of the Bay are dangerous due to unexploded mines placed during the Vietnam War
The breakfast is prepared directly in front of you

The Central Highlands – Tam Coc

After a very rough drive from Cat Ba to Tam Coc, we finally relaxed in this enchanting national park. As soon as we were dropped off to our stay we were able to smell the hay of the fields

This city is particularly famous for the production of rice – literally, there are tons of kilos of rice drying under the sun in every corner of the city, on the roads and in parking lots. Every space in the direct sunlight is used for this purpose, and cars just drive on it! Of course, we tried it too 😏

We decided to visit the park by scooter, and we climbed up and down temples in the tropical heat. At Tam Coc there are no hills: the ground is flat, where rice is cultivated, surrounded by karst mountains – which If you remove the rice paddies and you replace them with water, it’s like being in Ha Long Bay, with more cows and less tourists.

The Central Highlands – Hue

Since we wanted to avoid a night bus in the fear of experiencing crazy drivers for 18 hours, we decided to take the night train. This was one of the best choices ever. The train is old and charming as soon as you move on the railway you are inevitably brought back to the past.

Hue was our chill stop. We decided to visit restaurants instead of the ancients tombs; however we couldn’t avoid visiting the old imperial citadel, that was right in front of our stay.

Bonsai garden
In 1802 emperor Gia Long moved the capital from Ha Noi to Hue to unify the North and the South of the country – so the Citadel was built

The Central Highlands – Bach Ma and Hoi An

From our stay in Hue we arranged a private car to reach Bach Ma national park and then Hoi An, our next destination. Bach Ma is the mountain that gives the name to an immense national park hosting one fifth of Vietnam’s biodiversity. It is even said that some of the remaining wild tigers live in the most hidden corners of this beautiful park.

In 1930 the park became a popular resort and holidays destination among the French and the richest part of Vietnamese society. And that’s the period when the first chalets and houses started to be built in the park.

The Viet Cong dug some of their tunnels in the mountain

We decided to follow the 5 lakes trail. During our trek in the forest we were surrounded by gigantic butterflies and dragon flies, as well as other strange bugs. The lakes are little mountain ponds all connected through the same stream of water – you can also swim there.

South – Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

Saigon is very busy – maybe even more than Hanoi – but the atmosphere here it’s totally different. The people seem to be more relaxed, less motorcycles use the sidewalks. Foremost, the city is full with small bars, cafés and restaurants, some of them are even “secret” spots, without any sign to recognize them. We found one, the rogue bar, which is specialised in crafted, local beers, and even has a rooftop space! Next to these little gems there are modern skyscrapers, and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the tallest of Vietnam.

Scooter traffic jam
This man was born in 1930. He cycles everyday to the post; he is a public writer and you can ask him to write your postcards
Anything can be transported by bike
Vietnam’s highest skyscraper
In this building apartments, restaurants and cafés mix together

Around Ho Chin Minh City there are the Cu Chi Tunnels, a net of circa 200 km underground that was built to protect people from the American bombings. It was also used by Viet Congs as secret base and armoury. Villagers moved their everyday lives two meters under the ground: since the bombings were so frequent women started sewing or using the telar, there were beds and cooking spaces. We tried to walk for 100 meters in one of these tunnels. The place is so narrow, you have to crawl to move forward, and there is not a lot of oxygen. Definitely not recommended for claustrophobic people.

End of the tunnel
The Viet Cong used to hide in these holes during the bombings

Moreover, the area offers the possibility to shoot with the guns used during the war, the AK-47 and the M16. When you visit the outdoor museum, you always hear in the background people shooting, and it definitely helps you imagine how the place would look like 50 years ago.

South – Mekong Delta

We decided to join an extremely cheap tour agency to visit the Mekong Delta, and we got back a very cheap experience. We literally visited all the shops and merchandise area of the Delta, but at least we sailed through its islands and its narrow channels. And we managed to eat a lot of food for free 😏. The ones who know Marcello, our tour guide was his Asian version.

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Hanoi =/= Driving

Our initial plan looked too optimistic; we are running out of time and that’s why we have decided to fly from Vientiane to Hanoi and to skip Cambodia for the sake of the beaches in South Thailand 😉

Surprisingly, I loved Hanoi from the first seconds we entered in the capital. Hanoi is the nightmare of every driving teacher, every orderliness maniac-obsessed, or simply people that care about their lives’ safety. Nonetheless, I like it.

Thomas’ excitement when he hears the word “banh bao” which is a kind of white bread filled with something that should be meat

The majority of Hanoi’s traffic is composed of scooters and motorcycles. Thanks to the agility of this means of transportation, drivers consider themselves allowed to use sidewalks as a proper lane, or to simply use every part of the lane in both senses. Consequently, people have now a gene mutation – everyone has four eyes to detect both possible mortal dangers, as well as tourists to scam.

Together with normal traffic there is also a train that passes in the middle of the city few times per day.

The strongest storm we have had so far

What did we do in Hanoi a part from staying alive?

Hanoi was an amazing refreshing dynamic city after Laos’ tranquility. The capital has a rich historical past, and it is especially important to remember that the city is the symbol of Vietnam’s fight for independence. Highlight of our visit was the Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which was created to honour the president of Vietnam who won the fight for independence from France in 1945. He was also the main leader during the years of the secret war started by the USA.

A part from its museums, Hanoi is full of lakes where people perform street shows, and where food carts survive next to restaurants.

There is a small fan between the legs of our chef to cool down the cooker

We had the chance to visit the water puppet show. The show is performed in a pool of water, and behind the curtains puppeteers stand in the water to control the puppets using bamboo sticks. At the sides of the stage a traditional Vietnamese orchestra plays music and sings.

The show is performed in the water because it is linked with the cultivation and harvest of rice – these shows used to be performed in villages straight into the rice paddy!