Vietnam (Part 1)

We loved the Ha Giang Loop in the Northern part of Vietnam.

Well, we have been in Vietnam for slightly over 9 weeks now and have mostly loved it. I will say there were some doubts earlier on as to whether or not we were doing the right thing being away from home for so long. But that seemed to melt away as soon as we left the cities. As I have menrioned in previous posts, we are both country folk and so basically 3 solid weeks in cities was just too much for us and really had a negative effect on us and our mental state. Our game plan changed to mostly avoid the cities, but to keep going back to Hanoi just for a couple of days at a time to see our friends there and use it as a base before we set off again to more countryside.

In this post I shall start again by saying how long we spent and where and how we travelled between these places. Before I start with that though I shall touch on the currency. The conversion rate is approximately £1 ~ 30,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND), which definitely took some getting used to. The lowest currency available is 1,000 VND, but fortunately there are no irritating coins, only notes. We were told there used to be a 500 VND note but that this was removed from circulation not too long ago. We wonder why they do not juat scrap the “thousand” from all of it to make it simpler, but I guess that would be a lot of investment to make this change. I still get confused with 10,000 and 100,000 notes – to me they are a similar greenish colour, although a friend argued with me on this and thought the 10,000 was more beige than green. The larger the monetary value of the note, the physically larger it is, which can help decipher them, but only when you have both.

We flew from Manila to Siagon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)) which took about 3.5 hours and we spent our first night (20th September) in a hotel by the airport as we arrived late, especially after going through the immigration checks. I can’t remember which hotel this was but it did the job for the few hours we were there.

From here we got a Grab taxi to 24h Siagon which we had booked for several nights. We were too early for check in so left our bags here and went out for lunch and had our first Banh Mi in a coffee shop called $nob. I have to admit I didn’t really like it, but I digress. We went back to the hotel and were taken to our rooms… it was at this point we realised that there had been a mistake with booking.com and they had sent the wrong details of the booking through to the hostel owners. We checked our confirmation email and we had booked a room with a double bed, although the owners email from booking.com indicated we wanted 2x pods. The room we booked was unavailable and I was not overly happy with the idea of the pods. They were very space-age with bright lights that made me feel a bit sick. The pods felt quite claustrophobic. The floor outside was sand, which was incredibly novel – although it meant that the beds were instantly sandy despite brushing feet off as you enter. We agreed with the owner that we might not want to stay more than 1 night, if at all, as this was not what we were expecting. He said he would not mark us as arrived until the next day if we wanted to stay so he would not have to pay the fee to booking.com if we didn’t stay. The pods were not long enough for Alex to lie down in, and I knew it would be an issue trying to get out of the pod in the middle of the night to go to the loo as you had to press the right button for lights or unlocking the door, which in the dark is a bit awkward. We stayed only long enough to use the WiFi to find other accommodation and then changed to the new place. We were going to get a Grab again to the new place, but decided to walk it as the traffic direction would mean it would be a longer journey, and it wasn’t too far.

We had initally booked 4 nights but ended up extending to 7 nights (21st-27th October) in Meow Hotel and Cafe. It was very nice here and the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. The room was quite big and nicely, but simply decorated. The bathroom was also nicely decorated and there was really good water pressure which was great for the shower as well as the bum gun! Haha. This hotel was in a central location and only a short walk from the walking street and parks etc in District 1. The hotel was tucked away on a side alley, which was good as it meant the general city noises were slightly further away and it was quite quiet. If we were due to stay in Siagon again, I would definitely consider staying here again.

From here we got the Train to Nha Trang (SE22 I think). This train took over 9 hours, and it was very hot. We initally booked to stay 3 nights at OYO 311 Shome Hotel but extended for 1 more night (28th-31st October). The hotel was above a clothes shop and I have to admit, I am still not quite  used to going through one business to get to another. This hotel was quite central and only a short walk to the beach with plenty of bars, cafes, restaurants and shops nearby.

From here, we decided to get a sleeper train (I think SE22 again) on the 1st November to Da Nang as the journey is about 10 and a half hours and we thought it was best overnight to save accommodation costs. Although, this was not worth it – we barely slept at all on this train but I will explain more about this later.

We sat in Da Nang trian station for awhile as we wanted early check in and it was so early in the morning (6.30) that we thought the night porter at the hotel might not speak very good English and understand the request. We arrived at the Thanh Nhan Motel slightly after 8am and had to pay 60,000 VND (~£2) for the early check in so we could get a few hours of sleep. We initally booked 3 nights but extended a few times as the lack of sleep on the train lead to a bit of illness, lack of movement and exploration of the area (2nd-7th November). The English level of staff at this Motel was rather limited but we got by with the help of Google translate. Again, this accomodation was only a short walk from the beach and had lots of restaurants and shops nearby, although the main part of the city seemed to be over the bridge and further from the beach, this suited us pretty well but if you want more city vibes then you may want to consider different accomodation. Our room had a fridge in it which was quite nice for ice cold water, and fruit – we even bought cheese while we were staying here, but it was very expensive.

We looked at getting trains to Hanoi from Da Nang but this was due to take about 17 hours. Even with stop at Vinh we thought this was too much travelling in one day. Therefore we decided to book a flight which worked out at about £43 I believe for both of us and our luggage and took 1 hour 20mins. It was a bit more expensive than a bus or train but not by much and we decided it was worth it. Initially we booked 3 nights in RedDoorz near Truc Bach Lake, but ended up extending for a night (8th-12th November). This accomodation was an easy walk to West Lake and Old Town and also had lots of restaurants, cafes and shops nearby. It also had a fridge, and a kettle. The door to the bathroom was a sliding door and kept getting slightly stuck on the rollers. Overall though, this was quite nice accommodation.

At this point we were pretty desperate to get out of the city so we got the train mid-afternoon to Ninh Binh which took about 2 and a half hours (I think the SE9). We arrived just before sunset and then got a Grab taxi to Tam Coc. It was a grey and misty evening, although almost instantly we both felt the weight of city life and stress disappear. Our shoulders dropped and we were instantly more relaxed in beautiful scenery. We had intended to stay 3 nights initally, but I had messed up the Agoda booking and so had only booked 2 nights at Viet Anh homestay. Considering we only arrived in the evening, this was definetly not long enough. We discussed a few times that we were still not ready to go back to the city so ended up extending a few times to the total of 10 nights (13th-21st November). They had very little English but the family were so friendly and always trying to communicate despite the language barriers. The homestay was off the main road and down the street. It was lovely and quiet there. The garden was beautiful and we sat out in it a few times. It was only a short walk to lots of bars and restaurants as well as to the lake and the local market. Breakfast was included here, and virtually every day I chose the omlette in bread with tomato, I thought it was great! I would highly recommend this homestay. They offered motorbike and bicycle rental as well as bus tickets and laundry. We found the motorbike rental was more expensive at the homestay than from another place in town so we did not hire a motobike from the homestay.

We got the bus back to Hanoi so we could see more of our friends. We checked the bus price in vendors in Tam Coc town against the one offered at the homestay, which claimed to always be the cheapest. The homestay was offering it for less, but we mentioned this and they were instantly offering a lower price, so we did buy it in town – but it just goes to show that this price is not fixed and can be bartered. We did not check the price online as we then thought we might have been ripped off if they could drop the price instantly. So I would suggest that you perhaps check prices online. I think we ended up paying 120,000VND each for this journey. The bus dropped us in Old Town Hanoi which was conveniently quite close to where we had booked to stay at Hanoi Lotus Hostel so we walked as it was rush hour and would probably have taken longer by taxi. We stayed here for 2 nights (23rd-24th November). This district was a great central location with lots to see and it was fun just wondering through the streets of Old Town. The hostel was OK but did not look very much like it did in the pictures. The shower was more of a dribble of water than a shower, the bathroom was very small and the bed was very hard and not very comfortable.

We decided to stay another couple nights in Hanoi (25th-26th November), but swapped to a different hotel. We chose on what looked to be a comfortable bed. We ended up at RedDoorz Plus near West Lake Tay Ho. And I can confirm the bed was great! So soft! Dreamy! When we go back to Hanoi we will almost certainly book here again. The building was still very new, and the reception area was not finished, but the bedrom was large, had a table and chairs as well an extendable desk that was possibly for use as a dinner table, there was a fridge-freezer and kettle as well as some induction hobs, although there was no other utensils for cooking but I expect this was because it was so new. The bathroom actually had a bathtub and big, plate-style showerhead. This hotel was a short walk from West Lake. A lot of the very good restaurants we have been to in Hanoi were easily walkable from this hotel.

Alex found a place by Thac Ba that we wanted to go to but were not sure how to get there. We used the live chat on the website of Vu Linh Homestay and they were very helpful in providing information about buses. We could not find this info online so would probably not have made it there if they hadn’t have told us. There were 2 buses we could get from My Dinh bus station in Hanoi; one at 10am (to Tay Coc and Coc Lem) and the other at 4pm (to Bai Bang, Doan Hung, Cat Liem and Luc Ven). We had to go to stand 4. It was incredibly confusing due to language barriers. We were told to come back about 20 mins before the depature time so we just sat in the waiting room. After some time, someone who was on the same bus as us had over heard us talking to some other Westerners about which buses we were taking and indicated to us to go back to stand 4. I thought I had to pay for the ticket at the bus station but we were ushered through and onto the bus. This was only slightly before the 20 mins that we were advised. We sat on the bus and were still not sure how payment was taken, but it turned out it was taken much further into the journey, just before the petrol stop. It cost us 150,000 VND each (~£5). The journey took about 4 hours and dropped us on the road just outside of the homestay. As we had decided to only do short stops in the city, broken by long stints in the countryside we booked for 5 nights initially at the Vu Linh homestay. We ended up extending for 1 more night as we didn’t want to make any decisions about onward travel at this stage. We absolutely loved it at this homestay and I would recommend it to other travellers. The family were very friendly, helpful and accomodating. They provided us with breakfast every day (60,000 VND each ~£2), along with dinner and rice wine each night. For dinner there was a choice of a big meal to be eaten with the family (150,000 VND each ~£5, unless the vegetarian option was chosen which was 100,000 VND ~£3.30) or a smaller option which was not eaten with the family but downstairs (80,000 VND ~£2.60). We had a few of both types of dinner and they were all delicious. Breakfast was typically fruit and pancakes with salty eggs, although I am not overly fond on pancakes so they also offered noodle soup, fried noodles and eggs with bread. I had each of these options and they were very good. The food was all locally sourced and it tasted so good for it!

We got dropped in Tuyen Quan by the homestay for 400,000 VND which was about an hours drive away where we then got a bus to Ha Giang. This was mostly because we didn’t want to get the earlier bus to Sapa as we are just not that good at getting up early, even though it would have gone from the road outside the homestay. Again, the money for this bus journey was collected a long way into the journey and it cost 100,000 VND each. The journey took about 5 hours (I think but can’t fully remember) and was absolutely beautiful. I was intending to use this journey to add more to this blog post, but kept getting distracted and just not wanting to do anything but look out the window.

We did not have any accommodation booked for the 3rd December, which is the first time we have gone somewhere without knowing where we would be staying, although this has been the case for most days since then too. Ha Giang is quite a popular destination and we were told and saw briefly online that there were plenty of places to choose from. We ended up in Creekside Homestay and also rented the bike from there too as he offered a reduction because we stayed the night. The guy who owned it was super helpful and spent some time going through the map with us and recommending homestays and a route that would fit our schedule with extra bits if we had time on certain days. He leant Alex his own helmet as it was the only one that was big enough and said if we had any issue at all while doing the Ha Giang loop to contact him; even if we got stopped by police, as he had a contact. The accomodation was nice but still under construction – it had changed quite drastically in the week we were gone. The bathrooms were shared but really nicely decorated. We unfortunately went out for a very disappointing pizza as we had not realised that dinner would have been included with the family. They were still eating when we got back and asked us to join them and eat a bit of what was remaining, and drink some rice wine with them. I would recommend this homestay to other travellers.

We set off on the bike in the direction that was recommended and stayed in the place that he had suggested, 2A homestay (4th December). The food here was very good. Although it felt a bit strange as the family just left the table as we were still eating and then were nowhere to be seen for the rest of the evening. We had hoped to play pool, or try the delicious looking vats of honeyed alcohol but they were not around to ask for the balls or a taste. I went to the dorm room to borrow more bedding as the bed was hard, and it was freezing, so we wanted to sleep between duvets and while I was there I thought it would be good to have extra pillows as well. We used the sleeping between duvets trick a few times whilst doing the Ha Giang Loop.

We set off on the Ha Giang Loop slightly after some friends we had made in Vu Linh Homestay and were going the same direction around the loop. We decided to then cut South to Du Gia so we could spend more time with them and then just do a figure of 8. This journey was not far from where we were staying and we personally loved this road (DT182). It was one of our favourites on the loop, and it wasn’t even one traditionally used for the loop. It was a good job we loved it as we ended up doing that road 3 times. We checked into Du Gia Waterfall Homestay and our friends arrived later. We partly decided on this place as it had a fire outside which definitely helped us stay warmer. The surroundings here were absolutely spectaular. We had the family dinner here which again was very good food (100,000 VND). We woke up and the weather was so lovely and warm, unlike previous days had been in the loop so we were all very excited to just sit in the sun. We were all keen to go to the waterfall but time was ticking on, so decided we would stay another night at this homestay so we didn’t have to rush anywhere on the bikes (5th-6th December).

We parted ways after a few miles on the route we loved and we set off to Meo Vac where we ended up staying at Little Yens Homestay (7th December). Again the dinner, and breakfast here were really good, although unlike most places, it was totally vegetarian. We went out for a few drinks after dinner and had some trouble waking the staff so we could get back in as we didn’t realise the door would be locked. The hostel was quite nice. There was lots of helpful information in the reception about what was nearby.

From here we drove around to Dong Van and stayed at Green Karst Hostel and Bar (8th December), which was just the first place we saw. There was kareoke playing until midnight and then weird trance music playing early in the morning. Although, there was the option for bacon at breakfast which was exciting, despite being quite small bits. This town seeemed to be really nice.

We were aiming to stay at the hotel in Pho Bang on the 9th December. We arrived and were waiting in reception for 45 mins and there was no-one to be seen to ask about getting a room. We sent a Facebook message part way through the wait but they didn’t reply until some time later when we had already left. We then went around the corner to another place we found on Google maps. It looked like no-one had stayed there in about a decade. The room that was opened up for us was really damp and mouldy and generally really run down. We decided not to stay here, despite it only being 120,000 VND (~£4). We still had enough light (just) to make it to Nha Nghi Toan Huong. We ate the family dinner here and again, it was very good. I can’t quite remember the prices but I think it was near to 500,000 VND for 1 night, 2 dinners and 2 small waters (although we didn’t drink these as these as they were not sealed and we did not know if it was filtered. They had some really cool art work on the walls in the reception area.

From here we drove back down to Du Gia and stayed at the GG Homestay (10th December). We loved it here. Again it was totally gorgeous in this area. We enjoyed a game of pool here – we could have done that in many of the other places we stayed in but just didn’t. The family dinner was really good. Breakfast was included but was just pancakes, which again was not uncommon for the places we had stayed.

From here we drove back around to Creekside Homestay as the bike was pre-booked by someone else for the following day. We stayed here again for the night of the 11th December, but even if we didn’t, they would have provided towels for a hot shower after the loop. The owner booked our bus tickets for our onward journey to Cao Bang as he said it would be cheaper than online. This cost ~330,000 VND each but can’t remember exactly. The bus journey was soo long. It was 2 buses, and we had 1 hour off the bus in a town at about noon. But otherwise we were on a bus from 8.30am untill 6.30pm. It was not so fun. We were made to sit at the back of the bus where we could not even easily see out of the window. There were a lot of road works going on so we had to stop for long periods while they completed certain sections. We made a pit stop after about 4 hours on the second bus, the lady was instructing fiercely in Vietnamese and the gist was men pee in the bushes on the right and ladies on the bushes on the left, which I found really quite funny. Alex then remenised over the luxurious service stations in Northern Ireland with great deli counters and spotless toilets.

We met an Australian couple on the bus who we shared a taxi from the bus station into the centre. They were staying at Cao Bang Eco Homestay so we decided to stay there too out of ease. We ended up staying 3 nights as we needed some downtime and there was a bit of sickness (12th-14th December).

There was a bus station at the end of the road so we managed to get a bus to Ban Gioc from there. This bus took about 2 and a half hours and cost 70,000 VND each. We stayed at Nguom Ngao Ban Gioc Homestay as our friends had recommended it. We stayed here for 4 nights (15th-18th December). It was a lovely homestay and the staff were very friendly, despite limited English. The food here was again delicious. It was an easy walk to the waterfall and cave from this homestay and the surrounding area was gorgeous.

We then got the bus back to Cao Bang and stayed at the Cao Bang Eco stay again, for 2 nights as we didn’t decide on onward travel early enough (19th-20th December).

From here we got our first sleeper bus to Thai Nguyen, which is just a bit North of Hanoi as we were not quite ready for the big city again just yet but are heading back that way for Christmas. We stayed at Nam homestay or 2 nights (21st-22nd December).

The son of the homestay here arranged for us to get a private car back to Hanoi on the 23rd. I think he over charged us as it was 300,000 VND and Alex thought the son agreed on a lower price, but nevermind. We have booked in to RedDoorz Yen Phu as this was a lot cheaper than the RedDoorz Plus near West Lake that we wanted to stay at again. After 1 night, I can confirm that the other hotel was better, less noisy and a more comfortable mattress, but this one is not too bad. We have booked this hotel for 4 nights at the moment (23rd – 26th December) but we may leave on the 26th to go to an island with our friends.

Siagon
Our first stop in Vietnam was Siagon, AKA Ho Chi Minh City in the Southern part of the country. The airport felt pretty large and it took ages to get from the landing gate to the immigration check. We got accosted by some men selling sim cards. It was the middle of the night and we ended up buying one, they asked how long we were in Vietnam for but it seemed they were not really listening to our reply as they were trying to get more customers. Turned out the sim card was only valid for 1 month, and was a bit more than we paid for the second month long sim card, but it served us well enough during this time. At the airport we paid $14 USD (~324,000 VND) and got change in Vietnamese Dong. The next sim card we bought cost about 270,000 VND we think from Vietell although there were cheaper options for the month.

Whilst in Siagon we spent a lot of time just walking around the city. We explored several markets, including the underground central market, as well as the Ben Thanh Street Food Market where there was loads of choice for quite cheap and tasty food. There was another indoor market (Ben Thanh) which was huge. This is where Alex brought a beautiful chess set, but it was not a relaxing experience. People were aggressively trying to sell you whatever it was on their stalls. The ally ways through the market were also pretty tiny.

There was one street (Bui Vien – walking street) that was particularly crazy. It was so different between night and day, it was barely recognisable. Day time looked quite normal, just lots of bars, restaurants, and massage parlours. By night, there were bright flashing lights everywhere, and the road was mostly closed for traffic, although bikes still squeeze there way between people. There were entertainers fire breathing, and others just hanging out with massive snakes wrapped around their necks. Every bar and most restaurants had hot vietnamese DJs blasting electronic dance music, and often there were 2 sexy girls dancing on a stage; but there was no real dance floor for customers – just people sat around tables watching the girls dancing. It was very strange but also very interesting to walk through the street. It felt like sensation overload.

In the parks we saw people playing hacky sack every day, there seemed to be bonus points for style – with people kicking it from behind their heads, or from a handstand, or through their arms. It was cool to watch them playing.

We went up the sky deck which was nice to see down over the city. This building was based upon the shape of a lotus flower which is a key flower in Vietnam. They use lotus for food, and tea, as well as medicines and other things – it is a symbol of hope and optimism for the future as it grows out of muddy water. It was interesting to read how the building was made with many oddly shaped glass panels and reinforcement for the helipad. Enterance cost I think 200,000 VND each? (~£7).

After the skydeck we walked around to Temple Goddess Mariamma, which was a lovely Hindu temple in the middle of the city. It was nice to step off the busy streets of Siagon for a few minutes and into the peace of the temple.

We went for a Vietnamese style massage in a proper spa. Parts of it were great, yet other parts put me on edge a bit. Overall it was an OK massage, but personally I preferred the Swedish style massage in the Philippines. This massage included some hot stone or hot towel parts; which were a bit too hot initially and burnt a bit. Throughout the massage there were times with too much pressure, although we probably should have spoken up about this and asked them to use less pressure, but other times the pressure was good so I didn’t want those bits to lose pressure. The maseuses climed on our backs and used their knees, which was actually quite good for the most part, but again, just a tad more pressure than would have been ideal. We paid ~£15 each for 75min in a proper spa, but there were many places lining streets offering massages for less. You could not walk down the street without being offered massages. Although the reviews were not so good and seemed a bit seedier – it seemed they may possibly offer a happy ending, but I couldn’t say for sure…

We went to a cat café in Siagon. This is the first time I have been to one, and I thought the cats looked a bit distressed. Although I did play with the big ginger one for a long time which made me feel better.

From Siagon we did a day tour to Cao Dai temple and Cu Chi tunnels. I found both parts of this tour to be very interesting and I was glad to have done both sections of the tour, although it was a long day and a lot of time spent on the bus but our tour guide was quite funny.

This tour stopped briefly at a workshop that employed victims of agent orange. They were creating beautiful artwork inlayed with stones and painted egg shells. They were quite heavy bits of art, even for the smallest size. Had we been further through our travels we may have bought some.

Cao Dai is a relatively new religion which combines aspects from I think Buddism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, but it might also contain aspects of other religions. Buddah is set at the top of these religions, and also at the top of the temple as apparently it offers the most to learn from.
There were some rules enforced when inside the Kingdom of Cao Dai. These included no selfies allowed in the temple, although photos were allowed to be taken of everything else – they consider it bad luck to have images of the self with the God and the temple. Another rule was that you could not walk in front of temple while service was on, this was due to not being in front of God. Some people attempted to go in front of the temple but were getting whistled at to go around the back and not across the front. Tourists were only allowed to go in certain enterances, but unfortunately we went to the toilet first so didnt see which enterance was which, and got confused by the description and layout of the building so we got it wrong 😟. We had removed our shoes, as required, and the pavement was so hot that we burnt the soles of our feet as we went up the steps; but then we heard whistles that indicated we were in the wrong place, so quickly ran back to our shoes and went to the correct enterance, with sore feet. For believers there was restrictions on which side the women could enter, but we were told that for tourists this did not matter.

Most of the believers praying were in long white gowns, with trousers, but some high ups were in blue, red or yellow. There was a group of musicians and singers on the balcony area where tourists were allowed to view from. They played while most people were praying. The believers on the ground floor sat in rigid rectangles. I saw people being asked to move in or out slightly so the rectangle was straighter. There were daily prayers, 4 times a day, at 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight. I am not sure if everyone prays every time – I believe so as the tour guide mentioned it was like the islamic religion who pray 5 times a day; but slightly different as it was 4 times.

There were some monkeys in the kingdom, but they were shooed away from the water – but I just managed to get the snap below before they fled. One of the monkeys was acting quite aggresive towards one of the guys on our tour while we waited for the bus, but fortunately the bus was not long before it arrived at this stage.

After the temple we went for lunch just down the road, in a slightly weird restaurant where they had a party going on in one section which was full of biker gangs – it was really loud and a bit head-ache inducing.

We were told we were really close to the Cambodian border here. It was just over the Black Mountain in front of us.

The Cu Chi tunnels were also very interesting. Here we learnt that they removed the rubble of the tunnels in bamboo baskets and just took it far away from tunnel and scattered it, so the enterance was not obvious to the American soldiers. It took about 20 years to build the 220km network. They had man-made mounds that looked like termite mounds that were used as airholes. They built the kitchens so they would disperse the smoke far away from where the tunnels were as well so the smoke wasn’t obvious and didnt result in them getting bombed. The tunnels were so tiny, even though we went through the ones that had been increased in size by about 40% I think for tourism. We learnt about the many traps that were used and that they changed passwords regularly so they could tell between the communists and other Vietnamese fighters. To hide from the dogs that were used to sniff them out they apprently rubbed themselves with the scent of a bitch in heat. They made sandles from car tyres and made them so they looked as if the footprints were going in the opposite direction. A lot of the network was built from people building bunkers under their homes, then joining these together until the villages were joined. They had several sections in the tunnels including sleeping bunkers with hammocks, kitchen bunkers and fighting bunkers, and then lots of connecting tunnels.

Like the Philippines, there seems to be crazy road rules in Vietnam. The tour guide that we had for our day trip to the temple and tunnels said that Siagon had 8 million bikes in the city, and the population was about 13.5 million I believe. This meant that crossing the road here was often intimidating, although this seems to be the same pretty much everywhere in Vietnam, it was just particularly bad in Siagon due to the number of bikes. The trick seems to be that you just have to look, vaguely wait for a gap, but ultimately just go and hope not to die. Some people hold their hands out as they walk across the road, but I am not sure if this helps. You need to still look in all directions when the green man shows as there is still a lot of traffic – particularly turning right from a red light, but it can be coming from any direction. General road rules like red lights and direction of traffic seem to be more advisory than compulsory.

Whilst in Siagon, we both managed to do some jiu jitsu at Jiboia BJJ and I also did some pole dance at Pretty Pole. Alex was very excited by the fact that there were 2 black belts in at Jiboia as well as other high level jiu jitsu practioners. Both Jiboia and Pretty Pole were very welcoming to new people who were just passing through, and I had a great time at both. We might still return South and train in both places again before time is out in Vietnam, although this is looking less likely now.

The first day I tried to go to pole class at Pretty Pole, I got horrendously lost as my phone had been on its way out for a long time, and my maps would often play up and not find where I was. I was actually on the right street, although my phone did its usual thing and put me in a completely different place and I got confused so I ended up turning around as I thought by the time I would have found the class, it would have been mostly over. But then, unfortunately, I could not find the allyways I needed to get back to the hotel and so I started to panic. I thought it came out on the same road as Baba’s kitchen, but that was wrong. Then I went further around and the part of the market I thought that was next to the hotel was not actually far enough around, so I couldnt find the ally there either. I walked back and forth on this street a few times and was quite upset but trying not to cry on the street. The nice guy at Baba’s kitchen tried to help me and showed me the ally there wasn’t the right one by walking around it with me. I eventually walked far enough around at the market and then it made sense, I was like, ahhh I just didnt come far enough around to find the alley I needed. So I got back to the hotel, eventually, and burst into tears on Alex. Then he was a bit too quick to take the piss and it upset me further. The next time I went to try and go to pole class I stole his sim card and booked a taxi. It still took a bit of time to find the exact door I needed as I was still not quite used to going through one business to get somewhere else and expected it on the main road and not down the side street. This was when I realised that I was actually on the right street the first time, but never mind. The day after I got horrendously lost, I got myself a new phone – which had been needed for awhile anyway and this one seems to be much better. I have sucessfully used maps on several occasions.

Alex enjoyed a variety of different coffees including egg coffee and coconut coffee etc. Apparently egg coffee was initiated in Hanoi due to price of milk being too high in North, but in the South the presence of American soldiers meant it was more readily available.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang is a nice, modern, pretty clean city right by the beach. There were big waves and huts along the beach front offering watersports. There were lots of Russian tourists in Nha Trang, lots of menus and signs were in Vietnamese and Russian. People would talk to you in Russian before English, which felt quite novel.

There was crocodile leather and meat everywhere you looked, along with lots of other exotic animal leathers. We were tempted by some of it but decided not to buy any as we didn’t really need any of it. We did try the crocodile (although one of the dishes we tried said aligator on the menu, we think it was more likely crocodile as this was so abundant). We also tried ostrich while we were here, but the crocodile was better – the ostrich was quite tough.

The reason we extended our stay in Nha Trang was because I hoping to go to a pole dance class. There was a tropical storm that meant the gym closed at the time I had intended to go and then the timetables changed to accomodate this and then it worked out that I didn’t make it this time. But I did manage to go to a yoga class and we also both used the gym when I was expecting the pole class to be. So we still got a good work out.


We went to several temples while we were here, 2 x Buddist (Tong Lam Son Tempe Lot, and Long Son Pagoda) and 1 x Hindu (Ponegar Tower). They were beautiful. The first Buddist temple didn’t feel overly welcoming though. It was quite a journey on the bike to get there and was still under construction or renovation. There were not many people there, and they didn’t speak English. But what they did say did not feel like I hope you are enjoying the temple. I think one of them was demanding money but I could not be sure and the other was probably saying you are not allowed in this section.

Da Nang
Da Nang is another beach front city. We stayed near the beach although there was plenty of the city that spread back inland and was not that close to the beach. Da Nang had many bridges connecting the inland section to the beach front section of the city. Unfortunately I did not manage to get any pictures of these bridges but I thought they were cool, particularly the dragon bridge which glowed different colours at night.

Like Nha Trang, the beach had big waves and there were some people out surfing. We were tempted to go surfing but then saw the sewage pipe lead into the sea and were a bit put off. The beach had quite a lot of litter on it initally, which may have been dragged in by the waves but I think it may also have been due to local littering. That being said, we did see people doing a beach clean up here on one of the days.

On the first day that we were feeling up to it after the lack of sleep from the night train and resulting illness, we went to the museum of cham scuptures. The taxi driver said this was only for Chinese tourists and not very good, and that they didn’t really like the Chinese. I thought this was quite an interesting thing to say. He offered to wait for us to then take us to the biggest Buddist statue in Vietnam afterwards. He then seemed a bit annoyed that we didn’t want to go there when we were done at the museum as Alex was still not feeling very good at all.

We did make it up to this temple though (Chùa Linh Ứng) and it was gorgeous. The main statue stands 67m high and is very impressive. There are huge grounds and many other shrines and statues and lovely garden areas. We had been to a few other temples, but this was by far the most impressive. We made the comparisson of a small village church to a huge Cathedral. I really love dragons and there are loads at all of the temples we have been to, which I find very exciting. On one of the shrine buildings we worked out that there must have been at least 74 dragons, it was a 9 layered, 8 sided building with a dragon on each of those points. Then there were two big dragons going up the steps to the shrine. I also really enjoyed seeing all the different Buddah statues, so many different faces and sizes. Some with animal figurines, some stand alone, some fat, some boney. It has made me want to learn more about Buddism.

We also went to Marble Mountains and looked around the temple there. We took the elevator up and then walked down. It was cool to see the Buddhist statues in the cave here.

While in Da Nang, I managed to go to another pole dance class at Da Nang Pole Surya. I nearly didn’t make this class as I had a lot of trouble with the Grab taxis this day. I had borrowed Alex’s sim card and ordered a taxi, the first one waited a few minutes then asked me to cancel. Then the second one just didn’t seem to find where I was and the third never came. I went back to the hotel room and complained about this to Alex and he encouraged me just to go in a different taxi as there was plenty around. I had missed about 10 minutes of the warm up by the time I got there, but the lady taking the class was lovely and very accomodating. The warm up was pretty hard, despite missing the beginning. This studio was small and modest as it was upstairs in a house, it contained 2 poles and big mirrors. I had a great work out here and enjoyed the session a lot – I was glad I made it to the class. Although I had more issues getting a Grab taxi back again, the pick up point was no-where near where I actually was so I had to cancel the first taxi again and retry. Before this I had not realised that the pick up point was not always necessarily automatically where you were – which may have accounted for some of the previous trouble, but I can’t say for sure.

For Alex’s birthday we decided to go to the Ba Na Hills and see the Golden Bridge. We thought we were going to spend a nice day in the mountains, surrounded by nature and go for a nice walk along the bridge. At this stage, we did not realise that it was a complete tourist trap and expensive resort, built purely for snaps for Instagram. We hired a car as we thought this would give us a tour around the mountains. The taxi cost 500,000 VND I believe. The driver pulled over about half way there so we could get tickets (750,000 VND each). We were very confused about what this was for. Eventually we were able to communicate enough to understand that we needed to go on the cable car, which would take about half an hour through the jungle and that this was the only way to get there. If we had realised this we would have hired a bike, or not gone at all. We decided to keep going but it was so far from how we had intended to spend the day. We got a sushi buffet for lunch as all food was about 300,000 VND a head and we thought all you can eat sushi was the best option for this price. We wondered around the resort for awhile and eventually found the Golden Bridge. It was a lot smaller than we thought from photos we had seen. It was quite funny to see the queue for the photo deck looking out across the bridge. The second time we walked over the bridge we played dodge the tourist so we had crossed it in across about 30 seconds.

Hanoi
One of our first thoughts on Hanoi was that it was very poluted here. Like a lot of places in Vietnam, there are lots of small fires to get rid of rubbish, although due to larger population and more buildings trapping the smoke, as well as lots of traffic, it seemed particularly bad here. It is mostly for this reason that we have decided to only spend a few days in this city at any given time and then to keep escaping to other countryside areas. The air quality in Hanoi makes us both feel unwell, it disrupts our digestion as well as making us cough lots.

On our approach to the city the first timewe saw streams of motorbikes going the wrong way down a dual carridgeway, some with tiny children on the back. The driving here just is so different to at home. We joke around by saying their rules are “if I can, I go”.

We got to Hanoi for the first time on a Friday night and had a few more drinks than we should have at a lovely cocktail bar near the lake called “Lang Thang Coffee and More”. They had a really cute hand drawn menu and really tasty cocktails. Unfortunately, I was then in bed for most of Saturday – feeling pretty rough. It was so bad I thought it might have been food poisening at one stage but I can not be sure either way. Some of our friends were going to a lake about an hour out of the city and I was gutted to have missed it. We did make it out for a Western style brunch but struggled to eat it and we both felt even worse after; despite having English breakfast tea which usually makes everything better. That evening we did make it out with Alex’s friends who had been to the lake during the day along with some others, they were all very lovely. I chose not to have any alcohol, or food, as I was still feeling quite fragile. We went to the old quarter and through some crazy busy streets. One lady was trying to drag her suitcase through a street that was crammed full of people eating and drinking and just trying to get through. I felt she made a mistake trying to go through that particular street when there were other streets that went around the same one.

Our friend Thom showed us a lot of the city, by foot and also a DIY style bike tour on the bike he leant us. We walked through the grounds of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and then on a big loop. On the Thom-directed bike tour we went to a restaurant by the river for lunch. When we got there about 6 staff swarmed around us on our table until we ordered. Their English wasn’t great and even with so many of them taking the order, it was still wrong when it came out, but it was OK. You have to expect some translational errors when you don’t speak the language. We drove along the railway bridge and around Banana island (named this for the tourists, although not sure what the actual name is) and then back into the city.

Thom and Rachel live in a great appartment with a penthouse view across West Lake. It was quite a view with nothing blocking it most of the way around. Although, from here you can see the haze of polution across the lake, which is sometimes worse than others. From here you could see the golf putting into the lake, which we did one day at sunset and was quite fun.

We also hired a bike one day and went for another ride around the city, it was a terrible bike but we went into old town and got Alex a new big rucksack as his was starting to fall apart after more than a decade of use, as well as some long sleeved tops. The backpack has some nifty features for backpacking such as zip off bum-bag and day sack, a zip that goes all the way around to help getting stuff in and out and zip away straps. We found a cool Rastafarian themed bar and stopped for a drink.

There was one day in Hanoi where our friend Ozzy had family visiting and we all went to see the water puppets at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. It was thoroughly entertaining and we really enjoyed it, despite not understanding the words. I would highly recommend this for other travellers. Ticket prices were between 100,000 -200,000 VND (~£3.30-£6.60) depending on how close to the stage you were.

After we had been to the water puppets we were caught by a hostel giving out free beer. We were planning on going for a nap before going back out for dinner with Ozzy and his family and Tien but then several free beers later and we were on the rooftop bar ordering BOGOF gin and tonics, as long as the females ordered it – they had a theory that more women in the bar would bring more men in. It may be sexist, but it meant really cheap GnTs so I wasn’t complaining.

Food worth mentioning in Hanoi
A few times we have eaten at a vegan buffet called Veggie Castle, this was near to where we were staying the first time in Hanoi. It was pretty good food and pretty reasonably priced (70,000 VND I think, ~£2.30) and we definitely enjoyed a plate full of vegetables as we tend to eat a lot of meat in Asia.

One evening we went for an Indian with Thom and Rachel overlooking West Lake at Foodshop 45. It was really good food, and we were very full when we left.

I have been dreaming of the Mexican restaurant we went to, Hanoi Taco Bar – West Lake. The food here was so good. It was the best nachos we have ever ordered from a restaurant and the burrito was also very tasty. Although the nachos came out a lot quicker than the burrito so I was sat waiting and watching Alex eat for ages which was painful. He did give me a few nachos to ease the pain a bit, but he had finished by the time mine arrived, and it was a big plate of nachos.

Another thing I have been dreaming of is the coconut icecream we had on Quang Khan Road. It was served in a coconut and had shredded coconut and desicrated coconut on top and it was the best desert I have had in a long time.

Hanoi Sandwich House is a place near the RedDoorz that did very good sandwiches with a choice of tasty bread. It is not the cheapest food, but still not too bad. I think most of the sandwiches were about 90,000 VND (~£3).

We also had a good meal at Republic. I saw lamb on the menu and was instantly taken, I swapped the sauce for onion gravy that was offered with the bangers and mash and it was delicious. Alex had fish and super chunky chips. This was however a very expensive meal – about £10 a head, so I would not recommend this place so much if you are on a tight budget. We ended up here quite late and decided just to have an expensive meal rather than go somewhere else.

Bia Hoi’s tend to have pretty good food and are a way of getting a cheap meal and cheap beer. We have been to a few and they all seem to be similar, but pretty decent.

Ninh Binh
As soon as we got to Ninh Binh, we noticed that the air was cleaner, the views were amazing, the streets were less busy and the restaurants and bars were good and generally the town had a cool vibe.

The first night here we went to the Buddah Bowl which was a vegan/vegetarian restaurant that had opened that evening and we had a great meal and glass of wine. There seemed to be quite a few vegan restaurants in the town, with more offering vegan options but not the entire menu. One of the places that looked to be vegan, “The Long Vegan Restaurant” had a whole vegan menu, but then also another, meaty menu which I hadn’t realised when we initally sat down and thought this menu doesn’t seem overly vegan friendly….

The lake in the centre of town had a parking lot next to it, which had party buses parked up each night which we saw every evening but only went onto one of them on the last evening we were in Tam Coc. During the day these buses were in a parking lot around the corner.

While we were in Tam Coc we explored the local area by foot, motorbike, bicycle and boat. It was such a cool town.
We hired a motorbike from a local rental place in the town that cost 100,000 VND per day. The homestays were renting them at 120,000 per day and generally they seemed to be less well maintained than from the specific bike rental places.

The first day we rented the motorbike, we went to Bich Dong Pagoda and then just drove around the cool landscape. We then ended up in the Thung Nham Bird Park. We clambered through the Mermaid Cave on the bamboo bridge. It was very tiny at points and meant we were on all fours going through parts of it. I didn’t realise how long the cave was. Initally I thought it was just the first loop and so thought that much clambering would be fun. Then we got back to the section by the enterance and the bridge didn’t link up to the enterance which I didn’t notice when initally sizing up the cave, so we had to keep going around for quite a lot longer. My legs were shakey and sore after all the clambering, but it was fun. We then walked around to the thousand year old tree, which was a lot smaller than we were expecting. We had to get the bike back before the garage shut so didn’t get to explore all of the Bird Park but did make it back another time with some friends we met at the homestay. We all hired bicycles and rode out to it and got around to the observation deck in time to see the birds returning home to nest for the evening. It was mostly pretty flat and a lovely way to spend the day. There was a small hill with 10% incline signs on both sides which was incredibly hard with a 1 geared bike and over a decade of not being on a bike – but the distance was not too long so we made it. On the way back I got as much momentum as possible before the hill and then still had to get off and walk to the top. I noticed when I was near the top, that the group had stopped near the bottom of the hill and decided I would get my bike to the top and then walk down to them rather than try to cycle that hill twice! It turned out that the chain from Alex’s bike had come loose but they had pretty much fixed it by the time I got to them.

We decided to walk out about 7 or 8km to Trang An boat tours. It was pretty hot that day so we stopped at a lovely cafe for a cold drink and general cool off and looked out across the water and beautiful mountain view. We got to the tour mid afternoon and selected for tour 3 which had some pagodas like the other two options, and mountains but the selling point for us was the long cave. The first cave was so long and totally awesome and I would recommend this trip for it. We were already a little fatigued with pagodas so were happy with this tour rather than one that was heavier on the pagodas. During the boat trip, we had to duck a lot to avoid the stalactite and stalagmite formations. It opened up into big caverns a few times and we could hear people singing on other boats and listening to the returning echos.

Whilst in Tam Coc we also went to the Hang Mua tourist attraction. It is advertised as a cave although the main attraction is at the top of the 500 steps up the mountain and looking out across the spectacular view. We didn’t even go into the cave as we did the climb up first and as we got to the cave a lady was coming out and just said “more steps”. We looked at each other with our trembly legs and decided against it and went for a cold fresh coconut instead. I have to say, I didn’t enjoy the climb up so much, Alex actually described me as a “sour puss” at one stage. I was hot and bothered and felt particularly tired that morning, but the view from the top was amazing and I am glad we did it, despite it being challenging.

After this we went across to the Tam Quan Hoa Lu Ancient Capital but it had been rebuilt quite recently so didn’t feel too ancient. We were both very tired after all these steps so didn’t really want to explore that much and we didn’t go around all of it.

We had one day where we drove out to Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve, found a tiny bit of shade under a hut right on the water and just sat with binoculars scouring the scenery for birds and wildlife. It was lovely and relaxing to just be, sitting and looking out into nature. There were some boat tours going from near us and one lady came to check if we wanted a tour, but we were happy just sitting at the waters edge in the shade. If we had gone out into the water it would have been very exposed.

There were a couple of days of bad weather while we were in Tam Coc so we didn’t really do too much. I am not the best at just not doing anything, it is something I am working on a bit personally. It is OK if I know that it is a write-off day, but if I expect that we will do something later on I am always pestering Alex with questions about what will we do, what will we take with us, how will we get there etc, which irritates him to no end.

Thac Ba
Thac Ba lake is a man-made lake for hydroelectric power. There are 1331 islands appearing from the lake which make it a very beautiful area to visit. While we were in Thac Ba, we explored the area on foot, by boat and also rented a motorbike from the homestay. There was a lot of rice wine, and it felt quite forceful at times, but we also leaned into it at times as well. The first night we were there we were asked/told that we would be dressing up in traditional garb and have some pictures taken of us in the village. I was OK with this as I wanted to try on the pretty, local clothing and also see the immediate area as we had got there late from the bus and it was dark when we arrived. We were all feeling a little fragile from the amount of rice wine from the night before but I still quite enjoyed it. We saw a lady making weaved shrimp catchers which was pretty cool, she worked so fast and can apparently make about 50 a day.

We did the boat trip another day when there were 7 of us. It was provided through the homestay and cost 500,000 VND per boat, and could take about 16 people, so the more people doing it, the cheaper it is. It was about a 2 hour boat ride and we stopped at an island that several of us swam around. It was a beautiful area even though it was quite a grey and misty day, if anything, this mistyness made it more mystical and appealing. We saw many water buffalo and some were on the island that we swam around but they swam to a neighboring island as we arrived.

We went for a walk one day and several of the dogs from the homestay came with us, we even picked up another dog as we walked and ended up with 4 dogs folowing us. There were some scary moments with interactions with other dogs and puppies as well as traffic. We felt responsible for these dogs despite not being able to call them back very easily. We went around the lake one way and then were blocked by a small crevice haha. We then decided to go into the village instead and ended up having a bucket of beer in a pretty garden at the kareoke bar, and then another beer in the bia hoi down the road. It was about 7km walk I believe in total and it was stunning. I loved seeing the houses around here, mostly all on stilts and very pretty in gorgeous surroundings. We had some children chasing us at one point and Issy was playing with them and chasing them back. We saw lots of really thin pieces of wood drying in the sun, which are apparently for ply wood.

We spent several days just chilling at Vu Linh Homestay in the hammocks which was lovely. Such a nice area just to relax.

We borrowed a bike and went to see the dam that created the lake, and then around to see some tea plantations and a waterfall. When we were at the waterfall we had 3 guys drive up from the local bar to have a photoshoot with us. It was quite funny but also a little uncomfortable at points. They were quite drunk and a little bit handsy. When we got back to the homestay Alex tight me some of the basics to riding a bike. I drove it back and forth around the yard quite a bit but still would not feel comfortable on a road.

Ha Giang Loop
I have already broken down where we went during the loop and as most of the time was spent driving I will not dwell to much on it. It was absolutely spectacular scenery. At times the road was quite intimidating. I was so glad I was not driving it, even in a car. Some people did this route as the first time they rode a motorbike which I think is insane! Alex loved the challenges it threw at him but he had some previous motorbike experience.

The first day we stopped at the Heaven’s Gate briefly to get some snaps, but it was too cold to hang around that high up the mountain. Later we stopped at the Lung Khuy Cave. It was quite a trek (~1.2km) from the place we parked the bike (5,000 VND) to the cave and was quite steep at some points, and the altitude made it quite hard going, but again it was stunning everywhere you looked so that definitely helped. There did seem to be another bike parking spot further around, although I am not sure how you would get there. The cave itself was one of the best caves I have been in. There was a long pathway that went around it and the shear size of the stalactites and stalagmites were just amazing. I think it was 50,000 VND to go into the cave but it maybe less.

We spent one day sunning ourselves at the Du Gia waterfall with our friends Helene, Mats and Oliver that we met at Vu Linh Homestay. We had spent most of the morning sitting in the sun at the Du Gia Waterfall Homestay, and decided we still wanted to see the waterfall but had spent too much of the day already doing very little to then get back on the bikes later. So we decided we would have a lazy day and enjoy the sun and the scenery. Most of us (appart from Mats) had a swim in the beautifully clear mountain spring water. It was pretty cold. But after a few minutes it felt glorious. Although, when I did eventually get out it took me a long time to warm up, even whilst sitting on a hot rock in the sun. We then all just sat, listening to music and working on our tans for most of the afternoon. It was such a nice way to send the day.

Because we had spent that extra day in Du Gia, we were able to check out the market on Saturday. The market was amazing and I was glad to have been able to go there. Everyone was dressed in beautiful, traditional clothing, which was also been sold on many of the stalls. The market lined the streets through the main village. Bikes and lorries were still manaing to squeeze their way through. Other items being sold were fried food, fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, pots and pans – some were so big that we could have bathed in, bamboo, knives, and livestock. We saw some very different ways of handling the livestock to what we are used to, but then again we do not normally see it in the UK. There were live chickens being put into plastic bags, but a hole was made in the bag for the head. There was a goat being crammed into a small cage suitable for transporting on the back of the motorbike, but the cage already had ducks and chickens in the far end. There were pigs and cows being walked through the mountains and kept to the correct side of the road with a big stick, as well as one pig we saw being hog tied and put on the back of a motorbike, held in place between the driver and a passenger. It was definitely an eye opener. But generally I loved the market.

One day we stopped at the Lung Cu Flag Point. We parked our bike at the bottom of the steps and walked up. We got to the point that I thought was the top, and it turned out just to be another bike parking area and we hd not even started on the necessary steps. Again the altitude made it tough going, but we made it to the top. It was great seeing mountains in a 360° panarama from so high up. It cost maybe 50,000 VND each to go up the flagpole but maybe slightly wrong with that. We tried to get to the Chinese border just for the sake of it and to see China as it was only about 3km down the road, we got part way down this terrible, dirt track road and there was a huge boulder in the way so we decided to go no further.

We later stoped at the Hmong Royal Palace and explored for a bit. It was quite a cool old building with some furniture and artifacts but these were a bit limited. It had very low beams and roofs and I whacked my head pretty hard, and Alex told me he had whacked his pretty hard at the top of the flagpole where the steps surfaced. I think it cost 20,000 VND each fto visit the Palace.

On the last day of our loop, we stopped in the village growing marijuana plants and then later at the Lung Tam Linen Cooperative where we saw how they turned the stems of these plants into hemp for clothing and other accessories. One lady here saw us peeking our head in and was really happy to show us around. She showed us a step-by-step guide of the process and it was really interesting and fun to see in action. The bark is stripped from the stems and then split down to thin fibres, it is damped and twisted together to make a string. This is then boiled and dried, which seems to get rid of most of the brown colouring from the bark leaving a pale coloured string which is then spun around big square contraptions in order to dry. Then this is made into cloth at the loom where the lady was trimming all split ends carefully first. Then this seemes to be ironed by a lady on a big stone balance board rocking back and forth over the cloth and a round piece of wood. At some stage this could then be dyed and decorated with painted beeswax and all natural colourings including bark of different plants and leaves etc to create browns, oranges, blues etc. We saw some ladies stitching bits together to create final products and then also explored the shop where they had bags, tops, coasters, pillow cases and table runners. It was very labour intensive, but the finished product looked great. The shop was an array of beautifully hand crafted hemp products. The lady here showed us which symbols meant friend, couple, family and lucky. She also dressed Alex up in the long gown and made him play the traditional instrument while she filmed him. There were signs up asking people not to take pictures in here otherwise I would have taken one of this. We would have loved to have bought more but were limited by the amount of cash we had with us, as they did not accept card. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting this place and seeing how this was done and would recommend to other travellers. We did spent a bit of time going up and down the same street trying to find the venue but it was worth it. Turned out it was just the 2 corner buildings leading onto that street.

The Ha Giang Loop was rather cold being quite Northern, mountainous and winter time. Even when the sun was out the time on the bike could be pretty chilly. We bought ourselves hats at the Du Gia market and I got myself a thicker scarf at the flagpole. I wore leggings (sometimes a short and a long pair) under the thickest pair of trousers I had and sometimes 5 layers on my top half. The high mountains meant that the sun went down pretty early in the day so the evenings were also very cold. Sometimes there were fires to get warmer by, other times rice wine was used. Some of the homestays were really drafty, they had big holes where ceiling met walls and general gaps in the floors and walls as well. They are set up well for keeping cool in summer, with no consideration for the winter months. In Due Gia Waterfall Homestay on the second night we managed to pin a big thick blanket to the wall, and towls over the windows which helped keep out some of the draft.

Cao Bang

In all honesty, we did not explore Cao Bang much as we were both feeling top notch while we were here. We did enjoy 3 pizzas from Pedro’s pizza, one at the restaurant, and two at the homestay as it offered free delivery. They were good, skinny based, pizzas and I would recommend. We also ate at Com Thu Ngan as we were looking for vegetarian options and this place seemed to have good reviews and offer buffet style so you could pick just veg or not.

I went to Joy Fitness and Yoga centre for a drop in yoga class (35,000 VND). This was my first class that I didn’t understand a word, but I managed to copy most moves. There were some hard, and interesting moves that I had never done before. It was a good class although I had some eye strain throughout the day and some moves really aggregated it and sent and splitting pain down my face. The end of the class seemed to be freestyle and then people just got up and walked away. I found this quite strange, but I also just wanted to get back at this point due to my eye hurting pretty bad.

Ban Gioc

We took it really easy at Ban Gioc. We loved just being on the balcony or bridge at the homestay, looking out across the beautiful cliffs, stream and village. One day we went to the waterfall which was stunning. It cost 45,000 VND to get into the waterfall. We spent a fair bit of time just sat under a tree, in the sun, watching the water tumble over the edge and counting how long it took to fall to the pool below. There was a white horse with a colouful blanket at the falls that looked a bit Mexican, on the way out we saw a photo of someone dressed as a cowboy with a gun on the horse and found it quite funny. There were lots of water buffalo here and it was fun watching them. There was one that kept putting its head on the backs of others and trying to sleep in the water, but this made them both sink and scramble around. It tried this with several of the buffalo before they all got bored and moved away. It was quite cool to see China on the other side of the river. Although we would have loved to swim here and felt that this was not allowed probably due to the border.

They were selling roasted chestnuts here – I love roasted chestnuts, and I was thinking I would probably not get to have any this Christmas time so was delighted to find them at them falls. They were 80,000 VND per kilogram, so we’re got 1kg and ate them over the next few days.

The guy at the homestay had told us (using Google translate) that there were steps leading up the mountain. We tried to find these, but could not see steps anywhere. We suspect that it may have been an error with translate and he meant you could just climb, but we thought we would pass on this at this time so went around to Nguom Ngao Cave / Tiger cave.

I was doing a YouTube yoga video one day on the balcony and was later asked if it was Yoga with Adriene. Turned out the other people staying here also loved this channel, so the next day we all did a couple of her videos, we got another guy who was staying there to join us as well so there were 5 of us on the balcony stretching and flexing. It was great fun.

Thai Nguyen

We arrived here with perfect timing. The owners of the homestay had a large family gathering for Soldier’s Day as he used to be a well decorated soldier. This meant we got treated to a huge, delicious family dinner. Then the next day we went to see the military display. It was quite impressive. Although, we felt like as much of an attraction as the display itself. I think they don’t see too many white people in these parts.

Transport
In the first train we got from Siagon to Nha Trang, my seat was a bit broken and the foot pannel would not close which meant I didn’t have as much space as I should have had. Alex was also spilling into my side of the seat so we were exchanging a lot of heat. It was not the most comfortable ride, but there was quite a lot of leg room. It was supposed to be air conditioned, and you could feel this by the door when you went to the toilet, although at the seats this seemed to be broken. The “entertainment” seemed to be a Vietnamese soap opera in a play format which was sung. It was playing so loudly it gave me a bit of a headache. Luckily we had purchased a headphone splitter before we left the UK so I managed to drown out most of the TV with Z-nation which was what Alex was watching on this journey. I haven’t followed all of this series but have seen some of it. I was very tired though so when I was plugged in I pretty much fell asleep immediately. It still didn’t drown out the noise entirely but it helped my head.

On the sleeper train from Nha Trang to Da Nang, the beds were perpendicular to the train length and the rocking of the train was felt really badly, along with the harsh stops and starts. The Vietnamese tannoy also meant it was hard to sleep. Although, there was no aweful Vietnamese TV on so loud you could barely think, so that was a plus of getting the bed over the seat. But I definitely slept better in the seat when we used the headphone splitter after I was plugged in. The beds on the sleeper train were too short for me, let alone for Alex. My head was touching the wall and so were my feet when I laid on my back. The matress was quite hard, so laying on my side hurt my hips a bit. Overall, we have decided that the sleeper train was not worth it and we will not be doing it again.

The bus jounrneys have been quite cramped for tall people but to varying degrees, sometimes my legs would not fit and other times there was just about enough room for my legs, but maybe not for Alex’s. The payment seems to be taken part way through the bus journey unless already paid for which was very strange to me to start with but this was because I was expecting to pay at what seemes to be the ticket booth. The bus journeys we have been on are quite long. It is worth taking snacks and water, although limit the drinking of the water as you just don’t know when there will be a stop you can use the toilet, or hedge. Some of the bus journeys have been quite pleasant to just look out the window. Although the second bus we got on to Cao Bang we were made to sit at the back and so could not see the gorgeous scenery unless we strained our necks. The drivers tend to honk their horns a lot, and overtake anywhere they like, without necessarily listening for replies to beeps in on-coming traffic. The buses can be quite bumpy rides generally. Another very strange thing about the buses is that they seem to pick up and drop off almost wherever you would like (as long as someone has conveyed this to them in Vietnamese) but this can mean that the bus is driving around for a long time in the same area to pick up initial passengers. They also act as a postal service and pick up packages and deliver them on route.

The sleeper buses are a bit more comfortable than the mini van style buses, although they are a bit short in the leg section to straighten the legs entirely. I would recommend putting any unnecessary items underneath the bus as storage space is quite limited on board. We had to take our shoes off and had them in a plastic bag. There was a blanket and a pillow on each of the seats, although my pillow was missing after the first stop. There were people lining the walkways on the bus. It was really full. There was a symphony of coughing, spluttering and vomiting. I tried to drown this out with music, but could still hear it. Unlike some of the regular buses, it stopped at 2 places where people could buy food and had squat toilets, not just bushes.

People
The Vietnamese poeple are clearly incredibly hard working, they work hard from such a young age through to when they look really old, and they age really well, so when they look old, they must be REALLY old. You see really young kids helping in the fields, or fixing the roads on the edge of a mountain, or chopping bamboo with sharp knives, driving motorbikes and looking after the even younger children, or possibly looking after the livestock. You see both the really young and really old carrying large, heavy amounts of bamboo, wood or other loads up and down mountains. They seem to grow up really fast, because they have to.

People seem to be setting up businesses and pulling themselves out of poverty all over Vietnam, but particularly noticiable in the North with large amounts of Homestays being seen in most town. A lot of the buildings are very skinny, tall and deep – apparently shops used to be taxed on the width of the shop front which is why they adopted this design and are now quite popular for new buildings.

It is quite strange to see the hammer and sickle communist flag everywhere, particularly when there is a KFC immediately behind it.

Vietnamese is quite a harsh language to listen to, and they all seem to shout rather than speak a lot of the time. This can be a bit irritating and also the cause of headaches, especially when in a close environment like on public transport.

Farming
Like the Philippines, the farming practices seem to be very local, particularly in the Northern parts of Vietnam. But this leads to some incredible, fresh, delicious food – which is great!

All of the livestock seem to be fully free-range, with cows, chickens and goats roaming where ever they like, sometimes in the middle of busy roads.

Again they dry things on tarpaulin in the road such as rice and corn.

Bananas seem to grow everywhere in Vietnam which is cool as you quite often get them alongside a meal, and they are delicious. They have so much more flavour than the ones we buy back at home. They tend to be a lot smaller, and straighter bananas, but they are yummy. Other fruit such as papaya also seems to be quite common, when we were in Vu Linh we had a really tasty freshly picked papaya salad.

In conclusion, we have loved the North of Vietnam – it is beautiful and mountainous, and we both love mountains. We still enjoyed the South of Vietnam but would say to travellers with less time who are planning a trip here, they may prefer to plan to spend more time in the Northern regions.

We will be spending Christmas in Hanoi with some friends. We went for dinner last night and had mulled wine which felt nice and Christmassy. It is strange not being with family at Christmas time. We will be heading to Cat Ba for a festival for New Years Eve when our friend Sam will be joining us. After this we will head to Hoi An to see more friends we have met here and get some clothes tailored. After Vietnam, it seems likely that we will head to Bali for relaxation, surfing and snorkeling – although we may decide Cambodia makes more logistical sense.

If you want to follow our adventures, please subscribe below to be updated by email when I post another blog. You can also follow our journey more directly on PolarSteps.com/LydiaJazzy although this needs some updating as some places have not been saved.

Happy Christmas to you all and Happy New Year. If you don’t celebrate these, then I hope you have a good day on whatever day you read this.

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