Thursday, 12 January 2017

A Vietnamese Adventure: Part 2 - Phong Nha Ke Bang, Hoi An and HCMC

When l left you in Part 1 of my Vietnamese Adventure I was riding off into the sunset on a motorbike in Hue. But having had my appetite for temples, palaces and pagodas sufficiently satisfied there, I was keen to head on to my next destination, the rural idyll of Phong Nha Ke Bang.
I had been dreaming about this place ever since I stumbled across pictures in a National Geographic magazine of Son Doong Cave, which has recently been declared the world's largest cave. It has only been open to the public a couple of years and the lucky few who can afford to visit have returned with tales of a truly jaw-dropping underground world.

Sadly as I didn't have a spare couple of thousand burning a hole in my pocket I decided to visit Song Doong's more accessible and therefore more affordable neighbour, Paradise Caves, instead. My travel buddy was keen to stay on in Hue and take some time to relax, so we parted company again with a plan to meet up back in Hoi An in a few days. Anyone using this guide to plan their route should be warned that I have minimal sense of direction - which is why locals looked utterly perplexed as to why I had chosen to go from Hue to Phong Nha Ke Bang to Hoi An - I got the acute sense that it was the the equivalent to going round your back to scratch your forehead. Also buses will undoubtedly offer a shorter and cheaper way of getting from A to B but I didn't fancy the idea of spending hours battling the travel sickness I always get when taking long-haul bus trips which is why I always opted for trains whenever possible.

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

To get to Phong Nha Ke Bang I took an overnight train from Hue to Dong Hoi. As I was arriving up at the station at 4am in the morning I'd decided to arrange a pick-up from my guest house rather than figuring out local buses. I was really glad I had stumped up a little extra cash for this, as the station is in the middle of the nowhere and it was absolutely pitch black outside.

My accommodation was the Phong Nha Lakehouse Resort. With a dog snoozing in the corner, frogs hopping around the foyer/dining area and crickets chirping merrily away, it was a welcome dose of country life. Add to that the fact that this was the view from my room.......

........and you can imagine the smile on my face.

After snatching a couple of hours of much needed sleep, I headed out for a tour of Paradise Caves. As I was the only person visiting from the Lake House that day instead of the usual van ride down, I jumped on the back of a motorbike and we rode for an hour through the national park to reach the caves. I can't tell you how much I loved this experience. Firstly there is something about riding on the back of a motorbike with the wind rushing past you that is one of the best feelings in the world and secondly the mountains, paddy fields and caves make the most stunning backdrop for the ride.

Entrance as a standard visitor to the main public section of Paradise Caves is pretty cheap, but I had pushed the boat out and opted for a trek deep into the underground caverns - after all the 2.6MVND (about £90) fee was a bargain of epic proportions compared to the $4,000 Hang Son Doong cave tour! For the first kilometer of this tour you join the rest of the tourists on the raised platform enjoying the views of the stalactites and stalagmites from afar. However as we reached the end of the boardwalk, instead of turning round and heading back my heart did a leap of excitement as we were given a small headlight, a gate was opened and we were invited to step down onto the cave floor leaving the crowds far behind. It was an utterly unforgettable experience to be able to wander through these massive caverns in near darkness and see the giant limestone formations, glittery cave walls and lakes shaped by huge flat slabs of stalagmites, up close.

Stepping into one cavern we were told to switch off our headlamps and use our other senses to feel our way forward in the darkness. Within seconds my imagination started playing tricks on me and I was sure I could make out strange shapes in the darkness. Add to that my appalling sense of direction and when we put our headlamps back on again it turned out I had turned myself round and was heading straight for a cave wall!

The whole tour lasts 3-4 hours allowing time to explore deep inside the cave, clambering over rocks, squeezing through crevices, taking a rickety little boat through a tiny underground river where you have to duck to avoid knocking your head on the ceiling, swimming in an underground stream and feasting on a delicious hot lunch in a huge cavern under a shaft of light from a sinkhole in the ceiling. It's a magical experience and despite taking many photos, not one of them managed to capture just how special it was.

Whenever I think of Vietnam this is one of the experiences that gives me butterflies as I remember how I felt sitting there watching the the shimmering white light pour through the sink hole above, while listening to the raging cave river below.

As we made our way back out of the cave, I said goodbye to my fellow explorers and climbed back on the motorbike, muddy, sweaty, exhausted but blissfully happy. I could have happily stayed here longer but it was time to move on and so the next morning I grabbed a train bound for the tourist mecca of Hoi An. The train journey flew by as the views enroute were beautiful and proved the perfect distraction.

Hoi An

Hoi An is one of the most popular areas in Vietnam and lots of people I have talked to name it as one of their favourite places in the country, so it's at the risk of angering the masses, that I have to admit I wasn't a huge fan. I've been trying to figure out why. Perhaps it's that the city seems to revolve around the tourist trade, which means that everyone who says hello to you as you pass, seems to follow up almost immediately with a sales pitch, or that the tourist to local ratio seems really high, or perhaps it's just that I had visited places I had fallen in love with by this point and had unreasonably high expectations by the time I reached Hoi An.

This makes it sound like I didn't enjoy my visit at all, or that I wouldn't recommend going (neither of which is the case). I had some great times - courtesy of my much more outgoing travel buddy I ended up singing/dancing to Proud Mary in a waterside bar, sharing a bottle of utterly disgusting free booze with a couple of fellow travelers from the UK and was treated to lunch in a local seafood place by the Liverpudlian owner of the tailoring shop we visited. I've learnt a lot from her about not being so shy when travelling and just starting a conversation with random people - unlike London where there is a distinct possibility people will look at you like you are demented, other travellers really are happy to chat and share stories, a meal/drink or just a bit of banter.

This is is without argument a very pretty city and while you're here it's nice to wander down to the Old Town to see the Japanese Bridge guarded by a pair of monkeys on one side and a pair of dogs on the other and the striking 17th century Fujian Assembly Hall with its triple-arched gateway and dragon topped shrine out back................

...........or just to wander by the river at night or enjoy the night markets with stalls selling pretty coloured lanterns.

By far the favourite thing I ate while in Hoi An was the banh mih (effectively a Vietnamese sub, but that description doesn't do any justice to this seriously tasty creation) at Banh Mi Phong, 2B Phan Chau Trinh. It's cheap, freshly cooked and is the best sub that you will have in Vietnam and perhaps ever - a bold claim but Anthony Bourdain and several folks on TripAdviser agree with me.

Other tips:
If you have ever wanted to have tailor-made clothes, Hoi An is a great place to get them done. You pick out a design after trawling through piles of catalogues from UK high-street stores, choose the material and any changes you want to make and as if by magic in 24-48 hours your design is created into the finished product. I got two dresses made that have become wardrobe staples so I would highly recommend doing this if you have any spare cash.

Another tip I would follow myself next time is to stay in a homestay - my travel buddy did this on her first night and was able to enjoy a trip to the market and a home-cooked meal with the owner.

Ultimately what I learnt was that the best way to enjoy Hoi An is to understand that it's going to be a bit touristy, and to accept that and embrace it, because despite that fact there's lots of fun to be had.

Ho Chi Minh

From Hoi An we made our way to our final destination, the modern and bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh (previously Saigon). By the time we reached here we were exhausted from the excitement of the past fortnight. So much so that we never managed to venture out in the evenings, instead grabbing a takeaway and passing out in the hotel room (turns out Indian takeaways in Ho Chi Minh are not too shabby).

By this leg of your trip, no doubt like us, your budget will be seriously depleted. With that in mind it's worth booking in advance for one of free city tours delivered by local students. It's a fantastic idea, you get a personal tour guide at no cost (although tipping is always appreciated) and they get to improve their English and show off their city. We were picked up by two friendly young Vietnamese students who took us on scooters around the main sites including the Reunification Palace (the former presidential palace of the South Vietnamese government, and the site where the war eventually ended as the government fell to the communist forces).

Enroute between sights we stopped off at Ben Thanh Market and shared lunch - see picture below - no idea what this was but it was an interesting taste, though not one I'd rush to order again!

The following day we booked a group tour of Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple as both are a quite a bit outside Saigon. Too tired to shop around we just booked the cheapest and most convenient tour for us. I haven't mentioned our trip by name as I probably wouldn't recommend it as it felt like we were herded from one location to the next and you spend much of the day in a cramped van on the road as the Temple and Tunnels are in opposite directions. That said if you are keen on seeing both, here's a summary -

Cao Dai Temple is the headquarters of the Cao Dai sect, a religion which is a mix of Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism. The symbol of the sect is the all-seeing eye which is above the entrance to the Temple. You're welcome to go in and see the midday ceremony which is interesting to watch, but you'll need to stay at the back and of course remember to be quiet and respectful.

After lunch it was on to Cu Chi Tunnels, a huge network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots during the war, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, food and weapons stores and day-to-day accommodation for soldiers. To protect themselves from attack the tunnels were often rigged with explosives and bobby traps. It's a fascinating insight into the war, especially when you have the chance to crawl through a section of the tunnels and realise just how claustrophobic it must have been or when you hear about the ingenious ways the Viet Cong would use the tunnels to evade capture by US forces.

With that our visit to Vietnam drew to a close. As we said our sad goodbyes and boarded our planes, it was with a heavy heart, but all good things must come to an end and London was calling again.

So what are my final thoughts on this trip? Well often I worry that the problem with having countries on my bucket list is that that I'll end up having ridiculously high expectations which they can never live up to. But Vietnam knocked any expectations I had right out of the park. So thank you Vietnam, for the incredible food, the people, the sights and the memories and for fueling my wanderlust and determination make my way through the rest of my travel bucket list and have many more adventures.



  1. Vietnam looks like such an incredible place! The food looks delicious and the people seem to be so intriguing.
    I'm glad you enjoyed your trip, I'm definitely going to have to visit now X

    1. It really is fantastic. Hope you enjoy your visit!


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