Dates: 21 November-1 December 2013
DAYS 19-22: “Good morning Vietnam” (22nd-25th Nov)
After a blissful 1 hour flight we arrived at Hanoi Airport congratulating ourselves on avoiding that horrendous 30 hour bus ride. We had booked a room at Hanoi Backpackers Downtown on Caro’s recommendation, although when we walked in it felt more like the Wandle at 11pm on a Saturday night, than a hostel…the lights were down, the music was up, the drinks were flowing and there were people everywhere. We managed to locate the check in desk feeling a bit out of place with our 2 ton backpacks and travel clothes…eager to get upstairs and out of the mayhem. We got to our heavenly room which was well worth the $35 a night we were paying (we’ve decided dorms are not our style)…flat screen TV with English channels, amazing power shower, air-con, fluffy white towels…all the things that we “Barbie backpackers” need and love. The next day was spent doing our own “walking tour” of Hanoi city as we missed the free hostel one due to Sarah’s eggs benedict taking longer than expected to cook!! Nevermind, armed with a map, we headed off to take in the sights and sounds. This walking tour however turned out to be a risky game of life and death. Words cannot describe the chaos that are the roads in this city. Every driver makes good use of their hooter…hooting at everything and everyone in their path…(really peaceful, the sound of thousands of hooters – all day, and all night). Pedestrian crossings are purely for aesthetic purposes as none of the drivers on the road pay any attention to them. Foreigners can often be seen standing at these pedestrian crossings bewilderedly looking at the traffic which has no intention of stopping for them. We soon learnt that to get across the road one has to say a quick prayer, take a deep breath and walk straight hoping that a crazy Vietnamese moped driver will go around you (or more likely hoot at you so that you can scedaddle out of their way!). Tam found this whole thing quite amusing, Sarah on the other hand, found it absolutely terrifying. We made it to the market and the lake before Sarah lost her sense of humour and insisted we head back to the safety of the hostel. On our way home we did stop and book our Halong Bay tour opting out of the one offered by our hostel due to the many drunk, overexcited children likely to be on the tour with us. We’re not so young anymore…
Early Saturday morning we headed off on our Halong Bay tour. We booked a 2 night, 3 day package with Halong Party Cruises…Our tour group consisted of some Australians, English and a lot of people from Norway, go figure! After a 3 hour drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay City we boarded our boat, happy to see that it looked sea worthy and rat free. Our private cabin was so cute even providing us with toothbrushes and combs. We set sail for Halong Bay enjoying a delicious lunch en route. Our first stop was the beautiful “Surprising Cave” followed by a trip to Soi Sim beach which would have been great had it not been freezing cold and raining. We still swam though, being the crazy chicks that we are. Back on board we prepared ourselves for the Sunset Party which was a bit tricky due to the fact that the sun hadn’t shone all day so we just had a party in lieu of the “Sunset” Party. Although the weather was not on our side we still couldn’t deny the utter beauty of Halong Bay. This was further proven by the hundreds of tourist boats floating through the maze of limestone islands, no wonder it’s a World Heritage Site.
The next day we said goodbye to our tour mates who only booked the 1 night package (bummer for them) and we boarded a smaller boat which was headed to Cat Ba Cove Beach Resort, located on a private beach in Lan Ha Bay. On route we sailed past various floating villages, amazing to see how these fishermen and their families live, no electricity / land / Wifi…things most people find pretty essential! Arriving in Lan Ha Bay was spectacular, there weren’t hundreds of tourist boats (as was the case in other parts of Halong Bay), just us and a beautiful stretch of white sand, ocean and a few wooden bungalows. Cat Ba Cove Beach Resort is paradise…the 10 of us in our tour group were the only guests on this island so we had free reign to do whatever we wanted: kayaking, volleyball, beach football or just working on our tans…which I’m sure you can guess is exactly what we did. The weather Gods smiled on us and we were treated to a stunning day and night on the island. After another delicious meal for dinner we plugged in the tunes and got stuck into a vicious game of “Flip Bong” (we’ll teach you how to play next time we meet). The next day we bid a sad farewell to Heaven on Earth and made our way back to Hanoi.
One of the greatest things about travelling the way we are, is how unpredictable life is – you never really know what each day will bring. Walking back into Hanoi Backpackers Downtown after our boat tour, we bumped into Chris and Corey, 2 of the guys we met in Thailand (Pai) two and a bit weeks ago. The backpacker world is small. After catching up on what we’d been up to since we last saw each other we got involved in some competitive games of beer-pong! Yes, wine is disturbingly expensive/disgusting in this part of the world…so beer it is. When in Rome and all that! After the fun and games the boys wanted to take us to what can only be described as a Vietnamese shebeen, where we got 11 beers for 50 000 Dong (R23 / £1.46) which we thought was brilliant at the time…not so much the next day though when we had a 5am wake up call in order to get our flight at 7am to Da Nang.
DAYS 23-27: Hoi An “The City of the Lantern” (26th-30th Nov)
Firstly, apologies for the delay in keeping you updated on our gallivanting…but better late than never, right?
So, we arrived in Da Nang after a short 1 hour flight feeling no better than when we left (the night before we’d been drinking that really really cheap beer in Hanoi, remember?) and got our transfer to our hostel in Hoi An. We arrived at the Sunflower Hotel which is a great place to stay…if you’re nocturnal. During the day there’s a really nice buzz, loads of other travellers chilling by the pool, drinking by the bar and just generally having a good time. At night however, and we’re talking 2am-5am, it turns into a drunken circus. Now, we don’t mean to sound our age, in fact we think we’re pretty cool, but what is NOT cool is running around the corridors screeching, singing, ringing doorbells, knocking on doors etc…when people are trying to get their 8 hours beauty sleep! This is what some of the little twerps staying at the hostel thought was fun to do…inconsiderate little weirdos. Ok, rant over, it’s actually a pretty cool place to stay, just make sure you pack some industrial earplugs if you do decide to check in :)
Our first day in Hoi An was spent sleeping off the effects of the previous nights debauchery and then enjoying a delicious meal at Hoa Anh Dao-Sakura which is a stunning little restaurant based in the ancient town in one of the old Chinese warehouses right on the river. Hoi An is a well preserved example of a South East Asian trading port with many of the shops and restaurants now housed in old Chinese warehouses giving the town a special charm. One thing about the people of this town is that they LOVE lanterns. These can be found in all colours, shapes, sizes and forms…in bars, restaurants, shops…you name it and it probably has a lantern in it, on it or somewhere nearby it. As you can imagine, this place is truly truly beautiful (and romantic…tip for you casanova’s out there) at night. Another trait of the residents of this town is that they are extremely friendly…or so we thought. We were often stopped and told how beautiful we were, how young we looked…we were obviously loving the attention and totally flattered, until they then tried to sell us something…hmmmm!
Feeling like Rocky upon waking up the next day (ie: not hungover) we decided to hit the streets and investigate the various tailors Hoi An boasts. Hoi An is the Vietnamese home of the tailor and loads of these can be found on just about every street. Going against all sense (our backpacker still weigh 2 tonnes) we went on a little shopping spree and got a couple dresses, shorts and some jewellery…we just couldn’t resist, we are but human after all! Following the advice of Fay and Shaun (who recently got engaged in Vietnam…congrats again guys!) we had dinner that night at “Morning Glory”, a restaurant run by a local Vietnamese chef, thank you guys for the advise, this was one of the best meals we’ve had in our lifetime, and we are not exaggerating. Tam had prawn curry and Sarah had a crispy pork pancake…we still dream about these meals every now and again.
Another thing that we’d heard was a great thing to do in Vietnam was a cooking school, which we’d booked ourselves on the next day (Thuan Tinh Island Cooking School). We booked it through our hostel and this was honestly one of the best things we’ve done so far. After an early start we went with our tour guide to the local food market to purchase all the ingredients for the dishes we were going to be making. This was quite an experience/ordeal for poor old Tam who struggled to keep down her breakfast in the meat section. Maybe she’ll tell you the tale of that one day…Goods in hand, we boarded a boat which took us along the Thu Bon River to a small village where we were to put our culinary skills (or lack thereof) on show. We donned our aprons and spent the morning making AND eating 4 delicious traditional Vietnamese meals: Summer Springroll with prawns, Crispy Prawn and Pork Pancake, Beef Salad, Beef Noodle Soup. We got back to our hostel in the early afternoon and proved the old Afrikaans saying of “maagie vol oogies toe” and hit the hay for the rest of the afternoon. After our beauty sleep we were revived and raring to go. Had a couple drinks downstairs at the hostel bar, made some friends and then hit “Why Not Bar?” for all you can drink rum…good idea…no! As luck would have it, the weather Gods were on our side and it rained cats and dogs the next day giving us the perfect excuse to chill at the hostel, eating and watching TV. Typical Sunday in London…so any homesickness we were experiencing was quickly cured :)
On our last day we walked the 3km to the beach (go us!) and chilled there for a while…the sea is quite rough so it’s not advisable to swim there, unless you’re a dolphin, so we just took in the sights and sounds over a hot drink (it was quite cold) and then headed back to pack our bags ready for our early departure the next day. That night it was our friend Corey’s birthday, who’d arrived from Hanoi…so we had some dinner and a couple drinks to celebrate his birth. We were sad to leave Hoi An, it really is a special place and a must-see for anyone heading to that part of the world. Along with Halong Bay, we can understand why it has been identified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
DAY 28: “Next stop… Cambodia” (1st Dec)
We headed back to Da Nang airport to catch a flight to Hoi Chi Minh City (HCMC) aka Saigon…again, turning our noses up at the 22 hour bus ride and opting for the 1 hour flight. We had pre-booked a bus with Mekong Express to take us from HCMC to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as this was only 6 hours and we figured it was about time we acted like “real” backpackers and took a bus. The 2 hours we spent in HCMC was ample, this place is like Hanoi on steroids…if you remember we found Hanoi quite terrifying in terms of traffic, noise etc…on numerous occasions the HCMC taxi drivers took pity on us and had to help us cross the road!! Pathetic but true…Mekong Express were a brilliant bus provider getting us across both borders without a hitch, and to Phnom Penh safe and sound. We checked into our hostel (Mad Monkey)….see the Cambodia page for our tales from this amazing place :)